Real Estate

One Last Look at the Maple Terrace

The glorious, notorious apartment building at Maple and Wolf is scheduled to become a luxury hotel. We visit for one last look.

Joy John has the practiced look of a longtime building manager. She’s taken care of gas leaks, broken elevators, and overflowing bathtubs, and she knows the worst problem she can face is an unhappy tenant. So she fixed the most I-mean-business blue eyes in Dallas on the young man seated in front of her as she gave it to him straight: “Doll, the new owners are going to convert the building into a luxury hotel. I can only offer you a lease through spring 2001.”

“That’s okay,” replied James Ryland. “At least I can say that I’ve lived here.”

The Maple Terrace apartment building crowns the top of the slight hill at the corner of Maple and Wolf streets. The Alhambra-like structure is fronted by a ballroom-sized tiled terrace, surrounded by a gracious slope of grounds and gardens. Described for decades as “Dallas’ only high-rise” though it is really only a mid-rise, “as close as you can get to a brownstone,” although it is distinctly a Beverly Hills suburban, not an urban, building, the Maple Terrace is unique in Dallas, a grand old lady with an old lady’s eccentricities and an Edwardian history. Ryland, a massage therapist turned seminarian, had been living at Turtle Creek Village, one of the new apartment complexes that have sprouted all around the Maple Terrace. He hated it, he told Joy. He could hear every door, every window, every elevator. Not like the Maple Terrace, so solid you feel like it could withstand terrorists, tornadoes, Godzilla. Everything but a rise in property values.

Ever since it was built in the 1920s by Sir Alfred Bossom, a Texas-crazy (he imported Mexican food for his luncheons in London) Englishman, the Maple Terrace has attracted and nurtured some of Dallas’ most interesting people. Now those days are over. “The building,” as past and present residents fondly call it, is slated to become (another) deluxe hotel, complete with (another) five-star restaurant and an addition of 100 more units on the northwest side of the building. Nothing smothers art like luxury.

For 70 years, the Maple Terrace has been a building people aspired to. Artists, interior designers, clothing designers, architects, and general bohemian types have moved in and out and in and out of the Maple Terrace in a steady procession. Residence in “the building” has been almost a rite of passage. Saying “I live at the Maple Terrace” categorized you. Only a certain kind of people lived at the Maple Terrace. Not that everyone was alike who lived there. In fact, just the opposite.
Artist and resident Otis Jones says it was a “quirky place for quirky people.” Former resident Jerry Price, one of Dallas’ edgy designers, part of the team that made Neiman’s downtown windows and visual displays a showcase, describes the Maple Terrace more bluntly. “The place was full of kookheads.”

Everyone knew stories about the building. Before the roof was built on the parking lot, artist Bob Daddy-O Wade parked his trailer out there, ran an electrical cord up to the power supply, and lived there. Shirley Maclaine was a frequent guest, and local celebrities kept the party going all the time. During the ’80s, Craig and Lynne Lidji, then married and involved with the highest fashion store in town, Lou Lattimore, were notorious Maple Terrace hosts. Della, a waitress over at the Stoneleigh Hotel, delivered pitchers of margaritas to their parties at the pool. The Stoneleigh was the Maple Terrace annex—after partying all night, residents would troupe across the street for breakfast. Maple Terrace residents could charge their food from the Stoneleigh to their apartment. Of course, it got completely out of hand.

Miss Kitty (from the TV series Gunsmoke) lived there; “everybody knew” her husband turned out to be gay and she died of AIDS. Mega-caterer Mike Hearn lived and officed at the Maple Terrace, just blocks away from his party kitchen across from where the Crescent is now. Artist Dan Rizzie and designer Bea Harper lived at the Terrace, separately, together, separately. Art diva and dealer Laura Carpenter lived in entrance four and kept offices in entrance three. Her neighbors remember her stomping in scowling after walking her Akita, then appearing moments later in the courtyard in an Issey Miyake ball gown, waiting to be picked up for the evening’s gala. Now-famous fashion designer Todd Oldham lived on the top floor—the hottest part of the building. Every night in the summer, he’d wait until the sun went down, then put an air conditioner in the window for the night. In the morning, the air conditioner had to come out because the management didn’t allow unsightly window units.

The parties began in the ’20s and seemingly never stopped. Carol Wells, former owner of Silhouettes children’s store, was introduced to the Maple Terrace when she owned the first gay nightclub in Dallas, La Pigalle. One of the club entertainers (“he was so handsome”) invited her and her partner to the pool at the Maple Terrace. “He was staying at the Stoneleigh, and hotel guests used the pool,” Carol says. “It was the pool in the city. They had a bar out there and you could rent cabanas for the summer. Businessmen kept their mistresses there—it was on the way home from downtown. In those days, you could drive up to the door in the back and there would be someone who would help you with your groceries and park your car. You could have your lunch served by the pool—waiters would come from the Stoneleigh and mix drinks for you. It was just fabulous. Everybody who was anybody—movie stars, performers in the Summer Musicals, Greer Garson before she moved to Highland Park—would hang out at the Maple Terrace pool.” Carol moved in and stayed for 20 years.

The building is shaped like a U, three walls embracing a green treed courtyard in the back. Residents always used the back entrances—there are four of them, and over the years, each entrance developed its own personality. “I lived in entrance one, apartment 601,” says Carol. “Entrance one was definitely the wildest entrance. We had the most parties.”

Picnics at night with Japanese lanterns hanging from trees. Halloween parties with hundreds of black balloons. All-night parties that ended trekking through the basement to the pool. Lawn parties with everyone trailing around in white and big hats. Parties on the roof to watch the sunsets or the fireworks. And every Sunday, parties by the pool with music and someone cooking on the grill. Everyone was invited.

Dallas design legend Perry Bentley lived in entrance one. So did Jerry Price, who moved into the building the same time as Carol. “At the height of it, it was wild,” remembers Jerry. “Because of the shape of the building, everyone watched everyone else through the windows. Every room in the building—even the bathrooms—has windows. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing. I remember a Hungarian woman who ran a store in the Quadrangle—she had been a seamstress for Balenciaga. She lived in an efficiency and I could look straight into that tiny space and she’d have 20 people in there, laughing and dancing. That’s my favorite memory of the building.”

The building allows for privacy as much as community. There are no long halls in the Maple Terrace. Each entrance leads to a separate world. The old-fashioned elevators, with a cryptic trio of bakelite buttons that inevitably baffle first-time visitors, have manually operated crisscrossed brass gates that imply “keep out” more than “come in.” You have to know the unofficial rules to live in the Maple Terrace. You have to put up with the idiosyncrasies of the place. Take the stairs on Wednesdays when the elevator is being cleaned. Have patience with a security system that sometimes denies access to everyone. Tolerate the lingering days of cold and the early days of summer—there are no individual unit thermostats, so residents have to wait till the heat or air conditioning is turned on for the season. Sheila Taylor Wells called the Maple Terrace a powdered old lady. If so, it’s a lady played by Olympia Dukakis—strong, lasting, not prim or proper.
The layout of the Maple Terrace encourages a laissez faire adaptation of the individual units to individual tastes. Over the years, various tenants remodeled two-thirds of the apartments. Doors were torn off, walls came down, room sizes were doubled. The owners merely watched over the changes with a benign bemusement.

Joan Davidow, director of the Arlington Museum of Art, redid her apartment. “I pulled up the carpet, took off the shutters, took out some doors, changed the lights, painted the walls gallery white, and installed glue-down gray industrial carpeting,” she says. “I always kept a sculpture in the hallway outside my door (a ceramic figurative piece I call Norm by Fort Worth sculptor Chris Powell). Later I moved in another piece, which, well, it did make the back door inoperable. And a new eager-beaver fire marshal told me I had to remove both of them. I had to agree on the back door. But, needless to say, Norm stayed put.” Joan moved to the Maple Terrace at the end of 1990. “Once I saw the grounds and the pool and the way of life in the building, I really wanted to live there,” she says. “Then there was nothing available until I asked Laura Carpenter to speak to the manager for me. Dorothy was the gatekeeper. All of a sudden, an apartment was available.”

Ken Knight relates the mystery of the List in his own words:

Admittance to the Maple Terrace was like getting into a very exclusive club. There was seldom a vacancy. Some of my best friends lived there, so I wanted to live within the walls of history—thick walls, I might add. The intimate charm of a Chicago-style apartment building on the setting of a grand landscape, sitting in the middle of the busiest area of town was all well and good, but it was the challenge of getting in that intrigued me just as much. How did Gail Defferari, my jewelry buyer at the time, who now reigns over her San Francisco restaurant kingdom, land that studio on the seventh floor? I was green with envy. How could I find a way into that world of bigger-than-Dallas urban living? One day in 1989, I had an opportunity to find out.

Dorothy Engles, who had been manager for decades, had a big, long list of “aspirants.” It was so long that you could get on it, but, well, good luck.

“We seldom have an opening, sir,” was the company line. When a name surfaced for acceptance into the pantheon of residency, there was really no way to audit how long that name had been on the List. Dorothy would probably deny it, but it always seemed like she chose the tenants with loving care, like picking the best flowers from her garden of applicants, without reference to the list at all. This concept of tenant selection isn’t exactly a novel approach in the industry, but Dorothy had a knack for character in her tenants. She actually created quite a culture.

When meeting her for the first time, I dressed up. I wore navy blue and shined my shoes.  Living in San Francisco at the time, and about to return to Dallas, I had been “recommended” by a friend, Larry Lyles, who was just about to move out—and when I got his apartment before it even became officially available, I felt I had won the lottery!

What list? Was it lost that day—or did Dorothy just like me?

 

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