By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Of course, there have been promises made concerning this property before. In 1996 Dallas developers Cliff Booth and Randy Moses of Southwest Properties Group promised a $15 million development on the site, which was to house retail, restaurants and offices. There was even a news conference announcing the project, and Govenar was brought in to help research the building's history so it could be restored to its former glory. Then...nothing.
Three years later there once again came the whisper of great things: Brady and Brandt Wood—owners of Trees, the Green Room, Jeroboam and the Gypsy Tea Room—were going to convert the entire block into a gargantuan hotel-residential-retail-office complex called, naturally, Epic. Sources close to the project say they wound up spending close to $200,000 on the plans, which would have used the temple as a hotel complete with café, pool and a rehabbed ballroom.
The plans, which Brandt Wood has kept close at hand all these years later, are extravagant—evidence of the involvement of New York-based Rockwell Group, the architectural firm responsible for everything from the W Hotel in Manhattan to Cirque du Soleil in Orlando; Dallas-born designer Todd Oldham, who was hired to make the interiors sparkle; and Dallas-based Corgan Associates, which has rehabbed, among others, the Kirby, Wilson and Davis buildings downtown. In short, imagine Victory Park transplanted onto a single block of Elm Street.
But a downturn in the local economy in 2000 put the project on hold. September 11, 2001, put the project in a box. And then came the new hotels—downtown, Uptown, all over town. Brandt Wood says the W almost chose the temple as its local location in 2002, but instead settled on Victory Park.
"We wanted to preserve the historic features of the hotel," but ultimately, Wood says, the plans were simply "too glamorous" for Deep Ellum. "We dreamt bigger than Deep Ellum could support," Wood says.
Karl Stundins, in the city's Office of Economic Development, says that a small, unnamed company was considering making the temple its headquarters earlier this year, but "it wasn't able to work out a deal with Westdale." It's a common story: Folks get interested in the Knights of Pythias Temple, only to walk away at the end of the day.
Sources say Westdale has actually tried to keep the building empty: "They have plans for that space," says one local developer, "because they've made comments to me like, 'You won't believe what's going to happen to that block,' meaning there will be redevelopment with the rail station." But the Deep Ellum Enrichment Project, consisting of folks who live and work in the neighborhood, worries that Westdale would like nothing more than to raze the building because its landmark status makes developing the entire block a complicated and expensive procedure.
Earlier this summer, it was pointed out on the Dallas Observer's blog that Westdale actually has the building listed on the county tax records as 2505 Elm, not 2551 Elm, the historic address. Fact is, if Westdale went to the city and asked to get 2505 Elm demolished to make room for a parking lot, no one would ever notice. In the meantime, 2551 Elm would get adiosed. The city noticed the blog item and flagged the entire block, lest Westdale try just that.
"We get calls saying, 'Do you know who owns it?' and we refer them to Westdale," Stundins says. "But just because you have a building that looks great and is visible from the highway and is historic doesn't mean it's necessarily easily adapted to a current use." He figures it's too small for a hotel or apartment all by itself; maybe an office. He says what everyone else says: Wait till the DART station opens. Just wait.
In the end, the worst you can say is Westdale has done little to seek out or encourage development, going so far as to reject advances from House of Blues and folks who want to put a Texas music museum in or near Deep Ellum, sources say. And Westdale's done a poor job of taking care of history. But the damage isn't irreparable—not yet, anyway. As several people have said about the building: While it still stands, there is always hope.
"In so many ways, the neglect of this building epitomizes the inability of Dallas to fully come to grips with its own past, which, in effect, means we can't move meaningfully into the future," Govenar says. "It is the anchor of Deep Ellum. It's the most important building in Deep Ellum, and it lies vacant and neglected. But it is still beautiful. It still has integrity, even with the layers of paint and bird poop covering it. It still has this stately quality. And it will never lose it."
Not while it still stands.