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

In January, however, the city plan commission voted for designation, with only one commissioner voting against. The commissioners decided that only the building plus a 25-foot buffer zone should be protected under the ordinance. That scenario would leave the diocese free to sell the rest of the property. The city council is expected to decide the matter February 24.

Last month, Dallas Children's Theatre officials presented the diocese with what so far appears to be the best solution to the standoff when it announced that it was interested in making St. Ann's its new, permanent home as part of a partnership with the Guadalupe Group. DCT board president Craig Sutton says he knew he was stepping into a tough situation.

"The diocese is in a difficult position. They've got a significant financial obligation that they have to deal with, and they are having to deal with the polarization in this community over the handling of the property," Sutton says. "They've got Catholics against Catholics and Hispanics against Hispanics. But we're very hopeful that we can bring into the mix some potential for solutions. We would like to bring some healing to this riff."

The diocese quickly balked at the $1.5 million offer because it was too low. Although Sutton says he still hopes to reach a compromise, LeMaster says the group failed to respond to the diocese's undisclosed counteroffer by a January 18 deadline. Now, she says, the prospect of amicably resolving the issue is lingering in "never-never land."

Mary Ellen Degnan is a former chairwoman of the city's landmark commission, and when she left the post in 1983, the city's historic-preservation ordinance had been in place for 10 years. Today, Degnan is a development consultant for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, where she helps developers understand the benefits of historic preservation. Though Degnan is not involved with the effort to preserve St. Ann's, she eagerly awaits the outcome of the controversy.

During her tenure with the commission, Degnan saw many grand old buildings like the Texas, Woolf Bros., and Victor Costa buildings fall victim to the bulldozer because, despite the ordinance, the city placed next to no value on the concept of historic preservation. Since then, the city's attitude has changed and, on occasion, city officials have even defended the ordinance in court.

Still, the city has never been handed a case quite like St. Ann's, where the owner is so opposed to designation, and the idea of preserving a non-distinct structure solely for cultural reasons is unprecedented.

"I think the building is worthy of preservation and fits all the criteria, but it's always difficult if the owner does not concur. It's a dilemma we've never resolved in Dallas," Degnan says. "We have achieved a lot in Dallas, but we have never ever been able to get to the point where we say, 'OK, take us on; we'll go to court with you because we have to say you can't take our buildings down.'"

Until then, only God knows whether St. Ann's can survive the test of time.

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