This Old House

Historic preservationists sift through the sawdust of the great closet debate

David Dean says he was fighting for justice, equity, and due process--that and the right to build a new closet wherever he damned pleased.

The Swiss Avenue Historic District homeowner ended up proving that with friends in high places, a good lawyer, a public relations pro, and a willingness to rough up the opposition, you can do more than beat Dallas City Hall. You can wax it like a fine wood floor.

Over objections from historic preservationists, Dallas City Council voted 9-4 on September 27 to overturn a decision by the city's Landmark Commission and let Dean build a front-facing addition to his 5,548-square-foot Georgian Revival home. Nobody contested that the garage-size closet wing was tastefully designed, but opponents, including Mayor Ron Kirk, argued it set back efforts to keep the early 20th-century boulevard a historically preserved street.

In the weeks since, preservationists have been assessing the loss and wondering what to do next. Several council members, including Veletta Lill and Laura Miller, want to take the city council out of the loop altogether. They would like to see people like Dean take their historic-district remodeling problems directly to court after the Landmark Commission turns them down. At the very least, they want to clarify loose council procedures that preservationists say were exploited by Dean.

But first, a recap of Dean's closet crusade and the unreported lengths to which he went to green-tag his plans.

Normally, home improvement matters aren't high on the agenda on Capitol Hill, but for Dean, a NAFTA lobbyist and former Texas secretary of state, U.S. Reps. Martin Frost, Eddie Bernice Johnson, and Ralph Hall were happy to weigh in on their remodeling plans.

"By golly, a man's house is still his castle, and a lady should have a place to hang her clothes, even in a historic district," Hall wrote the mayor, noting what a good friend he is of Dean and Dean's wife, Jean. "You know, we have lost a lot of our rights and freedoms over the years, but we ought to draw the line in the sand on this one...Let's give the lady her closet."

One would think that Frost, as Democratic Caucus chairman, would be a little tied up this fall leading his party's efforts to gain control of the House. Instead, he was busy reviewing plans for the Deans' house, whose storage problems became worthy of his time and concern. "They have patterned their addition after the sleeping porch on the back of the house, which is one of the most magnificent features," Frost wrote, noting that he viewed the couple's plans personally. "This will bring that wonderful feature into view for many to see who have been unable to do so since the house was originally built in 1916."

Johnson, taking her cues straight from Dean's legally worded appeal to the council, suggested that the couple's property rights had been "abridged by subjective and inconsistent interpretation" of city code. She too said she reviewed the Deans' architectural drawings and concluded the addition would "actually improve the appearance and balance of the home."

While the congressional delegation weighed in with their aesthetic expertise, Dean hired public relations consultant Lisa LeMaster to handle the press. After touring the Dean digs, media were soon reporting the couple's laments that they were being forced to live in "a museum" with too little closet space for their winter knits. (In fact, the Landmark Commission does not concern itself with interior renovations and showed considerable flexibility by approving changes to the rear of the house, as well as plans to relocate the driveway and build a fence.)

"I haven't seen this kind of campaign waged on $50 million projects," says Lill, who with Kirk, Miller, and John Loza voted against the Deans. "I don't think they should have had a PR firm involved."

LeMaster conceded her work directing media coverage was aimed at influencing the council. "It was the only way to speak to them," she says.

Although LeMaster says she had nothing to do with it, the media eventually picked up on some of the tough, personal attacks being leveled around the neighborhood by Dean and some of his friends against Virginia McAlester, a Landmark Commission member whose efforts to preserve Swiss Avenue go back to the district's founding in 1973.

In letters sent to the council, McAlester became the lightning rod for Dean's Swiss Avenue supporters, some of whom said they too were chapped by historic district rulings that ran counter to their remodeling plans.

Art Rousseau, whom the Landmark Commission stopped from building a guest house with aluminum windows and composite siding two years ago, complained in a letter to the mayor that McAlester "seems to look on this street as her personal laboratory and feels that the citizens of the street owe countenance to her."

In a KTVT-Channel 11 story that aired the evening after the vote, he took things a step further. Rousseau said that McAlester had solicited a campaign contribution for city council candidate Pete Vaca while McAlester's application was pending before the panel. "You don't want to say no," he said in the report. "You make sure that person doesn't get mad at you."

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