Across the street from our office in the Cedars is a derelict Victorian home. If one were to repaint it, the closest match would be Behr’s Sydney Harbor blue. We ourselves work in what was once an old gate factory, the faded sign still visible from the street.
Built in the 1880’s, that Victorian once belonged to Ted and Drexel Estep. I know because I looked it up and found a story by Robert Wilonsky in The Dallas Morning News. I also looked up 1601 Ervay Street, now The MAC but once was the Ben Griffin Ford Dealership that shuttered in 1962.
Like today’s Romans who live and work side by side amongst the ruins of Vespasian’s Colosseum, Dallas developers with an eye on moving into the Cedars have the opportunity to create spaces amongst the Ambassador Hotel—which once hosted Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson. It’s not a direct comparison (for starters, the latter was built in 1905), but for a country as young as ours, 112 years certainly feels like it stretches back to the Flavian dynasty. Rather, working and living in the Cedars is working and living amongst lives already lived. Here, we are forced to confront those who came before us because in the neighborhood’s rejuvenation, we need to contemplate tearing down before we can rebuild. This is a rather unfamiliar feeling for North Texas, which has been spoiled by an abundance of untouched land enabling the seemingly folkloric rise of a prairie town to become the home of the $5 Billion Mile.
Expansion into the neighborhood presents a chance to preserve architectural uniqueness in lieu of the proliferation of junkspace forms—e.g. the placeless live-work-play concepts that recently had me doing table takes between Dallas’ Shops at Park Lane and Houston’s Citycentre. We must think of haecceities within site. As Elizabeth Meyer writes in her essay “Site Citations: The Grounds of Modern Landscape Architecture,” “Two identically shaped and dimensioned spaces, built in different regions, have very different qualities given temperature, wind, light, and resultant microclimates…Capturing, distilling, and condensing a site’s temporal qualities is another way that site-readings lead to site-makings.” Within the Cedars lies a potential to build in and around these old spaces, challenging architects to think about context, scale, and the views already defined by buildings around it: tabula rasa this is not.
It is more than adaptive reuse; it is about understanding our sense of place within space and time. What I am proposing is nothing new for Dallas per se—Preservation Dallas has been saying this since 1972—but with urban living growing in popularity, it is necessary to think about the city’s established neighborhoods and what is already there as we move back into them, an utterly different situation than choosing to move away from abandoned structures in favor of the newness of the suburbs. Preservation, for its own sake, sometimes saves stuff or buildings where they stay out of sight and out of mind, the act giving us peace knowing that the past is always there to access it whenever we want at our convenience. In this instance, we are colonizing an occupied space, even if it is the ghost town of former inhabitants. In this space resides lots with steps to nowhere, land that once was barren, built upon, fostered generations, before being returned to its (nearly) original state. It is as if those people had never existed.
This is problematic for the city’s cultural history and for the creation of buildings whose forms and materials can be influenced by its site-specific surroundings. Henri Lefebvre claims that, “Space is permeated with social relations; it is not only supported by social relations but it is also producing and produced by social relations.” There is already something here within the urban grid—using it to define design rather than jettisoning the past altogether is the act of placemaking, the creation of a visual shorthand for anytime someone says “the Cedars.”
The district is imbued with history, concretized in remnants scattered throughout its boundaries. It’s important to know what came before you to design buildings that better reflect their conditions rather than shoehorning template-driven drivel. Individuals should forego the intellectually lazy route of razing and erecting a box, of copying and pasting from site to site throughout Dallas-Fort Worth.
Todd Howard is principal at th+a, a Dallas-based architecture, interior design, and planning firm.
Travis San Pedro is special projects coordinator at th+a, a Dallas-based architecture, interior design, and planning firm.