Dallas Heritage Village Executive Director: ‘Maintenance Is Not Sexy’

Dallas Heritage Village

Photos courtesy Dallas Heritage Village

Last week, the Dallas Heritage Village announced that it was closing the Blum House indefinitely until it could be repaired and rehabbed, causing a flurry of questions — and rumors — about the organization and the state of the Blum House and the other structures at the Old City Park that comprise the museum.

We sat down for a lengthy interview with DHV executive director Melissa Prycer to talk about the state of the Blum House, the intricacies of caring for historic structures, and how the organization’s funding has changed since its inception.

CandysDirt: Unlike your run-of-the-mill home that needs maintenance, these homes are museum pieces and have to be maintained and rehabbed differently. Is that where the bigger price tag comes in to play?

Prycer:  “Yes absolutely. So this is true of every structure at Dallas Heritage Village. We can’t buy anything off the shelf. So whenever we are replacing wood, generally speaking, we’re having that specially milled. And you know we’ve got a great relationship with Davis-Hawn Lumber, and they do provide a discount, but they still do you know, charge us — it costs them money too. There are a lot of misconceptions about historic preservation, but I think the biggest one is that we can just go to Home Depot to get, say, the siding for one of our historic homes.

Even the really basic lumber is not going to be the right dimensions to match what is there. So then when you have a house like the Blum House with a lot of really intricate gingerbread work and of course each of those porch spindles is fancy it adds up. And the other thing is that the roof is metal shingles which interlock, and they’re not super common.

Ron Siebler is the main preservation contractor that we work with, and he has pointed this out — when the building was moved it was moved in three pieces so it had to be stitched back together, and you’re stitching something back together with a kind of goofy material in the first place, but that was what was originally on the house. And it’s unusual and it’s different, so that’s a teaching point and we want to keep it.

But the good news is that when we did some research on the house, we found we can buy reproduction shingles, which I was worried about — that we wouldn’t even be able to find reproduction.”

CandysDirt: So the difference is that your normal rehab is looking at cost and aesthetics, but historic preservation is looking at what is period-appropriate as well?

Prycer: “It’s not going to be necessarily cost-effective if you’re looking at it purely from a dollars and cents perspective, which we can’t look at it just with the dollars and cents perspective. We also have to look at the educational value and the stock value of the structures.”

CandysDirt: One of the things we got asked a lot after that initial story last week was, “How does it get this bad?”

Prycer: “The house arrived, I think it was in 1982ish, and was dedicated in 1983. So we have certainly done work on that house over the decades since 1983, but people also forget how long ago 83 was. I mean you know I find myself remembering things based on when I was born and I would have been quite young in 1983, and I’m now 40. So the last major renovation work done on the house was almost 40 years ago.

We have done upkeep over the years you know — paint and porch repair and ramp repair, all that kind of stuff, but you know things like roofs — they have a lifespan. And that’s one of the things that we running into over and over again is that these buildings had their roofs or repaired roofs when they moved here, and the last building we moved here was in 1990 — so most roofs are going to be reaching the end of their natural lives.”

CandysDirt: What does that look like for your budget?

Prycer: “When we were expanding and bringing in buildings and all that good stuff in the 70s and 80s the city of Dallas funded us 80 percent of our annual operating budget. Our founding generation and staff and board never dreamed that there would be a day where that amount would be more like 15 percent — and that’s where we are today.

That is probably the biggest thing is you know, a promise was made between the Dallas County Heritage Society and the City of Dallas and due to a variety of factors, that promise was not able to be kept on the city’s side. I mean we know that the entire city has deferred maintenance issues — this is not unique to Dallas Heritage Village situation at all. 

And that’s the other point I really wish more people connected. Is that you know there’s been a lot of stories in the last six months or so about the Juanita Craft House and the Bucket at Music Hall that’s been there for decades catching water and the Kalita Humphreys Theater. All of those buildings are owned by the City of Dallas and all of those buildings are supposed to be maintained by the City of Dallas but, the Office of Cultural Affairs has been underfunded for years. So that’s how we got here — the City of Dallas loves acquiring property but does not love maintaining it, and very few people do. I mean in their defense, maintenance is not sexy at all. But that’s really the bottom line is this is reaching a crisis point, not just in Dallas Heritage Village, but throughout the city at the cultural facilities.

But the closing of the Blum House shows that there are consequences to kicking the can down the road.”

CandysDirt: How is DHV’s agreement with the city structured? We know that you’re responsible for running the park, and the city is responsible for maintaining it, but how does that work? 

Prycer: “We’re lucky in that the way our management agreement is (structured) we use a portion of our annual allocation for maintenance, which means we get to pick our contractors. And we have established a relationship with multiple contractors that have been here for a long time. Some of our contractors, like our HVAC guys, have been working on buildings at Dallas Heritage Village longer than I’ve worked here, and I’ve been here for 15 years. They know our buildings, they know the quirks of our systems and all that kind of stuff, and since we’re able to choose our contractors, we know they’re fair and we don’t have to go through the city bureaucracy to get work done, which saves money in the long term.

And not every cultural facility has that ability. Some of them have to do their repairs through the city’s equipment and building services, and the folks probably do not have the expertise to properly deal with the historic buildings, because that’s not what the city is looking for when they’re hiring those employees. And that’s part of the issue, too — the city has a bid process for a good reason, but when you’re dealing with historic structures, some of those rules are much harder to deal with because not that many people are qualified to do the work.”

CandysDirt: We’ve done plenty of stories on the shortage of skilled workers in construction — I imagine that talent pool shrinks even more when you’re looking for people that specialize in historic homes. Does that worry you?

Prycer: “Oh yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Ron Siebler, who has done many major projects out here — I think his first big thing out here was 2012, 2014, somewhere in there, he has certainly done what he can to train people in those carpentry skills because that’s the other thing — you can’t use a nail gun, it’s got to be hand-nailed. And that all takes more time and not everybody is going to be willing to do that. And We do have some really great contractors in the city that can do the work. But part of Our challenge is our projects — The big projects for us are small projects for a lot of companies. Phoenix 1 that that is doing the municipal building downtown, they’re not going to bid on the Blum House, because it’s not worth their time because it’s only $650,000.”

CandysDirt: OK, so a bit of a pivot, because we got a lot of questions after the story, and this was another one. The fleas. Someone said that there was a feral cat colony at the Village, and that they were probably to blame for the fleas. Want to take that one on? 

Prycer:So here’s what’s going on. We do have cats here. They are feral cats. They’re also treated, and they are spayed. We feed them and we take them to the vet if they need to go to the vet and all that good stuff. They are working cats because we’re so close to downtown, the rodents happen. And so the cats keep the rodents in check. So we do have a maintained feral cat colony here. What we have been having challenges with is raccoons, and that is where the fleas are coming from. And the issue is the skirt — it’s a pier-and-beam house, and the skirting around the house has developed a lot of openings. And so the raccoons go under the house and hang out. And then the fleas happen. So it’s another maintenance issue because we have not had the time nor the money to figure out where all the holes are to block it off to keep the raccoons from hanging out underneath house. And we’re trying to trap the raccoons, too.”

CandysDirt: So another pivot, since we’re just running through some questions people have voiced. Let’s talk about the money you have allocated for other projects — like the co-working space. Because people have asked why that money couldn’t be used for the Blum House.

Prycer: So for the Cedar’s TIFF money — that money could only be used for something that supported the economic development of the neighborhood. And so, although I can certainly argue that museum exhibit buildings support economic development that is an argument that is not going to work with those people. So we had to think differently about how we could possibly use that money.  

We have currently have 26 acres and the original parkland is only about 13. And so over the years, the society bought up surrounding land. Some of that land still had homes on them. And so that house that was on Park Avenue was an original Cedars home on its original location. And there are two houses next door to each other and both of those houses are used right now. The Park Avenue house was used for education space. It was office space. And for the last several years it has been storage space. The house next to it is where some of our staff office out of. And so that house is rapidly deteriorating and is actually in worse shape than the Blum House.

We sat down several years ago and went through all of our buildings and talked about what is the highest and best use for these spaces. And we saved that house for last because it was in such bad shape, and we knew it was going to cost an arm and a leg to fix, but we also knew that no one was going to give us hundreds of thousands of dollars for storage space. And so we started to find out what if we lease out office space in that building and at the same time we were having this conversation, there was a lot of conversation within the arts community about the need for affordable office space for nonprofits.

And we’re seeing here in the Cedar’s neighborhood rents are rapidly rising, and this neighborhood has always been an artist from land and nonprofit from space. So we thought, well we have the space —what if we’re able to provide a more stable rent to keep some of these folks in the neighborhood? And so that’s why we went to TIFF for the money to restore that house. So the Blum House never would have worked for that.”

 

CandysDirt: What are some of the challenges in raising money for things like maintaining historic structures? 

Prycer: Part of the challenge is preservation is people think they saved the house and then they’re done, and you’re never done. ‘We saved that house 30 years ago —why do we have to do all this work again for the same house?’ We often will ask visitors, ‘How much do you spend annually on maintaining your home?’ Multiply that by 30, because that’s how many structures we have.

And it’s hard money to raise. And it’s hard money for the city to allocate because they don’t have it either. It’s just far more complex and harder than people realize and it is definitely not $35,000.”

CandysDirt: Let’s talk about the master plan you published in 2017. How does the closure of the Blum House, and its needs, impact that? Or does it?

Prycer: “It doesn’t. The impetus for doing the new master plan was two things. We had a master plan that was done in 2007 ish and we did Phase One right as the recession was beginning because, you know, timing is everything. That master plan had a visitors center that faced Harwood, because we believed at the time that if any development was going to come south of 30 that it was going to come down Harwood because of the Farmer’s Market, and that at some point there would be the ripple effect, so it made sense to face Harwood.

I became executive director here in March 2014, but I was the director of education for about a decade before that, so I’ve seen this neighborhood change. Right after I became executive director, that’s when all of those major properties on Ervay Street sold with these fabulous plans for redevelopment and we realized that our current plan for the future — because we desperately do need a visitor’s center — wasn’t gonna work anymore, because we can’t turn our back to Ervay and all the things that were happening there. So that’s one reason.

The second reason will come as no surprise to you because you write for CandysDirt — we had we have some undeveloped land that we currently use as overflow parking. We had developers circling us like buzzards because they desperately wanted that land. Now all of our land is designated as parkland and to sell parkland, you have to have an act of state legislature — so our land is safe.

But we did need a response to some of our surrounding developer friends, to say actually this is our plan for this property. And we knew we weren’t going to expand the museum. We do not want any more historic buildings — we made that decision in the mid-90s to not collect any more historic buildings because of the maintenance.

But what does Heritage Village need and then what does this neighborhood need? For years this neighborhood was overlooked for park development because, well, you’ve got a park. You’ve got Old City Park, but it’s not really a park. It’s a history museum on parkland, and it’s not free. And so that’s why we decided to turn a portion of our land into a public park and that become the front yard of Dallas Heritage Village, and then build a visitor center kind of in the middle of that.

We also did that because we knew we had deferred maintenance issues, and we also knew we couldn’t do a major capital campaign that was only about deferred maintenance. So the master plan is really a response to the way that this neighborhood is changing and being prepared for that. And as I said to our developer friends — this park will probably be like the icing on the cake for everything that you’re doing. But as a nonprofit, we can’t stick our necks out too far because I have to look at long term sustainability the organization. We have not started a capital campaign in any way. We have a plan and now we’ve got a vision and that’s where we are with that.”

CandysDirt: So there hasn’t been a capital campaign?

Prycer: “Not at all. There’s been no soft phase or any of that happening at this point. We are talking to people about it and like putting feelers out. But you know in all honesty, because I know this came up, too — we can’t start a capital campaign until we no longer have an operating deficit. And we’re not there yet. So that’s the other you know in response to some of the comments on Facebook. We know our finances are not in great shape and there are a lot of reasons for that. But we also know that we’re not going to try to raise $20 million while we’re doing a six-figure operating deficit annually. That’s just not good business.”

CandysDirt: Is that what impacted your OCA (Office of Cultural Affairs) score

Prycer: “Oh (long pause) that’s a whole other thing, but I don’t think it had too much to do with that.

Now the politically correct answer, I guess, on all of that is with the new Cultural Plan, the OCA rightly decided to take certain factors into more consideration, I guess for lack of a better word. What they did not do was in any way codify certain things. Until now — they’ve done this now.  And I think part of what happened, because they had never defined like board diversity for example and staff diversity is something they care, about as they should. They had never defined a target on where you should be for that. And they’ve done this now. And now I will tell you that they’ve done this now, and so I feel like even though we got cut, in some ways we won because now we have a target, and we didn’t have that before. However, when you look at what our score was or what our ratio percentage ratio was that year compared to how they have defined it for this year that we’ve just submitted our application for, we would not have failed.

The other weird thing that, of course, gets left out of all of this — which is fine, it’s nuanced, I understand, I’m trying not have axes to grind but, there’s three different categories of organizations that are kind of compared to each other or whatever. And two of the three had a curve in place like they curved the scores. So there were actually six organizations that failed but our little cohort had somebody that scored 100 percent. So there was no curve. And in my mind, it is as deeply flawed that an organization in the city scored 100 percent as it is that we failed because nobody’s perfect — there is something you can improve on.

So there were six organizations that failed that year with their raw scores, but only two actually failed that year and it was us and the Dallas Historical Society, and we are the only two historical organizations that are part of the OCA. So I also think there are some challenges — for instance like how they do that the reports that we have to do, and our attendance records are quite different from the performing arts organizations. And so sometimes it’s hard to get a square peg in a round hole.

So yes we failed. There were a lot of political twists and turns with that. And so here we are this year we are getting the exact same funding level as we did last year. And I do not have our new scores.”

CandysDirt: What about the people who think that funds are just plain being mishandled?

Prycer:If you think we’re misappropriating our funds, take a look at our budget. Our operating budget is $950,000 a year. How much do you think it costs to run a museum, much less restore a historic structure, let alone 30 of them?”

CandysDirt: Tell us some of the wins you’ve had recently.

Prycer: “The good news is we have had some major gifts come in the last couple of months that are helping other key projects. We announced this last night at our annual membership meeting, that we had two gifts — both record gifts for our organization.

The first is $165,000 over three years, which is the largest gift we’ve ever gotten from an individual donor, and that is funding a full-time position for three years that will be shared between us and our neighbors at Vogel Alcove. We’ve been working with Vogel Alcove for years, since they moved into City Park Elementary, and they do field trips over here, and their itty-bitties will take walks, and other activities that we do. We’ve been doing work on what does early childhood learning look like at a history museum, because there’s not a lot of early childhood stuff happening at history museums anywhere. But we’re also looking at what that kind of thing could do for children who are in trauma, because the Vogel Alcove kids are, of course, in trauma. We realized we really needed a person that worked for both of us and that way that would really solidify that relationship and be better for the kids, and also to benefit other parents of young children.

The other big get — which the largest get we’ve ever gotten from a foundation — is from the Joe and Doris Dealey Foundation. They’re giving us $500,000 — $100,000 a year for five years — to support our animal program because of course we have donkeys, sheep, and chickens and they like to eat, but what that will also do is it will restore the barn that needs work — and we’re going to it will turn that into more of an educational exhibition space. It’s also going to restore our wagons and carriages that we have. And we’re also going be able to add another staff position to help care for the animals.

So those are two big gifts that are I’m hoping — and I’m starting to see some little glimmers of this — are gonna tip some other people that have been on the fence because people don’t always want to be first to write a really big check.”