This Teardown Town

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

In its first few years, the HPL accomplished a great deal: saving the original Lakewood Library, securing historic designation for the Trinity Methodist Church on McKinney Avenue and creating the Munger Place Historic District Revolving Fund, which allowed the HPL to buy endangered homes in the area and resell them to investors who promised to restore them. The HPL, which would be renamed Preservation Dallas in 1993, also instigated the restoration of the Magnolia Building downtown, which the city had once hoped to tear down, and eventually would help with the creation of the West End historic district, among so many others.

And, for a while, the city of Dallas seemed to have some real interest in preserving its historic sites. In the late 1980s and early '90s, the city and the Texas Historical Commission hired the Austin firm Hardy-Heck-Moore, which specialized in historical resource surveys and National Register nominations, to "find the resources of South Dallas and East Dallas and Oak Cliff that hadn't been researched very carefully," says Dwayne Jones, who became Preservation Dallas' executive director in 2001. Ultimately, that's how the Ellis House, Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Queen City and other sites in South Dallas landed on the National Register.

"Dallas people often think of Dallas as being a city that is totally devoted to what is newer, what is glitzier, what is brighter, what is the upcoming thing, and there's some truth to that, I think, in the personality of the city," Jones says. "But what's not known is that Dallas has more historic districts than any city in the state of Texas. We're the only city that has this fully developed conservation district program in the state of Texas...What Hardy-Heck-Moore did was a pretty bold step back in those days. It was pretty successful, too, but the problem has been that none of those properties that were recognized on the National Register ever made it to be locally designated landmarks."

Dwayne Jones, executive director of Preservation Dallas, 
stands inside the Ellis House, which Jones lists among 
the city's most endangered landmarks.
Mark Graham
Dwayne Jones, executive director of Preservation Dallas, stands inside the Ellis House, which Jones lists among the city's most endangered landmarks.
Mark Graham

Which is where the real problems of preserving Dallas' past begin.

Just because something's on the National Register does not mean it will be here forever, or even the day after tomorrow. The designation is like a new title at work that doesn't come with a pay raise; it sounds nice, but ultimately it's kind of meaningless. So, too, is any recognition that comes from the Texas Historical Commission in Austin. You get a marker with some history engraved on it, which looks nice but won't do a damned thing to stop a bulldozer.

Only the city council, with the recommendation of the Landmark Commission and the OK of the City Plan Commission, can save a historical site by designating it as a local landmark. Yet the council approves such designations about as often as Jerry Jones allows a Dallas Cowboys great into his hallowed Ring of Honor at Texas Stadium. Some local preservationists are appalled that the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek wasn't even considered for local landmark status till this February. And the historian of the Landmark Commission, Frances James, is infuriated that the Camp House on the shores of White Rock Lake doesn't have landmark designation--unlike the nearby DeGolyer House and Gardens, which was built a year after the 8,500-square-foot, 22-acre Camp House property that's now within the confines of the Dallas Arboretum.

In Dallas County, there are some 108 structures and neighborhoods on the National Register, most having made the list in the mid-'90s because of Heck-Hardy-Moore's work. Yet a majority of the sites on the National Register do not have local landmark protection, including most of the properties in South Dallas. And many of the city's designated structures, among them the Sons of Hermann Hall in Deep Ellum, the Good Luck Gas Station on Cadiz Street and Spence Middle School on Capitol Avenue, aren't National Register properties.

Which raises the obvious question: Why doesn't the city automatically make local landmarks of its National Register properties? Leif Sandberg says this has never come up at City Hall. "It occurs to us, too, that it would be a logical thing to do, but it's a matter of staff time."

There are but three full-time staffers at City Hall who work with the all-volunteer Landmark Commission, including Sandberg and senior historic preservation planners Jim Anderson and Margaret Fiskell. As recently as 2001, there were six staffers, but budget cuts now force Sandberg and his staff to rely on commission volunteers to do much of their research and help anyone trying to initiate designation proceedings. The 15 commissioners are appointed by the city council--four of whom, Maxine Thornton-Reese, Mitchell Rasansky, Ed Oakley and Elba Garcia--have failed to appoint anyone.

And then there's the issue of who nominates a property for consideration. Usually it's up to the property owner to seek the designation from the Landmark Commission, which meets once a month. The city provides considerable incentives for those who want to have their site designated, including an abatement program that freezes taxes on the property for 10 years, meaning if you buy a dilapidated structure for $50,000, then put $100,000 of work into it, you're going to pay taxes on only the initial investment for a decade. But some property owners don't want the designation because with it also come pages of regulations telling you what you can and cannot do to the house. Before you can even touch a local landmark, you have to get a certificate of appropriateness from the city, which most owners would rather not deal with.

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