This Teardown Town

It is not often that Dwayne Jones just gets into his car to drive around the city and look at the buildings he has spent so much of his life trying to protect. The head of Preservation Dallas has no time to gaze at Dallas' dilapidated wonders, crumbling ruins and historic heaps and daydream about who lived there, what happened there, what might have been. He can allot only so much time to living in the past, because he has much work to do in the present. There is money to be raised to keep afloat a nonprofit that employs but three people to look after hundreds of historic properties in a city that has forgotten most of them. And there is the gospel of preservation to spread, to a flock of newcomers and nonbelievers who rush toward The New and The Now without stopping to consider what used to be before swinging their wrecking balls.

But today, Jones has a few moments to conduct a guided tour of South Dallas, a part of this city where history has been eradicated by a combination of City Hall's neglect and the fear that investing money into this neighborhood is like pouring gold down a sewer. He turns his car down Park Row, a street of modest bungalows constructed mostly in the 1920s for Jewish immigrants who once lived in the shadow of Fair Park. Park Row and South Boulevard, which sits one street over and is lined with stately mansions formerly populated by Dallas' civic and business leaders, were designated by the city as a historic neighborhood in 1977, but those charged with enforcing its protection do not have the proper weapons at their disposal. Jones stops in front of several larger houses on the 2400 block of Park Row that were long ago burned and left to rot. "This is the sort of thing that really makes you very sad," he says, staring at their charred shells the way one looks at a corpse.

He turns down Malcolm X Boulevard and cuts through Queen City Heights and Romine Avenue historic districts, which have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1995, meaning that someone in Washington, D.C., thinks they're significant even if few locals do. They're full of Tudor-style gingerbread houses that would not look out of place on the M Streets of Lower Greenville or in East Dallas' Hollywood Heights, where they would be worth 10 times their current values. Yet more commonplace are old grocery stores and churches and homes whose formerly beautiful exteriors have been slathered in bland stucco or have fallen apart because of the ravages of neglect and time.

At last, Jones pulls up to the main attraction on this tour, an enormous farmhouse that has somehow survived for a century in the middle of the inner city. Sitting at 2426 Pine St., across the street from Charles Rice Elementary, is the former home of James H. Ellis, an Englishman who was among the earliest real estate developers involved with the construction of modern-day Dallas. It is the last vestige of a time when South Dallas was an expanse of cotton fields and dirt roads that were paved over some eight decades ago. Certainly, it's the last house in the area built in the Classical Revival style, with wood shingles adorning the gables and its wraparound front porch, steeply pitched roof and once-elegant sunroom jutting from its side.

Researchers debate the house's age--some insist it was built in 1905, others a few years later--and do not know the name of the architect. There is even a dispute over which James Ellis owned it, the man from England (most likely) or another from Lancaster (doubtful), but there is no arguing about its importance or its beauty. Its windows boarded up, its front entrance sealed with plywood, its yard strewn with trash, the old Ellis home still reveals some of its former glory.

Last year, Preservation Dallas debuted its list of Dallas' 11 most endangered properties, and it included the James H. and Molly Ellis House, which, despite being on the National Register since 1997, has been in danger of being demolished since the late 1990s, when the city deemed it unsound and the Dallas County Appraisal District labeled it "unlivable." As recently as February 2004, an investor had hoped to move the house out of the neighborhood so he could restore and resell it. But only one month later, the man ran out of cash and lost interest, and the city was ready to tear it down. Its current owners--Harold, Jack and Dennis Topletz, referred to in these pages six years ago as "the most notorious slumlords in Dallas"--stopped the wrecking ball at the last minute, not out of a preservationist's sense of duty, but because they didn't want to lose their investment.

As it turns out, the Topletzes are actually doing some modest repairs--some $500 worth, mainly replacing rotting wood--when Jones pulls up and a kind worker lets him into the house. Until this moment, Jones had never actually been in it, never knew exactly what he was fighting to protect.

What he finds is extraordinary. The small formal parlor's walls and ceiling are decorated with delicate wood molding cut by hand to create diamond-patterned wainscoting, which extends through much of the front of the house. Its seven rooms feel enormous, especially the sunroom, which, even though boarded up, still lights up the dreary interior. Its attic is huge, almost twice the size of most of the houses in the neighborhood. The house is indeed unlivable--its insides are as decayed as those of a lifelong alcoholic--but the shadow of what it once was remains intact.

"I've been in lots and lots of houses and farmhouses in Texas and on the East Coast, and when you walk in the double door and into the nice parlor and see the detail of the design, you think, 'My God, these people were sophisticated and had a sense of design and art and brought in someone skilled to build this home,'" Jones says, his voice tinged with delight at the discovery. "And it's still here, which is surprising. A house that old and abandoned that long could have been torched, and you'd never see it. But what we saw inside, those are the things that make a preservationist's heart go bang bang bang."

But the city is virtually powerless to stop its decay or its destruction, should the Topletzes choose to level the house. Though it's on the National Register, the city council has not designated it as a local landmark. In fact, there are myriad structures and neighborhoods on the National Register, many in South Dallas, that stand despite the fact that City Hall has done nothing to guarantee their futures. The Dallas Landmark Commission, charged with protecting these properties, is short-staffed, under-budgeted and must ultimately answer to the city council, which has to approve the commission's recommendations before a property or neighborhood is deemed historic.

And so the Ellis House is greeted every day by the threat of the wrecking ball--just like the Mount Olive Lutheran Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where Dallas' short-lived civil rights movement was born; just like the Camp House on White Rock Lake and even some of the homes on Park Row that look as though a strong gust of wind could reduce them to splinters. Here today, gone tomorrow--what else is new in Dallas, where progress quickly turns into a parking lot overgrown with weeds? If the Ellis House were torn down tomorrow, who would ever notice it's gone--especially in South Dallas, in that neighborhood?

"It is painful, painful, every time we review an application for the demolition of a home within a historic district," says Leif Sandberg, who, as the manager of the city's Department of Development Services, oversees the Landmark Commission. "We work very hard, those of us who are here, to try to shine the light of significance on these properties and show what merit they have. When they are torn down, that significance is compromised, and that's hard to watch, because it's a sign of deterioration and decline in a neighborhood. These historic resources can't be re-created. Once they are gone, they're gone."

Dallas' preservation movement was born in the living room of John and Harryette Ehrhardt, at 5731 Swiss Ave., in 1972. Back then, Swiss Avenue was a wasteland of crumbling structures and overgrown lots destined for destruction by developers who had persuaded City Hall to allow them to rezone the area for high-rise apartments. The Ehrhardts moved out of Highland Park and bought their Swiss Avenue house in 1970--and were given a $3,000 discount on the asking price, since its destruction seemed inevitable--because they wanted their kids to grow up in an integrated neighborhood and attend public school. They believed it wouldn't be long before their house was mowed down in the name of progress--even though it had been built in 1919 for Theodore Marcus, vice president of Neiman Marcus.

The talk of high-rises infuriated Wallace Savage, who, in 1949, had become Dallas' youngest mayor at the age of 36--and, given his Harvard Law School degree, one of its most educated. Savage and his wife, Dorothy, invited some of the Swiss Avenue property owners to their home to discuss the historic and architectural importance of Swiss Avenue, and in 1971 the homeowners went to City Hall to demand their neighborhood be granted historic designation, which meant saving it from the bulldozers.

The council, Ehrhardt recalls, "laughed at us, and we're not people who like to be laughed at. It took a lot of guts for someone to buy a house on Swiss in the 1970s. Somebody said, 'Well, we can't fight City Hall,' and then someone else--I wish I could say it was me--said, 'Then we'll become City Hall.'...We spent a year saying, 'You will not laugh at us, and our houses will not be destroyed,' and we took on the developers."

In 1972, Ehrhardt was among the founding members of the Historic Preservation League, which finally persuaded the council to adopt the city's first preservation ordinance only a year later. Swiss Avenue was the first neighborhood to be granted historic designation, followed in 1977 by the South Boulevard-Park Row area, because, Ehrhardt says, "it was the Savages' decision that the second place we went was an African-American neighborhood."

In its first few years, the HPL accomplished a great deal: saving the original Lakewood Library, securing historic designation for the Trinity Methodist Church on McKinney Avenue and creating the Munger Place Historic District Revolving Fund, which allowed the HPL to buy endangered homes in the area and resell them to investors who promised to restore them. The HPL, which would be renamed Preservation Dallas in 1993, also instigated the restoration of the Magnolia Building downtown, which the city had once hoped to tear down, and eventually would help with the creation of the West End historic district, among so many others.

And, for a while, the city of Dallas seemed to have some real interest in preserving its historic sites. In the late 1980s and early '90s, the city and the Texas Historical Commission hired the Austin firm Hardy-Heck-Moore, which specialized in historical resource surveys and National Register nominations, to "find the resources of South Dallas and East Dallas and Oak Cliff that hadn't been researched very carefully," says Dwayne Jones, who became Preservation Dallas' executive director in 2001. Ultimately, that's how the Ellis House, Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Queen City and other sites in South Dallas landed on the National Register.

"Dallas people often think of Dallas as being a city that is totally devoted to what is newer, what is glitzier, what is brighter, what is the upcoming thing, and there's some truth to that, I think, in the personality of the city," Jones says. "But what's not known is that Dallas has more historic districts than any city in the state of Texas. We're the only city that has this fully developed conservation district program in the state of Texas...What Hardy-Heck-Moore did was a pretty bold step back in those days. It was pretty successful, too, but the problem has been that none of those properties that were recognized on the National Register ever made it to be locally designated landmarks."

Which is where the real problems of preserving Dallas' past begin.

Just because something's on the National Register does not mean it will be here forever, or even the day after tomorrow. The designation is like a new title at work that doesn't come with a pay raise; it sounds nice, but ultimately it's kind of meaningless. So, too, is any recognition that comes from the Texas Historical Commission in Austin. You get a marker with some history engraved on it, which looks nice but won't do a damned thing to stop a bulldozer.

Only the city council, with the recommendation of the Landmark Commission and the OK of the City Plan Commission, can save a historical site by designating it as a local landmark. Yet the council approves such designations about as often as Jerry Jones allows a Dallas Cowboys great into his hallowed Ring of Honor at Texas Stadium. Some local preservationists are appalled that the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek wasn't even considered for local landmark status till this February. And the historian of the Landmark Commission, Frances James, is infuriated that the Camp House on the shores of White Rock Lake doesn't have landmark designation--unlike the nearby DeGolyer House and Gardens, which was built a year after the 8,500-square-foot, 22-acre Camp House property that's now within the confines of the Dallas Arboretum.

In Dallas County, there are some 108 structures and neighborhoods on the National Register, most having made the list in the mid-'90s because of Heck-Hardy-Moore's work. Yet a majority of the sites on the National Register do not have local landmark protection, including most of the properties in South Dallas. And many of the city's designated structures, among them the Sons of Hermann Hall in Deep Ellum, the Good Luck Gas Station on Cadiz Street and Spence Middle School on Capitol Avenue, aren't National Register properties.

Which raises the obvious question: Why doesn't the city automatically make local landmarks of its National Register properties? Leif Sandberg says this has never come up at City Hall. "It occurs to us, too, that it would be a logical thing to do, but it's a matter of staff time."

There are but three full-time staffers at City Hall who work with the all-volunteer Landmark Commission, including Sandberg and senior historic preservation planners Jim Anderson and Margaret Fiskell. As recently as 2001, there were six staffers, but budget cuts now force Sandberg and his staff to rely on commission volunteers to do much of their research and help anyone trying to initiate designation proceedings. The 15 commissioners are appointed by the city council--four of whom, Maxine Thornton-Reese, Mitchell Rasansky, Ed Oakley and Elba Garcia--have failed to appoint anyone.

And then there's the issue of who nominates a property for consideration. Usually it's up to the property owner to seek the designation from the Landmark Commission, which meets once a month. The city provides considerable incentives for those who want to have their site designated, including an abatement program that freezes taxes on the property for 10 years, meaning if you buy a dilapidated structure for $50,000, then put $100,000 of work into it, you're going to pay taxes on only the initial investment for a decade. But some property owners don't want the designation because with it also come pages of regulations telling you what you can and cannot do to the house. Before you can even touch a local landmark, you have to get a certificate of appropriateness from the city, which most owners would rather not deal with.

That's probably why the Ellis House will never be a local landmark while the Topletz family owns it. Dennis Topletz insists he and his uncles didn't even know the place was on the National Register until last year, when a real estate developer who had borrowed $25,000 from Topletz Investments to buy the Ellis House ran out of cash. Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't. After all, on February 6, 2004, The Dallas Morning News ran a front-page story about how developer Elisha Lewis was going to move the house from South Dallas to the intersection of Peak Street and Swiss Avenue--far away from a neighborhood known for drug dealers, prostitutes and violence. Apparently, the Topletzes didn't see that story--or the small-print Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board public notice that ran in the News a month later, which listed the Ellis House among its condemned properties about to be torn down.

The house might already have been torn down had it not been for Frances James, appointed to the Landmark Commission by Councilman Leo Chaney. James scours the paper for demolition notices and, in March 2004, saw that 2426 Pine St. was indeed on the URSB's list of condemned properties.

"Then I brought it back up with the Landmark Commission," she says. James has researched the history of the Ellis House for years. She's perhaps the house's greatest champion.

"I said, 'What are we going to do about it? It's on the demolition list,'" James recalls. "The Landmark Commission staff people said, 'Oh, it's not landmarked.' I said, 'It's on the National Register, and we are supposed to monitor the National Register properties in Dallas. Somebody better look into it.'"

Dennis Topletz says he only found out about the house's historical value when he went to City Hall to get a permit to do a little work on the place. He was informed not only that the building was on the city's teardown list, and had been for several years, but that before he could do any work on it, he had to get a certificate of appropriateness from the Landmark Commission, which then had to go to Austin for approval. (Technically, Sandberg says, the certificate wasn't required since the Ellis House isn't a landmark, but the Landmark Commission still demanded one.) Around the same time, he was also served with a code-compliance violation for failing to mow the overgrown yard. Topletz says it was taken care of within two days, but he was ticketed anyway. He went ahead and paid the ticket, at the insistence of his attorney, who said it would cost more to fight the fine than just pay the $200.

Topletz says he and his uncles are going to put some money into fixing up the house--another $25,000, he claims--but it's doubtful they will try to restore it to its former glory. He doesn't even want the house. It's just too much trouble to own a historic property, he says, recalling a lousy experience he had last year with a home they owned in Oak Cliff's 10th Street historic district, which is on the National Register and has local landmark designation. Topletz says he owned a house on Landis Street that burned down twice--the second time, he insists, the fire department never even showed--and was ultimately torn down, which landed the Topletzes in court with the city, since the family had bulldozed the place without authorization. The city eventually dropped the suit, he says, but not before threatening to make the Topletzes pay $1,000 a day for every day the house had been demolished. When he found out the Ellis House was on the National Register, he recalls thinking, "Oh, shit, what are we going to do?"

After all, he says, "what are you gonna do with it? It's between a liquor store and an out-of-business restaurant. It'll be too nice a house to rent, and I don't think anybody will pay you enough money. I have no idea where it's going. It would be different if someone appreciated the work and paid you what it was worth. It would be different if people appreciated it when it was over. But you get the winos coming in to vandalize the place for copper wire, for nothing. Isn't that the stupidest thing, to rewire a house again and again? In North Dallas you could fence it and protect it and you'd do it in a heartbeat. But in South Dallas, it's a treadmill. You can't win."

It's unlikely the Topletzes will tear down the house; they've invested too much and aren't businessmen who like to see their investments vanish in a heap of rubble. But they have no interest in getting local landmark designation for it, either, and it's difficult for a third party to initiate landmark proceedings against the wishes of the property owner. So, what becomes of the house now?

Dwayne Jones says Preservation Dallas would love to buy the house from the Topletzes but can't afford the $50,000 to $60,000 they're likely to ask. And even if Jones could secure a loan to buy the house, with the caveat it would be sold to someone interested in restoring it, at the likely price tag of $100,000 to $250,000, what would a potential buyer do with the place? Turn it into an office building? Doubtful. Or a museum? That's even less likely, since they're not financially viable even in nice areas of town. Moving it off site, as Lewis wanted to do, would make the Ellis House more desirable, perhaps, but it would be inordinately expensive (some put the cost at $50,000, if not twice that) and would diminish its historical value.

"There's agreement in the preservation community that we'd like to see the structure maintained on its original location," Sandberg says. "But is it a logical place for a mom and dad and kids to move into? The person who answers yes is the person we have to reach out to. That's what Preservation Dallas is doing in listing it as one of Dallas' most vulnerable sites. Usually, schools are pretty good neighbors, but how about the overall neighborhood? Is it safe? The better question is, is it safe enough? Can crime in the neighborhood be mitigated with a fence, a security system? I don't know the answer to that question."

Preservationists have a phrase they use when referring to places like the Ellis House, which sit for years in preservation purgatory, waiting for a savior who never comes. They call it "demolition by neglect."

At 3100 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., about 300 yards away from the entrance to Fair Park, sits Mount Olive Lutheran Church, easily among the most historically significant structures in South Dallas or anywhere else in the city. It was there, on New Year's Eve 1969, that 500 people--black and white, Christian and Jewish, poor and wealthy, some from as far away as Alabama and North Carolina--gathered to protest the city's seizing of homes in the area for the expansion of Fair Park.

Huddled in the basement of that church, they endured bomb threat after bomb threat, from whites and blacks alike who were infuriated with and terrified of their threats to blockade the Cotton Bowl parade on national television unless Mayor Erik Jonsson agreed to offer homeowners a better deal. The chief of police begged them to leave, out of fear the church would be blown up. Black preachers begged them to leave, claiming their actions were an embarrassment to a city that had survived the civil rights era without major incident. But they did not, and the mayor relented. "It was a marvelous experience," recalls organizer Peter Johnson, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference worker who was passing through Dallas in 1969 and ended up staying here long enough to bring Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young and Julian Bond to town and down to the Mount Olive basement.

But that's all history now. That basement, once the place where the SCLC and the Black Panthers and Black Citizens for Justice met and organized, is now a food pantry serving 5,000 meals to the homeless every month--at least when the food hasn't been ruined by the rain that frequently floods the basement. The church's congregation has dwindled to about 40, with the average age being 70, and most, says the church's president, are in failing health.

One could say the same of Mount Olive, the Gothic Revival building originally built in 1922 for Trinity English Lutheran Church. (Mount Olive claimed the building in 1960.) Its roof is so damaged that rain leaks into the sanctuary, rotting away what's left of the stained ceiling. The wood around the stained-glass windows is crumbling. The bell tower is deteriorating so rapidly that when President Jackie Leatch goes to ring the bell every Sunday morning, she fears that one day it will come crashing down on her head. At the very least, bits and pieces of the tower rain down on her in a splintery shower. And just one month ago, burglars stole two air-conditioning units, $5,000 worth of equipment that likely was stripped for $50 worth of copper tubing that could be sold for drugs.

At 43, Leatch is among the youngest members of Mount Olive, and at the moment she's charged with trying to not only save the declining congregation but also a deteriorating building that is on the National Register but, of course, not considered a local landmark. Leatch, who was raised in the neighborhood and has attended this church her entire life, has no idea how to raise the money needed for repairs--some "hundreds of thousands of dollars," she estimates. In January 2000, Architexas, a Dallas-based architecture and historic planning firm, delivered to the church a master plan calling for $1.5 million worth of work. The church can barely meet its monthly bills, totaling about $2,500.

"We've tried for many years to find money and raised nothing," Leatch says. "People are just not eager to help churches. Considering the neighborhood it's in, that's another factor. The only positive part about it is if nobody reaches out to help us, the building will stand forever because it's a historical site."

Actually, Leatch is informed, that's not true. It may be on the National Register, but without City Hall designating it a local landmark, it has no protection at all. From anyone. Ever. Telling her this is like informing a child her parent has a terminal illness.

"My heart would leave if this church is torn down," she says. "I would die with it. To even think about it is scary. This church is so personal to me. There aren't too many days of my life that I don't look back and say, 'Where would I be today if it wasn't for Mount Olive?' It's depressing, to be honest with you, to be in a situation you can't do anything about. It's heartbreaking to everybody to think that maybe one day the doors will close. But the people in this congregation have such a great faith, which is what keeps us going."

One must have faith to stay there--in a church that sits directly across the street from two abandoned restaurants that have been stripped of anything worth selling, in a church where each Sunday Leatch finds drug paraphernalia and the stray used condom on the back steps, in a church abandoned by all but a few folks who come to services on Sunday morning. Preservation Dallas added Mount Olive to its list of endangered properties two weeks ago, because it will not last much longer unless City Hall acts to protect it and folks with money act to preserve it. But politicians have other priorities, like building expensive bridges that will span a drainage ditch. Who will act to save a small church in a part of town long since left for dead?

If you really want to see the state of preservation in Dallas, you need only walk out Mount Olive's front door, across MLK Boulevard and over to the South Boulevard-Park Row Landmark District. There, it's almost a tale of two cities within the span of two blocks. South Boulevard is the Swiss Avenue of South Dallas, the former home of such prominent businessmen as Neiman Marcus founder Herbert Marcus, liquor merchant Harry Sigel and real estate magnate Henry S. Miller. Their houses were designed by some of this city's best and best-known architects, including J. Edward Overbeck and Roscoe DeWitt, and many were bought in recent years by upwardly mobile African-American families who respected the neighborhood's history and who restored those homes to the point where some look almost brand-new. The houses will forever need tending to--"It's like having another child," says Gilbert Gerst Jr., who owns the old Levi Marcus home at 2707 South Blvd. --but they're safe, a bit of Dallas' past likely to survive the future.

But Park Row is not so fortunate. Some of its homes are in great shape, cared for by owners who take pride in living in a historic district. Charles Bolden and his wife, Jeanette, and their two daughters moved into 2521 Park Row (not so incidentally, my father's childhood home) in 1987, and he's redone the plumbing, wiring and most of the interior. "I can never leave here," says Bolden, who grew up in Queen City. "This house has taken all my 30s and now my 40s. It took a lot out of me."

And he's done this work living directly across the street from a house that looks as though it should have collapsed yesterday. For years Bolden and his wife, who is the block captain, have tried to get the city to do something about the house at 2522 Park Row, which looks like it's ready for Christmas, its front papered with red and green code-violation notices. The Landmark Commission insisted that since it was in a historic district, the house needed to be repaired, lest it turn into one more vacant lot. But the city at long last agreed to tear it down--only it can't touch the place till the Texas Historical Commission gives the OK, which it hasn't done yet. And even if that house goes, there's another one two doors down in similarly bad shape, and still more one block over--some of which are no more than charred wood and tall weeds.

"It's like selective enforcement over here," Bolden says. "If the city sees you doing something to your property, they send you over to Jim Anderson and Margaret Fiskell and tie you up in red tape, and it's such a hassle. Then they have these condemned houses they don't do anything about. Sometimes it's a little discouraging. They should never have let this happen. But it's South Dallas. We were born in South Dallas, and we know that's the way it goes. I mean, our houses look like those in the M Streets, and those are gorgeous. It could be the same here, but we're in the southern sector, and nobody cares."

And the thing is, there are folks begging to buy and rebuild even the most dilapidated houses on Park Row. Shaní Dixon, who was born in Queen City 27 years ago and now works for an architectural firm in the Meadows Building, has been trying to acquire the 83-year-old house at 2409 Park Row since 2001. With two stories and 10 rooms, it was the largest residence built on Park Row and was originally the home of Horace Landauer, president of the beloved Titche-Goettinger department store. But the house, valued by DCAD at $23,280, has been empty for as long as anyone can remember, its upstairs windows long gone and its foyer full of detritus, including an abandoned baby carriage.

And according to Sandberg, the city is powerless to do anything about it. Sandberg says there are several liens attached to the house, but as long as its owner, which has been the subject of litigation for years, continues to pay the code violations, of which there have been many, and his taxes, he's free to do with it what he pleases.

"It's frustrating, but it's interesting, because I like problem-solving," Dixon says. "If you feel you're really gonna get it, it takes time, and you stick with it." She lets out a slight laugh. "I am not old yet."

But the house is, and getting older every second that it's allowed to sit there and rot. Dixon may be willing to bide her time, but the house and its history cannot wait for someone to breathe life into what's fast becoming one more corpse in a historical district where something like this was never supposed to happen.

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