Oak Cliff Ice House Demonstrates Need to Expand City’s Registry of Historic Places

What the situation of the Southland Ice Company property demonstrates is that too often in Dallas what stands between the preservation and demolition of some of city’s most historic structures is goodwill.

via Flickr
via Flickr

Before it grew into the global corporate behemoth known as 7-Eleven, the Southland Ice Company was founded in a little shack at the corner of Edgefield and 12th in Oak Cliff. As the convenience store chain grew, it expanded operations, eventually constructing a much larger ice house on the corner of Page and Polk streets just a few blocks south of the original location. The building was started in 1908 and completed in 1915. Through the late-1990s and 2000s, the old Southland Ice Company ice house served as a cultural center. Since then, the building has sat vacant. And you know what we do in Dallas when historic buildings sit vacant: we tear them down.

Yesterday, the Dallas Morning News reported that the historic Southland Ice Company ice house in Oak Cliff is under threat. The building, which was operated by the city as a cultural center but has long been owned by the Sala family, is up for sale. The broker who is representing the sale of the property told the DMN that one of the early offers to buy the property came from a developer who wished to scrape the structure and put up new apartments.

“But I stopped returning his calls,” [Oak Cliff broker Randall Simpson] says. “I am a steward of these public buildings.”

This statement from Simpson left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there’s a sense of relief. The naked economics surrounding the ice house point towards its eventual demolition. It is a tricky, leaky building with a complicated and impractical layout. It will likely be costly to refurbish. The ice house is also located in an up-and-coming Dallas neighborhood where dirt is selling for record prices, and yet, according to the tax roles, the building and land together is valued at merely $160,000 — half the price of what single-family homes in Winnetka Heights are selling for just a few blocks away. From a pure investor perspective, the ice house should be torn down — it is the best option for maximizing returns on an investment in that particular parcel of land.

But for the time being, that doesn’t look like it will happen because the ice house happens to be reped by a real estate agent who believes there is value in preserving the historic structure that sits on that land. Here we have in a single vignette the entire secret to Oak Cliff’s recent success — an unlikely Dallas story. The revitalization of the neighborhood has everything to do with people in the real estate industry like Simpson who see it as their duty not just to sell buildings and turn a profit, but to do so in a manner that preserves the history and character of the city they are working in. They have proven to Dallas that the application of pure pro-forma economics is too single-minded when it comes to developing in the city’s historic core. They have instead invested in intangibles like neighborhood character and local history, stoking a more sustainable — and ultimately more profitable — form of neighborhood revitalization.

But Simpson’s comment is also a reminder of just how vulnerable so much of Dallas historic architectural legacy actual is. Say the property owner decided not to hire Simpson? Perhaps the ice house would have already been sold to that developer who wants to scrape it. Perhaps Simpson’s strategy of listing the property at a high price, thus weeding out potential buyers who only want to scrape and build, stretches out the time the ice house sits on the market? Simpson used a similar strategy when marketing another near-century-old Oak Cliff property, the Dallas Power and Light building on Tyler, which was eventually purchased by Wich Which founder Jeff Sinelli. But what if it proves more difficult to find an ice house buyer who “loves it for what it was,” as Simpson puts it, and the property owner becomes impatient and decides to switch brokers?

What the situation of the Southland Ice Company property demonstrates is that too often in Dallas what stands between the preservation and demolition of some of city’s most historic structures is goodwill. We’re lucky to have it, but individual goodwill is too inconsistent and too ineffective a solution for historic preservation. The city passed a demolition delay ordinance last month that intends to help preserve buildings by postponing any demolition if a developer files for a demo permit for a building that is more than 50 years old. But again, during that waiting period, the only leverage the city has to preserve the building is to solicit the goodwill of the property owner who wants to scrap a site. While the ordinance did spark a rush of last minute demolitions, we haven’t yet seen the ordinance in action just yet and so it is difficult to know it it will at all be effective.

What is telling about the ice house situation is that the building isn’t an official city landmark or on the National Register of Historic Places in the first place. This is incredible. 7-Eleven is one of just a handful of corporations that represents the very entrepreneurial character that is at the heart of this city’s sense of civic pride and identity. 7-Eleven is a Pegasus story. Furthermore, ice houses played a significant role in the development of the Texas’ economic and social history. The building on Page and Polk is quirky, but it presents a particular and representative architectural style. It was even operated as a cultural center by the city for more than a decade. And yet, despite all of this, at no point did anyone consider it worthwhile to designate the building a city landmark.

The Headington Company’s demolitions on Main St. that led to the creation of the mayor’s preservation task force was the wake up call. A bullish real estate market in the city’s urban core represents a new threat to Dallas’ older buildings. The creation of a delay ordinance was a good first step towards establishing policy that can protect those buildings, but it is not enough. We can’t continue to rely merely on the goodwill and sense of civic stewardship of individual real estate brokers and investors.

The next step for the mayor’s task force should be to take a complete inventory of the city’s historic structures with the intent of expanding the list of city landmarks or buildings in Dallas that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We’re lucky that Simpson seeks to preserve this significant building for Dallas, and it is encouraging that the piecemeal process of designating city landmarks if finally catching up to places like the Forest Theater. But for too long the process has  been too slow and sporadic, and there aren’t enough Randall Simpson’s in this city.

There are few examples of historic structures like the ice house that demonstrate so clearly how architecture can embody something of our city’s history and identity. When we preserve our historic architecture, we are not merely preserving a token of the past, but the way in which the past continues to inform and tell the story of who we are. If we allow those buildings to be torn down, we are merely erasing ourselves.