Virginia Savage McAlester was legendary in the historic preservation of our city. Without her, there would be no Swiss Avenue Historic District. There would be no Historic Preservation League resulting in the birth of Preservation Dallas. And Realtors would have no idea how to describe their historic listings without Virginia’s A Field Guide to American Houses.
We would be so much less as a major city without her persistence, patience, and perseverance.
“Many people don’t know about her early work in the 1970s to save Swiss Avenue and Munger Place,” Preservation Dallas executive director David Preziosi said. “She set up a revolving fund at Preservation Dallas to save houses. We would not have the east Dallas real estate we have now if it were not for her efforts in the early 1970s. Virginia was instrumental in getting the first residential historic district approved.”
It is only fitting that her legacy continues.
Thanks to her close friends Elizabeth Mast and Harryette Ehrhardt, that’s exactly what’s happening.
“I live next door to Elizabeth,” Harryette said. “We were talking one day about what we’d like to do to honor Virginia’s memory.”
Of course, with the advent of COVID-19, funerals as we know them came to a halt. Harryette had never thought about the effect of that.
“I never thought I’d miss a funeral,” Harryette said. “But having closure, not being able to tell the stories, and hug people was hard on me. Funerals are a way for us to express our feelings and relive wonderful memories. They are a way to recognize someone you cared for and to show how much you loved them. So, this is our way to do that.”
“I have always admired Virginia,” Elizabeth Mast said. “She was so graceful and elegant, and behind that, she was a powerhouse. She got things done. I got to know Virginia when I went into real estate. I took the Preservation Dallas Historic Home Specialist course, and Virginia was one of the speakers. She lived two doors down from me, and we became great friends. There are just people you recognize, that you connect with. The amount of knowledge and power behind her was amazing. She executed everything she went after. I just said to Harryette one day that we need to do something. Virginia is a part of this neighborhood. I thought we should do something like a cool sculpture. Harryette is a go-getter, so we started to figure it out. We met at Savage Park, which is named after Virginia’s parents, and we planned out what we needed to do.”
Elizabeth discovered an artist who happened to live in East Dallas.
“It had to be something special, Elizabeth said. “I’d heard about Kat Warwick. I had a vision in the back of my mind about a sculpture like Virginia, strong and graceful. Virginia would have loved that we picked a grassroots neighborhood artist.
Indeed, if you have happened by Kat’s house, you know why she is the perfect artist for this project. During the shelter in place orders, Kat noticed all the parents on her street out with their kids. She’d seen on local social media platforms that parents were struggling, working from home, trying to keep the kids entertained.
“It was stressful for everyone. I decided to take my sculpting platform, which is normally in the backyard, to the front yard. I thought this would give parents something to show their kids. I posted that I’d be doing it and said I’d give the kids a little art lesson. So, it was one of those things, when you do what you are called to do, somehow it works. Within a few weeks, I got a call about the project from Elizabeth. I did some research on Mrs. McAlester and was super honored to be chosen.”
The sculpture honoring Virginia, and recognizing her as one of the founders of the Swiss Avenue Historic District, will be placed in the butterfly garden at Savage Park. The city has approved the art and had overwhelming support from the survey they sent to the surrounding neighbors. After going before the Park Board, the Landmark Committee, and finally the City Council, approval is expected in late fall.
Preservation Dallas decided to expand the idea of honoring Virginia to programming.
“We want to do something to give her more of a legacy in terms of education, Danelle Baldwin Smith, Head of Programming at Preservation Dallas said. We will continue to raise funds to create opportunities and build upon her work in terms of serving neighborhoods.”
This initiative will honor Virginias’ historic preservation accomplishments in Dallas through:
A Tribute Fund to honor her legacy of preservation advocacy in Dallas by establishing matching grant opportunities to fund programs and surveys in key historic neighborhoods and venues like Fair Park. They will also establish an on-going Virginia Savage McAlester educational program in partnership with the Dallas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and other partner organizations for lectures, scholarship in historic preservation, and neighborhood advocacy.
An on-going Virginia Savage McAlester educational program in partnership with the Dallas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and other partner organizations for lectures, scholarship in historic preservation, and neighborhood advocacy.
“We all think of Virginia as ‘ours,’” Harryette said. “She was our champion.
If you would like to contribute to the fund to honor Virginia’s work and legacy, you can make your donations to Preservation Dallas at this link.
All donations at $250 and above will receive a one-of-a-kind carved heart from the excess marble repurposed through the creation of the sculpture. Preservation Dallas has graciously assumed the logistical responsibility, and they will recognize each donor in their publication. The dedication will be in the spring at the park, followed by a reception hosted by the Dallas County Medical Society Alliance across the street at their Historic Aldredge House Museum at 5500 Swiss Avenue.