The last thing Arthur Eisenberg wants is people to think he is a neighborhood antagonist. After all, he has lived in the "M Streets East" for 25 years, having raised his family at the corner of McCommas Boulevard and Concho Street.
When Eisenberg recently decided he wanted a new house, the successful graphic designer could have moved into Highland Park or Preston Hollow, among other tony environs. But he didn't. He chose to stay in his favorite neighborhood, opting to tear down his old house and replace it with a new one, sparing no expense.
"I did not [build] it from a financial investment point of view. I spent more than the market would allow," Eisenberg says. "This is the house I'll probably die in."
Working with an architect, Eisenberg took great pains to ensure his new house would fit into the neighborhood, which is known for its wide collection of Tudor-style homes. The end result could appear in Metropolitan Home as an example of complementary infill housing: The contemporary home, built around a stout but eloquent steel and stucco frame, consists of two "cottages" that have Tudor-like gables and step back onto the property so they don't tower over the neighbor's.
Little did Eisenberg know, his neighbors are more likely to have subscriptions to This Old House. This became clear when an anonymous flier appeared shortly after the dirt started flying. It encouraged Eisenberg's neighbors to report the house to the city. The flier inaccurately implied the house was being built in violation of city building codes, but the real problem was its design. One anonymous party was so offended by it that he, or she, felt compelled to present Eisenberg with an odorous package.
"Someone literally put a bag of dog dung on my porch," Eisenberg says. "It got me bent out of shape because the person didn't have enough fortitude to confront me personally."
The package was one of the more extreme, if not entirely misplaced, salvos fired in a new war some M Streets homeowners are waging against infill housing. Call it the Tudor Rebellion. It is a nasty affair, pitting yuppie against yuppie over a subject yuppies care deeply about: aesthetics.
And now the rebellion's leaders have found themselves standing on high ground, backed by a powerful new ally: The National Trust For Historic Preservation. The Washington-based nonprofit saves the country's historic sites from demolition and decay. This year, Dallas was one of several cities the Trust singled out as an example of a new "nationwide epidemic" of teardowns in historic neighborhoods. "From suburban Seattle to the neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and everywhere in between, older homes are being purchased, demolished and replaced by looming behemoths," the Trust reports. "If neighborhoods don't assume greater control, teardowns will erode the fabric of these communities, house by house."
Last month, Marcel Quimby, an adviser to the Trust, told reporters at a news conference that teardowns are only a symptom of the real disease: the McMansion, those developer-built homes that are "massive" in scale and, according to Quimby, "don't fit with the neighborhood."
As part of her presentation, Quimby distributed a Trust report that listed "teardown terminology," in which the new homes are identified by a variety of slurs. They include "Bigfoots," a term popular in New Jersey; "Snout Houses," which refer to homes built with garages on the front; and "Pink Palaces," a gentle slight aimed at a popular color of modern brick. Perhaps the most damning term: "Tara on a Quarter-Acre."
Quimby outlined a strategy to head off the enemy before the bulldozers arrive: conservation districts. Today, a group of Tudor owners are leading an effort to turn the western portion of the M Streets, called Greenland Hills, into just such a district. In the eyes of the Trust, the movement exemplifies how ordinary citizens can fend off the McMansion and stamp out the teardown disease.
All great battles have their heroes, and this one has Angela Hunt. A little more than a year ago, Hunt didn't know the first thing about historic preservation. All she knew was that she and her husband had paid a bundle (upward of $280,000) for their 1,400-square-foot Tudor, built in 1926 on the prime 5300 block of Mercedes Avenue. Last year, it was Hunt who began pursuing the plan to turn Greenland Hills into a conservation district, a process that is nearly complete and expected to be presented to the Dallas City Council later this year.
Like a historic district, the designation would allow the neighborhood's property owners to write new zoning laws that would discourage demolition and, more important, limit new construction to certain architectural types. Under the current proposal, all new homes built in Greenland Hills must be Tudors. Not just any Tudor. They must be "High Tudors," meaning they have to look like the Tudors built in the 1920s. Like Hunt's, for example.
Hunt's idea has caught on, and similar movements have recently sprouted up in neighborhoods to the east and south of Greenland Hills, including M Streets East. The organizers emphasize the democratic nature of the process and claim a vast majority of their neighbors embrace their plans. But a number of distinctly un-neighborly acts, like the assault on Eisenberg's house, reveal anything but consensus.
Debates are now forming around such weighty issues as the appropriateness of red brick, circular drives, metal windows and various species of trees. Even the definition of an M Street Tudor--itself a suburban, developer-built home of three generations ago--is now being called into question. Then there's the touchier subject of home renovation, which in its most grandiose form can mean a three-story "blowout" soaring from the back yard. How, people are asking, can they have their walk-in closets, Southern Living kitchens, master suites and garages big enough for two outsized sport utility vehicles and still keep the whole place looking as cozy and quaint as a Cotswold village?
Eisenberg says if a majority of his neighbors want a district, then it is their right to create one. In the meantime, he wonders whether the conservation movement isn't, ironically, a sign that Dallas may be forgetting its history.
"What made Dallas great was we had this can-do attitude. The city has gotten political, and we seem to have lost that," says Eisenberg, who is not personally offended by the arrival of the McMansion in urban Dallas. He, for one, thinks they make the neighborhood look fresher. "Really," he says, "what this boils down to is taste."
Angela Hunt is no architectural purist. She and her husband, Paul Sims, are planning to renovate their attic and will build an addition, but she says they'll probably "keep a back yard." They have, however, ruled out enclosing their front porch. To Hunt, the shaded sitting areas are one of the elements that make the M Streets a place worth saving.
"There is a history here that you simply don't find in suburban neighborhoods. A palpable history," Hunt says. "Most of us have open-air front porches, and it really does make for a friendly neighborhood because you can sit out there and wave to people. It's just really very homey. I think that's the main thing. It's homey, and it's authentic."
Hunt, a 30-year-old attorney, recently explained her motivation while seated on a purple couch inside her Mercedes Avenue Tudor, which she and Sims bought in January 2001. In the dining room, painted a formal red, Sims is cleaning a new piano the couple acquired from a neighbor lady, a longtime M Streets resident who recently moved into a nursing home. Hunt does not play the piano, but her musical talents are on display: Two violins hang on the living room wall, above a music stand that holds open an Antonio Vivaldi concerto.
The home is the couple's first, and they found it after spending many a weekend scouring the neighborhood in 2000--right at the peak of the recent economic boom, which had caused the sales prices of many an M Street Tudor to reach jaw-dropping heights. Back then, Hunt says, she fell in love with the area because of its "gingerbread" houses, which is what she called the Tudors before she learned more about them.
"We would come back every couple of Sundays and we would see a house had been razed and a suburban-type home had been built, and it was kind of depressing to us because we like the little gingerbread houses. They were quaint," Hunt says. "The more we looked, the more we realized we really were losing some gems to new, incompatible construction."
Today, Hunt's group has identified two types of Tudors in the neighborhood--the High Tudors, built in the 1920s and identified by their multiple high-peaked gables, front-facing chimneys and arch work; and the "Tudor Cottages," built in the 1930s or 1940s, which "share some characteristics of High Tudors but are typically less ornate." (Hunt's group has recognized the presence of five additional types of architectural styles in the neighborhood, including Spanish Eclectic and Craftsman, but has not bothered to formally define them.)
Shortly after the moving van was unloaded, Hunt says, she began thinking seriously about how to resolve the problem. Her first step was to broach the subject with her new neighbors.
"I just kind of said, you know, 'What do y'all think about some of these new houses?' And they'd say, 'Oh, no, we really wish they wouldn't tear down these cute ones, or if they did, they'd build something that fit in, but they're just too tall and they don't look right and they look like they belong in Plano,'" Hunt recalls. "And so I thought, 'I'm on the right track here.'"
One neighbor informed Hunt about the existence of conservation districts in Dallas (there are currently seven), and Hunt began contacting city officials to learn more. Thus "Save the M Streets" was born.
The proposed district is called Greenland Hills because that is what the developers who built it in the 1920s called it. Then, it was one of Dallas' first suburbs. ("Isn't that funny?" says Hunt, who adds that her group is still in the process of researching the neighborhood's history.) Using those original borders as the new district's proposed boundaries, Hunt began circulating a petition that asked residents to support her idea.
Three months later, more than 75 percent of the area's property owners had signed on. The turnout, which happens to reflect the actual number of Tudor homes in the neighborhood, met the super majority threshold city planners typically require before they commit their resources to the process. In the coming months, city staff will hold several public hearings to discuss new zoning restrictions specifically tailored to the neighborhood. Afterward, they'll draft a proposed ordinance.
In the meantime, informal debate has taken place during a series of neighborhood meetings, the first of which was held last September and attracted about 100 residents. At that meeting, Hunt says, people were mainly concerned that the district wouldn't be retroactive or limit their right to renovate. Hunt assured them the district isn't going to be that restrictive. The main goal, she says, is to make sure all the houses, particularly new ones, look the same from the front.
"We're trying to conserve an atmosphere," Hunt says. "We don't want to make it so builders don't want to build in this neighborhood. We just want them to build in such a way that their houses fit in. And if that means they want to use materials on the inside that I wouldn't choose, I don't care. That's their clients."
With that, Hunt ticks off a number of exterior design problems she has identified with the new homes, even the ones modeled after existing Tudors: They're too tall; they lack stained-glass windows and front-facing chimneys; their bricks are too big and too fire-engine red; and they have front-facing garages or, worse, circular drives.
"Typically the style is modern suburban," Hunt explains. "They might try to have half-timbering, but they're not Tudor. They just simply don't have the steep gables of a Tudor. And the materials are another huge thing. We use a size of brick called modular or standard. You often see king-sized bricks on the newer homes. They're larger, and they just have a different aesthetic. They're more suburban."
These are just a few examples of the smaller details the proposed ordinance would address. More significant rules require future homes to be built in the High Tudor style (or in a few rare cases, Craftsman style), while renovations must not be visible from the front. No metal roofs would be permitted, and porch enclosures must be done with see-through glass. In addition, any existing High Tudor may not be demolished unless its owner can prove that a repair job would cost a minimum 120 percent of the structure's appraised value. Other homes may be razed at will.
As the effort advances, Hunt stresses that her supporters are going out of their way to make the new-home people feel welcome. The practice, she says, was established at the first neighborhood meeting after someone made an unfortunate "crack" about the McMansions. Hunt can't recall the exact comment but says the name-calling ended there.
"Someone said, 'Stop. We're neighbors first and foremost. That's more important than anything else we're doing,'" Hunt recalls, adding that, "this isn't something that has been divisive, and I think we've intentionally tried to keep it that way."
Colin Weeks has received fliers about Hunt's proposed district but hasn't attended any of the meetings. "I think I'm what they're trying to avoid," Weeks says. "If they don't like my home, I'm sorry."
Less than a year ago, Weeks considered himself lucky when he bought his house at 5301 Merrimac Avenue, a block over from Hunt's place. The house, custom built in 1999, is precisely the type of "modern suburban" construction that sparked Hunt's rebellion. With 3,000 square feet of living area, standard for the new homes, the red-brick house is portly compared to its neighbors. Its façade does not include a front porch, and its multiple gables are less dramatic than those of its neighbors. To Weeks, however, the house is simply a modern version of the old.
"My home is a Tudor-style home. It is not a Plano McMansion, as I've heard so many people refer to it as," Weeks says. "I think it fits the neighborhood."
Weeks has not taken a position on the proposed district, though he generally supports the idea of keeping its overall look. What irks him is the term McMansion. To him, it's a slur that implies cheapness. "There's nothing cheap about the way this house was built, I can assure you," says Weeks, whose house is currently appraised at nearly half a million dollars.
However objectionable the exterior of Weeks' house might be to his neighbors, the interior has everything they envy. For starters, it offers more storage space than the most monstrous renovation. The master bath, fitted with his and hers sinks plus a whirlpool, is equipped with a walk-in closest that approximates the size of an original Tudor's master bedroom. The kitchen offers a built-in wine rack, stainless steel appliances and custom-built cabinets so numerous that Weeks has converted his food pantry into a liquor reserve.
The rest of the house is finished with hardwood floors and crown molding. Every room is wired for sound, while its entertainment center includes a built-in wood cabinet designed for modern electronics. From where he stands, Weeks can only wonder how the old Tudor owners live in this day and age.
"How do you get a 50-inch television set in those doors?" says Weeks, shaking his head sadly. Weeks says his modern home is in many ways superior to those around him, but he's not so "emotionally attached" to it that he would try to impose his taste on his neighbors. "This is America," he says. "I'm not gonna tell someone they cannot build in the neighborhood."
Around the corner, Fred and Sherry Duffer have settled into their year-old house, which is similar to but slightly different from Weeks'. (Rather than several smaller gables, its exterior has one gable that dramatically swoops up over the façade, forming a gigantic "A.") The Duffers attended Hunt's first neighborhood meeting, and they witnessed anything but unanimity.
"There was so much dissension we didn't go back," Sherry says. Fred adds, "They couldn't even agree on the setback for the garage in the back alley."
Sherry, who lived in an old Tudor for years before she married Fred two years ago, generally supports the idea of new restrictions. As an example, she points to a three-story, triangular-shaped house recently built on a tiny sliver of land at the end of Vanderbilt Avenue along North Central Expressway.
Hunt recently led an effort to block that home's completion. The resistance resulted in a settlement Hunt describes as a "land for peace" deal. Under it, Hunt's group agreed to drop its opposition to the home's construction after the builder agreed to sell Hunt a second lot on which he was planning to build a similar home. The lot, a piece of land left over from the expressway's construction, was the same spot on which the National Trust held its June news conference. Hunt got it for $10 and plans to keep it as green space.
Sherry thought the triangular shape of the house was pushing the look of the neighborhood. Although her house is about the same height, Sherry tried to make hers fit in by installing stained glass in her front windows and shelling out extra money for wood frames.
"Metal windows do not go in this neighborhood," Sherry says. "That's one of the reasons I will vote for the conservation district--if they don't get too strict."
The comment prompts Fred to roll his eyes. He, like Weeks, suspects that preserving the neighborhood's architectural look (much less its history) isn't really what the conservation movement is about.
"The real thing people are concerned about is their property values," Fred says.
An independent business consultant, Fred can't figure out why a conservation district is even needed in a neighborhood where the daintiest Tudors sell for more than a quarter of a million dollars. To him, no sane individual would shell out that kind of money for a house in the M Streets just to raze it.
"It's all economics," Fred says. "By and large, economics takes care of what you want to conserve."
Indeed, Fred has identified one of the hidden realities of the so-called "conservation" movement: Homes in good repair are not being torn down to make way for McMansions. In Greenland Hills, for example, Hunt's group determined that just 35 of its 917 homes have been torn down since 1990. And those homes, most everyone agrees, needed to go.
One person responsible for some of those teardowns is Jay Wysong, who heads up the Lakewood-area division of Belmont Homes, a company that also builds custom homes in the Park Cities and Preston Hollow. Although he has chosen to participate in the conservation district effort, thinking of himself as a "builder's liaison," Wysong says the fears of demolition are unfounded.
"Those houses will never be torn down," Wysong says. "Nobody's going to pay $350,000 for a lot in the M Streets when you can afford to do that in the Park Cities or Bluffview. That's just not realistic."
But the teardown scenario, or at least the potential for one, is precisely what motivated Lisa Gala to initiate an identical conservation movement in M Streets East, which lies across Greenville Avenue. That district contains 430 homes, of which Gala estimates 90 percent or more are in "move in" condition.
Gala launched her effort last year shortly after she bought her home, a 1924 red-brick "Tudor Cottage" currently appraised at $243,000. Though it is small, 1,372 square feet, Gala says it is unique because of a brick "diamond" on its façade.
"If I put my house on the market tomorrow, I'd ask $279,000 for it, and the thing is, I'd probably get it," Gala says. "You can't find another red-brick house with a white diamond on it."
Like Hunt, Gala argues that if the neighborhood becomes dominated with new, more-expensive homes, old homes like hers will be torn down for lot value. "Around us it is happening a lot. We feel it could infiltrate into this neighborhood," Gala says. "If we live here 20 or more years, I'd say the threat is very real."
One house that has been torn down was located next door to Gala's. Five years before Gala moved in, a modern Tudor was built in its place, dwarfing Gala's house. Gala insists that particular house doesn't bother her, but she says the other new homes don't belong.
"They may have walk-in closets and five bathrooms--all things we envy--but they're just not cutting it. Four bricks, two stones and a high peak does not a Tudor make," Gala says, stressing that it's the houses, not the people who buy them, that are objectionable. "People who live in new homes are not bad people. You talk to 'em and they say, 'Oh, my house is a Tudor, and I bought it because it looks just like yours.' They don't mean any ill will."
Jennifer Barnes won't use the word "hurt" to describe her feelings about the battle against homes like hers, which was recently built at the edge of the proposed Belmont Addition conservation district. That neighborhood, which is dominated by small, wood-framed homes, many of them postwar "GI" houses that have been turned into rental properties, lies between the M Streets and Lakewood Heights.
"'Hurt' is the wrong word, but it has bothered me in that I am seen as a capitalist imperialist," Barnes says. "We have furniture from Target in this house."
Barnes and her husband, Jason, exemplify the type of young, white-collar professionals who have been flocking into the city's urban neighborhoods. Both attorneys, the Barneses chose the neighborhood because its close proximity to downtown allows them to avoid a lengthy commute. They also liked the area's older houses, which remind them of the East Coast neighborhoods they grew up in. In fact, Barnes wanted to buy an old Tudor that was for sale in the M Streets, but in the end, the couple decided the asking price was ridiculous.
"Why would I pay $300,000 to live in 1,900 square feet when I can pay $400,000 for 3,000 square feet?" Barnes says. "I loved the style. I begged [Jason] to live there, but economically we just couldn't risk it. We were worried the bottom would drop out."
The local real-estate market has, until recently, sent property values soaring. In the Tudor-dominated M Streets, the values of the homes have gone up along with land values. But that hasn't been the case everywhere. In neighborhoods like Belmont Addition and Lakewood Heights, the housing stock is deteriorating to the point where the lots are now worth more than the structures. As a result, more homes are being razed.
Barnes says this trend should be welcomed, not thwarted. As an example, she points to the house next door. Now a rent house, its wooden frame is rotting, while its unkempt lot has become a nesting ground for snakes and rats.
"We call it the shithole," Barnes says. "This is what they're trying to preserve? They should be thanking us."
Manson Jones, the president of JMJ Custom Homes who built Barnes' house, echoed his clients' comments while standing in front of another house he's building "on spec" in Lakewood Heights. A nearby house, which has been red-tagged by city inspectors, is much like the one Jones says he razed to make way for this project, which will sell for more than $400,000 when it's finished.
"I walked into it and it was covered in urine and trash. When the bulldozer came, I just shut the door behind me and let 'em go," says Jones, who adds that every house he's torn down has been in the same condition. Why anyone would want to preserve them is beyond him. "If this was the North Church in Boston where Paul Revere saw the lights, I could see it. But some of these houses were built 40 years ago."
Jones argues that the same economic forces that protect the old Tudors from being razed also explain why the new homes are as big as they are: Escalating lot values mean builders have to build houses that are at least 3,000 square feet in order to recoup their costs and realize a profit.
Jones isn't kidding. In the last five years, lot prices in the M Streets have doubled to about $90,000 for the average 50-by-150-foot lot. In the neighborhoods to the east, where more new homes have been built, lot values have more than tripled. Barnes' lot, for example, has gone from an appraised value of $20,000 in 1997 to $87,500 today. Other similar-sized lots are worth more than $100,000.
"I would much rather build smaller houses, but the cost of the lot precludes that," Jones says, echoing the comments of other builders in the area. "You have to get the costs back, and that's where you get the size."
Unlike Greenland Hills, where the vast majority of homes are Tudor, the proposed Belmont Addition district has everything from early 1900s Prairie- and Craftsman-style homes to postwar ranch houses and other structures that don't have an identifiable style. As a result, the process of figuring out which ones should be preserved has been more difficult. One thing's for sure: A goal of the district will be to require that any new homes built there replicate one of the existing architectural styles. Beyond that, Philip Kingston says, the district's organizers don't want to be overly restrictive.
"No neighborhood was ever perfect. There are houses that are old and conforming to the neighborhood that are ugly. But that's my opinion, and I can have the opinion that one house is better than the other, but that's not going to be reflected in the ordinance--other than in broad strokes," Kingston says. "We hope to draft a document where later we don't end up with a newcomer problem."
Kingston and his wife, Melissa, became active with the district shortly after the couple moved in two years ago. To a reporter, Melissa will only reluctantly admit that new homes like the Barnes' are the motivation behind the effort.
"It's not that people don't like them," she says. "It's more that they feel they don't fit in with the neighborhood."
The last thing Melissa says the group wants to do is create an "us vs. them" situation. After all, if she had bought a new home, then she would want her neighbors to make her feel welcome. "I can't imagine buying a new home, moving into it and finding out all of your neighbors hate you," she says.
Barnes says that's exactly the drift she got when Kingston's group showed up at her door 10 days after she had moved in. Barnes was galled that they were asking her to support their plans to ban her type of house from the neighborhood.
"They said, 'We just want to make sure this is going to be discussed.' That's how they portrayed it," Barnes says. "I thought it was a joke. I don't appreciate people coming to my door and saying, by the way, we don't approve of you in our neighborhood."
After they left, Barnes realized that the days when your new neighbors greeted you with a cake are long gone.
"I signed up for the e-mails because I wanted to get to know my enemy," Barnes says, adding that the whole experience reminds her of the "conformist mind-set" typical of a college sorority. "My whole life I wanted to fit in. When I became an adult, I realized that fitting in wasn't making me happy. Living in this house makes me happy."
As the National Trust demonstrated last month, it is now politically correct to openly ridicule the so-called McMansion for its alleged design deficiencies. In Dallas, however, the architectural assaults have gone beyond that style of home to include other new homes, which, if the conservation movement is successful, will soon be outlawed.
One new house that, apparently, would not have passed the restrictions proposed for Greenland Hills stands in the shadows of the triangular house Hunt's group actively opposed. The house, which boasts a pricey clay tile roof, is modeled after the early 1900s "Spanish Eclectic" homes C.D. Hutsell built in Dallas, particularly in Lakewood. (In his day, Hutsell was just as much a speculator as he was an architect, buying up whole city blocks and developing them lot by lot.)
Jeff Fairey, who built the house and is the president of Vintage Contemporaries, which specializes in building new homes made to look old, suspects that beneath the surface of conservation districts lurks a potentially dangerous movement.
"We're dealing with people who don't know what they want. All they know is what they don't want, and that's frustrating for a builder," Fairey says. "I've told people, you're trying to legislate taste, and that's a very difficult thing to do. What they want is good architecture. There's not much good architecture out there because it's expensive and it takes time."
Fairey understands why people are attached to old homes like the Tudors--they contain certain design elements, like intricate brickwork, that make them look distinctive. The trouble is, most people don't have any idea how much those things cost nowadays. Fairey argues that the same people who are now clamoring for building restrictions would sing a different tune if they tried to build an old Tudor at today's prices.
"When their budget tells them they can't do it," Fairey says, "they'd be putting in metal windows, too."
Arthur Eisenberg, the doggie doo-doo bag recipient, is one resident who does understand how expensive good architecture costs. Today, Eisenberg says he would not have built his home if a conservation district had been in place and specifically banned contemporary design.
(No specific architectural styles have yet been outlawed in M Streets East, but the Italian cypress trees Eisenberg planted in his front yard would be verboten because they, unlike the neighborhood's existing population of live oaks and pecans, are not canopy trees that provide shade.)
What irks him is that cocksure arrogance of people who believe they know what is best for the future of the neighborhood and act on that belief without having enough courage to discuss the matter face to face.
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"I found the people who complained about my house the most had been here for about a year and had moved out before I was finished," Eisenberg says.
When the house was complete, Eisenberg says, only one neighbor asked for a tour, and Eisenberg was happy to oblige. In fact, Eisenberg says he'd welcome any of his neighbors inside his home. And they might be wise to take him up on the offer before they vote on any future building restrictions: While Eisenberg's house is a departure from the neighborhood's past, it also offers a window into its future potential.
Besides, Eisenberg has built a game room that's equipped with a pool table, shuffleboard, a Pac-Man video game and a Dirty Harry pinball machine.
Whatever path his neighbors decide to take, Eisenberg says, he hopes they remember one thing: "Buildings don't make a neighborhood. People do."