For years on Mother’s Day weekend—long before she moved to the district in 2014—you could find Nancy Phillips and her family at the Swiss Avenue Historic District Home Tour, exploring mansions, wandering vendor stalls, and enjoying the festival atmosphere at Savage Park.
Now back after a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus for its 47th event, the usually-annual home tour has become a big event for Phillips, who is this year’s event chair. Her children and grandchildren drive up from Austin every year, and she never misses a tour. “It’s become as big a tradition in our family as Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter,” she says.
Developed by cotton-gin manufacturer Robert S. Munger in the early 1900s as the city’s first suburban neighborhood, the Swiss Avenue Historic District is a 2.5-mile-long swath of 212 palatial houses built and owned by generations of the who’s who of Dallas. Politicians, oil barons, and real estate developers have all called this community home.
Neiman Marcus founder Carrie Marcus Neiman lived at 5803 Swiss Avenue. The 5020 Swiss dining room was used as the Ewings’ in the Dallas pilot. But besides its glamorous upper crust residents, the district is celebrated for its historic and eclectic architectural styles, such as Prairie, Craftsman, Georgian, Mediterranean, and Tudor.
“Every one of [the houses] is as historically significant as the next,” Phillips says of the district, which is framed by parts of Gaston Avenue, North Fitzhugh Avenue, Live Oak Street, and La Vista Drive.
Back in the 1970s, Swiss Avenue was added to the National Register of Historic Places in an effort to save the district from teardowns, mid-century modern renovations, office and duplex conversions, six-lane highways, and other erasures of its history.
“Historically, I think as a very young city,” Phillips says, “we don’t appreciate our past we have no trouble bulldozing a building that’s 50 years old, and saying, ‘Oh, well, it’s too old.’”
The Swiss Avenue Home Tour came about around that time too. On Saturday and Sunday every Mother’s Day weekend, the district shuts down the 5500 block of Swiss Avenue and opens up five-to-seven historical and sprawling homes for the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, and the generally curious of North Texas to tour. Thousands of people promenade through these houses, finally getting that chance to ogle at what’s inside, while 40 to 50 volunteer docents explain the architecture and the history that guests are quite literally stepping on.
Savage Park is “tour central,” and there is live music, food, drinks, and a children’s area—so while mom and dad sip a mimosa, the kids can be playing with hula hoops, face-painting, arts and crafts, or jumping in a bounce house (kiddie activities vary, depending on what that year’s committee wants to do).
A shuttle shuffles folks from house to house, and horse-drawn-carriage rides give visitors a chance to transport themselves back to the top-hatted days of yore when the Mungers moved in. Vendors set up stalls in the street’s medians. Think sweet treats like Botolino Gelato Artigianale and Steel City Pops and Etsy home goods makers, “selling everything from candles to homemade chandeliers to paintings to watercolors to their homemade cookies,” Phillips says.
Tickets are $35, and money generated from the event goes to maintain the neighborhood’s public areas, covering tree-trimming, replacing sidewalks, watering grassy medians. Phillips says the home tour raised around $100,000 in 2018 and again in 2019, and after such a long break—the district opted to not do any virtual tours during the pandemic—they’re expecting to sell 5,000 tickets.
“People are so anxious to gather and get out and get community back,” Phillips says. “The interest has been just stunning.”