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Spence, founder of a company called Good Space, and Bartosh, a solo architect, have for several years been re-developing small turn-of-the-century to 1920s apartment buildings in North Oak Cliff, in an area where some of the city's very first apartments were built. A number of factors, one of the most important of which may have been neglect, have allowed the area to endure as what it was originally--mainly single-family houses with a few small apartment buildings sprinkled in between.

Bartosh and Spence's tenants are not buffered by much from the urban realities around them. This is the city, and you have to be OK with the city as it really is to live and be happy here. Maybe the work Spence and Bartosh are doing should be referred to as the Old Urbanism, or, even more succinctly, Urbanism.

Waiting for a city inspector to arrive, Bartosh takes a moment to conduct a quick tour of 811 North Bishop, a white two-story frame house with rounded "novelty" siding, a broad-beamed front porch, and two enormous two-story fluted columns with elaborate Corinthian capitals--the kind of detail you can't even buy from the reproduction places. Part of what's cool about this place, a four-plex built in 1904, is that it may have been Dallas' very first apartment building.

"I bought it from the daughter of the man who built it," he says. "He went to New York in 1903 and saw apartments for the first time. He thought, 'What a great idea. Maybe I could build one of these, and it might provide some income for my daughters.' He saw a place just like this, and he got the plans."

The building was designed to look like one of the grand single-family homes that lined Bishop Avenue at the turn of the century. "That way, if it didn't work out as apartments, they could change it back to a single-family."

It worked out. In fact, it worked so well the original owner built another one just like it next door. The other one is now owned by someone else and looks bad, nothing like this one. The two buildings still share an eight-stall carriage house across the back with the original tack rooms at both ends. Bartosh has rebuilt his half of the structure to serve as garage space.

He's still redoing the apartments inside. They all have the original floor plans--a generous front room, large kitchen with all new appliances and cabinets, two bedrooms, small office, one full bath that is both antique and redone, and some shared space including a utility room with new laundry equipment, open porch, and new black steel stairs coming up from the back yard.

Rents are $750 to $800. Rent for the same space in nearby buildings that have not been re-done: $275 to $400.

Bartosh and Spence both say their buildings are virtually filled before they can get the doors open.

But by whom?

Lisa Anderson lives in Spence's "Bishop Terrace" at 835 North Bishop.

"I wanted a place that felt homelike," she says. "I moved from a house in the M Streets area. I've worked in West Dallas as a social worker since 1986.

"Oak Cliff in general has always felt more livable to me. I have a sense that I can get away from Dallas by living in Oak Cliff. I'm half Hispanic myself. The other thing I like about Oak Cliff is that it's so diverse. It's stimulating for me, and it feels rich. There is always something interesting for me to see in terms of people.

"I walk all around here in the morning. I enjoy walking around here.

"We have had barbecues at the building. Last Sunday, a woman from the building was moving to Chicago, so we got a little breakfast organized. I was looking for a place to live that wouldn't feel so anonymous. It's the whole concept of small is beautiful.

"I love living here. I really do. I have an incredible view of downtown at a very reasonable cost."

Spence started shopping for places to do in 1993, "when the economy was terrible and this neighborhood had nothing to recommend it," he says.

"I looked at every remotely for-sale cool old building in Oak Cliff, begging Trey to come along and look at foundations and roofs for me."

Bartosh had already done a small 1920s two-story brick apartment building called Bishop Court. Spence finally hit on a similar property almost next door and persuaded Bartosh to come in on it.

"Trey and I spent the next year on it," Spence says. "He contributed the architecture and the general contracting for an equity piece."

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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

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