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Deep Ellum’s Difficult Dance Between Preservation and Development

Preservation alone won't save Deep Ellum from itself. But a push to get the neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places is a step in the right direction.
Kristi and Scot Redman
The demolition began without much fanfare, as it usually does.

Construction workers and equipment showed up in April. By the end of the month, most of the low-slung buildings on the north side of Main Street between Good Latimer Expressway and I-345 were reduced to bricks and detritus. Dallas property tax records date different parts of this Deep Ellum strip to 1913 and 1941. Over the last few decades, however, it was known for the concert space at 2513 Main Street. Remembered most fondly for its days as the Gypsy Ballroom and the Gypsy Tea Room (itself named for a club destroyed still earlier in the neighborhood’s history), in more recent years the venue operated as The Door and, finally, 2513 Deep Ellum.

Central Track covered the demolition, mourning what was lost. The news prompted a familiar wave of cries over what Deep Ellum is giving up amid all the external signs of its own success: New high-rise apartments and shiny office space suddenly surround the humble one- and two-story buildings that make up the entertainment district at the heart of the neighborhood. Dallas has a well-deserved reputation for paving over its own history. This apparent conflict between preservation and development, past and future, is especially pronounced in Deep Ellum.

This is despite the fact that—with notable exceptions, like the Knights of Pythias Temple building—many of the historic buildings in Deep Ellum are nothing too special from an architectural point of view. They’re functional, built in another time for work or play without many frills. But taken together, a different image emerges.

“What makes Deep Ellum significant is the collection of buildings,” says David Preziosi, the executive director of the nonprofit Preservation Dallas. “When you start to eat away at the collection here and there, you lose the coherence of all the buildings and how they make this really unique urban district. It’s important to save these vernacular buildings, these everyday buildings.”

That’s why Preservation Dallas favors a new plan. It is informed by the just-released preliminary results of a city-commissioned survey cataloguing historic buildings and potential landmarks in downtown and Deep Ellum. Why designate one building a protected landmark when you can push to create a nationally recognized historic district that encompasses all of Deep Ellum?

Getting the neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places would, most significantly, create generous tax incentives for property owners and developers to rehabilitate, rather than tear down, the historic buildings. That’s an attractive proposition for the Deep Ellum Foundation, the nonprofit that is working with Preservation Dallas to apply for historic district status. It would not necessarily preclude demolition, but would incentivize owners to work with what exists. Local ordinances could require additional review before any buildings are destroyed.

The Foundation’s board members include property owners and developers who, for better or worse, are most responsible for the changing face of Deep Ellum. But this is a neighborhood that has always seen dramatic change, locked in a seemingly endless cycle of boom-and-bust.

A 1925 article in the Dallas Morning News warns that “Deep Ellum is doomed.” Downtown growth was encroaching on the vibrant and historically Black neighborhood that built its reputation for nightlife, hosting legendary blues musicians like Lead Belly and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Doom truly arrived later in the century, when rail and streetcar lines were pulled out ahead of the construction of the highway that now splits Deep Ellum from downtown. This is when the original Gypsy Tea Room, and much else, was turned to dust.

You could fill a book with the newspaper and magazine articles written about what all this change has meant for Deep Ellum. In 1989, the Dallas Morning News reported that the neighborhood was even then “groping for an identity” and trying to keep a “gritty vitality” amid new development. Preservation Dallas called Deep Ellum one of the city’s “most endangered” places in 2020, but also in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010. For years, people have observed the irony that the very thing making Deep Ellum so popular—its reputation as a hub for homegrown art and music and culture—is at risk of vanishing because of that popularity.

Recent happenings do feel more dramatic. New buildings, like the Case Building apartments on the neighborhood’s east side and The Epic complex to the west, are far taller than they used to be. Among property owners, there is also a sense this latest growth is more sustainable than it has been in the past. Deep Ellum is becoming a home for office workers and apartment dwellers in numbers not previously seen here.

Standing Tall The 16-story Epic I serves as a gateway to Deep Ellum from downtown Dallas.

“The neighborhood has a need for mixed uses,” says Jon Hetzel, president of the Deep Ellum Foundation and a partner at Madison Partners, which owns property in the neighborhood. “It needs residential and office space. The boom-and-bust has been related to [the neighborhood’s] entertainment district focus. We need to be a true 24-7 neighborhood, and the only way to do that is through development.”

That development can be done without cleaning the slate, Hetzel says. Much of Deep Ellum’s most recent resurgence has come from old warehouses and buildings being restored and put to new use. Rehabbing historic buildings is good for the neighborhood “character” that keeps people coming back. It also has other financial perks for property owners, like zoning rules that allow developers to save money by providing fewer parking spots.

“Anything that’s neighborhood-wide, we prefer the carrot as opposed to the stick,” he says.

If the Deep Ellum Foundation and Preservation Dallas are successful in getting the neighborhood listed on the National Register, it would further align developers’ goals (to make money) with those of preservationists (to save old buildings).

“We do have a set of property owners that understand the value and the richness of arts and culture,” says Stephanie Hudiburg, the foundation’s executive director. “And from a business standpoint, they understand it as an amenity. It is what is bringing people to Deep Ellum.”

People are still coming to Deep Ellum, by the way. As the pandemic recedes, businesses in the area are seeing “pent-up demand” and the Deep Ellum Foundation expects a busy summer after a traumatic year. Trends that began before the pandemic—more apartments, more offices—have continued. “The momentum is still there,” Hudiburg says.

How that momentum shapes the neighborhood could depend in part on whether Deep Ellum gets its historic designation, which will take at least several years. The Austin-based HHM & Associates has shared a preliminary summary of its professional survey of the neighborhood’s historic buildings. It recommends creating a new historic district in Deep Ellum and in some ways lays the groundwork for that process, although discussion about applying for the national register has percolated for at least a few years.

The Deep Ellum Foundation got lucky in this case. The city commissioned a survey of its downtown historic “resources,” meaning almost exclusively buildings, a year ago. (The idea is to help both property owners applying for those historic tax breaks and city preservationists applying for landmark status for individual buildings).

During the process, researchers found they had the time to expand their target area east to Deep Ellum, where they documented more than 200 historic buildings that would fall within a newly created district. The summary of the survey is clear that the Deep Ellum Foundation can make a compelling case in its application to the National Park Service, which maintains the National Register of Historic Places.

Sharing the preliminary results of the survey in a Zoom presentation last week, Emily Payne of HHM & Associates said Deep Ellum checks several of the boxes it needs to. It has a rich history as a center for arts and entertainment, and as a hub for rail and other commercial uses—Henry Ford built one of his first automobile plants in the neighborhood in 1914.

Deep Ellum is also central to the story of African American life in the Dallas area. “The Texas Historical Commission and National Park Service have a high priority, especially recently, to look differently at what they call undertold stories,” Payne said in the Zoom meeting.

This slide, taken from a presentation of a survey documenting historic resources in downtown and Deep Ellum, outlines (in shaded blue) a proposed new Deep Ellum Historic District.

Too much of Deep Ellum’s story was forgotten when a highway was rammed through the heart of the neighborhood. No historic district can restore what’s already been lost. Nor can it guarantee a thriving neighborhood. Take the West End, a chunk of which was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. That effectively kept intact some of Dallas’ most historic buildings, but the West End has experienced almost as many booms and busts as Deep Ellum. (It has enjoyed an upswing of late as a tech and innovation district.)

On the other hand, a neighborhood becoming a historic district also won’t stop development. Not that it should, or that development is at odds with preservation.

Westdale, which has been one of the biggest developers and landowners in Deep Ellum since the mid-’90s, is occasionally held up as a villain by those who prefer Deep Ellum the way it used to be—whenever, or whatever, that may have been. The company is behind many of the new high-rises in the neighborhood, including apartment buildings and The Epic, the towering office complex whose most prominent corporate tenant is Uber. Westdale also owns the land where the Gypsy Ballroom once stood.

“Those buildings had become structurally obsolete,” says Joe Beard, Westdale’s president and CEO, referring to the old venue and its neighbors. “They’d become a danger. There was a foundation issue. We tried a number of things to save the easternmost building, but it’s got footing issues. We hate to lose a building there, because it’s going to cost a lot more to build there.”

Behind what it just demolished, on Elm Street, Westdale is restoring about a block’s worth of old buildings. There have been close calls—it was only a then-new preservation ordinance that in 2015 kept Westdale from bulldozing the Knights of Pythias building, which had been left to deteriorate for years, underneath The Epic. (It was instead incorporated into the new development as a boutique hotel.) Westdale has more often restored historic properties for new uses than it has torn them down, like when it converted the Adam Hats facility into loft apartments.

Beard is, however, leery of preservation rules or the creation of a historic district that would cover the entire neighborhood.

“I’d rather see more specific buildings [protected], because there are some buildings that are not historically significant in the neighborhood,” he says. “So I’d rather see a rifle-shot approach, rather than a complete overlay.”

None of this is out of villainy or altruism. It’s business. And in Deep Ellum, there is an increasing recognition that preservation is good for business.

“I think the core of Deep Ellum has still been preserved,” Beard says. “It’s just some of the perimeter area that has gotten some vertical development. I would say the market has pretty much recognized the value in the core of Deep Ellum.

“It’s not going to turn into Uptown or Victory [Park] or any of these other places,” Beard added. “It’s just not. What it is going to evolve from is from being purely an entertainment district into more of a neighborhood.”

A neighborhood is more than its buildings, and the people who worry about Deep Ellum’s future understand this. Deep Ellum’s Continental Gin Building is a 133-year-old landmark whose owners, August Real Estate Co., took every preservation-based tax break they could find while restoring the once-crumbling old building, which is now leasing for office space, retail, and restaurants. Great for the old building, its landlords, the people who will work and eat and shop there, and eventually for the city’s tax base. Not so great for the artists who’d been enjoying the affordable studio space before the building was sold a few years ago.

“When you take those buildings, you lose the visual connection to that history. If you start to take away what’s there, it’s not Deep Ellum anymore.

That’s why you pour out your drink when you see they tore down the old Gypsy Ballroom. You weren’t attached to the building; you were attached to the memory of the show you saw there in 2007 when you were in high school or college and music meant everything, to the knowledge that you can still go down to Deep Ellum on any given night and find live music, art, and the friction that occurs when people gather around close to something creative. All the stuff you can’t find at the mall.

Preservation, on its own, can’t prevent change. And Deep Ellum is changing, as it always has. The Deep Ellum of today is not the Deep Ellum of 2007. The previous glory days of the 1980s and ’90s must have been a far cry from the era when Lead Belly was walking the streets. Art and music have, however, been a near-constant, as has anxiety over development.

The one other thing Deep Ellum has long had, and always will have, if we take care of it: history. You can see it for yourself every time you walk down Main or Elm and take in the buildings, each unremarkable on its own, but adding up to something much greater than brick and mortar.

“You have this really incredible mix of historic buildings, but layered on top of that you have the cultural history of Deep Ellum, which is tied to the historic African American business community and to the blues and music scene that was incredibly important in the early 1900s and 1920s and 1940s,” says Preziosi, of Preservation Dallas. “When you take those buildings, you lose the visual connection to that history. If you start to take away what’s there, it’s not Deep Ellum anymore.”

Preservation alone won’t save Deep Ellum. But it’s the only way to start.

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