David Preziosi, FAICP
Executive Director, Preservation Dallas
It has always been a struggle in Dallas and the Park Cities to save historic homes from the wrecking ball. We have lost so much over the years and continue to do so because historic properties face incredible pressure, from property valuations to a desire for increased density. The bigger, bolder, newer philosophy has often been the mantra regarding buildings in Dallas and the Park Cities, whether residential or commercial.
However, the historic preservation community received excellent news last week. An announcement was made that the 1931 Elbert Williams House at 3805 McFarlin Boulevard in University Park was purchased, not for demolition, but preservation.
The Williams house was designed by architect David Williams (no relation to Elbert Williams). He is considered the originator of the Texas Regionalism style. The style incorporated local materials and logical designs to deal with Texas’s harsh climate. Broad overhangs shaded interiors, while first- and second-story porches and large windows allowed for maximum airflow before air conditioning came along.
O’Neil Ford, a protégé of David Williams, used the style extensively with numerous examples built in Dallas and the Park Cities.
Thankfully, the incredibly important Williams house will remain.
However, many other historic homes have not been as lucky, including many designed by O’Neil Ford.
Both the Park Cities and Dallas have lost significant and unique historic houses with a plethora in the last few years. It can be an uphill battle to save a historic home with the incredible development pressure the area continues to face year after year.
While there are historic and conservation districts in Dallas to protect historic structures, there is no equivalent in the Park Cities.
A property owner in the Park Cities can demolish a residence that has stood for decades, sometimes even a century or more, without any review, other than requiring a demolition permit. That has unfortunately led to a dwindling supply of historic homes in the Park Cities.
Both in Dallas and the Park Cities, property values have increased to the point where the land can be more valuable than the historic house that sits on it. This, unfortunately, makes it even harder to save historic homes from the wrecking ball, especially if the home is on a large lot. Developers target them because they are prime for subdivision.
In several areas of Dallas, zoning has also been changed over the years in a push for greater density. This has led to historic houses becoming worthless when a lot can go from a single-family structure to a bevy of multi-family units squeezed onto the lot, according to the maximum density and height allowed by law.
The first residential historic district in Dallas was created to fight just that. In the early 1970s, Swiss Avenue was threatened with upzoning for mid-rise apartments and a TxDOT project cutting through the neighborhood to speed people into downtown.
The area was run down at the time, and the grand revival houses were dilapidated and unsightly. That stretch of some of the most incredible revival houses in the city could have been lost if it was not for the neighborhood property owners banning together to fight the changes and to protect it with historic district status.
The Swiss Avenue Historic District became the first residential historic district in Dallas in 1974 and laid the groundwork for the 20 historic districts that followed. Surely today, there isn’t anyone who could argue that it was not a successful venture as the Swiss Avenue Historic District is one of the most incredible and successful historic districts in the city.
Another factor in the demise of historic houses is that it is sometimes difficult for people to see past the condition of a non-renovated historic home. Even with the plethora of DIY and house flipping shows, most people still have trouble getting past peeling paint, rotten wood, sagging floors, caving ceilings, building systems that don’t work, and floor plans that don’t make sense for modern living.
They see scrapping and starting over as the only option. Yes, some houses can be past the point of no return when it comes to renovation, but one would be surprised by how many homes can come back from the brink of extinction.
It can take a lot to envision the possibilities for a house when it is in that condition. For those lacking that vision, there are plenty of people who have it, from architects to contractors to developers. Preservation Dallas has lists of those talented folks to help property owners explore rehabilitation and options versus demolition.
In both Dallas and the Park Cities, there are incredible examples of historic houses and buildings that have been brought back to life and updated for modern living.
Last month, Preservation Dallas held its 21st annual Preservation Achievement Awards and celebrated outstanding preservation projects and the people doing preservation work. To date, there have been over 300 awards given out.
It is incredible to see the breadth of these award-winning projects from small to large, residential to commercial, and from rehabilitation to restoration. The people that have worked on these projects are as varied as the type of projects themselves, from first-timers to seasoned renovators, and include property owners, architects, contractors, and developers.
The awards not only recognize those doing the work, but they also serve as inspiration for others who may be on the fence about taking on a similar project.
As with any construction project, it is not for the faint of heart as there can be surprises and setbacks along the way, just like in new construction, but you have to keep your eye on the prize. Often these projects become a labor of love for those undertaking them and make one feel more connected to the house and saving its history for the future.
The award-winning projects prove that hurdles can be overcome and that historic houses can have a new life in this modern world.