By David Preziosi, FAICP
Preservation Dallas is the recipient of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2020 Trustee’s Award for Organizational Excellence.
From its early days, newer, better, bigger has been the attitude in Dallas, Texas. As a result, a constant tearing down and rebuilding led to countless historic buildings being lost over time in the pursuit of the shiny and new. Against tremendous odds, Preservation Dallas has fought for nearly 50 years to change the philosophy that old buildings are bad and need to be replaced, to one of an appreciation for the past that encourages the preserving the city’s unique architectural and cultural heritage.
Early History of Dallas’ Historic Preservation League
In 1972, the Historic Preservation League (HPL), the forerunner to Preservation Dallas, was formed by a group of neighbors who fought for Swiss Avenue, their grand but decaying historic neighborhood, by battling upzoning for mid-rise apartments and a proposed highway project cutting through their neighborhood. They wanted a city-wide organization who could fight for the city’s historic neighborhoods, most of which were in steep decline due to disinvestment and competition from newer suburban development. One of the original founders just happened to be Virginia Savage McAlester as it was her neighborhood which was under attack. She would of course go on to become a preservation icon authoring A Field Guide to American Houses and served as an integral part of Preservation Dallas until her death in 2020. Many of the programs and successes over the years were due to her stellar work and never-ending quest to save Dallas’ historic places.
The first success for HPL came in 1973 with the passage of Dallas’ first historic preservation ordinance. While basic at the time, it led the way to enable historic districts to be designated, including the threatened neighborhood above, which became the first residential historic district in Dallas. Since then, an additional twenty historic districts have been designated along with over 130 individual landmarks. Together, that protects over 4,000 historic buildings in Dallas.
To convince people in the 1970s to invest in Dallas’ decaying historic areas, HPL published a guide to buying a historic home, developed educational workshops, sponsored “home tours, and created a series of articles and ads touting historic home living in the city core. With the help of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a revolving fund was created in 1976 whereby HPL purchased 26 homes and placed easements on them before selling them to new owners for rehabilitation. HPL also convinced a local bank to work with Fannie Mae to create the first inner-city lending program in the country to help rehabilitate those homes. That effort laid the groundwork for the national Community Reinvestment Act and attracted $5 million in private reinvestment.
In 1980, HPL saved a block of significant yet dilapidated Queen Anne houses slated for demolition by purchasing one for its headquarters and convincing a local foundation to buy the rest. All were rehabilitated into free office space for local nonprofits by the local foundation. In 1993, HPL moved into the largest house on the block to grow and open the first preservation resource center in Dallas and the InTown Living Center where people could come to learn about the many historic neighborhoods in Dallas. A year later the Historic Preservation League changed its name to Preservation Dallas (PD) to better reflect its work.
Preservation Dallas Expanding the Reach of Preservation
Preservation Dallas has been a leader in the field in educational outreach using a number of innovative and successful programs. The Historic House Specialist class was developed over twenty years ago to educate real estate agents about historic houses and preservation through a two-day intensive series of lectures from community preservation leaders and a bus tour of historic neighborhoods. Since then, over 1,300 agents have been certified through the class, which is now also open to the public.
In the early 2000s, one of the largest projects undertaken at PD was an extensive survey of the city’s architectural, cultural, and historic resources. The program, called Discover Dallas!, utilized hundreds of volunteers to survey and research over 28 historic neighborhoods. That effort resulted in a better understanding of the of the wide variety of historic resources in Dallas’ neighborhoods and helped improve advocacy efforts by neighborhood and preservation advocates. Another successful volunteer effort included the creation of the first mobile app in 2014 of walking trails through downtown Dallas. The trails and sites were chosen and researched by the volunteers who discovered fun facts and history of the sites in downtown.
To raise awareness of the diverse styles of architecture used in Dallas, PD created a traveling exhibit in 2015 featuring 27 different styles. With the help of a grant, the exhibit was transformed into a booklet which was donated to elected officials, public libraries, and all the public middle and high school libraries in an effort to educate people about the many styles of historic architecture in Dallas.
Advocacy has always been a very important part of PD’s daily work due to the intense development pressure Dallas faces and the threats to historic resources, and PD has a track record of success to show for its efforts. After a devastating loss of a local landmark building in the late 1990s for new construction, PD organized a coalition of public officials, neighborhoods, and citizens to lobby for a stronger preservation ordinance. After three years of work, a new ordinance passed in 2000 with better protections for historic resources including the prevention of demolition of designated buildings without Landmark Commission approval.
Surprise weekend demolitions in 2014 of non-protected historic buildings, again for new construction, in downtown Dallas led PD to swing into action by calling media attention to the wanton destruction, holding a public meeting on the issue, and lobbying the city to enact better protections. The city listened and created a task force, which included PD, that came up with nine recommendations for better preservation of historic buildings in the downtown core. One of the key recommendations was to develop a Demolition Delay Ordinance, which passed in 2015 and was even expanded in 2018 by the request of City Council members. Another recommendation was an updated survey of historic resources in downtown, which just got underway in 2020. PD partnered with the City on the project and raised nearly half of the project budget to get the project going.
A several year advocacy project started in 2016 when PD opposed the local transit authority’s proposal to build an additional surface light rail line through downtown Dallas that would have impacted numerous historic buildings. PD formed a stakeholder coalition which successfully put pressure on the city and the transit authority to get the rail line moved underground. Even after that, PD still had to fight to save Dealey Plaza, site of President Kennedy’s assassination and a National Historic Landmark, from being dug up for a subway tunnel portal.
Recent accomplishments include successful advocacy for the Tenth Street Historic District, one of only a few remaining intact Freedman's Towns in the nation. Preservation Dallas placed the district on its endangered list in 2018 and in 2019, joined with the National Trust to successfully stop court ordered demolitions. In 2020 it was awarded an African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grant to further expand upon the work in the Tenth Street Historic District.
Future of Preservation in Dallas
Preservation Dallas has done an extraordinary job of working to preserve the city’s historic places despite terrible odds, reluctant city leadership, and developers bent on demolishing historic buildings. A small staff, a dedicated volunteer board, and the membership base fought tirelessly for historic structures that have no voice. PD has worked hard to galvanize support across the city and with various groups to better protect Dallas’ historic places. That work has paid off but there is still more to do.
In Dallas the work of historic preservation will continue to be a fight due to consistent perceptions of preservation’s role as a barrier to progress. At the city level this is especially true, where only four of the fourteen council districts have historic resources and getting enough votes on contentious issues involving preservation can be difficult. Development pressure has not slowed down even during the pandemic, creating continuous threats to historic places across the city. Preservation Dallas uses its volunteer Preservation Issues Committee to track over twenty different current issues using the knowledge base of the architects, planners, historians, real estate professionals, and consultants who serve on the committee to identify the best way to address each threat.
Some of these many threats are the potential demolition and replacement of fourteen historic schools by the school district using a bond passed last November, and changes to the preservation ordinance to make more efficient the Certificate of Appropriateness process. For the latter, Preservation Dallas is working with the city to host the virtual public meetings to review those changes, which would normally be held in person.
Preservation Dallas is up to this challenge and is extremely proud of the work it has done to fight for Dallas’ historic places for nearly fifty years. It has not been easy and there have been losses along the way; however, there have also been great successes in saving historic places of all sizes, styles, and ages across the city. Through the work of Preservation Dallas over the years the preservation ethic has grown in Dallas. Preservation Dallas now has a seat at many more tables when it comes to the future direction of the city thanks to the past work of so many board members, staff, members, and advocates. Preservation Dallas will remain ever vigilant in its efforts to protect the many historic places that tell the unique story of Dallas.
David Preziosi, FAICP is the executive director of Preservation Dallas.