By Jon Anderson
Correction: In last week’s column, I made a rookie mistake of believing a friend without checking (he’s been flogged and I’ve been humbled). The history of the “21” building at 3883 Turtle Creek is far more interesting than the story I was told about the 21 name reflecting the number of stories. In fact, as pointed out by reader/commenter and 21 resident John Rogers, 21 refers to the number of acres of the original plot. Development began in the 1880s as the site of Holy Trinity University which in the 1940s became Jesuit High School before being sold for the development of “21” and other commercial uses. The building was originally envisioned as low-income HUD housing. But when the original developer was arrested for skimming money from the project, ownership reverted to HUD before changing ownership again and being converted to condos.
On with the show…
The “Sticks” (the Pink Wall)
The Athena and Preston Tower were built in what was considered “the sticks” back in the day. If you’re under 60, you may not have heard of “Behind the Pink Wall.” It was a marketing phrase that made its way into local parlance. Today, the “pink wall” is a low, curvy faded beige brick wall you’d imagine Humpty Dumpty to preside over. It runs along the north side of Northwest Highway from the Athena to Preston Road and rounds the corner heading north for a bit. Locals think of it as a shrine. Practically, it’s a barrier keeping crazy folks from driving into building lobbies (and they do plow into the wall with some frequency).
Both Athena and Preston Tower were to have had two towers each. Preston Tower was to have had a second oppositely-curved tower also facing Northwest Highway. The Athena would have gotten a matching big-box tower as well (which a friend calls the Bob Newhart building). I assume interest wasn’t strong enough to make the second towers viable. By the time condos rolled around, I’m guessing the moment had passed. Today a pair of forgettable low rises occupy the space.
At the time, Northwest Highway was all that separated Dallas from Oklahoma. As is the way of things, today both buildings are in the thick of Dallas, whether that’s NorthPark Center, Preston Hollow, or the recent contretemps surrounding the eventual redevelopment of the Preston Road and Northwest Highway intersection. That battle pits aging millionaires and equally aging middle-class condo-dwellers against money-hungry developers and billionaire Mark Cuban. Something’s gonna happen and in true Dallas fashion, it ain’t a gonna be purty!
Rather than sit back and watch the (mink) fur fly, let’s see if there’s an opportunity here for the little guy. The northwest quadrant of the Preston and Northwest Highway intersection is Cubanville so the only opportunity is to bask in the glow of whatever happens there. The northeast quadrant (Pink Wall) is a little pocket of Preston Hollow that’s as much quaint as it is in flux.
Aside from the two high-rises, housing consists of small 2-story complexes built in the 1960s on fairly large plots of land (the kind of inexpensive, low-density land that developer wet dreams are made of). It’s the kind of formerly swanky, “mid-century modern” area that in any other city would have been snapped up a long time ago and renovated by the gays. After all, it’s a great location with large, inexpensive and very outdated units – the renovator’s trifecta.
Last year, developers wanted to bulldoze a couple of complexes running along Preston Road. The goal was to change the zoning and build a mess of new apartments. While the deal was scuttled, it fractured the community with some complexes chomping for a golden parachute buyout and those that wanted to stay. The buildings with the most serious issues (long-delayed maintenance) are typically most anxious to sell before the figurative roof caves in or the special assessment hits.
Unquestionably, this intersection will be redeveloped, and it will be pricey. It may not be too late for some of the best preserved buildings behind the Pink Wall. An old real estate adage says it’s better to buy the worst home on the best block. The original Pink Wall condos that remain will be the “worst” on the block. By that I mean as new more expensive housing is built in the area, the price on the remaining ones should rise and attract renovation.
Anyway, enough low-rise, back to the high-rises…
Preston Tower (6211 Northwest Highway)
The first of the two high-rise projects built by Hal Anderson (no relation) on Northwest Highway, Preston Tower is a mix of professional offices on the lower levels and residential condos above. Preston Tower has 300-plus one- and two-bedroom units ranging from to 390 square feet to 1,673 square feet. There are two buildings: the taller, Northwest Highway-facing curved tower and the shorter rectangle tower on the back (with a pool between).
The curved design is definitely 60s swanky, but for many years before “mid-century modern” became a “thing,” buildings like this just looked old and outdated. Units in the curved main building have pie-wedge-shaped rooms with full-width (intact) balconies with either north or south views. Southern view units have Northwest Highway road noise as the price to pay for a downtown view (ditto the Athena). It’s particularly noticeable given the single-pane glass that was used in both buildings. Washer/dryers were added later (so some have then and some don’t – there’s a large onsite laundry).
Units tend to be dated, although for several years renovated units have regularly popped onto the market. Like other buildings of the era, all utilities are included in the HOA fees but it’s apparently another 2-pipe HVAC setup.
Renovators, start your engines.
The Athena (6335 W. Northwest Highway)
It’s said that Mr. Anderson corrected the mistakes he made at Preston Tower when he designed the Athena (and its unrealized second tower). The Athena has no commercial space, offers more traditional rectangular shapes, dedicated freight elevator, 9’ ceilings, in-unit washer/dryers and much larger units. In fact, except for the penthouse level and a few anomalous bitsy units on the fourth floor (built at the time of the apartment-to-condo conversion), there are just two floorplans.
The four corners sport 1,899 square feet three-bedroom, three-bath units while between them are four 2-bed/2-bath units with 1,543sft. A few units have been fully or partially combined and more than 80 percent have enclosed balconies, which adds another 200-ish square feet. (While I hate enclosed balconies, at least Athena’s match pretty well.) Units were also originally equipped with a washer/dryer — unfortunately, in the kitchen —but with a little work, they can be moved.
But there is one oddity (OK, there are hundreds of ‘em). Many of the units here are hermetically-sealed. Some years ago the building let people seal their operable windows – perhaps an unsuccessful attempt to thwart aging? I only say this because if you’re scouting this building you may snap a few fingernails trying to open a window. Know that they’re easily restored even if the thought of an open window horrifies the neighbors.
The Athena is about to embark on a hallway renovation that, while still unfortunately granny-chic, will be a vast improvement over the 25-year-old hallways one visitor described as being one crackly light bulb away from a scene on Law and Order. Yikes! But what can you expect in a building where 81 percent of owners are over 65 years old – double the percentage in neighboring Preston Tower?
HOA fees appear high, but with all utilities, four-pipe HVAC and cable TV, you could pay a lot more in other buildings. There was a special assessment to catch up on delayed infrastructure maintenance, but that ended in 2012.
For the square footage, the units are a bargain, but will almost always need extensive renovation. The past few years have seen a flurry of gut/remodels, unfortunately they’re generally not flipped, and so “new” product rarely reaches the market. The Athena also has a bad reputation with contractors who’ve faced an inquisition at the hands of a run amok Architectural Committee. Hopefully the new (and sane) committee leader can rein in the antagonistic busy-bodies who’ve made renovation “hell with a cover charge.”
Pet lovers will have to gas Rover (kidding!) or steer clear due to a decades-old pet ban.
This era kicked off high-rise residential construction in Dallas with luxuriously large, mostly well-designed floorplans and unique exteriors. But as happens, people are drawn to shiny new objects thus reducing the popularity of each previous generation. Like fashion, buyers want change and what was once dashing turns passé. And remember, it’s not just buildings that age, once young buyers have aged right along with their flocked metallic wallpaper and Harvest Gold kitchens.
Renovation-wise, the 1950s and 1960s were not the era of open plan living nor large closets. But the smart, value-minded renovator will knock down a wall and shuffle space a bit to teach these “old dogs” some new tricks – just as they did years ago in Lakewood, M Streets, and Oak Cliff. The savvy can’t resist putting their own stamp on a home at a fraction of the cost (and road noise) of today’s pricey, highway-hugging high-rises.
With Plano and Richardson still to conquer, Dallas would wait until the 1980s for the next wave of high-rise projects – the “THE” era — THE Warrington, THE Claridge, THE Beverly, THE Shelton, THE Centrum, and THE others.