Norman Alston: One of Dallas’ Leading Preservationists

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Dallas is fortunate to have profoundly dedicated historic preservationists. “Dedication” is the key word. That is what it takes to keep not only history but also the culture and very look of a city intact, alive, and flourishing against tremendous odds.

Dallas has always been known for an attitude of bigger is better and new is better. Despite that, a core group of preservationists ensures we are not merely the shiny-new-penny city. Our character, texture, and soul are intact because of historic preservationists.

Over the next few months, I’m going to introduce you to those dedicated preservationists that ensure we are not just one big boring white box. Hopefully you will be inspired, and perhaps you will even join them.

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An early photo of the Erath County Courthouse
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The Erath County Courthouse restored

First up is my neighbor and the man who was instrumental in advising on the restoration and adaptive reuse of the Lakewood Theater. Architect Norman Alston, FAIA, has not only an unparalleled depth of knowledge, but also something essential for historic preservationists — common sense.

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The Lakewood Theater has a new life as Bowlski’s

Here’s a brief introduction from Alston’s website:

For the past 30 years, Norman Alston Architects has shown the possibilities that are available when important historic buildings and sites are thoughtfully preserved and equipped for modern, productive use. The firm has completed successful, award-winning restorations, renovations, and additions by demonstrating that preservation is economically advantageous, environmentally responsible, and culturally invigorating.

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“True to good historic preservation practice, however, no important historic elements were removed and the updates are completely, and readily reversible.”

What is your definition of historic preservation?

Anything that is 50 years old ,with character-defining features, is probably worth preserving. A structure younger than 50 can be important, but not historic.

What personal experience led you towards preservation?

I got out of architecture school at The University of Texas and spent my first 10 years doing what I like to call normal architecture. I knew about preservation, but it was a separate group at UT Austin.

In 1988 an opportunity came up to finish an AIA volunteer project. It was a small house at Fair Park that was one of the four homes of the future created for the 1936 Texas Centennial exposition. It’s the only one still standing.

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This is the only remaining house from the Model Homes Area of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. It was sponsored and built by the Portland Cement Company, no doubt why it has lasted! Four homes were built to represent the ideal small home and were completely furnished.
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The Centennial house during restoration.

That little house consumed me. I’d be at my regular job and could not wait for lunch when I could work on it. When I got home, I continued to work on it at night. It was the project that led me to historic preservation. I feel like preservation discovered me. It’s a passion and it’s very fulfilling.

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The renovated United States Post Office and Courthouse Building
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The United States Post Office and Courthouse Building in downtown Dallas
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An example of the interior restoration of the United States Post Office

Do you have a favorite historic style?

Arts and Crafts. I think it’s just beautiful. The way it’s done in America is unique. But, I also like Victorian, and I’m very fond of the Moderne era from the 1920s and ’30s. And I have a new appreciation for Minimal Traditional!

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The Sears warehouse and distribution center was built in 1910. It later became the Sears Catalog Merchandise Center. It was expanded in 1929 and 1966 and closed in 1993.

What project has meant the most to you?

It’s hard to say just one. South Side on Lamar was my first large project. It was transformational. The best overall was the United States Post Office and Courthouse Building downtown. The Erath County Courthouse was among the most serious restoration projects I’ve had. We had a lot of technical and design issues on that one, and exacting clients. Those three are high among the projects that meant the most to me.

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The picture of successful adaptive reuse. The Sears building was given new life as South Side on Lamar, housing lofts, retail, entertainment, and event space

Historic preservationists often choose to live in conservation or historic districts. What attracted you to your neighborhood?

In 1987, I would take the No. 60 express bus to get to my job downtown. My wife met me for lunch one day and took the same bus, but it was the local at that time of day. It came down Lindsley Avenue, passing through Hollywood Heights.

She told me about this wonderful neighborhood. It was kind of hidden at the time because the bridge across the Santa Fe railroad tracks was only built in 1979. We had children and were contemplating a move from Casa View, and Hollywood Heights was it. We’ve been here ever since.

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Karen Eubank

Karen is the owner of Eubank Staging and Design. She has been an award-winning professional home stager for more than 25 years and a professional writer for over 20 years. Karen is the mother of a son who’s studying for his masters at The New England Conservatory of Music. An ardent animal lover, she doesn’t mind one bit if your fur baby jumps right into her lap.

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