Neighborhood Spotlight: Winnetka Heights is Dallas’ Second-Largest Historic District

Winnetka Heights is the second-largest historic district in the city of Dallas. (Photos: Joe Horner/Scout DFW)

By Deb R. Brimer
Contributing Writer

Winnetka Heights has the look and feel of a modern Rockwell-esque painting. Today’s canvas reveals stunning historic style, native North Oak Cliff beauty, and the vibrancy of a culturally diverse, urban neighborhood. But the picture wasn’t always pretty.

Some people make history. Others preserve it.

Formerly the Winnetka Heights Baptist Church, this historic sanctuary now hosts arts events and education.

According to the Winnetka Heights Neighborhood Association (WHNA), the neighborhood dates back to 1890 when it was part of the City of Oak Cliff’s Midway Addition. Seven years after annexing Oak Cliff in 1901, the City of Dallas replatted the 50-square-mile area as Winnetka Heights.

Four prominent Dallas investors – Leslie Stemmons, J.P. Blake, R.S. Waldron, and T.S. Miller Jr. – made history by developing and marketing sprawling homesites to affluent buyers. While most things in 1911 were archaic compared to today’s standards – the adage of location, location, location wasn’t one of them.

The two-mile commute to downtown Dallas and streetcar accessibility were major selling points for Winnetka Heights, and Oak Cliff’s hilly topography enabled developers to build opulent mansions on higher ground, which offered expansive views of downtown and the surrounding countryside.

To sweeten the deal, homes came with a host of modern-day amenities, including artesian water, sewers, telephone lines, electricity, paved streets with curbs, and building restrictions. Although Stemmons, Blake, Waldron, and Miller each built their own new homes in Winnetka Heights, brisk sales in the development brought an influx of millionaire businessmen, Texas oilmen, and ranchers to the neighborhood.

The Turner House is a magnificently preserved example of the mansions built for affluent Texans. It is now home to the Oak Cliff Society of Fine Arts.

The Miller and Blake houses are still standing. The latter, which is now the Turner House, is home to the Oak Cliff Society of Fine Arts. To give the neighborhood a broader mix of housing stock, subsequent developments centered on subdividing lots to accommodate bungalows and cottages.

By the 1960s, however, a dark cloud hovered over Winnetka Heights. While Dallas suburbs were prospering from a post-World War II building boom, the Oak Cliff economy declined sharply as stately old homes in the neighborhood were gutted and reconfigured into small apartments.

In 1975, Heritage Oak Cliff – formerly the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League – organized to preserve history and save endangered Winnetka Heights homes from possible demolition. Between securing historic landmark designations from the National Register, Texas, and Dallas, and young buyers purchasing and restoring homes, Winnetka Heights’s more than 600 homes make it the second-largest historical district in Dallas, and among the largest statewide.

Chris White, an advertising copywriter and member of the WHNA board and a Millennial, bought her 1912 Craftsman bungalow in 2011. She said she was attracted to Winnetka Heights by the unique characteristics of each home, tree-lined streets, welcoming front porches, and mostly the people who live here.

“I love living in a tight-knit community that’s only a bike ride away from the city,” White said.

She sums up the neighborhood culture in one word: active.

Winnetka Heights events range from monthly happy hours, wine tastings, and impromptu porch parties to a Mardi Gras parade and Holiday Home Tour.