Dallas’ oldest buildings

Anyone delving into Dallas’ history quickly discovers a psychological fact: Dallasites have been too consumed with fleeing the past and stretching for the future to be bothered much about preservation. A search for, say, Dallas’ oldest buildings grows strangely mythical. Huge sections of the city have never been examined to establish their historical value. The age of many buildings is the subject of longstanding debate; some landmarks, almost certainly, are simply crumbling away in a forgotten corner of town-the owners unaware of their part in Dallas’ history.

Currently, it’s impossible to know for sure which of Dallas’ buildings are the oldest. Incomplete records often make the authentication of even the most basic facts impossible. The original owner of a building or the date of its construction is often difficult to pinpoint; all respected works on the subject contain a number of educated guesses. Amazingly, a survey of the oldest buildings in Dallas has never been done. Local historical groups all heartily agree that such a survey would be useful, but each cites its own reasons why one has never been done: lack of money, more pressing projects, the unavailability of a quality research team and more lack of money.

But despite the neglect of Dallas’ history, which is only now being reversed by heritage groups, a respresentative number of Dallas’ oldest buildings has survived. The six included here were all built before 1900. Each is among the oldest of its genre and is a fine example of the day’s architecture. They all cut across the social landscape of the 1800s: a church, a school, a government building, and three houses (a log cabin, a Victorian house and a mansion). Separately, they allow a look into a part of early Dallas culture. Taken together, they give a flavor of Dallas during the 50 or so years between the time Texas became a state and the turn of the century.


Though the huge red county courthouse dwarfs everything around it with its splendid old style and bright color, the 93-year-old building is not, as many have assumed, Dallas’ first courthouse or even its second. In fact, Old Red was the sixth Dallas County Courthouse and was the last before the present one on Commerce Street. It seems that local government officials have had problems with the courthouse ever since John Neely Bryan laid out the first one-a 16-by-16-foot wooden structure built on the corner of his lot, so that it wouldn’t disturb the crops that grew on the rest of it. That one burned to the ground; during the next 45 years, four more courthouses either burned or were dismantled until the city fathers decided, toward the end of the 19th century, to build a fireproof hall of justice “second to none in the South.” In a city bursting with Southern pride and Texas braggadocio, the courthouse neeeded to be special. The magnificent $350,000 structure that resulted was special indeed.

Built of Little Rock blue granite and Pecos red sandstone, the iron-frame building included steam heaters fed with 250,000 gallons of fresh water a day from the Artesian wells in the courthouse back yard. The original building included a bell tower (dismantled in 1919) with a clock bell that weighed 4,500 pounds and was a favorite spot for photographers to capture the ever-changing Dallas skyline. The courthouse, which was declared sound “for another 50 years” back in 1954, has remained in use; today it houses family courts. The Romanesque-style building was refurbished in 1968, and only recently the two missing acroterions (mythological animals with a serpent’s body, batlike wings and the head and legs of a lion) were replaced atop Old Red. One of the four statues, sometimes erroneously called griffins or gargoyles, disappeared in the mid-Thirties under mysterious circumstances and was replaced by a copy.

A new gleaming white county courthouse was dedicated across the street in 1965, but the building that for many still represents the real Dallas survives, bounded by Commerce, Houston and Main streets and a pedestrian mall. There is no need for a fence now, as there was when it was built in 1856, “to keep wandering livestock from eating the courthouse lawn,” but a sense of Dallas history lives on through Old Red.


The tiny Hord cabin that stands on the northeast corner of the Marsalis Zoo is actually the second cabin that William H. Hord and his slave built during the winter of 1845. The first was a makeshift structure-a few logs, a dirt floor and a roof to provide shelter from the freezing winds and the Indians who roamed the area just west of the Trinity River. When Hord built the second cabin on part of the 640 acres that he had been deeded in January 1845, Texas was still a republic, and his house was in Robertson County. Not long after, the republic became a state, the county became Dallas and the owner of Hord’s Ridge became one of the area’s leading citizens.

The Hord ancestry began in England and shifted to Virginia and Tennessee before Hord brought his family west in a covered wagon. They had no idea what to expect; what they got was a one-room cabin and lots of open space outside. Hand-cut shingles roofed the one-and-a-half-story structure (the half-story was removed when the cabin was restored) and behind the house was the “refrigerator,” a hole that Hord had cut in the rocks lining an icy spring, where milk bottles were cooled. Inside the house was the combination slave quarters and kitchen, where handmade candles were fashioned.

In 1850, an election was held to determine the county seat, and when Dallas (then called the Peters Colony) and Hord’s Ridge (the name was later changed to Oak Cliff) finished far ahead of Cedar Springs, a runoff was held. Dallas was named the county seat by a vote of 244 to 216, and Hord’s Ridge had the first taste of the stepsister role that the area still retains today.

While Hord’s wife opened the region’s first boarding school, charging students 12.5 cents a day for tutoring and food, Hord was named second chief justice (the highest local government appointment of the day) and became a brigadier general in the Texas Confederacy. He officiated at the marriage of the first couple wed in Dallas after the formation of the county. His wife’s brother, John M. Crockett, a Civil War colonel, became Dallas’ second mayor.

After many years of neglect, the Hord cabin was rescued by members of the Martin Weiss family and now is cared for by the American Legion Post #275. The chimney, roof and porch of the cabin have all been rebuilt, but the logs in the walls and the mantel are original. The Hord cabin, which is the oldest existing dwelling west of the Trinity River, contains a few frontier trinkets and is open only for private showings.


When former Gov. William P. Clements Jr. (then chief executive officer and chairman of the board of SEDCO, an oil drilling company) bought the old Cumberland School building in 1970, he had no idea what he would do with it. But one thing was certain: He wasn’t going to tear it down. Clements, whose wife’s greatgrandfather was president of the Dallas school board when Cumberland Hill School was built in 1888, had studied the massive structure. It had been remodeled so many times that it hardly resembled the original building. He decided to keep the school, which had already cost SEDCO $1.3 million, and totally refurbish it, staying true to the original plans, at a cost of another $1 million. In 1970, the school in which two of Clements’ aunts had taught-the same building that numbered among its students Jesse Jones, who eventually became the Secretary of Commerce during World War II-became the corporate headquarters of SEDCO.

It still looks much as it must have in 1888 when it replaced a small wooden-frame school built on the same site before the Civil War by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. After Dallas established public education in 1884, the land was sold to the city, which constructed the two-story, eight-room brick building at a cost of $20,000. Students came from the elite areas of the city with addresses such as Ross, Thomas, McKinney and Maple avenues. The building’s main entrance, now at 1901 North Akard, originally faced Munger, and the cupola was a valuable lookout tower for the volunteer fire department. By 1930, “Hill” had been dropped from the name, and the school had become a cosmopolitan center, educating students of more than 30 nationalities who lived in the industrial section of Dallas.

By 1963, there were not enough children living in the area to justify the school’s existence, and the aging structure, which had served more than 30,000 students in its 75-year history, became a trade school until SEDCO’s acquisition. The building, which still retains its high ceilings and much of its original brick, enticed Clements both as a landmark and as a novelty. “I just didn’t want to see it torn down,” he said at the time of the SEDCO remodeling. “Everyone in town will be aware of this building and know it’s the SEDCO building. This is a corporate plus.” Whether primarily personal or professional, Clements’ interest in the building’s preservation was critical to its survival. His company outbid the only other competition for the property by just $6,000. The other bidder’s intent? To raze the 90-year-old building to make room for a development project.


Most viewers probably don’t even notice it, and those who do have probably stopped wondering about its significance. At the close of each news broadcast on Channel 8 (WFAA-TV) a tag line appears that reads: Belo Broadcasting Corporation. Though that brief mention of the Belo name may mean little to most of the Dallasites watching, the influence of the man who gave his name to that corporation is still being felt today. His empire, which today includes the WFAA television and radio stations, began with The Dallas Morning News and was symbolized by his stately home, the Belo mansion, on Ross Avenue.

When Alfred Horatio Belo arrived in Texas in 1865, he was on his way to look for work and a home. Texas was merely a rest stop for Belo, a Civil War colonel from North Carolina who was wounded at Gettysburg in 1863. But the advertisement for a bookkeeper with the Galves-ton News, Texas’ oldest newspaper, lured him to the state. Within a year, Belo was a partner in the operation, and a decade later, he became the sole owner. Ten more years passed before he got the idea to open a branch office-the first time any newspaper in America had done that-in the Northeast Texas city of Dallas. In 1895, The Dallas Morning News was established, and the country’s first newspaper chain was connected by 315 miles of telegraph wire.

It wasn’t long before Belo moved to Dallas to take his place as one of the city’s most prosperous citizens. He built a residence to match his position: a neoclassical mansion with magnolia and elm trees in the yard. The mansion, which was patterned after the family home in North Carolina, included a huge staircase hall that was an architectural showcase.

The dates of construction are unclear-some say 1888; others place it closer to 1900-but the fabulous home of the Belos, with its beautiful balcony and a fireplace in every bedroom, served notice as to the success of the colonel, one of the founders of the Dallas Public Library and an organizer of the Associated Press.

After Belo’s death in 1901, the home changed hands repeatedly, finally becoming a funeral home in 1926. Thousands of Dallasites trooped through the mansion in 1934 to view the body of outlaw Clyde Barrow, lying in state soon after he was gunned down with Bonnie Parker in an ambush by Texas Rangers. Restored during the mid-Seventies, the Belo mansion now serves as the Dallas Legal Education Center, home to the Dallas Bar Association and the Dallas Bar Foundation.


The red-brick-and-stone structure that still stands on the same spot where it was built in 1890 now forms the cornerstone of the cluster of buildings that is First Baptist Church, home of the largest Baptist congregation in the world.

When ex-Confederate cavalryman/lawyer W.L. Williams and his wife first met Baptist preacher and evangelist W.W. Harris in 1868, there were no Baptist churches in Dallas (three had formed and dissolved). The three promptly acquired the use of the Masonic Lodge at what is now Lamar and Ross and held a two-week revival there for 11 worshippers who called their group the First Baptist Church of Dallas. The original members (who included Mrs. S. C. Akard, for whose family Akard Street was named) asked Harris to be their first pastor and held Dallas’ first recorded Baptist Sunday school in 1871. The next year, inspired by a challenge from the church’s second pastor, Mrs. Williams led the women of the church in raising $500 to finance the foundation of the church’s first building. The women wove rugs and made hominy, cheese and preserves to sell at local fairs to raise money to begin construction of the 35-by-65-foot wooden-frame building on the northeast corner of Akard and Patterson, which eventually cost $6,000.

With an increasing membership, the church quickly outgrew the little building, and in 1884, under the leadership of one of its most prosperous members, Col. C.C. Slaughter, the members voted to build a new church “costing not less than $50,000.” Construction was soon begun on the High Victorian and Romanesque building that now stands on the corner of Patterson and Ervay. The church spent $90,000 on the building, which included a $7,500 organ. The entrance originally faced Patterson (it was moved to Ervay in 1928), and a high double-arch door once stood where a stained-glass window is now, but the rest of the building’s exterior is virtually the same as it was in the 1880s. The sanctuary, which has undergone numerous remodelings and enlargements, has housed such speakers as Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan-not to mention Gerald Ford, when he was running for reelection in the fall of 1976. It is still the site of Sunday worship services. Finished in 1890, the First Baptist Church sanctuary survives as the only downtown Dallas church on its original site.


While preservation groups all over town struggle to recapture the past, two gracious ladies in South Dallas are living it. Stepping into the beautiful Victorian home of Margaret and Veronica Sullivan is like stepping back into the days when going into town meant riding the streetcar and entertainment meant a lemonade party in the back yard.

Margaret and Veronica’s father, Dan Sullivan, bought the house in 1891 (it was four years old) after moving to Dallas from Savannah, Georgia. The son of a Confederate Army soldier, Sullivan founded and ran a successful plumbing business before selling it to go into civic work during the first decade of the new century. He was appointed the fire and police commissioner by the governor and was elected the town’s first water commissioner with the backing of the Citizens’ Association (the forerunner of the Citizens’ Charter Association) in 1907. His support largely was responsible for the passage of a $500,000 bond election in 1909 for the creation of White Rock Lake, and his contributions of funds were instrumental in the creation of SMU and the building of the Adolphus Hotel.

The Sullivan sisters look back with fondness on the days when their neighborhood was an elite section of town. The house, which has had only minor repairs, still contains gaslight Fixtures and hand-tooled door hinges. The pine floors are original, as are the sturdy antique pieces of furniture made of solid mahogany, oak and walnut. The double fireplaces, which served two rooms apiece, have been replaced by gas heaters, but much of the house is unchanged: the high ceilings, the narrow 10-foot-high windows and the transoms over each door. Even the floor plan of the house is typical of a Victorian home: a long, narrow entrance hallflanked by parlors and a dining room. Out frontis a wraparound porch with Ionic columns andplenty of room for a rocking chair. In short, atypical residence for an upper-middle classfamily of the late 1800s. Today, the Sullivansreceive guests as they always have-in the sitting room-and chat gently about the past.Though Margaret politely declines to revealher age, she says she remembers when thestreets in front of her house carried streetcars,not automobiles, and when quiet afternoonswere spent sitting underneath the chinaberrytree. The Sullivan sisters don’t need to recapture the past; they never let it go.


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