A Fitting Tribute to Virginia Savage McAlester

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Virginia in front of the Baldwyn House on Bryan Street. She was instrumental in saving it from demolition and getting it restored through Preservation Dallas. (Photo courtesy of Steve Clique)

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.

Virginia Savage McAlester

“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.”

Virginia Savage McAlester
An image of the booklet Virginia wrote in 1974 with Lyn Dunsavage for the Historic Preservation League to encourage people to buy in East Dallas, which at that time was run down and neglected.

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.”

Virginia Savage McAlester
The dedication of the historic marker outside Virginia Savage McAlester’s home. (Photo courtesy of Steve Clique)

“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.”

Virginia Savage McAlester
Photo courtesy of Steve Clique

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.”

Virginia Savage McAlester
The inscription on the statue is a quote from Virginia’s granddaughter: “I always said I wanted to live to be one hundred or ninety-five, but now I realize that it doesn’t matter how long you live, it only matters what you did in the time that you were alive. It seems like Ginx lived a really, really long time because she did so much.”

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.”

Virginia Savage McAlester with former Dallas City Council representative Veletta Lill in 2004 receiving the Dorothy Savage Award, which recognizes significant and ongoing contributions to the preservation of Dallas’ neighborhoods and urban core. It is the highest honor that Preservation Dallas gives.

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.

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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.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Barbara McDaniel says

    I strongly object to creating ANY statuary in the Savage Park adjacent to my home at 5439 Swiss Avenue. Moreover, no survey was ever received by me and/or my friends nearby concerning this idea.
    Also, some of the narrative advanced by promoters of this project need to be fact checked for Wallace Savage ‘a efforts to retain racial segregation during his mayoral time.

    • mmJoanna England says

      Hi Barbara. I think this is just installing a statue and not necessarily a “statuary.” However, you can absolutely consult with your city council representative regarding this project. That might be a more effective way to voice your contrasting opinion to your neighbors.

  2. Ken Kuesel says

    I also live on Swiss Avenue and have not received anything in the mail regarding this statue. I have checked with adjacent neighbors and near neighbors and they have not received any information in the mail regarding placement of this statue. We have spoken to David Blewett regarding this matter.

  3. Larry Offutt says

    Great article and noble cause for a wonderful and meaningful lady. This is a thoughtful, tasteful and elegant way to recognize a nationally recognized an award winning and celebrated historian of homes / neighborhoods in the world. A public tribute all Dallas Citizens and visitors to my Swiss Ave Historic District nieghborhood can enjoy and understand the unselfish and impactful meaning one woman can have on a nieghborhood, city, state and nation.

    KUDOS!!

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