School’s Out, Forever: What Do You Do With a Mothballed Building?

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A vestibule at the Douglass at Page Woodson, which recently won a prestigious preservation award after developers turned into a long-abandoned Oklahoma City high school into affordable housing (Photo by Justin Clemons Photography/courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Three Dallas ISD schools — shuttered for years, are now up for sale, the district announced last month. It’s uncertain how much they’ll go for in the competitive, sealed bidding process, but one of the mothballed schools — Phillis Wheatley Elementary — is considered to be a historic site.

That the three schools are up for sale is likely no surprise to anyone who paid attention to last September’s board of trustees meeting, where the trustees took up discussion of what to do with three shuttered campuses – the former Billy Earl Dade building, Pearl C. Anderson Elementary, and Phillis Wheatley Elementary. Both Wheatley and Anderson were closed in 2012, and both have been the target of vandals as well.

Wheatley Elementary (Photos courtesy City of Dallas)

Wheatley Elementary opened in 1929, and sits in the historic Wheatley Place neighborhood, named after Phillis Wheatley, an African-American poet from the 18th century. The entire neighborhood has been designated as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and as a Dallas Landmark District by the city.

That night, trustee Joyce Foreman expressed reluctance to part with buildings that — in many cases — mean a great deal to the neighborhoods they are in. She asked why they couldn’t be offered up to a nonprofit organization that would serve the needs of those neighborhoods first.

“We are tearing down everything we can,” she said. “I think there are good opportunities to become partners with somebody.”

Foreman asked staffers what had been done to examine potential uses for the properties.

“Over the years we have entertained a handful of requests from groups interested in leasing or buying these facilities but unfortunately nothing ever panned out,” the staff responded, adding that at one point Anderson was considered as a possible replacement for JJ Rhoads Learning Center, for instance.

“Somewhat recently, the Dallas County Community College District has expressed an interested in purchasing these vacant facilities,” the response concluded.

Trustee Justin Henry said he agreed with Foreman’s assertion that the district should be examining potential partnership opportunities, but also acknowledged that the buildings have sat empty for a long time, and safety should also be a factor.

Then-trustee Jaime Resendez said he felt the discussion was an opportunity for the board to be “thoughtful” about the properties and their value not just monetarily, but to the neighborhoods they used to serve.

All three lots are in South Dallas, and the big unknown is exactly how much they would be worth. Wheatley cannot be torn down because it has a historic distinction, and it’s not clear how that would impact interest in the site.  

But all of this got us thinking — what do you do with an old school building? We know in some cases, they get torn down — especially when the land value is high and the building’s value is low.

And in the case of these three spaces, where there is a need for safe community spots, affordable housing, and locations to provide needed services like after-school care, tutoring, healthcare, and more — could these sites be, as Foreman and other trustees asked — better utilized as something that would benefit the communities they sit in once again?

The Douglass at Page Woodson

It’s not a crazy idea. Just last year, the Douglass at Page Woodson in Oklahoma City won the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award and was one of only three awardees chosen from a juried competition of 50 nominations.

Why? Because developers turned what it was — the abandoned Douglass High School — into affordable housing. It, too, had sat abandoned and exposed to vandals for years before the architecture firm Smith Dalia began the painstaking process of honoring its history and turning it into something that would benefit the community once again.

They added a floor within the gymnasium to create more units, they innovated.

“Threading a new steel structure to support the floor, unseen, from the basement through one level without impacting the existing structure required close coordination between architect, structural engineer and contractor,” lead architect Amanda Warr of Smith Dalia told Forbes. “This type of teamwork resulted in tremendous satisfaction in being able to pass the National Park Service tax credit review and still end up with 60 historically-rich, affordable apartments and a community auditorium.”

The result? Sixty new units of affordable housing in the form of studio, one, and two-bedroom apartments, accessible to residents who earn up to 60 percent of the area’s median income, adjusted for the size of their households.

In addition, the school’s auditorium (which once hosted greats like Duke Ellington, Charlie Christian, Ralph Ellison, Marian Anderson and the like) was refurbished and is now managed by a community development program, which is working to create a community center that will be home to performing arts and a spot for community engagement in other ways, too.

The Principal Residences

Closer to home, Davy Crockett Elementary is now The Principal Residences, and the old Crozier Tech/Dallas High School campus is now office space for Perkins and Will.

But can you imagine what good could be done — potentially — with the spaces Dallas ISD is selling off now?

To take part in the bidding process, interested parties should obtain a bid package and return it to the district no later than May 31 at 2 p.m.

Bids must be at or above the appraised value to be considered, but the board can opt to not take the highest bid.

After bids are collected, the staff will bring them back to the board, who could then discuss the options.

For more about the bidding process, and information on obtaining a bid packet, click here.

Bethany Erickson is the education and public policy writer for She is also the Director of Audience Engagement for Candy’s Media. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, and the Society of Professional Journalists, and is the 2018 NAREE Gold winner for best series and a 2018 Dallas Press Club Hugh Aynsworth Award winner. Contact her at


Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson lives in a 1961 Fox and Jacobs home with her husband, a second-grader, and Conrad Bain the dog. If she won the lottery, she'd by an E. Faye Jones home. She's taken home a few awards for her writing, including a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and the Society of Professional Journalists. She doesn't like lima beans or the word moist.

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