PRESTON CENTER

Dallas’ first mall opened just up the road from Preston Center in 1965. And for the first time in thirty years, Preston Center felt the direct heat of competition. Many tenants scurried to spruce up their storefronts. Despite NorthPark, they succeeded in holding on to their neighborhood clientele.

Now, twenty years later, it’s the malls who may be looking over their shoulders. For Preston Center has withstood the test of time and is looking to the future with a facelift and a fresh coat of paint.

It’s not that the center was such an ugly duckling before, but let’s face it, it didn’t exactly turn heads. But quietly tucked in its comfortable niche since the forties, the center has continually been a moneymaker. Preston Center was far north when all of Dallas was clustered south. When the northern growth took off, Preston Center was right there in the heart of it. It’s biggest drawing cards remain a healthy combination of: location, with easy access from both the tollroad and Central Expressway; support by the surrounding neighborhoods, namely Preston Hollow and University Park; its mixed use of retail, services, restaurants, and doctors offices and the ample, close-in parking.

Preston Center as such did not come about until the mid 1930’s when the first land was purchased. Up to that time, the land was part of the McCraw dairy and Preston Road was only a gravel road, four feet higher than it is today. Preston was originally an old frontier road. Settlers traveled down this path connecting Austin with the town of Preston in Grayson County where it originated. The town of Preston grew out of the old Fort Preston, established on the Red River in 1840 by Captain William G. Preston. It was considered the most important town in North Texas by 1850. It later became the community of Preston Bend. The southward trail leaving the town became known as the ’Preston Road’ which finally ended on the floor of Lake Texoma with the completion of the dam in 1944.

At the time “everything was weeds down to Lovers Lane and there was a nursery down there,” recalls Sam Lobello, Jr. Lobello and his father Sam Lobello. Sr. were among the original landowners and builders of Preston Center. In fact, Lobello, Sam Ventura Sr. (a Dallas restaurateur) and J.T. Piranio purchased the plots of land from the McCraws that became Preston Center. Lobello’s father began building houses in the area, then considered to be in the country. The Lobeilo family opened a 200-acre addition of open fields and quickly made a $250,000 profit in speculation. In 1938, the block where Berkshire Court now stands was built. Lobello’s Bar-B-Que opened shortly thereafter and quickly became a local hot spot. Lobeilo Sr. had been in the food business before he entered real estate. He’d operated a fruit stand from 1910-1917 in downtown Dallas at Commerce and Ervay, a site purchased by Neiman-Marcus for their original store. Lobello Jr. had also operated several restaurants before joining his father in the restaurant business. Lobello’s usually grossed about $1,500 a day, but the war brought an end to profits and the restaurant closed in December 1941 after a day’s profit of only $71.

Another prominent developer during the 30’s and 40’s and the man most responsible for developing the Preston Hollow area (the official town limits extend from Northwest Highway to either Walnut Hill or Royal Lane, depending on who you talk to, and Preston Rd. west to Inwood or Meadowbrook) was Ira Deloache. The Deloache estate built in 1926, was bordered by Jourdan Way and Averill Way. The small white cottage at Preston and Northwest Highway was originally thought to have been servants quarters. Deloache turned the house into the first suburban real estate office in Dallas from which he developed Preston Hollow.

The white cottage went on to have quite a history of its own. Zoned for residential use only, a ’grandfather’ clause in the deed allowed its use as business as long as it never burned down. Today local residents don’t seem to mind this zoning irregularity as long as the property continues to be maintained as well as it has always been.

After Deloaches’ era, the house was leased to Kathryn Curnn and became the first real estate operation in Dallas to be run by a woman. For years Cur-rin was not allowed to join the real estate board because the men in the industry did not want a woman in their profession. In 1964 Ebby Halliday purchased the house and made it the flagship office for what has become a billion-dollar company.

In the late 40’s, others began buying property and building in the area. “Mobil Oil bought the corner from my Dad and paid my father what he had paid for the whole block,” laughs Lobello.

In 1950, Lobello and his father leased eleven acres from SMU, “old man Caruth,” on a seventy-five year lease and built what is now Preston Center East. The West side however was built in pieces due to its already numerous owners. The first strip of the West side to be developed contained Sargent’s Jewelry. Mrs. Sargent (now Mrs. Pax-son) remembers that she and other merchants first named the area Preston Center simply because they didn’t know what to tell people when asked where their stores were. Mrs. Paxson also remembers that she and the late Mr. Sargent opened their store with a handshake and $50 a month in rent from the Paranio’s in 1948. To this day she’s never had a written lease.

Lobello installed one last eatery on the West side, this time a barbecue/ hamburger stand in 1953. It quickly became the hangout of choice for 50’s teenagers. And, by the end of the decade, Douglas was paved.

Even during the time the father and son team were building many of the present structures, there was still a good mix of retail to attract the crowds, “We catered to the neighborhood,” explains Lobello. He cites several factors for its continued success in the early years, many of which still hold true today: the center was constantly developing; Dallas was growing north toward Preston Center and the tollroad brought more people out; and the fact that University Park filled in around the late 50’s and early 60’s.

The early 60’s also saw a wave of duplexes in what is now Frederick Square. The two-story units went for $45,000-$50,000, but were eventually levelled to make way for office and bank buildings.

The only real setback that Lobello remembers, and that was temporary he reminds you, was the opening of NorthPark. “That hurt us a lot and hurt business quite a bit,” says Lobello. ’Then we redid our buildings, put in air conditioning, and things got better.”

It’s not unlike what is happening now, except this time, the makeover is not a forced one due to retailers leaving the area, its because of customers who are coming in.

For many years, the center remained in the hands of numerous investors, each owning small chunks scattered throughout the properties without having or wanting any distinct marketing plan. Now that has started to change, some big players have come into the picture, and they are making their move.

“When you get the big players, you get visibility.” says Bili Willingham of Rutledge-Willingham who now owns all of Preston Center East. “I think the demand for Preston Center has always been there, but the properties have Since their first Dallas store at Galleria proved successful, Mark Shale has been looking at a number of options for a second location. The feedback from their clients echoes many other retailers’ customers’ feelings. “We heard from our customers that they liked neighborhood-type shops,” explains store manager Gordon Will. “We pride ourselves on being a customer-oriented store and being able to greet all our clients by name. Well, it’s harder to do that in a mall store. A mall attracts many more people, true, but they are not necessarily all customers. You have a lot of outside traffic coming in, locals as well as tourists. We do good business out there but we also look at a ing to NorthPark. When Neiman’s vacated the space. Stanley Marcus still held the lease. He restricted its use for retail for its full term, which just recently expired. The lease changed hands several times and Rutledge-Willingham finally bought it from Texas Federal and sold it to Bright Banc, now headquartered in the space as well. After remodeling the former bank space and readying it at long last for retail, Mark Shale and The Gazebo moved in, bringing to the center much-needed new life.

Since their first Dallas store at Galleria proved successful, Mark Shale has been looking at a number of options for a second location. The feedback from their clients echoes many other retailers’ customers’ feelings. “We heard from our customers that they liked neighborhood-type shops,” explains store manager Gordon Will. “We pride ourselves on being a customer-oriented store and being able to greet all our clients by name. Well, it’s harder to do that in a mall store. A mall attracts many more people, true, but they are not necessarily all customers. You have a lot of outside traffic coming in, locals as well as tourists. We do good business out there but we also look at a neighborhood free-standing store as a plus. In fact, we really felt the need for it.”

Will also likes the fact that Mark Shale is in a space with some history and a good retail story behind it, due to Neiman-Marcus’ stint there. “We’ve been very happy here. Business is growing weekly, we’re pleased with the figures, and reports of Sunday sates are definitely good.”

A tour around the rest of Preston Center East reveals a variety of tenants, many of whom have been at Preston Center for some time. Taylor’s book store attracts the intelligentsia as well as casual readers who come not only for their many book-signing events but for lengthy browsing before deciding on a purchase. The Culinary Shoppe, Croissant Royale, and Goodies from Goodman entice gourmets and gourmands alike with their epicurean delights. Allen Kirsch and Storehouse make one want to revamp the home from scratch while Dallas Galleries displays the antiques and gifts that one usually only dreams about. There is clothing to be wooed over at Amy Milburn’s, James Lingerie, and for the sportsman too at Hunter Bradlee. Exquisite writing papers and instruments beckon at Campbell Stationers, and a potpourri of gift items await at Nouveaute.

Just across Preston Road lies Preston Center, which has come to be called Preston Center West. The most visually outstanding addition to this area is Berkshire Court, whose postmodern clocktower is fast becoming the new landmark of the center. Kenneth Hughes Investments built the stunning structure of desert pink. But it will probably be the last major structure to go up in that area. “That tract of land was the last large piece held by a single owner,” explains Lobello who sold it to Hughes. “Everything else is owned in bits and pieces by a variety of people.”

Berkshire Court pleasantly combines a mix of restaurants and boutiques on its lower level with office space above and parking underground. The building is a veritable joy to look at; smooth pink granite, soft pink stone, brass accents, effective lighting, and a mix of geometric and fluid design elements.

Hollis Walker and Karen Zelisson recently moved their Benetton store (a privately owned shop) from Oak Lawn into Berkshire Court last November. ’It was more of a move for Preston Center rather than away from Oak Lawn,” says Walker. They liked the shopping area environment the center offered and the fact that there was more going on and, conseduently, more people.

“Preston Center is experiencing a second childhood and we feel like we’ve joined it at the beginning of a major growth curve,” says Zelisson. Walker adds that most of their Oak Lawn customers have moved with them but they also have a good customer base from the neighborhood, which she loves. “There are lots of young people in the area who love to shop, are interested in fashion, and want to wear new and different things.”

Like Benetton, many stores have at least considered making a move in the last year and quite a few have chosen Preston Center. “It’s a collective unconsciousness,” explains Zelisson. “The economy has been very volatile for a while and new space has been going in everywhere. A lot of people have picked up and moved.”

New neighbors for Benetton include Rodier Paris where, at last peek, a pristine white showroom was still in progress with silver wire mannequins and neatly lined shelves both waiting to be clothed. The stockroom revealed not clothing but an intent staff working late over Chinese takeout, no doubt from Szechwan Pavilion next door. The hi-style decor and mildly spicy food has made it a favorite haunt of the Preston Hollow crowd.

Across the way, a new two-story building is announcing the arrival of both Richard Brooks and Lombardi’s bakery who will join PDQ Photo and American Eyewear.

Probably the flagship of Preston Center West is longtime tenant Sanger Harris/the new Foley’s. They opened as Sanger’s in 1958. Originally this space was going to be the Preston Theatre, however, plans were scrapped and Sanger’s moved in. At the time this was the largest suburban department store in the country. In 1961, they became Sanger-Harris and in 1962 proceeded to double their store space and parking facilities due to their enormous popularity in the center.

Doctors’ offices and optometrists are in abundance, as are other services and shops to cover just about every need: florists, an animal clinic, a tanning salon, hair salons including Alan Stone and Toni & Guy and of course sports and fitness establishments. Wyatt’ s is probably the oldest leasor in the center, but it wasn’t the first restaurant, only the longest-lasting.

Preston Center has managed to change with the times and still maintain a neighborhood atmosphere. Perhaps it’s success in attracting the new lies in its ability to hold on to the past and the qualities that made it successful then. Customers in the 80’s are just as interested in personal service and ease in shopping as they were in years gone by. (Preston Hollow history from ’Preston Hollow Remembered’ by Randy Snyder.)

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