By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The West End is Dallas' ground zero; the seed bed from which the city eventually sprouted from the time Tennessee lawyer John Neely Bryan established a settlement in 1841. But it remained a relatively small settlement until 1872 when the railroads arrived, spawning a huge wholesale market serving the Southwest. The Trinity River originally flowed close to the area, bringing with it thousands of frogs that croaked incessantly. Hence the area between Pacific Avenue and the edge of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway was christened Frog Town, an area that thrived as a red light district packed with whorehouses and saloons patronized by both visitors and "respectable residents" alike.
"In 1914, a citizen's movement led ironically by wives of some of Frog Town's best patrons began the long overdue effort of cleaning up this West End neighborhood and eliminated the 'undesirables,' making the city safe again," reads a document posted on the Dallas West End Historic District Web site.
But the West End lost its breath after World War II as the truck rapidly replaced railroad transport. Pressure to raze the buildings and open the area to skyscraper development was enormous. "It was blighted, to say the least," says real estate developer Preston Carter. In the late 1970s with developer Robert Bagwell at the helm, Preston Carter Co. slapped options on virtually every major red brick structure in the district. Carter's company grabbed control of 42 acres and 18 buildings, triggering a rash of speculation. "I saw something that made a lot of sense," he says.
Carter's move came years after the Dallas City Council, fearing the district's slide into decay, unanimously approved plans to create the West End Historic District in 1975. The West End is a 36-block, 55-acre national historic district that grips about 20 percent of the city's downtown core. It contains what remains of the old warehouse district as well as the Dallas County Government Complex, the Kennedy Memorial, Dealey Plaza and El Centro College.
Yet the move drew fierce opposition from some city developers. "Critics of it would say, 'You've taken away the development potential for all of this land, trying to protect these outdated obsolete warehouses,'" says one Dallas developer. There was no real historical significance to the structures, they scoffed, deriding preservation proponents' comparisons of the West End to Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco or Pioneer Square in Seattle. These historic areas succeeded, they argued, because they were on waterfronts and had some character and history.
"Dallas has been characterized as a city that lacks character," frets Jean Gath in a September 1986 monograph published by the Institute for Urban Design. "It is dominated by the automobile, and its streets are devoid of people. To some extent this is true. As in other cities, freeways in Dallas have demolished entire neighborhoods, and historic buildings have been razed to make room for McDonald's golden arches. The West End, however, is an exception."
Yet the transformation of the area into a mix of artists, professionals, restaurants, retail and office space--"Another Greenwich Village set on the edge of Dallas' glass and steel jungle," as a May 1981 edition of Dmagazine gushed--was agonizingly slow. By 1980, most of the buildings were still vacant.
Development lagged until 1982 when the federal government put its two cents into the district via the Economic Recovery Act of 1981, which granted developers investment tax credits of up to 25 percent for preserving and renovating historic buildings. Finally, the development sluice gates were busted open.
In time, restaurants converged on the district with a vengeance: Grumbles Grill, Nick's Barbecue, Record Grill, Ferrari's, West End Oasis and Silvano's (later 311 Lombardi). "They came and went so fast," artist Blackman remembered. "I guess they looked good on paper."
Perhaps the most famous restaurant to land in the West End was The Palm. When it opened in 1983 in an abandoned icehouse, the West End steak house became the ninth Palm Restaurant nationwide and the second in Texas. It was also the first deal Preston Carter says he struck to bring some luster to the warehouse district.
The move seemed to lift the West End over the last hurdle. "There's quite a lot of things you have to go through in order to get the building renovated and people in it," Schooley says. "It's cost-prohibitive. It's time-prohibitive. Those are the things that were hard for people when they thought about moving businesses down here...But sometimes it only takes one to get the ball rolling."
And once it rolled, it moved rapidly. "We didn't really get started until '82, and by '84 it was done," Carter says. "And it was a beautiful thing. It ran like a top until about '89."