Wednesday, January 19, 2022 Jan 19, 2022
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Bennett Miller involves himself in the profession of renovating old buildings. But unlike more fashionable modes of restoration, he doesn’t displace tenants, and he goes for what you might call low-rent restoration in “less-than-vi-brant” neighborhoods.

The 56-year-old Syracuse University graduate says that this is his fourth career. The first was as a garment manufacturer; the second, as head of the Dallas Community Action Agency for the War on Poverty; the third, as a non-academic administrator to the departments of Urban and Environmental Studies and the School of Humanities at Southern Methodist University.

“SMU was the most gracious thing I’d ever done,” he recalls. “I didn’t have to fight there. With the War on Poverty, there was never enough money to get anything done. Of course, you never have enough money at an educational institution, but there is a grace and a sophistication there that dictates how things go.”

Miller’s rather offbeat career history should offer some insight into his motivation for renovating some of the city’s oldest-though not historical-buildings. “I do what I do because I want to do it,” he says. His best-known renovation is Austin Alley. One of downtown’s first inviting pedestrian areas, it has several sidewalk shops with awnings in the style of the old warehouse district.

But Miller’s style of renovation is different from the pristine, “everything’s gotta be new” style of renovation commonly seen in Oak Lawn or East Dallas. Miller pulls out a notebook and points to simple sketches he’s drawn that show how he envisions the exterior and interior of his buildings. Miller keeps in mind the original look of the building and depends on his partner, Bill Haney, to interpret his drawings. Miller replaces as few of the building materials as possible in order to cut down on the cost to himself and his tenants. That means that Sheetrock is rehammered, electrical wiring is checked, old plumbing connections are tightened and wooden floors are polished.

Miller says he looks for masonry buildings that are between 50 and 100 years old and have interesting architectural features. If they’ve been designated as historical buildings, he can’t afford to renovate them. He tries to make sure that they are in areas of the city that have a chance of emerging within three to five years.

Most recently, Miller turned his attention to South Dallas, specifically the prostitute- and crime-plagued Ervay Street area, where he restored several virtually worthless buildings. A former feed store is now being used by a lawyer, a stained-glass artist and a futon manufacturer. At the second building, Miller turned a meat processing plant into two stories with huge loft spaces. Three photographers use the lofts as studios, and Miller is waiting for a ceramicist to decide if she wants to rent one of the others. A third building was once a bottling plant, and Haney is restoring the ground floor for a burglar alarm company. Upstairs are the offices of a medical equipment company that moved from its offices on Central Expressway to find lower rents and, ironically, a safer work environment.

Miller is visibly proud to show his renovations, but he looks sheepish when he talks about the grand-scale renovations being done elsewhere in the city by people with more money. “Look at the Higgin-botham Bailey building in Founders Square vs. what I have done,” he says. “It’s like night and day. They have spent so much more money converting it. I think that is marvelous, but I think that what I do is purposeful.”