One can't tell the story of the old Dallas High School, or Crozier Tech, without talking to Veletta Lill. After all, she was a Dallas city council member when Robert Yu bought the property for $6.1 million from the Dallas Independent School District in 1998; and one year later, it was Lill, a devout preservationist, who instigated the landmark designation proceedings that kept Yu from taking a wrecking ball to the city's first public high school, designed by Otto Lang and Frank Witchell and built in 1908. That fight, and the one that took place concurrently to preserve St. Ann's School, were "watershed moments during the change in the city's preservation ordinance," Lill says.
Yet Lill now serves as executive director of the Dallas Arts District, and Dallas High School, at Pearl and Bryan Streets, sits but one block away from its "formal" boundaries. She sees it every day and is reminded of the fight to save the structure then and what's happened since -- absolutely nothing, save its slow decay that "skirts the line of demolition by neglect," as she puts it.
"As a downtown booster," she tells Unfair Park today, "I come at it from every angle. I want to see not only its preservation but its revitalization. The site has enormous potential. Certainly, folks like the Sammons Center, the Pegasus School, various entities have looked at it. It's a site of great contention, but it has enormous potential: All the DART rail lines converge there, and you're at the bus transfer station as well. You're between two hotels. And it's next to the Arts District. It has all the elements, all the ingredients, of a great development site. ... And, how we value our art and history is a glimpse into the soul of our community."
And yet, it sits vacant, its owners insisting they're trying to sell -- without any visible effort.
Last night, First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers -- who spent the better part of the early Aughts in court fighting to protect Dallas High School -- told me that some (he will not say who) at Dallas City Hall will occasionally ask him about the building. "Sometimes," he said, "people have wondered whether the victory was worth it." Meaning: Should the city have just let Yu torn it down and gone forward with the Bryan Street Promenade, which was the plan as recently as 2001? Better that than nothing.
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Lill say says no one has ever asked her that. Till now.
"Was it worth the victory? Absolutely," she says. "If you look at buildings like the Wilson Building, all but one floor was vacant for a quarter of a century. It's not uncommon for these buildings to be vacant for a number of years. What would be a shame is if it had become a parking lot. If you look at the statistics on vacant parking lots -- and downtown unfortunately has more than we need, it takes more than a generation for those to return.
"I look at [Dallas High School] every day. I still see its beauty. I read where people say, 'Why don't they do something with that building?' They make disparaging remarks about the building. I still see its beauty. I see what can be. ... I do understand that there are folks who wonder why do preservationists fight so hard for buildings. The reality is, once they're gone they're gone, and all you're staring at is a picture. If you look at cities that have been successful in their revitalization or keeping their vitality, many times it is a result of preservation. Historic preservation makes vitality.
"St. Ann's is finally making its comeback. Old Parkland, there's a perfect example of a building that could have been lost. Then what would you have at that corner? I love contemporary architecture, but it's the blend of old and new that makes a sense of place. And tearing down buildings and carting them off to the landfill is the worst thing you can do. I look at that site and see only what could be. I pray the city will continue to stand firm on this building. I believe buildings have constituencies, and this one has an enormous one."