Architecture and Design

Oak Cliff Rallies Around a Project to Turn a Winnetka Heights Church Into an Arts Center

Sunlight shines through stained ­glass windows as a diverse group of artists trickles into the dusty sanctuary of the former Winnetka Congregational Church building on a Saturday morning. Teaching artist and actress Anastasia Munoz greets each person as he or she arrives. “I’m so delighted you’re in my home today!” she says, shortly followed by, “Watch your step, they’re working over here.”

Munoz and her team, comprising her partner Tony Wann and investors Lola and Todd Lott, have opened up the Winnetka Heights church mid­-construction for a community engagement meeting. On the agenda is a tour, an open forum and a chance for them to share their dream of turning the historic church into a community arts center. The vaulted room is abuzz with artists hungry for free breakfast tacos and affordable studio space, engaged neighbors asking questions and raising concerns regarding proposed zoning changes and construction workers hammering from a second story. Munoz's team seem delighted just to have people joining them inside their new space.

Upon completing renovations this year, Munoz’s dream is to create “a space where artists can create and teach their art forms … and [to] open up to the community to take classes that they might not ever have felt possible, and for patrons to feel very engaged with the art that’s happening.” Her vision is to create a place for artists to make new work, and to develop a membership model which allows for a symbiotic relationship between artists, students and patrons.

Munoz has been dreaming of creating a community arts space like this since she was a child. “When I was a little girl, I would draw pictures of a layout of a house, and in each room put a different artistic thing happening," she says. "In here you’d do painting, and in here you’d put the piano, and in here’s a big fishtank.” As many vision-­casting, creative dreamers can attest, this particular vision might have stayed a crayon-sketched pipe dream were it not for the pragmatic team of doers Munoz assembled around herself.
Munoz’s first team member was her partner Tony Wann, whom she describes as her “super analytical” other half.  Wann initially discovered the Winnetka church listing while Munoz was out of state on a business trip. Munoz was initially skeptical: “It seemed weird. The listing only showed the one giant sanctuary space.” But upon touring the space, Wann saw it had everything they needed, including a basement full of classrooms, sunlit dance studios and a beautiful vaulted sanctuary space for performances.

To get the church they had to move quickly, and the couple was prepared to put their life’s savings and assets into the down payment. While doing some due ­diligence on the Winnetka church, Wann asked his boss and mentor Lola Lott for advice, not knowing Lola and husband Todd had been looking for a space to invest in and renovate as a passion project. The first of many investors to follow, the Lotts were drawn to Munoz’s vision and immediately asked if they could participate in the renovation of the space.

“We were looking in the Cedars or Deep Ellum at some excellent loft spaces," says Todd Lott. "But rather than being landlords of a loft space, we wanted to be neighbors in a community. There are no big developers here. It’s just Lola and I." The team of four moved quickly to put an offer on the space, and by the time Munoz landed at the airport, Wann was able to pick her up and say, “Want to go see your church?” “It was pretty magical,” Munoz says.

Munoz’s vision for the Winnetka Heights church has a beacon­-like quality. Shortly after closing on the property they held their first community outreach meeting, and proud Oak Cliff native Brad Nitschke attended to learn more about this potential development. After hearing what Munoz had in mind, Nitschke, a lawyer, joined the restoration team as resident Winnetka Heights lover and zoning expert.

Engaging residents through community events, open­-door forums and door­-to-­door outreach has been an essential aspect of the team’s approach. Munoz is able to leverage her experience as a theater director and teaching artist, communicating with community members, anticipating the needs of artists and refining and shaping her vision as she receives feedback.

Uniting the community behind this restoration project has not been without challenge, particularly because the building must be rezoned from its original purpose as a church or single-­family residence to an “instruction center.” In Munoz’s estimation, the building will still be fulfilling much of its intended purpose when it was constructed in 1929.

“What we’re seeking for the space is very much like a church," she says. "It’s fellowship, it’s performance, it’s community, it’s classes, enrichment, culture. ... And in order to do these things, we want to make sure we’re doing everything absolutely correctly and by the book and listening to the needs of our neighbors.”

If Dallas is bulldozing its way along the fault-lines of renovation, commercialization, and dare it be said, gentrification, no historical community has felt these effects more keenly in recent years than Oak Cliff and southern Dallas. With these changes have come growth and revitalization, but Oak Cliff residents know what they don’t want when they see it.

Which is why, for Munoz and team, an essential component of their Winnetka church restoration project is soliciting insight from their neighbors and artist colleagues before opening. As a result of these community outreach efforts and meetings, they’ve added stricter, self-­imposed limitations to their proposed zoning change — even more stringent than those set on successful venues and arts spaces in Oak Cliff such as The Turner House and The Kessler Theater.

These requirements reflect the needs outlined by the artists as well as the wishes of neighbors, such as limiting loud music outdoors and capping late­-night events, with the long­-term goal of making it impossible for any future owners to one day turn the space into a commercial development or low­-cost housing. For Munoz, the question isn’t "should the Winnetka church be renovated?" but rather "what is it capable of becoming?" 
“Winnetka Heights is a great neighborhood,” she says. “It doesn’t need anything else to make it great. ... But this building has been sitting here basically vacant, and it is really cool, so what if it was a gemstone in this neighborhood?”

After finishing their local coffee and breakfast tacos, the artists and community members explore the space and ask their questions in an open forum. A yoga instructor inquires about studio space, a neighbor asks about parking permits and how to mitigate traffic flow on their street, a choreographer shares her need for an affordable space to teach dance to developmentally disabled children, and a director brainstorms lighting rig set-up for the sanctuary.

Connecting these artists with community members and Winnetka Heights neighbors in one giant, under­construction building has become a highlight of the process for Munoz. “They were so delighted and floored by these mad-­talented people. … We’ve been so wrapped up in the zoning and law stuff, it was like, 'Don’t forget [the] magic!'”

Change is coming for the historical districts in Dallas, but if Munoz has her way, the restoration of these buildings will be led by Dallas’ emerging artists, the renovators with their doors open to the community ­ and the people with just a little bit of magic.