Save This City
Dallas is a city built upon bulldozed ruins, and no one knows this better than Dwayne Jones, who for five years has been the executive director of Preservation Dallas--an organization whose title seems utterly, unabashedly oxymoronic. "Look at that," Jones says, motioning toward a pile of grubby blankets and sleeping bags piled on the front porch of an East Dallas home. He's motioning toward that pile because, jeez, looks like somebody might be under there. Watch your step. And, good God, what is that smell?
This house, which the homeless call home and gang-bangers tag with spray paint, stands--just barely--at 4602 Reiger Ave. County appraisal records say it's worth some $186,000 and belongs to someone named Felinda Jarmon, but the owner has long since abandoned the place; it's decorated with red and green signs tacked up by city officials warning of multiple code violations. "Nobody's seen her in a long time," Jones says of the house's owner. Jones only found out about the place from a resident in the neighborhood and from Bob Curry, a city code enforcement officer with a fondness for old buildings. But if you were to just drive by the place, you'd think it was nothing more than yet another dilapidated house in need of being turned into a pile of splinters. And that might very well happen.
You see, this house is a historic landmark, quite literally. A decade ago it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, which is maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior. It's there because of its age (it was built 100 years ago), its architectural significance (a cross between Queen Anne, Craftsman and Prairie School styles) and its original owner, Thomas Shiels, who was vice president of Citizens Planing Mill, which made many of the pieces used on and in houses built in Dallas during the turn of the century. When Shiels died in October 1925--a shotgun he was inspecting before a hunting trip accidentally went off in his face, killing him instantly--The Dallas Morning News reported back then that his "funeral was one of the largest that has been held in Dallas in several years though the weather was cold, rainy and disagreeable."
To save Thomas and Mary Shiels' place, Jones announced last week it's among the 10 properties that rank among Dallas' most endangered. It joins such well-known landmarks as Crozier Tech High School and a 91-year-old Craftsman house at 6015 Bryan Parkway, both of which have been entangled in legal battles for years.
Also making the list are the Wynnewood Shopping Village in Oak Cliff, which council member Ed Oakley wants to see torn down for new development, and St. Joseph's Catholic Church and Academy at 2712 Swiss Ave., which the Catholic Diocese is looking to sell. If there's no intervention, it would likely wind up in the hands of a developer who'd tear down the 100-year-old building that sits just blocks away from, of all things, Preservation Dallas' headquarters in the 108-year-old Queen Anne Victorian mansion known as the Wilson House.
The same fate likely awaits the Nurses Building on the lawn of the old Parkland Hospital building at the intersection of Oak Lawn and Maple avenues. The Parkland building has local landmark designation courtesy of the Landmark Commission and city council, which means it can't be torn down or significantly altered without approval, but the former nurses' residency does not.
Preservation Dallas has also put on the list two entire neighborhoods: the long-embattled Deep Ellum, which contains the largest collection of early 20th-century storefronts in the city, and the entirety of Oak Lawn itself, which is among the last of Dallas' most significant neighborhoods without a preservation society that would protect its assets. As such, many of Oak Lawn's oldest and most beautiful homes are being sold to developers who instantly tear them down and replace them with Tinkertoy townhouses and cracker-box condos.
"It takes a year to get something designated as a local landmark with the Landmark Commission, not to mention a lot of research," Jones says. "Well, look at what happens in Oak Lawn in three months. We'd have to be so far ahead of it--and we'd have to go against property owners' wishes, which is a big political fight."
Not that Jones is above picking one with City Hall: This year's list is more eclectic than those released in recent years because it includes not only buildings and entire neighborhoods, but also a matter of public policy. Jones put at the very top of Preservation Dallas' endangered list the city's Historic Preservation Property Tax Incentive Program, which allows the city to abate property taxes for buildings designated as landmarks for up to a decade. Problem is, when the city extended its Downtown Tax Increment Financing District last year to include parts of Uptown and the Mercantile development downtown, it ran out of money to extend to other property owners looking to rehab their historic buildings. That means such buildings as the Tower Petroleum building on Ervay Street won't have expected city subsidies in order to remove asbestos or repair other problems common among old buildings.
"When they extended the TIF and incorporated more properties, lot of developers weren't aware this was happening," Jones says. "They knew that the TIF was going though but not that it would prevent them from getting the incentives, and they were shocked by it. Now they're waking up and going, 'Oh, my God, I got hit over the head and didn't know it.' The city's being complacent with the situation because nobody's prodding them to do anything." Ryan Evans, the assistant city manager in charge of economic development, was out of town and unavailable for comment, but Jones says there are potential remedies--though they may have to be addressed at the state government level.
What also distinguishes this year's endangered list from its predecessors is its attention to detail. Among the entries are the three bridges that run over Turtle Creek on Maple, Fairmount and Bowen avenues. Built from 1910 to 1920, they're among the oldest bridges in the city, and they look it. Light standards on the Maple and Fairmount bridges no longer work, and some of them have been destroyed, while the ironwork on the Bowen bridge is rusting to the point of disintegration. Yet because no one at the city wants to accept responsibility for their upkeep, Jones says, they'll continue to rot--and now there's the added threat of much-discussed street expansion along those thoroughfares to allow for the added traffic that will come with all the condo construction in the neighborhood.
"For a major urban area, Dallas has a good preservation ordinance, but far too few things are protected by it," Jones says. "We have a good tax incentive program, but it has limitations, as we're finding now. Our problem is we can't get ahead of the bulldozers."