This Teardown Town

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

What he finds is extraordinary. The small formal parlor's walls and ceiling are decorated with delicate wood molding cut by hand to create diamond-patterned wainscoting, which extends through much of the front of the house. Its seven rooms feel enormous, especially the sunroom, which, even though boarded up, still lights up the dreary interior. Its attic is huge, almost twice the size of most of the houses in the neighborhood. The house is indeed unlivable--its insides are as decayed as those of a lifelong alcoholic--but the shadow of what it once was remains intact.

"I've been in lots and lots of houses and farmhouses in Texas and on the East Coast, and when you walk in the double door and into the nice parlor and see the detail of the design, you think, 'My God, these people were sophisticated and had a sense of design and art and brought in someone skilled to build this home,'" Jones says, his voice tinged with delight at the discovery. "And it's still here, which is surprising. A house that old and abandoned that long could have been torched, and you'd never see it. But what we saw inside, those are the things that make a preservationist's heart go bang bang bang."

But the city is virtually powerless to stop its decay or its destruction, should the Topletzes choose to level the house. Though it's on the National Register, the city council has not designated it as a local landmark. In fact, there are myriad structures and neighborhoods on the National Register, many in South Dallas, that stand despite the fact that City Hall has done nothing to guarantee their futures. The Dallas Landmark Commission, charged with protecting these properties, is short-staffed, under-budgeted and must ultimately answer to the city council, which has to approve the commission's recommendations before a property or neighborhood is deemed historic.

Mark Graham
Mark Graham

And so the Ellis House is greeted every day by the threat of the wrecking ball--just like the Mount Olive Lutheran Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where Dallas' short-lived civil rights movement was born; just like the Camp House on White Rock Lake and even some of the homes on Park Row that look as though a strong gust of wind could reduce them to splinters. Here today, gone tomorrow--what else is new in Dallas, where progress quickly turns into a parking lot overgrown with weeds? If the Ellis House were torn down tomorrow, who would ever notice it's gone--especially in South Dallas, in that neighborhood?

"It is painful, painful, every time we review an application for the demolition of a home within a historic district," says Leif Sandberg, who, as the manager of the city's Department of Development Services, oversees the Landmark Commission. "We work very hard, those of us who are here, to try to shine the light of significance on these properties and show what merit they have. When they are torn down, that significance is compromised, and that's hard to watch, because it's a sign of deterioration and decline in a neighborhood. These historic resources can't be re-created. Once they are gone, they're gone."

Dallas' preservation movement was born in the living room of John and Harryette Ehrhardt, at 5731 Swiss Ave., in 1972. Back then, Swiss Avenue was a wasteland of crumbling structures and overgrown lots destined for destruction by developers who had persuaded City Hall to allow them to rezone the area for high-rise apartments. The Ehrhardts moved out of Highland Park and bought their Swiss Avenue house in 1970--and were given a $3,000 discount on the asking price, since its destruction seemed inevitable--because they wanted their kids to grow up in an integrated neighborhood and attend public school. They believed it wouldn't be long before their house was mowed down in the name of progress--even though it had been built in 1919 for Theodore Marcus, vice president of Neiman Marcus.

The talk of high-rises infuriated Wallace Savage, who, in 1949, had become Dallas' youngest mayor at the age of 36--and, given his Harvard Law School degree, one of its most educated. Savage and his wife, Dorothy, invited some of the Swiss Avenue property owners to their home to discuss the historic and architectural importance of Swiss Avenue, and in 1971 the homeowners went to City Hall to demand their neighborhood be granted historic designation, which meant saving it from the bulldozers.

The council, Ehrhardt recalls, "laughed at us, and we're not people who like to be laughed at. It took a lot of guts for someone to buy a house on Swiss in the 1970s. Somebody said, 'Well, we can't fight City Hall,' and then someone else--I wish I could say it was me--said, 'Then we'll become City Hall.'...We spent a year saying, 'You will not laugh at us, and our houses will not be destroyed,' and we took on the developers."

In 1972, Ehrhardt was among the founding members of the Historic Preservation League, which finally persuaded the council to adopt the city's first preservation ordinance only a year later. Swiss Avenue was the first neighborhood to be granted historic designation, followed in 1977 by the South Boulevard-Park Row area, because, Ehrhardt says, "it was the Savages' decision that the second place we went was an African-American neighborhood."

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