virginia and seth

Do you know why white stucco was so important to architects for new homes after World War II?  What negative effect did the Federal Housing Administration have on the design of homes?  What was one of the inspirations for the ranch home?  How did owners of a Victorian home show they had a certain amount of wealth?

All these topics and many more were discussed when renowned Dallas author Virginia Savage McAlester visited with the real estate agents of Williams Trew Real Estate in Fort Worth.  McAlester is the author of A Field Guide to American Houses, the preeminent book for anyone and everyone who wants to know about styles of homes.

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20131226-MCALLISTER-slide-69UK-jumboThis is a must-read, perfect story to bring us out of our holiday rest: Dallas founder and past president of Preservation Dallas Virginia Savage McAlester takes the world on a tour of her 96 year old Swiss Avenue home located in the 5700 block of Swiss. She is also the author of  “A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture,” a veritable bible of historical preservation in Dallas and comprehensive history of American houses. Despite a life-threatening illness, McAlester has published an update of her 1984 book that is out this month and hopefully found it’s way into many ipads and readers.

Virginia is a native Dallasite whose father was once mayor of Dallas, and her whole family, it seems, have been activists working to improve various factions of the city of her birth for decades. Virginia is one of the people, if not the chief person, responsible for saving the glorious stretch of historic homes we have on Swiss Avenue today. She has lived in a Swiss Avenue home (or very nearby) for the last 64 years.

I’d like to draw attention to two statements made in the article. One,

William Seale, who lives part time in East Texas and is known for his histories of the White House, recalls the days when developers charged like “wild bulls” over the city’s old neighborhoods. “When she started broadening her preservation efforts,” he wrote of Ms. McAlester in an email, “few, if any, in Dallas had the slightest interest in historic preservation, thinking their history too new to be worthwhile.”

Indeed, in the 1960’s Swiss Avenue homes were about 40 to 50 years old, and by Yankee home ages, just not that old!

The local Lakewood Bank would not lend against these properties (and her father had been chairman of the board). They were, apparently, worthless, she said: “I guess one of the reasons that I wrote the first book is we needed to have a survey.”

As the article points out, the grand homes of Swiss became battered and were left very much unloved, except for her family’s and those nearby. At one point you could pick up a dumpy 5,000 square foot Swiss Avenue mansion for $30,000, and you were brave. Now they list for $1 million and more.

Still, Virginia doesn’t believe the housing market has fully come to its senses.

The shelter magazines and coffee-table books of today, she writes, worship “the singular statements — one-of-a-kind architect-designed landmarks, rarely encountered in the field but comprising a great many of today’s design awards.”

Dallas Realtor Ralph Randall says “My first introduction to this house, circa 1974, was at a family reunion. Our city is indebted to the Harris-Savage-McAlester family.”

Indeed, incredibly indebted. It does make us stop and think that we probably need to preserve even more of our “not quite so old” homes of today, because in 50 or 60 years, we will be as delighted to be inside them as we are any one of these mansion on stunning Swiss Avenue.