Boutique apartment buildings and cleared, muddy plots marked with signs advertising “Coming Soon: Homes Starting at $400,000” are hints of the latest massive gentrification rolling through Old East Dallas. By decree, though, the bulldozers clearing the way for progress aren't allowed to touch certain spots.
During region-wide redevelopment in the '70s, as builders indiscriminately razed both ramshackle apartments and architecturally sound structures, anger among neighborhood residents prompted Dallas to form its historic preservation division.
Now 15 members of a council-appointed landmark commission can preserve districts or structures deemed significant to our city’s past. So, in 2019, many old buildings remain rooted while the latest tide of gentrification rolls over the neighborhood.
As rezoning initiated by the Arts District’s revised master plan migrates eastward, plenty of buildings will fall to bulldozers. Here, however, is a small sampling of curious Old East Dallas fixed fixtures protected by the city, state and preservationists.
4928 Bryan Street Apartments
The Bryan and Bennett intersection, a block north of Munger Park and historic St. Matthew Cathedral, is still a gathering place for homeless folks. The surrounding streets are a mix of decrepit or abandoned apartments and charming, refurbished Melrose Place mimics.
One multifamily building probably draws less attention than either, until closer inspection reveals a Mediterranean-style, eight-window facade with pilasters extending to the mid second floor. Yep, behind its palisade of lofty pines and bulky bushes, a discerning eye beholds something worthy of curiosity and admiration.
Flawlessly symmetrical, robust, must have withstood a thousand Texas storms, this 1928-built, virtually unaltered 12-unit residence embodies the style of East Dallas’ first multifamily dwellings, according to landmark commission papers. Similar properties proliferated, signifying the area’s response to the early 1900 installation of streetcar lines. The trollies and residences for singles or couples made it possible for young professionals, including working women, to reach downtown, Deep Ellum and other worker districts.
The Bryan Street building’s pragmatism and absence of pomp, in part, is what makes it consequential and a paradigm of the period, according to a preservation application.
Historians hypothesize the lack of ego in the architecture is evidence that the contractor, not an architect, designed 4928 Bryan Street. Builders bought material from local lumber yards and emulated styles of the era; that’s how we rolled regarding multifamily housing in the beginning, and, notes the landmark designation form, it is one of the most historically significant trends to have ever taken place in our city.
401 N. Carroll’s David Crockett Elementary School
Old-timers at Crockett reunions reportedly recalled schoolrooms heated by janitor-fed pot-bellied stoves. Every day when the coal hit the heater, such a racket transpired that teachers temporarily lost sight and sound of their pupils. Naturally their charges seized the chance to yuck it up and toss notes, according to commentary in Education in Dallas by Walter J.E. Schiebel. Equally influential was the janitor’s wife, who made enough chili to provide daily lunch for 5 cents a bowl.
Crockett’s origins date to 1902. The ranks of East Dallas’ kiddos had outgrown the educational facilities shared with Dallas. Some 150 citizens in May 1902 signed a petition requesting an East Dallas school. By May 23 the education board approved a land purchase to build a four-room campus on North Carroll and by September ’03 class was in session. But the four rooms could scarcely contain enrollment, so, according to school board minutes, expansions occurred in 1904, 1907, 1919 and 1920. A moms group formed early on to push improvements, and in 1907 the parents petitioned to “have lights cut in.” A dang-reasonable request, no? Virginia Collins Lipscomb was the campus’ most beloved teacher; Lipscomb school in East Dallas is named for her husband, who also was an educator.
No one knew why precisely the East Dallas school was named Davy Crockett, according to a preservation application, but in ’55 when a popular song about the “king of the wild frontier” dropped, students created special verses to suit themselves, according to a Dallas Times Herald article.
When Crockett closed in 1989, it was the oldest operating Dallas ISD school. The campus interior recently has been renovated, under preservation guidelines, into apartments, Liz Casso, preservation’s senior planner says. But at street view, it looks just like a cool old, potentially haunted, school.
2036 Commerce’s Bluitt Sanitarium
A proletarian, easily ignored, weathered three-floor brick building — attractive in a gothic, creepy sense —stands on Commerce at Deep Ellum’s northern fringe. Its pioneering importance, when erected in 1904, cannot be overstated. As the first medical clinic in Dallas for black patients and physicians, it opened doors for Dr. Benjamin Bluitt and other professionals of color. It was the only building owned and operated by nonwhites along Dallas’ undocumented but widely accepted-as-real “color line” separating black and white businesses.
While opening a Dallas clinic for black individuals in 1904 was challenging, the endeavor was nothing compared to the trials Bluitt and his peers already endured while training in Texas. When “freedmen” finally were allowed into elementary schools in Tyler, where Bluitt grew up, according to city documents, they faced beatings with clubs, stones pummeling their faces and various forms of violence. Bluitt made it to a high school-college combo called Wiley, from which he graduated in 1882.
After receiving his medical training at Meharry Department of Central Tennessee College in Nashville, he was licensed and practiced in Chicago and New York before making his way to Dallas. Bluitt and his colleagues became prominent members of Dallas’ black community, according to Landmark Commission literature, and it’s rumored the doctor was flamboyant and charismatic. A black surgeon on an unimaginably tough path who knew how to party. Are we beginning to understand why preserving such history is so cool?
4515 Live Oak’s Wales Apartments
Ever shop the 99 Cent Only store on Live Oak? You are missing out. But we digress, across the street is the standout antiquated U-shaped Wales apartments.
Like the apartments on Bryan but bigger and bolder — with its rolled tile roof, two-story stucco arcade porch, rusticated columns and delicate details including round-top vents decorated in delicate rosetta — the three-floor 30-unit garden flats arose with the dawn of the streetcar lines leading to medical buildings and downtown. This particular property replaced a ludicrously large single-family home.
The Wales’ builder, oilman J.B. White, was on top of things; this was about to happen throughout the area and the entire South. In fact, the Wales has a twin structure in Shreveport. Only the colors vary slightly. White likely built it while there doing business, figures Richard Longstreth, author of The Buildings of Main Street. While no longer a Great Gatsby mansion, the Wales was quite the highfalutin place to live, inhabited by Baylor physicians, lawyers, oil men, dudes with last names such as McCommas and Lawther and well-to-do widows, notes the landmark nomination form.
Post heyday, a charitable trust purchased the property and, in '91, transformed it into a single-room occupancy permanent supportive housing building for formerly homeless men and women, the first of its kind. Still, “the Spanish eclectic style building is a fine example of the genre,” writes John Blumenson in Identifying American Architecture. And the project further epitomizes the streetcar’s role in our city’s development.
4503 Reiger’s Bianchi, Didaco and Ida House
“The House of the Future” in 2019: a flexible space for a digitally savvy set who value location over square footage. Prefabricated — the style is whatever is globally trending on Instagram — polished with the precision of a new iPhone, and, above all, it’s connected, it is a computer, which watches and secures its inhabitants and offers all kinds of comforts and conveniences — according to sites such as Vulture and Curbed, anyway.
In the 1910s, “digital” was not a word associated with architecture, but technology mattered — advanced ventilation, plumbing and closets in every room constituted creativity and ingenuity, and these were but a few features that made Didaco Bianchi’s home so special. Sadly, he died two years after its completion and did not have much time to enjoy his unique habitat. His wife Ida remained there more than 25 years, raising their two sons.
Bianchi was an Italian immigrant and artist who came to East Dallas in 1903. He co-founded a cement stone company and his artistic use of concrete caught the attention of local architects Otto Lang and Frank Witchell. These guys specialized in designing opulent estates for wealthier residents, and Bianchi worked and developed a friendship with them, so they agreed to design his home, although the property was in a less prestigious division, on a small plot.
The house on Reiger became a mini version of the mission revival mode typically applied to mansions of the era. The architects and artist “conveyed the style with modern material, color and crafted detail rather than elaborate applied terra cotta,” according to the National Registry of historic places, and “it was singular in its design and appeal.” The build followed the massive-mansion era of the late 1800s/early 1900s, as well as the streetcar and density driven transformation beginning in 1902. Things had settled and in neighborhoods like Bianchi’s, the trend was traditional and conservative. But he apparently gave zero damns about trends.
Dubbed “The House of the Future” in 1936, the distinctive domicile garnered fascination as a display at the Texas Centennial Exposition.
In recent years it fell into such disrepair that demolition became imminent until a group of neighbors rallied and saved it, applying for and receiving designation on the national register of historic places.
4800 Ross’ James W. Fannin Elementary School
Once all the bright shiny safe spaces occupy Ross — minus the Ross and Peak Thrift, probably the pawn shop and a couple of salons that blast Spanish music all day — you know what will still be there? Fannin Elementary School. And boy does it stand proud. Architects cannot even quite decide what to call its ostentatious style. The experts agree it displays elements associated with late Gothic Revival.
Built in 1905, right in a residential area, a few blocks from the former Dallas ISD headquarters (where the main facade is preserved, but towers are under construction out back), additions over the years are not as eye-catching as the Ross-facing entrance with its elaborate cast-stone decorative details. Extensions over the years are attributed to Dallas' population boom and the “proliferation of streetcar suburbs,” according to the national register of historic places.
James Fannin was a hero in Texas history, serving as a colonel in the state's revolutionary army. Mexican leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna eventually imprisoned and slaughtered Fannin and his crew Dec. 7, 1835.
The school closed in 2012, says Liz Casso preservationist senior planner, “then reopened in 2015 as the Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship Academy — renovations include a new larger gym and restoration of historic windows.”
3501 San Jacinto’s Macedonia Missionary Baptist and all the pretty churches
Multiple Old East Dallas churches are designated historical landmarks — Grace United Methodist, built in 1903, St. Joseph’s on Swiss and East Dallas Christian on Peak.
Each offers incredible architectural structure and design, integral to the neighborhood throughout the eras. But it perhaps is the tiny Macedonia Missionary Baptist on San Jacinto Street that is most striking. Hovering in the backdrop of the humble red-brick house of worship, which remains vigorously active in the community, are cranes and modern high-rise constructs. The Baptist denomination formed to serve African-Americans in the late 1800s. Following a series of relocations, notes the Texas Historical Commission, this congregation and structure settled in Old East Dallas in 1950.
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BONUS: Miller Avenue’s Bella Villa
North of Ross, the abandoned Bella Villa Apartments in 1927 were swank. Although the windows are cracked and the ecru paint is peeling, the building emits a haunting beauty, fit to serve as the set for an American Horror Story season. It is a 90-year-old massive structure in the heart of Vickery Place that looks as if a small explosive went off in the foyer and everyone in the idyllic neighborhood just ignored it; a heavy rain, perhaps, prevented a fire. The beat-up beauty could have been demolished, but Dallas Landmark Commission members Mike Birrer and Daron Tapscott initiated proceedings to place it on the register — the historic apartment buildings in East Dallas tell our story, but someone needs to give them a voice, the commissioners told the city’s representatives.
"It has always been a symbol of Vickery Place," said Tapscott, who told the city that the building, built circa 1926, previously was a school.
After making their case, the commissioners won a unanimous vote for preservation of the 23-unit Italianate-style residences. New owners who had planned to build three new homes on the site offered no objection, saying they are eager to bring Bella back to life. Casso notes via email that restoration is underway.
“We anticipate completing sometime this year," she says.