The Mission Revival-style home, located on the corner of Reiger and North Carroll avenues, was designed by Lang and Witchell, who also designed other Dallas landmarks such as the Sears Roebuck wholesale store in 1903 (now Southside on Lamar), the Sanger Brothers department store in 1910 (now El Centro Community College) and numerous mansions and houses in Highland Park and along Swiss Avenue.
The Bianchi house was renowned for its intricate stonework, plasterwork and automatic room lights, and it featured state-of-the-art plumbing and ventilation systems when it was built.
Now after nearly 105 years, an attic fire, water damage and a revolving door of litterbug squatters have left the house, which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, on the verge of collapsing in on itself. In 2015 Preservation Dallas added the house to their list of most endangered historic places alongside the Aldredge House on Swiss Avenue, Elbow Room in Deep Ellum and the Forest Theater in South Dallas.
The roof is caving in, letting in the rain. The yard is covered in trash and discarded articles of clothing, leading to numerous code violation notices from the city. And what’s worse, the home’s current owner, former Dallas Plan Commissioner Rick Leggio, has been missing for years.
“He stopped paying taxes I guess a couple of years ago, but [the city] was receiving taxes after he abandoned the property,” Lisa Marie Gala, a preservationist and board member of the Dallas Endowment for Endangered Properties (DEEP), tells the Observer. “The city attorneys and tons of interested parties are trying to track him down any way possible, and it’s interesting because he worked for the city so people know him, but they have not been able to locate him.”
However DEEP has not let Leggio’s sudden disappearance stop them from working on their first major project as a nonprofit organization, saving the Bianchi House. DEEP’s goal is to act as a revolving fund in order to protect historic structures in Dallas from demolition, a fate that historic buildings like the Avon apartments and 1611 Main St. have already suffered. But so far it seems there’s still hope for the house Bianchi built.
“It has been initiated for landmark designation which means it’s already semi-protected. We want to complete the landmarking, we hope, before the city sells it, that way the person who buys it knows they bought a landmark; they cannot knock it down to build townhomes on here,” says Evelyn Montgomery, District 2 landmark commissioner and neighbor to the Bianchi House. “It’s a unique and very important piece of architecture, so it’s very easy to get it through, the only complicating factor is the lack of an owner, wherever he went.”
Gala, who had previously fought to help create M Streets Conservation District before moving to Vermont to earn her Juris Doctor degree in land use planning and management, says legal proceedings are currently underway to clear Leggio’s status as the owner of the house. Until then, the fate of the house will be unclear, making its designation as a landmark of tantamount importance.
“I think the court case in another month and a half will move that conversation forward because then we’ll have options,” Gala says. “We want to take projects that people love and translate that into action. We really want to hear what people want.”
Hearing what people want is only part of the solution. Gala says that maintaining these properties is in part the responsibility of the public, who stand to lose the most when historic buildings disappear. This responsibility not only includes preservation, but also transformation.
“It was July of 2015 and I heard the Lakewood Theater’s chairs were being taken out and everything was happening there and I thought, ‘Oh my God, how could this be?’” says Gala, who moved back to Dallas in 2015 and helped organize the initial board of DEEP in December of that year. “We don’t own this. This is what we’re doing here. We are complaining and asking and begging and groveling and making phone calls and this is what we always do, and it just struck me, maybe it was the time away, ever since we did the conservation districts through 2000-2004 we’ve done the same thing.”
It is not DEEP’s goal to create museums out of the buildings it hopes to preserve. Gala says eventually DEEP’s board hopes to partner with other nonprofit groups as well as real estate developers to find ways to create new revenue streams at places like the Forest Theater, preserving the building and rejuvenating the businesses within these cultural landmarks. Similarly, Gala hopes that soon the Bianchi house will be ready for a new family to call it home.
“We are just primarily a fundraising situation, and our focus definitely is going to look like historic preservation, but it’s more about the property,” Gala says. “We want to do more than just hoity-toity historic preservation; we really want to come into a community and say, 'Hey this house can be economically viable again and this can make this block be better and this can make this neighborhood be better.'”