Elizabeth Lavin

Antiques

The Preservation of Our Historic Buildings

Virginia McAlester helped start a revolution and led us back to our past.

On the occasion last year of the release of the monumental 880-page second edition of Virginia McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture, the New York Times quoted another architectural historian, Rice University lecturer Stephen Fox. It was Fox who called McAlester “the queen of Dallas historic preservation.” But, as McAlester herself will tell you, her mother really started it all.

It was she who, in the early ’60s, fought against zoning changes along Gaston Avenue that led to the construction of apartments where single-family houses once stood. McAlester lived in a series of six houses on Swiss Avenue as her parents bought and restored them. And then, in 1972, the mother, daughter, and nine other visionaries together founded the Historic Preservation League (which later became Preservation Dallas). By the following year, the group had convinced the City Council to adopt the Dallas Preservation Ordinance. Swiss Avenue was the first Landmark District. Three contiguous districts were added. And today the city has 21 such protected neighborhoods—not to mention scores of designated Landmark Structures.

“I think when you really look at it, preservation in Dallas has been tremendously successful,” she says. “We’re really, really lucky. There have been a number of buildings that were torn down too quickly, but I don’t think that should obscure the fact that we’ve had a lot of successes. People probably don’t realize the degree to which we have been successful.”

McAlester says this while seated in a sunny room of her Swiss Avenue house. It’s a 1917 Mission with wire-cut bricks and a Vermont slate roof. It has been in her family since 1921.

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