This Teardown Town

South Dallas' history is in danger of being demolished, so why are so few protecting it?

It is not often that Dwayne Jones just gets into his car to drive around the city and look at the buildings he has spent so much of his life trying to protect. The head of Preservation Dallas has no time to gaze at Dallas' dilapidated wonders, crumbling ruins and historic heaps and daydream about who lived there, what happened there, what might have been. He can allot only so much time to living in the past, because he has much work to do in the present. There is money to be raised to keep afloat a nonprofit that employs but three people to look after hundreds of historic properties in a city that has forgotten most of them. And there is the gospel of preservation to spread, to a flock of newcomers and nonbelievers who rush toward The New and The Now without stopping to consider what used to be before swinging their wrecking balls.

But today, Jones has a few moments to conduct a guided tour of South Dallas, a part of this city where history has been eradicated by a combination of City Hall's neglect and the fear that investing money into this neighborhood is like pouring gold down a sewer. He turns his car down Park Row, a street of modest bungalows constructed mostly in the 1920s for Jewish immigrants who once lived in the shadow of Fair Park. Park Row and South Boulevard, which sits one street over and is lined with stately mansions formerly populated by Dallas' civic and business leaders, were designated by the city as a historic neighborhood in 1977, but those charged with enforcing its protection do not have the proper weapons at their disposal. Jones stops in front of several larger houses on the 2400 block of Park Row that were long ago burned and left to rot. "This is the sort of thing that really makes you very sad," he says, staring at their charred shells the way one looks at a corpse.

He turns down Malcolm X Boulevard and cuts through Queen City Heights and Romine Avenue historic districts, which have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1995, meaning that someone in Washington, D.C., thinks they're significant even if few locals do. They're full of Tudor-style gingerbread houses that would not look out of place on the M Streets of Lower Greenville or in East Dallas' Hollywood Heights, where they would be worth 10 times their current values. Yet more commonplace are old grocery stores and churches and homes whose formerly beautiful exteriors have been slathered in bland stucco or have fallen apart because of the ravages of neglect and time.

The James H. and Molly Ellis House is one of South Dallas' most prized homes, but it sits in danger of demolition while its owners decide what to do with the 100-year-old estate.
Mark Graham
The James H. and Molly Ellis House is one of South Dallas' most prized homes, but it sits in danger of demolition while its owners decide what to do with the 100-year-old estate.
Mark Graham

At last, Jones pulls up to the main attraction on this tour, an enormous farmhouse that has somehow survived for a century in the middle of the inner city. Sitting at 2426 Pine St., across the street from Charles Rice Elementary, is the former home of James H. Ellis, an Englishman who was among the earliest real estate developers involved with the construction of modern-day Dallas. It is the last vestige of a time when South Dallas was an expanse of cotton fields and dirt roads that were paved over some eight decades ago. Certainly, it's the last house in the area built in the Classical Revival style, with wood shingles adorning the gables and its wraparound front porch, steeply pitched roof and once-elegant sunroom jutting from its side.

Researchers debate the house's age--some insist it was built in 1905, others a few years later--and do not know the name of the architect. There is even a dispute over which James Ellis owned it, the man from England (most likely) or another from Lancaster (doubtful), but there is no arguing about its importance or its beauty. Its windows boarded up, its front entrance sealed with plywood, its yard strewn with trash, the old Ellis home still reveals some of its former glory.

Last year, Preservation Dallas debuted its list of Dallas' 11 most endangered properties, and it included the James H. and Molly Ellis House, which, despite being on the National Register since 1997, has been in danger of being demolished since the late 1990s, when the city deemed it unsound and the Dallas County Appraisal District labeled it "unlivable." As recently as February 2004, an investor had hoped to move the house out of the neighborhood so he could restore and resell it. But only one month later, the man ran out of cash and lost interest, and the city was ready to tear it down. Its current owners--Harold, Jack and Dennis Topletz, referred to in these pages six years ago as "the most notorious slumlords in Dallas"--stopped the wrecking ball at the last minute, not out of a preservationist's sense of duty, but because they didn't want to lose their investment.

As it turns out, the Topletzes are actually doing some modest repairs--some $500 worth, mainly replacing rotting wood--when Jones pulls up and a kind worker lets him into the house. Until this moment, Jones had never actually been in it, never knew exactly what he was fighting to protect.

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