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Old Meets New

The sky outside is cloudy over the old Parkland Hospital building at Oak Lawn and Maple avenues. A chilly wind sends dry, dead leaves skittering across the pavement of the basketball court once used when the building was a low-security jail. The gray side door set into the building's stately brown brick is plain and institutional, propped open to let light into the basement hallway that stretches from one end of the 92-year-old building to the other. Even in the dark, it's easy to see that the building is in an advanced state of disrepair. Flashlights dance on building walls spotted with peeling paint to a floor strewn with trash. They cast eerie shadows from dangling wires that hang randomly from the exposed ceiling. Printed notices remain on the wall, warning former inmates of fire escape routes and smoking policy. Of course, the inside isn't of much consequence now. If all goes as planned, the structure will be gutted in just a few months to make room for what developer Byron Head is calling a "lifestyle and entertainment destination."

After a two-month sealed bidding process, the $20.1 million sale of what is called "the Woodlawn property" was approved by the city of Dallas and the Parkland Board of Managers last week. Out of six bids, Byron Head's Mansion House Ltd. won, offering $5.25 million more for the 8.3-acre property than the next highest bidder. Dallas County commissioners must also approve the sale, and representatives for Parkland say the commissioners will hear the matter January 3.

Mansion House hopes to close the sale in March and then begin an extensive construction process that Head says will take around three years. According to Head, the end result will be about 800 apartments in the original and three new high-rise towers and retail space in the existing building. Plans also call for a movie theater, boutique hotel and spa and performance space that would seat several thousand.

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The old Parkland Hospital building

"There are no restrictions on its use," says Head, in a phone interview. The only stipulations put forth by the City Plan Commission in 1987, when the former hospital was named a historical site, are that the original 1913 structure, built as a hospital for indigents, remain intact and the wooded area surrounding it be undisturbed. Height limitations on additional construction are capped at 240 feet. Head, who typically does commercial-only construction, says he has worked on renovations at the historic Palace Theater in New York City and promises to respect the background of Woodlawn.

"The Woodlawn campus is the thing I receive the most telephone calls about," says Duane Jones, executive director of Preservation Dallas. The property itself is striking and substantial, exuding a kind of fierce permanence the neighboring gas stations, office buildings and strip shopping centers don't seem to have. The original structure stands well back from the street, still partly enveloped in the park-like setting its original architects envisioned.

The site was purchased by the city in 1887 after public outcry against Dallas' embarrassingly limited health care accommodations for the poor. In 1894, Parkland Hospital opened as a series of wood-framed buildings, until a meningitis epidemic in 1911 forced the facility to expand. Dallas architects Hubbell and Greene, who'd designed the J.B. Hereford residence in Highland Park and the Scottish Rite Cathedral, ultimately laid out the present structure in the classical revival style.

"It's a graceful building," says Jones, noting that Woodlawn is one of the few original public hospital buildings still standing in Texas. It was expanded with a nurse's residence in 1924 and a four-story contagious disease wing and the state's first public psychiatric ward during the Great Depression. Improvements continued until just after World War II, when ground was broken on the new Parkland Memorial Hospital at its current site. In 1954, the Woodlawn building was relegated to tuberculosis victims, persons with chronic or debilitating diseases and psychiatric patients. Later, parts of the building would be assigned to an overcrowded sheriff's department as a correctional facility, then abandoned once again until Parkland reclaimed the property in 1996. It's been empty since then, accumulating the dirt and residue from almost a decade of half-attempted renovation and occasional occupancy by Dallas' homeless.

In fact, when we went inside last week, Parkland insisted we take a Dallas County Hospital District police officer in with us, should any illegal boarders greet us on our tour. Woodlawn's pitch-black stairwells and forbidding attic spaces serviced by rickety ladders made having a guy with a gun around seem like a pretty good idea. Occasionally, tour guide Bill Walther, Parkland's director of real estate, would point out an item of note such as oxygen canister mountings in the old operating rooms or wood and metal work-out equipment rusting away, attached to walls in the expansive exercise room. A few hand-drawn calendars from the detention center can still be seen on the walls, days marked out with X's.

In the former psych ward, almost all remnants of past medical apparatus have been removed, but the yellowed, bland walls and barred windows are indications of what used to be there. The rooms are cramped by today's standards, many with barely enough space for a twin bed and a chair, let alone the extensive equipment found in modern hospital rooms. Most have a cream-tiled corner, mounted with a lowered sink and a warped mirror about the size of a clipboard--the edges of which are wrapped in metal. To prevent suicidal patients, or later, inmates, from hurting themselves, perhaps.

Will the loft apartments that Byron Head has planned for the original building's second and third floors retain their spookiness, even after completion? Impossible to know. Maybe the three brand-new residential towers, which will be built in a distinctly contemporary, glassy style, will offset some of that old, heavy feeling inside the building. And so will the constant parade of people on its property, says Tom Dwyer, executive vice president at Jonathan Bailey Associates, the architecture firm designing the project. Intended to be an all-inclusive pedestrian paradise, priced for mid-range as well as luxury homebuyers, Woodlawn's history presents a challenge similar developments at Mockingbird Station and the West Village don't. It's one that older cities like New York and London are accustomed to, says Dwyer, but Dallas is just now starting to approach.

"This design is about marrying old and new," says Dwyer. "It's not about making new look old."

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