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Swiss Avenue’s Wilson Block is restored to new life

The story of the Wilson mock is more than a story about a lovely, rare row of houses. It’s a story about a group of individuals who put preservation above profits. It’s a story about a daring plan for re-use. It’s a story about a part of Dallas that had nowhere to go but up -and the remarkable cooperative efforts that will take it there.

The tale begins in 1889, when Henrietta and Frederick Wilson purchased from Henrietta’s aunt what is now the 2900 block of Swiss Avenue. Newly married, the Wilsons built for themselves a beautiful Queen Anne-style mansion with servants’ quarters and a carriage house in the rear. As a way of controlling the fledgling neighborhood, they built six other frame houses to rent to their friends.

Born in Canada, Frederick Wilson came 10 Dallas to join his older brother J.B., an established cattleman and banker who built the Wilson Building downtown -Dallas’ oldest surviving skyscraper. Not long after his arrival, Frederick joined his brother’s successful businesses.

Frederick and Henrietta apparently enjoyed living among neighbors of their choosing; a number of their tenants were families of young businessmen [hey knew. Among them were Charles D. Hill, an outstanding Texas architect, and photographer Charles Arnold, whose collection of early 20th-century Dallas images is now held by the Dallas Historical Society.

The Wilson’s only son, Lawrence, lived in the family home and retained the rent houses for many years after his parents’ deaths. But in 1977, aging and in failing health, he decided it was time to sell.

The mid-century flight from Southeast Dallas to the city’s newer suburbs had taken its toll on the Wilson Block. The entire area surrounding lower Swiss Avenue suffered from abandonment and decay. Nevertheless, Lawrence found an eager buyer in Dave Fox of Fox and Jacobs, who was already involved in a restoration project on nearby Bryan Place. He had hopes that the Wilson houses could be restored and once again be habitable as homes.

Dave Fox was fully aware of the historic importance of his acquisition. The Wilson Block is a last vestige of the Victorian era in Dallas -and the finest cluster of turn-of-the-century architecture left. Though threatened by vandalism, vagrants-even arson -five of the houses had survived the 20th century, architectural integrity intact.

Fox and Jacobs engaged the help of the Historic Preservation League (HPL), whose members had been aware of – and fearful for -the properties for some time. The developers agreed to hold the block while HPL tried to come up with a feasible plan for its restoration and reuse. Another interested developer, Jim Coker, took out an option on part of the property, but he agreed to hold off development while the preservationists sought a way to save the tructures.

The developers began to run cost analyses on restoring the structures as houses. It eventually became clear that those costs were prohibitive. The people who could afford to pay the price, it was reasoned, simply would not buy in that part of town. Alternative schemes for re-use began to be explored.

Finally, in 1980, the Historic Preservation League raised enough money to buy all but the Wilson House itself. It was at this point that the Meadows Foundation got involved. The Meadowses had been looking for a means of enacting a unique plan for a community of nonprofit agencies working together, side by side. Here was a chance to see that dream realized while underwriting the preservation of a significant window on Dallas’ past.

The Meadows Foundation had the money to return the block to its early splendor-and the perfect plan to give it new life. In a series of transactions, it acquired all of the Wilson Block except the largest of the rental houses – the Arnold House -which was retained by the HPL for its headquarters. It should be noted that neither Fox and Jacobs, nor Coker, nor HPL made a dime on any portion of the real estate deals.

The Meadows’ vision of a unique consortium of community-service organizations is as simple as it is brilliant. The theory is that the sharing of resources, skills, expertise, equipment, even personnel will greatly enhance the operations of all. For one tenant it might mean lending a high-speed Xerox machine; for another, the sharing of volunteer recruitment strategies or donor lists.

When the restorations are complete – hopefully in the spring of next year -the Wilson mansion will house the Meadows Foundation staff. The other structures are being offered -rent-free -to organizations willing to go along with the experimental clustering plan. To date, three have moved in: the Suicide and Crisis Center, the Greater Dallas Council of Churches and the Center for Nonprofit Management. Others will be selected from a list of some 40 eager applicants.

The agencies will share in a sophisticated system of electronic surveillance to be monitored by a guard, 24 hours a day, on terminals in the old servants’ quarters. Other communal amenities in the works include a meeting facility in the carriage house, links with a central computer at the Center for Nonprofit Management and a guest room for visiting lecturers. A Victorian-style gazebo and lecture green are part of an ambitious period landscaping plan by Myrick, Newman, Dahlbag & Partners.

Construction on the houses has been under way for the past year. Because the Wilson Block is protected by a designation as a Dallas Historic District, the occupants were required to return the exteriors to their original state. Surprisingly, none of the houses had been substantially added to or altered, with the exception of updated bathrooms and the occasional enclosure of a porch. Original colors were determined by restoration architect Keith Downing, who gathered paint chips from under the eaves and examined them microscopically.

Interiors were not governed by the preservation mandates and could be freely adapted tor office use. whenever possible, the architects followed early room arrangements and restored existing materials. Volunteers from the Historic Preservation Committee of the American Society of Interior Designers assisted in selecting Victorian-style wallcoverings, window and floor treatments, and furniture.

When the Meadows Foundation purchased the Wilson property, it also acquired the adjacent 2800 block of Swiss and is in the process of locating, buying and transporting seven other compatible Victorian houses. Another large structure, the Beilharz mansion, is being moved from across the street. When the project is finished, it will encompass two city blocks of turn-of-the-century houses anchored by a mansion at either end, and flanked by a neighborhood park on one side and an historic Catholic church on the other.

Throughout the restoration project, a spirit of community cooperation prevailed. The acquisition process made allies out of preservationists and developers. Real estate proceedings centered on the salvation of these significant buildings rather than the potential for profit in new development. A sympathy for the surrounding neighborhood has led to few displacements and fewer complaints.

Soon, Swiss Avenue will bask in the glow of Victorian street lamps, as a horse-drawn carriage lazily encircles the block.In a city with so little history left, the Wilson Block is one affirmation of the Dallasthat used to be.

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