Trouble in the House of Tudor

A nasty neighborhood battle is brewing between McMansion-dwellers and self-righteous homeowners in the M Streets

The last thing Arthur Eisenberg wants is people to think he is a neighborhood antagonist. After all, he has lived in the "M Streets East" for 25 years, having raised his family at the corner of McCommas Boulevard and Concho Street.

When Eisenberg recently decided he wanted a new house, the successful graphic designer could have moved into Highland Park or Preston Hollow, among other tony environs. But he didn't. He chose to stay in his favorite neighborhood, opting to tear down his old house and replace it with a new one, sparing no expense.

"I did not [build] it from a financial investment point of view. I spent more than the market would allow," Eisenberg says. "This is the house I'll probably die in."

If the Tudor Rebellion is successful, houses like Arthur Eisenberg's will soon be outlawed.
Mark Graham
If the Tudor Rebellion is successful, houses like Arthur Eisenberg's will soon be outlawed.
Custom builder Terry Gaston says he'd rather build smaller houses, but the skyrocketing cost of lots precludes that.
Mark Graham
Custom builder Terry Gaston says he'd rather build smaller houses, but the skyrocketing cost of lots precludes that.

Working with an architect, Eisenberg took great pains to ensure his new house would fit into the neighborhood, which is known for its wide collection of Tudor-style homes. The end result could appear in Metropolitan Homeas an example of complementary infill housing: The contemporary home, built around a stout but eloquent steel and stucco frame, consists of two "cottages" that have Tudor-like gables and step back onto the property so they don't tower over the neighbor's.

Little did Eisenberg know, his neighbors are more likely to have subscriptions to This Old House. This became clear when an anonymous flier appeared shortly after the dirt started flying. It encouraged Eisenberg's neighbors to report the house to the city. The flier inaccurately implied the house was being built in violation of city building codes, but the real problem was its design. One anonymous party was so offended by it that he, or she, felt compelled to present Eisenberg with an odorous package.

"Someone literally put a bag of dog dung on my porch," Eisenberg says. "It got me bent out of shape because the person didn't have enough fortitude to confront me personally."

The package was one of the more extreme, if not entirely misplaced, salvos fired in a new war some M Streets homeowners are waging against infill housing. Call it the Tudor Rebellion. It is a nasty affair, pitting yuppie against yuppie over a subject yuppies care deeply about: aesthetics.

And now the rebellion's leaders have found themselves standing on high ground, backed by a powerful new ally: The National Trust For Historic Preservation. The Washington-based nonprofit saves the country's historic sites from demolition and decay. This year, Dallas was one of several cities the Trust singled out as an example of a new "nationwide epidemic" of teardowns in historic neighborhoods. "From suburban Seattle to the neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and everywhere in between, older homes are being purchased, demolished and replaced by looming behemoths," the Trust reports. "If neighborhoods don't assume greater control, teardowns will erode the fabric of these communities, house by house."

Last month, Marcel Quimby, an adviser to the Trust, told reporters at a news conference that teardowns are only a symptom of the real disease: the McMansion, those developer-built homes that are "massive" in scale and, according to Quimby, "don't fit with the neighborhood."

As part of her presentation, Quimby distributed a Trust report that listed "teardown terminology," in which the new homes are identified by a variety of slurs. They include "Bigfoots," a term popular in New Jersey; "Snout Houses," which refer to homes built with garages on the front; and "Pink Palaces," a gentle slight aimed at a popular color of modern brick. Perhaps the most damning term: "Tara on a Quarter-Acre."

Quimby outlined a strategy to head off the enemy before the bulldozers arrive: conservation districts. Today, a group of Tudor owners are leading an effort to turn the western portion of the M Streets, called Greenland Hills, into just such a district. In the eyes of the Trust, the movement exemplifies how ordinary citizens can fend off the McMansion and stamp out the teardown disease.

All great battles have their heroes, and this one has Angela Hunt. A little more than a year ago, Hunt didn't know the first thing about historic preservation. All she knew was that she and her husband had paid a bundle (upward of $280,000) for their 1,400-square-foot Tudor, built in 1926 on the prime 5300 block of Mercedes Avenue. Last year, it was Hunt who began pursuing the plan to turn Greenland Hills into a conservation district, a process that is nearly complete and expected to be presented to the Dallas City Council later this year.

Like a historic district, the designation would allow the neighborhood's property owners to write new zoning laws that would discourage demolition and, more important, limit new construction to certain architectural types. Under the current proposal, all new homes built in Greenland Hills must be Tudors. Not just any Tudor. They must be "High Tudors," meaning they have to look like the Tudors built in the 1920s. Like Hunt's, for example.

Hunt's idea has caught on, and similar movements have recently sprouted up in neighborhoods to the east and south of Greenland Hills, including M Streets East. The organizers emphasize the democratic nature of the process and claim a vast majority of their neighbors embrace their plans. But a number of distinctly un-neighborly acts, like the assault on Eisenberg's house, reveal anything but consensus.

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