On holy ground

The fight over St. Ann's snares the city, Hispanics, and the Catholic diocese in a battle that tests Dallas' commitment to preserving its past

With its doors locked and aluminum foil rolled over its windows, the crumbling, two-story St. Ann's building offers no clues to its value.

Built in 1927 and expanded 20 years later, today St. Ann's is hardly noticeable from its location just south of the tollway. Each day, commuters stream past the school, rushing into town along Harry Hines Boulevard on the west, and back home via McKinnon Avenue to the east. Except for St. Ann's, there's nothing to indicate that the area was once a neighborhood where tamale peddlers navigated crooked streets and tiny homes were filled with Mexican immigrants.

Instead, commuters are greeted by an orderly row of steel poles bearing the flags of Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, which snap in the breeze of the passing cars, saluting a new business alliance forged inside the sleek glass and cement office towers that have risen from the barrio's ashes.

Lacking any architectural value, St. Ann's is deemed worthy of saving solely because it was a sanctuary and place of hope for Mexican immigrants, who in 1910 began arriving in Dallas after fleeing the violence of revolution. Until now, the city's preservation efforts have ignored that aspect of local history--a point Hispanics hammered home last fall during two jam-packed meetings of the city's landmark commission.

"I have never sat through anything so moving as the two hearings in which we heard St. Ann's. The emotion and the feeling and the depth of what was expressed, I just found amazing," says historian Virginia McAlester, a member of the commission.

With her mother, Dorothy Savage, McAlester fought a bitter battle to have Swiss Avenue designated as the city's first historic district in 1973 as part of the passage of the city's historic-preservation ordinance. Back then, being a preservationist in boomtown Dallas was akin to being branded a Communist. The city's attitude toward preservation has since matured, McAlester says, but St. Ann's represents a new challenge.

"This is the first case where the entire Hispanic community has come forward and said, 'This is a building that is crucial to our community,'" McAlester says. "The simpler buildings [like St. Ann's] can say as much about the people, their culture, and where they were in that time...as much as something formal and ornate. It would be really cynical if all we preserved were grand and glorious things."

Even the diocese concedes that St. Ann's, or at least the 1927 portion of it, has historical value; its chief objection is to the way in which designation was pursued. In most preservation efforts, either the landmark commission or the property owner, motivated by tax breaks and other financial incentives offered under the preservation ordinance, initiates the process. That didn't happen in this case.

Shortly after the diocese borrowed $11.3 million to pay its share of the $119.6 million Kos judgment, a developer offered $4 million for St. Ann's and the city block on which it sits. (The church countered with a price of $4.5 million.) In two separate offers, the Mexican Cultural Center and the Guadalupe Social Center Community Development Corp. offered $2 million for the property, hoping the diocese would drop its price in a show of goodwill toward its congregation.

On August 13, Bishop Charles Grahmann rejected the lower offers. Five days later, the city notified the diocese that St. Ann's was being considered for landmark designation. In short order, a temporary moratorium was placed on building to prevent its demolition and, according to the diocese, the developer withdrew its $4 million bid.

"We would argue that the value of the property was dramatically reduced once the designation process started," LeMaster says. "Ultimately the property is worth what someone will pay for it, and someone was willing to pay $4 million before this process started. Now that [price] has gone dramatically down. There's no question that it has impacted the process."

The diocese complains that the designation would make it difficult to tear down the building, limiting how the land could be used and lowering its value to developers who have the money to pay the diocese's asking price. St. Ann's supporters call that an outright lie, says Dallas attorney Sol Villasana, who is representing the Guadalupe group.

"The diocese is again just trying to find some excuse for its lack of sense," Villasana says. "No one in my organization has ever said we are trying to drive the price of this property down. My people are interested in using [designation] to save the school."

Despite Villasana's denial, there is some evidence to support the diocese's contention. Take, for example, a letter state Rep. Steve Wolens, one of several heavy hitters batting for designation, penned on October 22, shortly before a subcommittee of the landmark commission unanimously voted to preserve St. Ann's.

"Because of the property's location in the middle of a prime commercial real estate area," Wolens wrote, "designation as a landmark will help prevent the sale of the property to developers and the ultimate demolition of the school and social center."

Wolens, whose Oak Cliff district is largely Hispanic, did not respond to the Dallas Observer's requests for an interview. On November 10, the landmark commission voted to name St. Ann's as a landmark and took the extra step of designating the entire city block as a landmark as well, thereby further restricting how the property could be used by potential buyers.

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