Virginia McAlester (photo by Elizabeth Lavin)

Architecture & Design

Remembering Dallas’ Pioneering Preservationist Virginia Savage McAlester

At a time when Dallas was hell-bent on paving over its past, McAlester was a dogged advocate of the city's overlooked architectural history.

This past weekend Dallas lost a giant. Virginia Savage McAlester passed away from myelofibrosis on April 9. She was 76.

There are many ways to describe McAlester. She was an author, a preservationist, an architectural historian, an activist, the founder and leader of multiple non-profits, and a loyal and dedicated daughter, sister, and mother. McAlester is perhaps best known for her monumental A Field Guide to American Houses, which, after it first appeared in 1984, did nothing less than anoint McAlester as the “Queen of Historic Preservation.” The book has topped architectural best seller lists for so long that, in 2019, Curbed called her the “most popular architecture writer in America.”

But the impact of McAlester’s life extends far beyond her very influential book. In Dallas, she roused the city’s understanding and appreciation of its own architectural history, transforming the city’s conception of itself in the process.

McAlester’s book appeared at a time when, as architectural historian William Seale told the New York Times, developers charged like “wild bulls” over the city’s old neighborhoods.

“When she started broadening her preservation efforts,” Seale said, “few, if any, in Dallas had the slightest interest in historic preservation, thinking their history too new to be worthwhile.”

McAlester’s appreciation of that overlooked history stemmed from the fact that her own life and family were so deeply rooted in it. McAlester was born on Swiss Avenue, that grande dame of Dallas boulevards, in a house that was first purchased in 1921 by her grandfather, William Harris, an attorney who had led the impeachment against Texas Governor James “Pa” Ferguson in 1917. McAlester’s father, Wallace Savage, was Dallas mayor from 1949 to 1951, but it was McAlester’s mother, Dorothy Savage, who would inspire a love and passion for preserving the magnificent homes that lined what was Dallas’ first paved street.

By the 1960s, Swiss Avenue, once home to Dallas’ movers and shakers, was in decline as the city’s wealthier residents fled to the suburbs. McAlester’s mother began to purchase homes on Swiss that had fallen into disrepair and worked to rehabilitate them. (In total, McAlester would live in five Swiss Ave. homes throughout the course of her life.) But her mother’s success at preservation was piecemeal at best. McAlester, who graduated from Radcliff and studied architecture the Harvard Graduate School of Design, saw that historic preservation required more than singular efforts to repair old homes. Historic preservation was as much a social challenge as it was an architectural one, and the city’s old homes and neighborhoods would be saved only when the neighborhoods themselves were improved.

McAlester established a fund that allowed her to broaden the scope of her mother’s preservation efforts, purchasing and rehabilitation 23 homes in Munger Place. Some of these homes represented the first-time mortgage lender Fannie Mae made loans on old homes in Dallas’ inner city. However, McAlester realized that to broaden the impact of these efforts, she needed a tool that could place Dallas’ older homes in their appropriate architectural and historical context and thus prove their value to residents and banks alike.

“I was thinking, because we had a tree guide, because we had a bird guide, I assumed there was something like that for houses,” she told Curbed in 2019. “But there was nothing that really covered the country and particularly nothing after 1900. All those early modern houses—Craftsman houses, Italian Renaissance houses—had not been surveyed.”

McAlester set about creating such a survey. The book that emerged from her efforts is a hefty tome that has been referred to as “The Bible,” by preservationists. The Field Guide is more than a catalog of home styles and types. To write it, McAlester said she had to learn a whole new architectural vocabulary, in part because the common features of so many American homes didn’t rise into the architecture lexicon at Harvard.

Unlike many architectural studies, McAlester’s book didn’t focus on singular exemplary architectural showpieces, but sought to document the scope and significance of the great variety of more commonplace designs that define the places where people really live.

For example, in a 2014 update to the Field Guide, she coined two new phrases to describe two emerging architectural styles: “21st century modern” for the sleek, angular, uncluttered structures that dominate the pages of contemporary shelter magazines; and “millennium mansions” for the thrown-up ex-urban behemoths more commonly derided as “McMansions.” For McAlester, it was important to understand the highs and lows of design because both architectural visions shape our experience and conception of American communities.

“If you had the arm strength to carry the Field Guide everywhere (or bought the e-book), you could walk down any street in America and identify the style, age, and component parts of each and every home you pass,” architecture critic Alexandra Lange wrote. “Her most enthusiastic readers are preservationists, or wannabe preservationists, trying to quantify just what it is that makes a place so different, so special. Her wider audience comprises people who simply want to know what’s going on out there, starting at their doorstep. It was slightly startling to realize how rarely I’ve considered that view in my writing—though I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about the transformation of the inside of the American home.”

The book—like all of McAlester’s works—grew out of her hands-on preservation experience. Her work on Swiss Ave. led to the creation of Preservation Dallas and the designation of Swiss Ave. as Dallas’ first historic district in 1973. Her work on Fair Park led to the establishment of the Friends of Fair Park. In addition to the Field Guide, McAlester authored or co-authored The Making of a Historic District, about her Swiss Ave. efforts; A Field Guide to America’s Historic Neighborhoods; and The Homes of the Park Cities, Dallas: Great American Suburbs.

Historic preservation in Dallas didn’t simply require careful research and skilled political organization—it took real grit. McAlester once parked the family station wagon, with her daughter inside, in front of bulldozer primed to demolish a home (she saved the home). As Mark Lamster writes, McAlester was: “A petite woman with a blonde bob, she had an innate sense of propriety and a beatific smile that hinted at a heritage of Southern gentility. She appeared fragile, but her looks belied a tough constitution and intellect, qualities that together made her a successful advocate for the causes she championed.”

Her tenacity extended into her personal life. After moving back into the family home on Swiss to take care of her ailing parents before their deaths, she also cared for her sister Dotsy, who suffers from cerebral palsy. McAlester’s long battle with myelofibrosis didn’t dampen her zeal for her work. She completed the 2014 update to the Field Guide while undergoing stem cell treatment for the disease, receiving blood cell transfusions from her sister Dotsy. Her petite stature and impeccable grace belied the fact that she was a fierce fighter. You had to be to take on the cause of preservation in Dallas.

McAlester’s lasting impact on Dallas has been celebrated. In 2014, Mayor Mike Rawlings gave her a key to the city, and in 2019, SMU bestowed her with an honorary degree. And yet, it is sad that, because her passing comes during this strange moment when the city is locked-down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be difficult to come together to memorialize her life and legacy.

However, during these strange times, we also find ourselves spending more time in our own homes and walking around our neighborhoods, perhaps stumbling upon new blocks for the first time or noticing previously overlooked homes.

It strikes me that engaging in this kind of wakeful wandering of our own neighborhoods is a wonderful way to pay tribute to McAlester’s legacy — to start at our doorsteps and have a look around, with an eye out for everything that makes our neighborhoods interesting, quirky, elegant, beautiful, or even downright bizarre.

Because for McAlester, the push for historic preservation was a response to a recognition that a city’s greatness is made up of all the small details—the overlooked architectural features, the odd juxtaposition of forms and styles—that make neighborhoods unique. It was a recognition that homes do more than shelter us, they reflect and inform who we are.

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