Preservation fever hit Dallas hard in the early Seventies. First came the formation of the Historic Preservation League and the designation of the Swiss Avenue area as a historic district. Then, suddenly, everyone was looking for roots. For some Dallasites, natives whose parents and grandparents participated in the growth of the city, the preservation and restoration of historic buildings became a kind of duty to one’s ancestors. For others, newcomers from the Eastern and Southeastern states, where landmarks almost three centuries old are venerated, preservation of Dallas’ comparatively short history was a way of defining the character of their adopted city, where skyscrapers loom incongruously out of the featureless prairie. Still others began to find historic preservation a good way to make money, buying up blocks of old houses, renovating them, and turning a handsome profit. But there is inevitably a down-side to all movements. For one thing, the economics of preservation has developed its own inflationary spiral – as the demand for Munger Place and Historic District houses increases, so do the prices of these properties. The young couples who now cast longing eyes at prairie-style houses may find they can’t afford them once they’ve saved up the down payment. The amount of work needed to make these places livable is hard to estimate – and more than one couple has given up in debt-ridden despair.
Furthermore, there are landmarks that ought to be preserved that won’t be, largely because the areas they are in are not fashionable, or have become so blighted, that no one is willing to take a chance on them. Some landmarks simply have outlived their usefulness – the only way of preserving them is to treat them as museum pieces like the structures in Old City Park.
When she was in Dallas last year, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable pointed out that “usually the best way of explaining to people what it means to have an old building of character is to ask them to visualize the space without it.” The buildings and houses on the following pages deserve that kind of scrutiny. Of varying degrees of historic and architectural significance, most have outlived their original purposes. Can Dallas do without them? Or is there a way to work with their assets, “allying them,” in Huxtable’s words, “to the best new building to strengthen relationships for both”?
The Forner Farm sits on the very edge of South Dallas. The weathered, unpainted four-room house, built of milled lumber, is perhaps 110 years old. The smokehouse and small barn, both built of logs, are perhaps even older. Down in the pasture, there is a well that for as long as anyone can remember has provided cool, clear water from an underground spring. The Forners, who have lived in the house since 1927, are in their 80’s; they have been married for 64 years. They raised seven children there, and cultivated the farm until 1971. Now they rent out 61 acres of it for pasture. They’ve never owned the farm, however, and their current landlord lives in California, they think, though they’ve never seen him. The farm is perhaps a mile off LBJ, near Bonnie View Road, and is zoned for office development. It would make a superb farm museum, a means of preserving a way of life that has all but vanished. But neither of the Forners would hazard a guess about the farm’s future. “It doesn’t matter to me what they do here,” Forner says. “We’ll just stay as long as we can.”
The Joe Kovandovich house, just east of I-35 as you cross into Oak Cliff, is built entirely of poured concrete, with a Greek colonnade front and an Italianate band-frieze running around the exterior. Even the roof is poured concrete, 1 1/2 inches thick. It was built in 1916 by Joseph Kovandovich, a Czechoslovakian immigrant who died in 1951 at the age of 86. “He was quite a man,” Joe Kovandovich, Jr., a Dallas resident, recalls. “He was 6’2″ and weighed about 280.” Kovandovich was a self-educated man who, in the course of his reading, became fascinated with concrete and built the first solid-concrete structure in Dallas, a house on Ross Avenue in which the Kovandovich family lived. (It was demolished in 1972.) Joe Kovandovich, Jr., says that his father mixed cinders with the concrete that went into the Oak Cliff house, providing better insulation. Now the house stands vacant except for the derelicts who hang out their wash on its colonnade and scurry away when anyone approaches. The interior is light and airy and has a fine view of the Dallas skyline. It would be perfect as an artist’s studio.
The Cedar Springs fire station, built in 1909, is the oldest station still in regular use. But the Dallas Fire Department is not a nostalgic organization. If the department has its way, old No. 11 will be demolished sometime next year and replaced with more modern facilities. According to Chief Dodd Miller, two story stations are being phased out because firemen are often injured sliding down the pole. There is no adjacent parking space, and the men at the station don’t like to leave their cars so far away because of the relatively high crime rate in the area. But the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Historic Preservation League, and even some of the men who work out of No. 11 have come up with some alternative plans. One is to continue to use the building in conjunction with a new building behind it. Another is to sell the station as a designated landmark for development as a shop or a restaurant. Still another is to adapt the building for use as office space for the city government. What will happen is, at this point, anybody’s guess.
The Festival Theater on Maple at Carlisle was built in 1927 as a home for the Dallas Little Theater. Mrs. John Rosenfield, widow of the Dallas News arts critic, recalls that the man who guaranteed the cost of the theater died before it was finished: “He had made no provisions for the theater in his will, and his heirs weren’t interested in paying for it, so the theater started out with a very heavy mortgage. That proved to be an albatross ever after.” The Dallas Little Theater remained until 1943, when, according to Mrs. Rosenfield, “the people who had gone on the note originally just got tired of paying.” Since then, the theater has usually been a movie house for Spanish-language films, though it had a brief career as an art theater with an outdoor dining area for patrons. “It was one of those good ideas that didn’t come at the right time,” Mrs. Rosenfield says. Now owned by Teatro Panamericano, the building needs repair and a thorough cleaning.
The Sullivan house is one of the surviving houses in the area once known as “The Cedars,” southeast of downtown, near what is now Old City Park. A few old houses with a proud link to Dallas’ past remain among the warehouses, small factories, and Fifties-style apartment complexes. The Sullivan house has been home for almost 90 years for one of Dallas’ most distinguished families. Dan Sullivan, who came to Dallas in the 1880’s, was appointed Police Commissioner of Dallas in 1902; in 1907, he was on the slate of the Citizen’s Association of Dallas, a forerunner of the Citizen’s Charter Association, and was elected Water Commissioner. As a member of the City Commission, he helped develop White Rock Lake. He died in 1926. His son, Jim Dan (there were nine Sullivan children), was president of the Park Board during the Texas Centennial. Jim Dan Sullivan died in 1943. Today, Rose, Veronica, and Margaret Sullivan still live in the house. They are gracious, cultured ladies, proud of their family and of the old house filled with antiques and memories. When the Cedars was a quiet residential neighborhood, the Dreyfuss family, the Deckerds and the Sangers lived nearby. To visit the Sullivan sisters today is to return to that era.
The Shepherd King mansion overlooks Turtle Creek. Built in 1925 as a home for a Dallas cotton merchant, Shepherd King, its Spanish Baroque style makes it look like a movie star’s mansion. Inside, there is a cantilevered Italian marble stairway and balcony, 16th-century gold-leaf Italian gates, inlaid wood ceilings, an imported Italian mantel, and intricate carvings on the paneling and the plaster work. King lived there until 1930, then sold it to Mrs. Carolyn Burford, who sold it to Toddie Lee Wynne as headquarters for American Liberty Oil Company. It has since been sold first to University Computing Corporation and then to Republic Financial. Now it stands vacant. The building could be used as a small convention center, as an art gallery, even as corporate headquarters. But the property is zoned high-rise office, and is large enough for a 25- or 30-story office building. So the mansion’s days may be numbered.
The Wilson block is
Dallas’ only intact Victorian block. On Swiss Avenue near downtown, thecornerstone of the block is the Wilsonresidence, built about 1890 by F.P. Wilson.With its distinctive QueenAnne-style turret and spaciousveranda, the Wilson houseseems in good condition. The otherhouses on the block are in various states ofdisrepair, but none seems beyondrenovation. Across Texas Streetin the next block is an unusual two-storyshingle-style house that was built around1890. It, too, is saveable. The Wilsonblock has recently been bought by Fox andJacobs as part of its inner-cityredevelopment project. “Obviously thehome must be preserved,” a spokesmanfor Fox and Jacobs said, “and for the timebeing, it’s going to stay where it is.”He also said the block will undergo somestudy to see whether the Wilsonhouse should be moved.The future of the other houses on the blockis less secure. The shingle-style house across the street is notincluded in the plans.