Preservation Dallas Launches Effort to Save 508 Park Avenue, Asks City to Back Off
Last week, while working on this week's cover story in the paper version of Unfair Park, I discovered that the owners of 508 Park Ave. have filed with the city a permit to tear down the former Warner Brothers Film Exchange, built in the late 1920s. Long story, available soonish in a rack or on a computer screen near you, short: The city's cracking down on vacant downtown building's worst code violators, and it considers the building in which Robert Johnson recorded in June 1937 among the worst of the lot. So, as far as Glazer's Distributors is concerned, after 50 years of ownership better a parking lot near City Hall than a code-violations fine machine.
Preservation Dallas is, as to be expected, concerned about the fate of the building as well. Which -- Fortuitous Timing Alert -- is why the organization sent out a media alert moments ago about the plight of 508 Park Ave. The last line of the four-page document summarizes executive director Katherine Seale's plea for development over demolition of this structure, among many in danger downtown: "Destroying historic buildings due to the City's code violation drive does damage to the original intent of the initiative as well as lasting damage to Downtown Dallas." Also after the jump, an accompanying document showing before and after photos of previously decaying structures in downtown, including the former Dallas Power & Light Building, that have been rehabbed in recent years.
Historic Downtown Art Deco Building Threatened with Demolition.
Much to the dismay of Preservation Dallas and the preservation community, an effort to demolish the City of Dallas Historic Landmark 508 Park Avenue is currently underway. The organization fears that demolition will be the fate of other important downtown buildings, many of them of great historic and cultural value to the city
A demolition permit for 508 Park was sought following a recent code violation sweep in downtown in which 36 vacant and/or underutilized historic and non- historic properties were targeted for code citations and threatened with litigation. Despite the City's good intentions of furthering revitalizing efforts in downtown, the code violation sweep will likely lead to these ham-fisted remedies. We recognize that while some properties owners are at fault for letting their facilities fall into a state of disrepair, other owners are seeking to either sell their properties or are working diligently on a plan to rehabilitate them. But in these difficult economic times, the City's actions may force many property owners to consider demolition. Preservation Dallas contends this code violation campaign will result in the loss of many significant Dallas historic buildings.
In response, Preservation Director Katherine Seale said, "Many of the buildings targeted by the City include just the kind of historic buildings that have attracted and now house new retail and residents to Dallas' downtown core. Losing historic buildings that have the potential to add economic and social value to our city and replacing them with parking lots will a complete loss. Once these buildings are gone, they are gone forever."
"The City seems to believe that vacant lots, particularly in central Dallas, would be an improvement over these existing and often historic buildings. Although they are treating this as a code enforcement issue, vacant lots aren't a quick fix," said Seale. One has only to look at the 'dead zone' at the west end of downtown between the Earle Cabell Federal Building and the County Courthouse complex for evidence. This area, the result of demolitions dating from the 1960s, is a major impediment to the Convention Center connecting to the core of downtown Dallas, and it isolates the County buildings. Those historic buildings that are no longer there would have been good candidates for redevelopment; they would have offered opportunities for residential and commercial uses in the western portion of downtown- a stated goal of the City's. As it turns out, the walk ability of this sector of downtown Dallas is dismal at best, and not something the City should encourage or pursue in the rest of downtown.
Building Information/508 Park:
508 Park Avenue is located two blocks east of Dallas' City Hall. It was built in 1929 as the Warner Brothers Film Exchange and served the movie theater district on Elm Street. Designed in the Zig-Zag Moderne style that was popular at that time, 508 Park Avenue is one of the best and one of the few examples of this style of architecture remaining in Dallas today.
On a historical and cultural level, the building is significant for its unique musical heritage - it was associated with many giants in the industry for several decades. By 1937 Brunswick Records was leasing space from Warner Brothers for their regional distribution center; it was there that Mississippi Bluesman Robert Johnson (1911-1938) reportedly made his last recording. His June 1937 recording session yielded 11 records released that same year and some of his most recognized songs including "Stones in my Passway." Johnson is often considered the "Grandfather of Rock and Roll", influencing musicians such as Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck and Jack White. Eric Clapton proclaimed Johnson, "the most important blues singer that ever lived." Johnson died in 1938 (within a year after his final recording session at 508 Park) and was posthumously inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Additionally, producer Art Satherley, one of the leading talent scouts for country music in the 1930s and 40s (inducted into the Country Music Hall of Music in 1971), famous record producer Bob Wills (inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968), and legendary producer Don Law (inducted into the Country Music Hall of Music in 2001) later recorded in this building.
The current owner of the building is Colby Properties, who have owned the property since the late 1950s.
The property is included in the City of Dallas' Harwood Historic District and is a contributing building in the expansion of the Downtown Dallas National Register of Historic Places District.
Preservation Dallas is one of the most respected non-profit preservation organizations in the country. With more than 35 years of experience, the organization's success and longevity is due to its strong advocacy efforts, noted educational programs, and technical expertise. Our mission: to advocate for the preservation and revitalization of Dallas' historic buildings, neighborhoods and places in order to enhance the vitality of our city.
Why Demolishing Historic Buildings is a Bad Idea:
1. Vacant spaces in urban areas are not cool: This hearkens back to the failed urban renewal policies of the 1960s. When Dallas' downtown buildings are demolished, they become parking lots. "The average life of a parking lot in downtown is more than 30 years", states Larry Hamilton, chief executive of Hamilton Properties, a real estate developer who has successfully renovated several downtown historic buildings including the Davis Building, the Dallas Power & Light Buildings, and the old Fidelity Union Life Insurance Towers, now Mosaic. Vacant lots are an impediment to further redevelopment efforts in downtown. Vacant lots do not make downtown more livable. Nor do vacant lots provide a context for downtown. They are eyesores. A building, however, has potential for re-development.
2. Where do Dallas' downtown residents live? 5,000 people live in downtown Dallas and almost all of them live in historic buildings rehabilitated for residential use. In most cases these now successful buildings were in worse shape than the buildings now targeted by the city. A few examples of successful rehabilitations of historic buildings that were once candidates for the wreaking ball include the Awalt Building, Hart Furniture Building on Elm, the Harlan Building on Cadiz, the Interurban Building on Jackson Street, and the Stone Street Garden area including 1520-1522 Main and the F.W. Woolworth Building on Elm.
3. Demolition isn't green: The 'greenest building' is one that already exists. The reuse of existing buildings is one of the highest forms of sustainable design. Demolition wastes natural resources. This includes both the building's construction materials, the energy used in building them, the energy used in destroying them and hauling away the debris, not to mention the horrible result- another acre of pavement in downtown. Demolishing older buildings, particularly older ones with asbestos, runs counter to green initiatives.
4. This brings up a related point: Demolition isn't cheap. In the case of older buildings with asbestos, it's rather expensive. Who's going to foot the bill?
5. The economic climate couldn't be worse. No one is lined up for development deals. Building owners are hard pressed to start new projects. Why demolish these historic buildings now?
6. Alternatives Provide a Better Answer:
- Right now, there are few, if any, development incentives downtown. Wouldn't it make sense for the city to identify/assist with funding new resources and to work with concerned citizens and groups to find alternatives?
- "Mothballing" is a common means of protecting historic vacant buildings. According to the National Park Service, this process is "a necessary and effective means of protecting a building while planning the property's future, or raising money for a preservation, rehabilitation or restoration project. If a vacant property has been declared unsafe by building officials, stabilization and mothballing may be the only way to protect it from demolition."
- To address the city's concern regarding neglectful property owners, the City should strengthen and proactively pursue the Demolition by Neglect section of the enabling Dallas Historic Landmark ordinance. Destroying historic buildings due to the City's code violation drive does damage to the original intent of the initiative as well as lasting damage to Downtown Dallas.