Wednesday, December 7, 2022 Dec 7, 2022
71° F Dallas, TX
Local News

Should There Be a Moratorium on Tearing Down Old Buildings in Dallas?

We love old buildings, but at what cost? Does the value of a new downtown outweigh our nostalgic affection for historic structures?
By Peter Simek |

The sudden demolition of a 129-year-old Romanesque Revival building on Main St. over the weekend came as a shock and a surprise. It was a reminder that while this city likes to think it has turned over a new leaf in terms of its appreciation of its history and sensitivity towards preserving its past, we haven’t changed all that much. Dallas is a place that tears down the past to make way for the future. The destruction of Dallas’ history is as much a part of Dallas’ history as any vanished landmarks.

Still, this particular demolition raises a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, Dallas has lost so many of its old structures that the demolition of any one of them feels like a terrible loss. On the other hand, the demolisher in this instance is the Headington Company, the driving force behind downtown’s suddenly booming revival. We love old buildings, but at what cost? Does the value of a new downtown outweigh our nostalgic affection for historic structures?

Faced with this problem, historic preservationists have often attempted to make economic arguments. There are studies that show that historic properties can boost property values, that preservation can stir job growth, or that restoration is a more sustainable option than new construction, particularly because older buildings are generally more efficient and constructed with better materials than what goes up today.

The problem with all of these arguments is that they do not adequately deal with a developer’s particular vision and their bottom line. Often older buildings aren’t suited to the uses new markets demand. Revitalizations can be complicated and not cost effective. Then there is the problem that historic structures may not attract the desired tenants or uses. The site on Main was cleared to make way for a new Forty Five Ten store. The high-end clothier probably values the location directly across from the Joule, and yet doesn’t want their marque store location to be branded by 19th century Romanesque brick. As the Headington Company did when they tore down the Praetorian Building next door, it is easy to justify the demolition of a historic structure when you are the primary driving force behind downtown revitalization. Just plop a giant eye down on the empty lot, and city officials, beholden to deep pockets and a long investment horizon, will quietly stuff the historic preservation ordinance in a desk drawer.

However, the public anguish over the demolition should not be ignored. Why do we mourn the loss of a historic building? Is it mere nostalgia, or is there another kind of value – one that the market doesn’t necessarily recognize — that remains attached to our historic buildings?

The answer to this question ties directly into how we experience life in a city. To be in any environment – a mountain valley, the Champs-Élysées – is to be in a conversation with ones surroundings. The experience of being in and moving through a city is of a particular kind with a particular set of dimensions. Experiencing a city has an almost cinematic or musical quality. The environment continually acts upon the senses as our bodies move, registering aspects of the environment passively. When we walk down a street, perhaps lost in conversation or thought, or head bent towards the screen of our smart phones, the streetscape around us shifts and changes. We ignore or are seduced by the things around us; the urban topography floats in an out of our consciousness.

Within this environment, everything carries a kind of information. We may not know the exact date a building was built, or the style of architecture it represents, but we do know that some buildings are older than other buildings. A historically diverse streetscape conveys the organic nature of a city’s layered, gradual formation. In this way, old buildings lend a fourth dimension to the experience of a city. Buildings convey the history of the place; they tells us about the values and character of the past; they bring us into an unspoken conversation with those who have walked in the same spaces before. Buildings suggest their ghosts, and they incorporate us into a continuum of experience that transcends the particularity of our own existence.

Nowhere is this experience of time-in-space more explicit, profound, or easy to recognize than in a city like Rome, in which, often at a single glance, symbols from the entirety of western history are spread out in a layered ruin, like fossils in limestone. There are no fading Roman frescos on Dallas’ historic buildings, but this city possesses its own history, and that history – like all histories – does have value. The fact that Dallas has spent so much of it history demolishing the architecture of the past only increases the value of each remaining structure. That’s because a city that has no physical indicators of its past becomes up-rooted from its identity — it becomes a kind of invisible city, lost to itself.

A few weeks ago at the American Institute of Architect’s transportation summit, a young urban activist named Christian Yazdanpanah conducted an interesting experiment. He encouraged the audience to, at the count of three, shout out the name of a city they love to move around in. There was a cacophony of names. I heard Zurich, and Portland, and New York. Then Yazdanpanah asked, did anyone say Dallas? No one raised their hand. There’s a reason for that, and part of it has to do with our attitude towards preserving our past. Cities whose architecture brings us into tangible contact with the past enrich our experience of place. They are more enjoyable and desirable places, and people want to visit them, be in them, shop in them, live in them.

There’s no way to connect a bottom line to this phenomenon. But regardless, what Headington did by destroying the building on Main was most certainly a loss. A loss for Dallas and Dallas’ history, but also, paradoxically, a loss for the new downtown Headington is trying to build.

Related Articles


The Most Dubious Business Name in Dallas

Am I being too sensitive here?
By Tim Rogers

C-Suiters Share their Best Business Advice

Chris Crosby of Compass Data Centers, Sue Ansel of Gables Residential, and Shridhar Mittal of Zimperium share the words that have helped shape their careers.

Well-Traveled: Hawai’i

When she wants to wind down, Toyota CFO Tracey Doi heads to the largest of the Hawaiian islands.