This Teardown Town

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

"There's agreement in the preservation community that we'd like to see the structure maintained on its original location," Sandberg says. "But is it a logical place for a mom and dad and kids to move into? The person who answers yes is the person we have to reach out to. That's what Preservation Dallas is doing in listing it as one of Dallas' most vulnerable sites. Usually, schools are pretty good neighbors, but how about the overall neighborhood? Is it safe? The better question is, is it safe enough? Can crime in the neighborhood be mitigated with a fence, a security system? I don't know the answer to that question."

Preservationists have a phrase they use when referring to places like the Ellis House, which sit for years in preservation purgatory, waiting for a savior who never comes. They call it "demolition by neglect."

At 3100 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., about 300 yards away from the entrance to Fair Park, sits Mount Olive Lutheran Church, easily among the most historically significant structures in South Dallas or anywhere else in the city. It was there, on New Year's Eve 1969, that 500 people--black and white, Christian and Jewish, poor and wealthy, some from as far away as Alabama and North Carolina--gathered to protest the city's seizing of homes in the area for the expansion of Fair Park.
The Swiss Avenue of South Dallas: two of the beautiful 
preserved homes on South Boulevard
Mark Graham
The Swiss Avenue of South Dallas: two of the beautiful preserved homes on South Boulevard
Shaní Dixon has been trying to buy the largest--and 
most neglected--historic home on Park Row, but her 
efforts have thus far been in vain.
Mark Graham
Shaní Dixon has been trying to buy the largest--and most neglected--historic home on Park Row, but her efforts have thus far been in vain.

Huddled in the basement of that church, they endured bomb threat after bomb threat, from whites and blacks alike who were infuriated with and terrified of their threats to blockade the Cotton Bowl parade on national television unless Mayor Erik Jonsson agreed to offer homeowners a better deal. The chief of police begged them to leave, out of fear the church would be blown up. Black preachers begged them to leave, claiming their actions were an embarrassment to a city that had survived the civil rights era without major incident. But they did not, and the mayor relented. "It was a marvelous experience," recalls organizer Peter Johnson, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference worker who was passing through Dallas in 1969 and ended up staying here long enough to bring Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young and Julian Bond to town and down to the Mount Olive basement.

But that's all history now. That basement, once the place where the SCLC and the Black Panthers and Black Citizens for Justice met and organized, is now a food pantry serving 5,000 meals to the homeless every month--at least when the food hasn't been ruined by the rain that frequently floods the basement. The church's congregation has dwindled to about 40, with the average age being 70, and most, says the church's president, are in failing health.

One could say the same of Mount Olive, the Gothic Revival building originally built in 1922 for Trinity English Lutheran Church. (Mount Olive claimed the building in 1960.) Its roof is so damaged that rain leaks into the sanctuary, rotting away what's left of the stained ceiling. The wood around the stained-glass windows is crumbling. The bell tower is deteriorating so rapidly that when President Jackie Leatch goes to ring the bell every Sunday morning, she fears that one day it will come crashing down on her head. At the very least, bits and pieces of the tower rain down on her in a splintery shower. And just one month ago, burglars stole two air-conditioning units, $5,000 worth of equipment that likely was stripped for $50 worth of copper tubing that could be sold for drugs.

At 43, Leatch is among the youngest members of Mount Olive, and at the moment she's charged with trying to not only save the declining congregation but also a deteriorating building that is on the National Register but, of course, not considered a local landmark. Leatch, who was raised in the neighborhood and has attended this church her entire life, has no idea how to raise the money needed for repairs--some "hundreds of thousands of dollars," she estimates. In January 2000, Architexas, a Dallas-based architecture and historic planning firm, delivered to the church a master plan calling for $1.5 million worth of work. The church can barely meet its monthly bills, totaling about $2,500.

"We've tried for many years to find money and raised nothing," Leatch says. "People are just not eager to help churches. Considering the neighborhood it's in, that's another factor. The only positive part about it is if nobody reaches out to help us, the building will stand forever because it's a historical site."

Actually, Leatch is informed, that's not true. It may be on the National Register, but without City Hall designating it a local landmark, it has no protection at all. From anyone. Ever. Telling her this is like informing a child her parent has a terminal illness.

"My heart would leave if this church is torn down," she says. "I would die with it. To even think about it is scary. This church is so personal to me. There aren't too many days of my life that I don't look back and say, 'Where would I be today if it wasn't for Mount Olive?' It's depressing, to be honest with you, to be in a situation you can't do anything about. It's heartbreaking to everybody to think that maybe one day the doors will close. But the people in this congregation have such a great faith, which is what keeps us going."

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