This Teardown Town

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

That's probably why the Ellis House will never be a local landmark while the Topletz family owns it. Dennis Topletz insists he and his uncles didn't even know the place was on the National Register until last year, when a real estate developer who had borrowed $25,000 from Topletz Investments to buy the Ellis House ran out of cash. Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't. After all, on February 6, 2004, The Dallas Morning News ran a front-page story about how developer Elisha Lewis was going to move the house from South Dallas to the intersection of Peak Street and Swiss Avenue--far away from a neighborhood known for drug dealers, prostitutes and violence. Apparently, the Topletzes didn't see that story--or the small-print Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board public notice that ran in the News a month later, which listed the Ellis House among its condemned properties about to be torn down.

The house might already have been torn down had it not been for Frances James, appointed to the Landmark Commission by Councilman Leo Chaney. James scours the paper for demolition notices and, in March 2004, saw that 2426 Pine St. was indeed on the URSB's list of condemned properties.

"Then I brought it back up with the Landmark Commission," she says. James has researched the history of the Ellis House for years. She's perhaps the house's greatest champion.

Mark Graham
Jeanette and Charles Bolden's home on historic Park Row 
is a preserved gem, but it sits directly across from a 
crumbling, condemned home.
Mark Graham
Jeanette and Charles Bolden's home on historic Park Row is a preserved gem, but it sits directly across from a crumbling, condemned home.

"I said, 'What are we going to do about it? It's on the demolition list,'" James recalls. "The Landmark Commission staff people said, 'Oh, it's not landmarked.' I said, 'It's on the National Register, and we are supposed to monitor the National Register properties in Dallas. Somebody better look into it.'"

Dennis Topletz says he only found out about the house's historical value when he went to City Hall to get a permit to do a little work on the place. He was informed not only that the building was on the city's teardown list, and had been for several years, but that before he could do any work on it, he had to get a certificate of appropriateness from the Landmark Commission, which then had to go to Austin for approval. (Technically, Sandberg says, the certificate wasn't required since the Ellis House isn't a landmark, but the Landmark Commission still demanded one.) Around the same time, he was also served with a code-compliance violation for failing to mow the overgrown yard. Topletz says it was taken care of within two days, but he was ticketed anyway. He went ahead and paid the ticket, at the insistence of his attorney, who said it would cost more to fight the fine than just pay the $200.

Topletz says he and his uncles are going to put some money into fixing up the house--another $25,000, he claims--but it's doubtful they will try to restore it to its former glory. He doesn't even want the house. It's just too much trouble to own a historic property, he says, recalling a lousy experience he had last year with a home they owned in Oak Cliff's 10th Street historic district, which is on the National Register and has local landmark designation. Topletz says he owned a house on Landis Street that burned down twice--the second time, he insists, the fire department never even showed--and was ultimately torn down, which landed the Topletzes in court with the city, since the family had bulldozed the place without authorization. The city eventually dropped the suit, he says, but not before threatening to make the Topletzes pay $1,000 a day for every day the house had been demolished. When he found out the Ellis House was on the National Register, he recalls thinking, "Oh, shit, what are we going to do?"

After all, he says, "what are you gonna do with it? It's between a liquor store and an out-of-business restaurant. It'll be too nice a house to rent, and I don't think anybody will pay you enough money. I have no idea where it's going. It would be different if someone appreciated the work and paid you what it was worth. It would be different if people appreciated it when it was over. But you get the winos coming in to vandalize the place for copper wire, for nothing. Isn't that the stupidest thing, to rewire a house again and again? In North Dallas you could fence it and protect it and you'd do it in a heartbeat. But in South Dallas, it's a treadmill. You can't win."

It's unlikely the Topletzes will tear down the house; they've invested too much and aren't businessmen who like to see their investments vanish in a heap of rubble. But they have no interest in getting local landmark designation for it, either, and it's difficult for a third party to initiate landmark proceedings against the wishes of the property owner. So, what becomes of the house now?

Dwayne Jones says Preservation Dallas would love to buy the house from the Topletzes but can't afford the $50,000 to $60,000 they're likely to ask. And even if Jones could secure a loan to buy the house, with the caveat it would be sold to someone interested in restoring it, at the likely price tag of $100,000 to $250,000, what would a potential buyer do with the place? Turn it into an office building? Doubtful. Or a museum? That's even less likely, since they're not financially viable even in nice areas of town. Moving it off site, as Lewis wanted to do, would make the Ellis House more desirable, perhaps, but it would be inordinately expensive (some put the cost at $50,000, if not twice that) and would diminish its historical value.

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