Shoot this Old Gray Newspaper If You Must, but Spare the Building

I’m a genius. I thought of it just now — the whole solution. The Dallas Morning News has been making me feel like an incompetent guttersnipe for years, telling me about all the historic preservation that doesn’t get done in Dallas, and I could never think of one single thing I could do, because I’m exhausted most of the time just trying to preserve myself.

And by the way, I am deeply grateful to the Morning News for keeping me abreast, as they say at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Robert Wilonsky, in particular, who used to work here, has been an absolute soldier for history since he went over the wall.

He was the one recently who jawboned Time-Warner Cable Co. into preserving a doddering rat-stink wreck of a house in The Cedars that the cable company had callously proposed tearing down to build an expanded hub. Thanks to Wilonsky and the Onward Preservation Soldiers at the News, Time-Warner Cable has now agreed to pick up the entire rat-stink house and move it to some other unlucky locale, and how much do you think they liked agreeing to that? I tried to think just now, and, sorry, but I can’t think of any vacant lots near me.

Architecture criticizer Mark Lamster also has been stalwart in the defense of old stuff, giving City Hall an avuncular pat on the head whenever it does manage to save something doddery. And then there’s the Morning News editorial page itself. Let this be a warning to the unwise: if you even start thinking about tearing down something old, Mister History-Hater out there somewhere, you’d better hope The Dallas Morning News editorial page doesn’t get wind of your sleazy plot.

The News editorial page has called historic buildings “Dallas’ most endangered species.” In a city where some elementary school child poverty rates are north of 96 percent, those historic buildings have got to be pretty damned endangered to be in greater peril than the children, but there you have it! The Morning News has put endangered historic buildings pretty much at No. 1 on our list of problems, and I have felt crappy about it for years because I couldn’t think of a single way I could contribute.

Not to make excuses, but what exactly can I do? I’m just me – one lonely old dude in East Dallas who keeps going out on his front porch to see if he can hear any house-movers approaching. And not with a shotgun, either, if that’s what you were thinking. Heck, no. I revere the heck out of history.

But here is the thing. The News keeps warning people not to tear stuff down and dishonor history. Wilonsky and Lamster and the editorial page are on the case, day and night. Relentless. And yet Dallas just keeps dishonoring the heck out of history anyway, as if the News hadn’t said a word.

The latest case is one quite near me – the Aldredge House. If you haven’t kept up, the Aldredge House is a handsome old mansion on Swiss Avenue. I live on a nearby street.

The house is owned by an association of doctor’s wives, which, in itself, is sort of an antique-seeming thing, isn’t it? I’m trying to think if anyone ever formed an association of reporter’s wives, but if they did it probably had something to do with child support.

Anyway, there has been a great to-do over the last year concerning the Aldredge House, something to do with the renting out of the house for allegedly loud wedding parties in order to pay the freight on the place. It is a dispute out of which I have managed to keep my own nose, largely because the Aldredge House controversy involves a certain potential domestic volatility at my own house which I am not eager to incite.

Unlike cowardly me, however, the Morning News editorial page has been all over this case, wagging its finger at the neighbors who have made noise complaints, calling for a special task force to save the place and even suggesting alternative funding mechanisms so the house can be kept in institutional rather than private hands but with fewer loud weddings.

And yet even the Morning News editorial page conceded a couple days ago that nothing seems to be working. Neither side will budge in the Aldredge House dispute, the paper said, leaving the old house adrift in uncertainly and peril. Today I looked again at that op-ed essay by Sharon Grigsby, whose work I always admire, and I got so depressed I was almost ready to give up forever on the history of the future.
And then it came to me! The genius thing! What the Aldredge House log-jam calls for is the one thing the Morning News is in the perfect position to provide. Leadership. Leadership by example.

I told you Monday that A.H. Belo Corp., owners of the News, have made public what has long been rumored – that the venerable Morning News building in the southwest corner of downtown is on the market. The building was designed by Dallas architect George Dahl, whom the paper describes as “noted,” and was built in 1949. Citing an inscription on the façade, a story in the Morning News said the building “is known as ‘The Rock of Truth,’” which I did not know.

In that story and in statements to an online journalism webpage, Belo spokespersons said the company is thinking of selling the buildings and moving its offices in order to be more “digital.” When I wrote about this Monday, I didn’t write about that part because frankly I found it a little bit embarrassing. Like all of a sudden they’re “empty-nesters” or something? I think people should be able to sell their property and do whatever they have to do financially and not feel compelled to say why.

But here’s the opening: Why doesn’t Belo seek historic designation for its own building? Do you even get how genius that is? That way they could protect it from some dumb cable guy who comes along and wants to demolish it for a parking lot or something.  The News would be setting just the right example for the city.

Yes, yes, historic designation might put a certain ceiling on the resale value. There would be sacrifice. But any cost the company might suffer in the sale price would only make the whole thing that much more worthwhile leadership-wise, because it would set the example the rest of the city needs to see.

A lower sale price for the property would show that A.H. Belo and The Dallas Morning News don’t just talk the talk. They weren’t preaching for everybody else to take the pledge while they hid several large barrels of whiskey for themselves. “Rock of Truth” is not some empty motto, some cheap commercial tag-line like “Spicy or Mild” on the front of a take-out chicken place. 

Who better for this? They’ve been shouldering the whole burden, Wilonsky and Lamster and Grigsby and the rest of them, for so long, selflessly wearing out their fingers wagging at everybody else in town to preserve. You could almost say, if the News won’t preserve itself, why should anybody else?

The Rock of Truth, for God’s sake. George Dahl. 1949. What could be more important to preserve? I would offer to try to get my own company to preserve the Observer's offices, but I’m not sure how much enthusiasm there is for the insurance-company-cubicle, rental-space look. What would we even call it? Late 20th century Dilbertian?

No, look, in all modesty, and much as I hate to admit it, we are not the relevant parties here. The test case, the examplar, the great beacon of moral leadership in this case must be The Rock of Truth!

And think what mighty forces they could bring to bear. We might see Wilonsky. We might see Lamster. Yes, we might even see Grigsby on the ramparts, leading the charge with bloody banner held high, lifting the great cry: “SAVE THE ROCK OF TRUTH!”

I seek no thanks for this. I merely wait with bated breath, a cheer upon my lips.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze