Dallas lost a reluctant icon last week. Preservationist Virginia Savage McAlester gracefully and patiently educated, not just Dallas, but also the nation about the importance of preserving historic architecture. I like to think she passed with the knowledge that she made a difference — because she did.
Virginia would hate being called an icon, which is why I say “reluctant.” She was not someone that sought the spotlight, but she was uniquely and historically positioned to be in it.
Her dear friend and former Texas State Representative, Harryette Ehrhardt, filled me in on the family history.
Virginia’s father, Wallace Savage, was the Dallas mayor from 1949 to 1951. He championed civil rights, ended segregated ambulance service, and focused attention on the need for more housing for the African American community. Her father’s aunt and mother were among the first suffragettes. They were also the second and third women to receive law degrees from The University of Texas. Her mother, Dorothy, was a devoted activist and preservationist.
So you see, persistence, determination, and intelligence were embedded in her gene pool. Virginia was destined to create change.
Her persistence is why Fair Park stands as the most extensive collection of Art Deco architecture in America and why Swiss Avenue is forever protected from development. Her determination resulted in our historic districts. And her intelligence taught us all to understand that we can fight City Hall — and win — with education, skill, and above all, grace.
“Virginia devoted her incredible energy and intelligence to her calling as a preservationist,” Harryette said. “Her mission was to educate people about why we preserve historic architecture and to encourage them to become involved. She did her research. She knew how to get something done, and she knew who needed to be involved. Everything she did was for the good of the city.”
Nationally, Virginia is best known for her books. Her most significant title, A Field Guide to American Houses, is required reading for preservation and architecture students in many universities. It’s the book we at CandysDirt.com reference daily when writing about the historic homes of our city. It’s the preservationist’s bible.
What a lot of people may not know is the genesis of this book. Her partner and collaborator, Steve Clicque told me Virginia would frequently visit the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University in New York.
“She would go to the stacks and pull the old magazines from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, and copy the photos, ” Steve said. “Then she’d come back to Dallas, compare them to what she saw here and wonder why she could not find the same thing in our neighborhoods. She began to write and create terminology for things that had no name. She invented the terms Minimal Traditional and Millenium Mansion.”
Research never stops for a preservationist. When Virginia was not advising a neighbor, recommending a course of action to a group, persuading a politician or championing a cause, she and Steve were on a plane.
Six to eight times a year, they took 10-day research trips. Virginia carried a camera with a long lens, and Steve had the wide-angle lens on his. Together they traveled the world, shooting thousands of photographs of houses from China to New Zealand.
“We frustrated our tour guides,” Steve said. “They wanted to show us where Rod Stewart lived, and we wanted to see the ordinary neighborhoods.”
Virginia never stopped working. She was always educating, writing, and leading by example.
“She was respected for her intelligence and diligence,” Steve said. “Her opponents always carried on cordial conversations with her because there was a level of respect for her. Virginia had the ability to understand the complicated, explain it, make a point, and stay focused.
Virginia was known as a preservationist, but above all she was a devoted mother, grandmother, and friend. Harryette shared a story with me that sums up all one need say about a life well-lived. It’s from her 9-year-old granddaughter, also named Virginia.
“She was talking about her grandmother to her mom,” Harryette said. (Little Virginia called her grandma Ginx.)
“I realize it doesn’t matter how long you live, it matters what you did in the time you were alive. It seems like Ginx lived a really long time because she did so much.”
Thank you, Virginia. We will all miss you.