Homes Are The Footprints of Our History

Photo by Bethany Erickson

Last Wednesday, Candy spoke to a full house to kick off the Park Cities Historic and Preservation Society’s very busy season of events. She was the keynote luncheon speaker, weaving the theme of homes being the footprints of our history throughout a discussion that provided a few chuckles at time, but also a glimpse at ways the perservation community could address new challenges.

We are providing her speech in full here, as well as the slide show that accompanied it. 

Hi there! I don’t know about you, but it seemed everything about my family’s life was bookmarked by which home we lived in.

I grew up in suburban Chicago first at 10115 The Strand, not too far from the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oak Park, Ill., the town where I was born.

Pearl Harbor: My mom told me my dad was washing the car, and she was ironing in the kitchen in the house on Gladstone Avenue.

As a teen, I blew smoke out the window at 948 Seminole and 1331 Algonquin Drives, in a Native American-branded housing development called Blackhawk Manor. The development, which turned the first shovel of black prairie dirt in 1953, was a poster child for the post World War II neighborhoods spreading across America, including in Dallas.

One-story ranches of brick veneer construction. Sound familiar? The first homes were about 900 square feet with only one bathroom. Good black earth was provided for front and back yards, but the buyers had to prepare their own lawns. Many buyers waited years before building a garage and paving a driveway. Imagine that — delayed gratification.

In the 1960s, larger split-level two-story and three-story homes were started — garages included — and most of the buyers were young families with children, like mine. Many of the fathers had served in World War II, like mine, and the houses were financed with mortgages backed by the Veterans Administration.

Homes are the footprints of our history.

I graduated from high school 30 days after we moved up to 648 Council Hill Road, my mother’s custom-built ode to the ‘70s dream house, complete with orange shag carpet in the family room, I mean, you raked it, a sunken living room, likely a mini-conversation pit, indoor/outdoor carpet in the kitchen, and faux marble shell-shaped sinks.

In their later years, my aunts and uncles had all built their dream houses, too. It was a family passion, and my favorite one was almost a replica of this Palm Springs time capsule.

It belonged to my Uncle John, also a house connoisseur, though our tastes were a LITTLE different. His home was fashioned after his favorite place in Vegas, the Bellagio. So very much white and gold French Provincial with avocado appliances and sink, avocado green shag carpet, a pink marble master bathroom, gold fixtures just like this home, sliding glass doors to the pool, mirrored closet doors, and FROU FROU in every corner.

I had an unusual request for my uncle, who died not too long ago at age 100: I asked him if I could have the purple grape glass hanging light fixtures in the hallway bath, which was an opus of powder blue.

He looked at me like I was nuts.

“What,” he said, “you don’t want a Rolex?”

Let me explain. My uncle had “friends.” We never knew how he got those “friends.” In Chicago, you don’t ask. But a lot of stuff “appeared” at his house from time to time: stacks of silk shirts, trinkets, and jewelry.

He used to say it fell off a truck.

My mother was the only daughter of Romanian immigrants. She had five brothers. They were self-made successful entrepreneurs: Three of my uncles were machinists who each worked two jobs to start their own company. They bought war surplus machines that made 90 mm shells, re-tooled them to make steel valves that were ultimately used in submarines and artificial limbs.

My uncle’s first home, more of an estate, was the piggy bank that financed their business when he sold it.

Before Uncle John’s death, I learned that during one of his youthful adventures — and there were a lot — he saved the life of a Chicago-area MOBSTER’s son in RiverForest. The kid almost drowned in a pool.

So yeah, my uncle had friends for life.

And his first home had financed a family-run business that was later acquired by one of the largest steel valve manufacturers in the steel belt.

Homes are the footprints of our history. 

But sometimes we have to retrace those footsteps.

I’ve wanted to be a writer forever, but I didn’t focus on homes and real estate until about 2000, when I worked with the beautiful Christine Allison at DHome Magazine. I always loved real estate. Being a voyeur myself, I suspected that people wanted to know what the homes in their vicinity looked like on the inside.

I suspected they also wanted to know what they sold for!

Our national obsession with House Porn —  I believe the phrase was coined at The Washington Post, but they didn’t trademark it, so it’s mine! —- began about 2006 with online real estate. That is the year Zillow was created. That is also the year a guy named Mark David in LA started the RealEstalker, because he was bored, he told me, and dished on about famous people and their houses.

Your Mama is not beyond snarking about poor decor choices and spilling intimate details of why certain individuals might be selling or moving.” Variety picked up his column in 2014. And he was hysterical, irreverent, and ticked off a LOT of people.

In 2008, Newsweek reporter Dan McGinn wrote House Lust, detailing Americans obsession with buying real estate. Chapter One: Mine’s Bigger than Yours.

Sound familiar?

McGinn just wanted to analyze real estate junkies — the consumers and droolers.

He even went to real estate school about the same time I was getting MY license just to be a better writer. Clearly, I was already a HOUSE JUNKIE!

McGinn’s book got a thumbs down from the Grey Lady: The New York Times called it a “mood-chilling morning after pill.” What do they know?

The next year, the market crashed.

Zillow is a real estate database company created by Rich Barton and Lloyd Frink, both former Microsoft executives and the founders of expedia.com, which many claim changed the travel industry forever.

Spencer Rascoff is the former CEO of Zillow, Inc. I met him at a real estate conference in San Francisco in 2007 when I knew very, very little about Zillow.

I told him that, with all due respect, I did not think the company would get very far with that name.

Well, I was covering real estate and I didn’t know what Zillow was, and I had put my foot in my mouth with the CEO. So I researched it like crazy. And I was fascinated. Zillow gave consumers a place to look at houses on a website that was very “user-friendly,” another term I did not know at the time. It was also completely free to consumers.

Zillow’s main revenue source is advertising, paid by real estate agents, the very same agents whose listings are in the MLS system Zillow taps into.

When I finally figured this out, I was in awe: Zillow gets its content basically for free from the very agents it turns around and charges to place ads next to their names. Talk about re-tooling! 200 million eyeballs a month just looking at homes!

I wasn’t the only HOUSE JUNKIE on the planet!

Here I was, someone from the business of providing content, which we once called writing, and a company was making millions of dollars, and getting millions of views, just by publishing real estate listings!

I knew that the way we buy, sell, and market real estate was going to change dramatically, and I came up with the idea of creating an online vertical that would lure readers with well-written House Porn (relax, it’s the House story), and go ballistically overboard in hyper-focusing on everything real estate.

Unlike Zillow, we would have dollops of local news and make superstars out of the local real estate agents.

I became an accidental publisher.

Zero media existed in Dallas to chronicle the moves, achievements, job changes, and listings for the real estate agent.

Traditional media didn’t cover it. Well, not until we came on the scene. COPYCATS!

This at a time when the industry was changing, re-tooling, with the threat of AI, AVMs, and iBuyers looming in to minimize the Realtor, much as Expedia had all but wiped out the Travel Agent.

If you don’t know what all those are, read & subscribe to CandysDirt.com.

I filled a niche that Real Estate agents, 30,000 of them in North Texas, devoured.

I learned that when you sell a home, there are at least 80 professionals besides the agents involved in the transaction.

30,000 North Texas real estate agents times 80 equals so many eyeballs!

And I did it all online, where I believe the future of media will be.

Our staff jokes about how we started — a lady blogging at her kitchen table. With a glass of champagne. Now we have three full-time editors and 12 writers.

Selling real estate is a tough business that looks deceptively easy. Those who make — and retain — money in it are exceptional people. Realtors are some of the most creative and intelligent people you will ever meet. They deserve everything.

I became known as a disruptor, because I did not accept the conventional ways of marketing real estate.

Now I’d like to start some disruption in preservation, to help maintain real estate we have left,  homes that connect us to our past.

Or there will be no footprints to our past left.

We need to do something or our city will soon become a collection of very sleek white stucco boxes and Soviet-style apartment complexes that will age poorly. We’ve been to Cuba: they are not pretty.

I spoke to one of our city’s most talented classical architects recently, Wilson Fuquay. He blames it all on Social Media. And Apple.

“Drive down any street in the Park Cities, there are 25 white box houses with black windows,” he said.

How did we get here, I asked?

Wilson explains: We live in an overstimulated, frenetic world, so perhaps we need to take all the detail out of our houses so we are not further stimulated.

Or distracted?

You go to someone’s house, he says, and it’s all sleek and minimalistic, the perfect background environment for people to use their cell phones and text and send out photos and selfies.

Wilson’s point: We’ve made surroundings blah to make technology the centerpoint. Once you enter the house you are not human anymore. Oh and you cannot have stuff. You’ll be on the Marie Kondo “Naughty List”.

Build it and they will text it.

It’s time to think outside the box about preservation.

It’s time for builders to really consider what they are about to tear down and instead retain the wonderful feeling of the house, says nationally renowned interior designer Emily Summers. Emily just published her first book, Distinctly Modern Interiors and graciously let us use her photos.

The Architectural Digest 100 designer, by the way, restored a Robert Johnson Perry home circa 1965, known as Touchstone House: pale oak and cedar walls and ceilings, soft adobe brick on interior walls, terrazzo floors.

People are building the white stucco houses, she says, because it makes them feel like they are buying something contemporary. Which is super hot right now.

But it’s important for people to not follow the pack, says Robbie Briggs, who is also an architect. Build a home, hire a great architect and open your mind to different styles, he says.

Preservation is putting your arms around what is going to remain long after we are gone, not what is most trendy. Great architecture is not gimmicky: it’s based on art, history and design. If the house has architectural integrity, it may well be worth saving it and remodelling.

Emily Summers writes in her new book that she has long been intrigued by the challenge of ushering historic buildings into the modern age. Her career was inspired by orange Knoll books depicting crisp modern furniture displayed in elaborate historical settings. Her interest transformed into alarm when she moved to Highland Park and watched architectural gems demolished almost overnight. What, she writes, are we doing to our irreplaceable design heritage?

Why not restore and keep some of these existing homes, she told me. Remodel the kitchens and baths, and make them work!

Emily says the great turning point in recognizing the value of Midcentury modern homes came when Kaufmann House in Palm Springs went on the auction market for $25 million in 2008. It was also once owned by Barry Manilow! I don’t think it actually sold for that. And this is one, only one, that I don’t know who bought it. Even Mark David aka The Realstalker doesn’t know! But the renovation of this circa 1948 home, designed by Richard Neutra, a pillar of 20th-century modernism, included re-opening a Utah quarry to mine matching stone.

Pop quiz: what Dallas mansion also re-opened a quarry to complete its restoration?

Rice University architectural historian Stephen Fox — my maiden name, ironically — once said, “Each generation has its own ignorance of recent stuff.”

And I would add, is entitled to its own ignorance of recent stuff. When it comes to historic preservation, every generation is dismissive of buildings from the most recent past in favor of those that go further back in time.

Preservationists of the early 20th century referred to the Victorian era as “the dark ages,” preferring the colonial and federalist-styled structures that predated them.

By the way, many architects and experts agree that some of the finest homes in Dallas were built in the 1920’s… like Carl and Peggy Sewell’s Hal Thompson house… beautiful Beaux Arts. Aldredge House. In the 20’s people did it right, hired great architects.

Somehow we got away from hiring great architects to just, anyone.

About 2008, as the market was crashing, Kaufmann house pushed the Midcentury modern generation of homes up to hot commodity art status, and it hasn’t stopped since.

The good news is: we are getting older! That means homes of the ’70s, generally not the best period for architecture, and the ’80s, our early nests, are on now on the hit list!

Low ceilings are like a plague on a home. Builders used 8 ft ceiling heights in the ‘70s because sheetrock is 8 ft tall. Easy, cheap. Then in the 80’s, everyone went gaga on ceilings to Mars and colonial red brick boxes: four four and a door.

Robbie Briggs: “I don’t know when those styles will come back, but they will!”

But Midcentury Modern architecture is classic.

Midcentury modern architecture blossomed in an unprecedented era when the middle class was growing. The architectural imperative of this time was to create housing for ordinary people. Children’s bedrooms were not 8,000-square-foot suites with private basketball courts and a nail station for the nanny, but cozy to offer privacy yet encourage them to come out and rub elbows with the family. No en suite bathrooms — the family shared a hall bath. Unthinkable!

An egalitarian society brought modernism to the masses, with great basic, functional design. Again, Footprints.

Dallas and the Park Cities are LOADED with great Midcentury design, in fact, it’s one of our strongest periods.

The Disney Streets, Ju-Nel homes in East Dallas and around Northaven in North Dallas, Fox and Jacobs homes in neighborhoods along Forest Lane, Webb Chapel and Midway, many of our great sprawling ranch homes, and the great mid-century custom builds by E.G. Hamilton, Robert J Perry, Bud Ogilsvy, David Williams, O’Neil Ford, Scott Lyons, and Howard Meier.

A midcentury house on a modest lot will likely find a buyer willing to improve and maintain it. In fact, modest mid centuries fly off the shelves. We cannot write about them fast enough.

But a midcentury house on a large lot in Preston Hollow, Greenway Parks or the Park Cities is practically wearing a “tear me down” sign. How does a 1,200-square-foot house stand a chance in a neighborhood where 12,000 square feet is the new normal?

Case in point: the Grady Vaughn on South Dentwood in Preston Hollow, designed by Robert Goodwin. Except that it IS 9500 square feet. Someone, please buy this house and restore it! 

In Dallas’ most venerable neighborhoods, significant Midcentury Modern homes have been torn down in recent years. We have watched, cried, and written their obituaries:

The E.G. Hamilton home on Crescent, where designer Mil Bodron of Bodron and Fruit restored a gorgeous Midcentury while creating more space. The home had been painted and expanded during a shuddering remodel, but Mil returned it. Rather than sandblast the paint off the painted side of the interior brick — yes, they painted Northpark Brick –, they simply turned each and every brick to the fresh, unpainted side. Painstakingly.

The house was torn down.

The O’Neil Ford-designed Penson house on Armstrong Avenue was lost despite calls to maintain it.

The iconic all-steel Mayrath House on Lennox Lane was lost to the wrecking ball despite its plethora of period details.

Is there anything we can do to save these homes when market conditions make property values so very high?

Yes!  Put ‘em on CandysDirt! Create more awareness of Midcentury Modern significance. Help stop selling these homes as teardowns. Help buyers see the potential.

Emily Summers says we need more Realtor and design community awareness.

Market the dirt as lot value, but market the home as architectural value. Which is priceless.

It’s all in the approach, as Cynthia Beard told me, all in the story. That’s where you come to our specialty. More than anything, we love to tell the stories of homes and the people who live in them. We want to talk about the architect. And we know people are listening!

Cynthia says the marking of a home by the Park Cities Preservation & Historical Society is honorary, with the hope the marking brings significance to the property that it will be saved and cherished, that someone would look at it in a different way. Not a teardown…

We wrote about a beautiful 1939 home last week, 4324 Versailles, and told the story. The agent, Mark Godson, told me he got five showings from the story, not one a teardown!

This wonderful organization is now hoping to preserve 3709 Colgate, 3541 Villanova, 3537 and 3701 Centenary.

Every home style tells the story of the period it was created in. Knock ‘em down, there are no more stories.

It takes years to earn character, which in the computing world is a unit of information.

The older we get, the more units of information we have stored in our hearts and brains, and while the recall may take more time, it’s very valuable.

Same thing with our houses. They are our past with all the bumps and bruises, pain and laughter.

Which is why I want to leave you with a thought on Dallas Preservation:

Dallas has three National landmarks: Dealey Plaza, Fair Park’s Art Deco buildings, and Highland Park Village.

But we have a unique opportunity to create a fourth National Landmark District —  I’m talking about the 10th Street homes in South Dallas.

Do you know that an authentic former slave narrative was taken at one of the West Tenth properties, intact with photographs, in December of 1937? The existing structure associated with that interview exists today.

No American city has ever valued their African American historic district. What if Dallas became the first American City to create an African American Historical District on 10th Street, our Fourth National landmark?

Thank you for reading, for listening, and for helping us save our houses. They are truly the footprints of our past.

Thank you!

2 Comment