Many diners at Saint Ann Restaurant & Bar and passers by admire the Virgin de Guadalupe monument standing outside, a tile-and-brick structure that murmurs the history of the area.
This Harwood Avenue location was Dallas’ first school for Hispanic children, the 1927 St. Ann’s school house. It was located in the heart of Little Mexico, in what is now the Harwood District of Uptown, the signature development of Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, Founder and CEO of Harwood International.
After buying the historic schoolhouse, Barbier-Mueller’s company brought in an art preservationist to refurbish the tile mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They kept the original brick school building and transformed the interior into a sophisticated-yet-comfortable eatery in 2010. The second level houses The Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum: The Samurai Collection, an assemblage of samurai armor and related objects that is one of the largest and most complete in the world. Outside, the patio is one of the biggest and most lovely in the city.
This is just a tiny part of the Harwood empire, which spans the globe and has offices and developments in select parts of Dallas, Beverly Hills, Sunnyvale’s Gold Coast, Geneva, London’s West End, Paris, and Zurich’s Golden Triangle. But it speaks to Barbier-Mueller’s vision and European sensibilities when it comes to his work.
It’s not “out with the old, in with the new,” but rather a reimagining of space, with a focus on robust capital investment, energy conservation, leading-edge technology, green spaces, and designs that are built to stand the test of time.
Walk around the Harwood District today and you’ll find more than two million square feet of premier class AA office, residential, and retail space in a park-like setting, with lush gardens and art-filled lobbies. Electric Harwood Gem cars zip around the district, offering free rides seven days a week to those who live or work in the area and want to get from one spot to another without melting in the Texas heat.
Barbier-Mueller is a Swiss native who married a Texan and has lived in Dallas since 1979, but he still has a passion for pleasant pedestrian experiences, a European mainstay that has only recently come into the average Texan’s awareness. One of the first things he mentions to me is Harwood’s 92 “Walk Score” and the state of the streets in the district.
“We have now assembled 18 city blocks and take great care of them, in terms of maintaining properties and mediums and cleaning up sidewalks and picking up trash,” he said. “We have more than eight acres of gardens and parks of all sizes, like you have in London or Paris.”
The international comparisons come frequently from Barbier-Mueller, who proclaims that Dallas has come into its own on the international stage, warns against provincialism when looking at the city’s future, and says, “Here, everything is possible.”
For Harwood, that means projected growth to encompass over seven million square feet of office, residential, and retail space totaling over $3 billion in development. Five new Harwood restaurants are opening in 2015, with two already open, and Bleu Ciel is slated to open in winter 2016 (with the tagline “international by design”). This will be a 33-story high-rise condominium with two- and three-bedroom homes from 1,300 square feet to more than 7,000, starting in the $800,000s.
Barbier-Mueller points to his homeland as inspiration for the blooming success of the Harwood District.
“[The Swiss], we take care of things: we maintain buildings and create environments that are customer-oriented and focused on customer service,” he said. “You combine that with the general global trend of people moving from suburbs to enjoy the urban lifestyle—we are lucky to have assembled this area.”
The Harwood District has been long time in the making, part of a larger vision.
“Twenty years ago, Stanley Marcus organized a charrette at my request at a vacant Jones Day penthouse with civic leader and city planners,” Barbier-Mueller said. “We brainstormed what this city could become.”
That vision is largely encompassed by what Barbier-Mueller has created in Harwood: a “village” of sorts that has appealing live, work, and play options.
“What we have in DFW is a vehicular structure of villages and I think that people will travel less because they will find what they want they are looking for where they live,” he said. “Dallas is getting very walkable within those villages. Increasingly, we are creating connection within those villages with the trolley and DART.”
One of Barbier-Mueller’s insights into Dallas’ future involves provincialism, or rather, the warning against it.
“We are finally getting international and all these companies are being attracted to what they call Dallas,” he said. “We are not competing with the suburbs; we are collaborating. Everybody is going to get their share.”
He points to Toyota establishing their U.S. headquarters in Plano.
“Toyota did go to outside of the city of Dallas, but they are in [the Dallas area]. Some people want the urban lifestyle, and some want suburban lifestyles. We’ve got to take a bigger view because people no longer compete county by county, and Dallas has finally become one of the top 15 or 20 cities.”
With his international work and global connections, what keeps Barbier-Mueller in Dallas, living in a Preston Hollow enclave with his wife? The growth of the city and its almost unlimited potential.
“I have this old French dictionary from 1886 and under North Texas, it says ‘Vast plains inhabited by Commanchees where a man on horseback is surrounded by grasses taller than he is on horseback,'” he said. “From 1886 to today, look how much we have accomplished, from Fair Park, the Arts District, the West End, etc. It’s unbelievable. It’s a family business and we have passion for what we do and surround ourselves with people who want to make Dallas better, one block at a time.”