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The Oldest Park in Dallas Has an Uncertain Future

The city will take over Old City Park next month with a goal to craft a master plan and find a new operator by 2025. In the meantime, officials seek to quiet the rumor mill.
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One of the historic structures housed at Old City Park, in the Cedars. via Facebook

At the end of May, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department will temporarily take over operations of Old City Park. The park, the oldest in the city’s history, has been managed by the Dallas County Heritage Society since 1967.

The park was purchased in 1876 for $600 (about $22,000 in 2024). Over time, it has become a repository that offers a glimpse into the region’s history. Over the past 40 years, the park has received Victorian homes and other historic buildings from the Cedars neighborhood, Plano, Carrollton, and the area that is now the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. 

The 20-acre park has one of the state’s most extensive collections of 19th-century pioneer and Victorian homes. About the time the Dallas County Heritage Society took over operations in the 60s, the park became known as Dallas Heritage Village. Serving as a living history museum, it charged admission until recently.

“This model served Dallas well for many years, but as attendance fell and the organization ran unsustainable operating deficits for 10+ years, it became very clear that changes were needed,” interim park CEO Michael Meadows said in a lengthy update on Facebook in November. “So, last year, the Dallas County Heritage Society, the organization that currently manages Old City Park, made the decision to change the name back to ‘Old City Park’ and to transition from serving as a living history museum into a public park that celebrates Dallas history.”

Meadows said the park is now free to visit, and DCHS staff has added a “much wider array” of programming to attract visitors. The city says more than 31,000 people visited the park last year.

However, the condition of the park’s 22 structures and their continued maintenance may be a sticking point in any master plan.

In 2019, I talked to Melissa Prycer, the executive director of Dallas Heritage Village at the time. She candidly outlined some of the park’s headwinds, particularly regarding the collection of historic buildings that had served as the backdrop for so much of the park’s historic programming. She said that the park once enjoyed a great deal of monetary support from the city, which assisted in maintaining the homes and their detailed restoration work on an ongoing basis. At the time, there was much discussion about the needs of the Blum house at the park—but also the Juanita Craft House in South Dallas, the Fair Park Music Hall, and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater in Turtle Creek. All of them needed money and attention.

“All of those buildings are owned by the city of Dallas, and all of those buildings are supposed to be maintained by the city of Dallas, but the Office of Cultural Affairs has been underfunded for years,” she said. “So that’s how we got here — the city of Dallas loves acquiring property but does not love maintaining it, and very few people do. I mean, in their defense, maintenance is not sexy at all.”

Talk of the transition has caused a great deal of concern. Re-homing the park’s donkeys and sheep ahead of the transition only exacerbated the rumors. The rumor mill has been churning: Will the historic homes be torn down? Will they be moved? If so, where? Who will run Old City Park in the long term? Is the city ready to maintain all those delicate structures and other artifacts? How will the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans to trench the neighboring Interstate 30 affect the park?

In November, Meadows gave an update he hoped would ease some of those worries.

“First and foremost, there is NO plan to tear down the buildings at this time. All of the land and buildings at Old City Park are owned by the city of Dallas,” he wrote on Facebook. “Designated parkland, which includes all of Old City Park, cannot be sold without approval by Dallas voters.”

So far, the city has contracted with the landscape architecture firm SWA to create a master plan for the park. Currently, the firm is assessing the condition of the park and its structures, but it expects to begin the second phase—assessing the programs offered at the park and engaging with the public—this summer. The city will also eventually begin a search for a new entity to oversee the park’s day-to-day operations. 

Meadows acknowledged that the master plan could recommend removing some of the historic structures, but it also might not. 

“But the truth is until this master plan is completed, NO ONE knows which or if any of the current buildings will be removed, moved to another location within or outside of the Park’s grounds, or left where they are,” he wrote in the post. “Going through this master planning process will allow the city to determine what the community wants Old City Park to be in the future.”

Last month, Dallas Park and Recreation Deputy Director Crystal Ross and Steve Baker, superintendent of recreation services, updated the Park and Recreation Board about the transition status. Baker said that SWA’s assessment of the grounds includes the tree canopy, the condition of the buildings on the property, and taking inventory of the park’s assets. It also includes noting the extent of any potential problems that could impact how the park is maintained.

“We do have some big flooding issues out there,” Baker said.

Phase two is anticipated to be complete by summer 2025. After that, the city will begin requesting proposals for a new organization to run the park. In the interim, the Park and Recreation Department will oversee park operations, in collaboration with the city’s Office of Arts and Culture. 

The briefing included hints that could ease concerns about a wholesale clean-out of the historic structures on the property. Baker told the board that staff had already noted several buildings and spots at the park ripe for programs and public events, including the Main Street area, which is undergoing repairs after suffering damage from flooding in 2022.

“That area of the park is very popular with photojournalists and videographers,” Baker said. “We think it’d be a great opportunity for social media and Instagram photos out there as well.”

The city would also prioritize the popular Candelight event in December, he said. The event celebrated its 51st birthday in December and is the longest-running holiday event in the state. The park will still welcome field trips and Girl Scout troops.

Most of all, Parks and Recreation Department Director John Jenkins told the board that the public should know there is no plan to close the park.

“I just want to reassure the public that the park is not closing, and we are still working with the Dallas Heritage Society as it relates to all the collections and artifacts,” he said, adding that the staff had been working to address “the false information” that had been circulating. “I assure you, we are going to activate the park.”

Reporting for this story was assisted by the Dallas Documenters’ Karem Montemayor.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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