Norman Alston
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Norman Alston

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The Ambassador is lost. What happens now?

Through the shock and sadness following an early morning fire that destroyed Dallas' oldest hotel, how do we respond to the often vulnerable architectural heritage that remains?

Everyone seems to have their stories about the Ambassador. For me, it was the unofficial headquarters for historic preservation in Dallas in the early 1990’s. The unquenchable fascination with historic buildings that would drive the arc of my career for the next 30+ years was only just beginning to stir. I began to learn my trade at breakfast meetings held amid the traditional, comfortable and slightly thread-bare decor of the Ambassador’s restaurant. It only seemed fitting. I was greatly saddened when the hotel closed and the breakfast meetings first moved, then faded away as people and routines changed. Even after all these years, I was dreaming of an opportunity to renew those breakfasts in a newly renovated Ambassador, the reality of which was on the near horizon. In the dark of the earliest morning Tuesday I slept as the dream ended. The fire that consumed the building was as spectacular as the history of the building itself. I suppose, for a building, that’s a good death.

(via DeGolyer Library, SMU)

With historic preservation in Dallas, it seems that with every great loss comes great progress. I am always surprised at how a city that scoffs at the depth of its own history can rally around the loss of a single building and resolve to make improvements targeted at preventing such a loss again. The demolition of the Dr. Pepper Building came at the end of a long and difficult political fight, but it changed and strengthened dramatically our preservation mechanisms. The demolitions on a sunny Sunday morning in Downtown Dallas in September 2014 brought about an outcry so loud and so broadly based that it earned preservation a new seat at the city’s planning and development table and brought about an awareness of our historic buildings that influences us to this day.

Majestic Hotel, 1905 (via DeGolyer Library, SMU)

So now the Ambassador. The horror and the sadness monopolized my news feeds all day Tuesday. Even the political trolls, in high season on the first day of local early runoff voting, seemed to take a breath and lament the loss of a historic building that really hasn’t looked like itself in any of our lifetimes. I was not working on the Ambassador and never had. I have no professional affiliation with it at all. Yet I was deeply touched when some friends, upon hearing the news, called just to check on ME. Worried about how I would feel about the loss. It’s a painful loss that is clearly recognized by a large swath of the community, so we must mete some progress from it, as is our custom. The following are improvements for which the Ambassador could provide motivation:

  • Let us start by no longer disparaging our own history. The lament that Dallas doesn’t have much history to start and even less to preserve, must end. Just stop. Dallas has a rich and colorful history, with physical reminders at every turn. As cities go, it seems to me that Dallas has been the awkward adolescent through most of my career. Not really old, not really young, and searching for itself. That is clearly changing. As the city matures, our attitudes about and recognition of that history matures also. One of my friends from the era of Ambassador breakfasts, Ron Emrich, was the City’s chief preservation planner at the time. He now lives in Philadelphia and I caught up with him a few years ago. He noted that when he mentions to people in Philly that Dallas has historic districts of 300 or more structures, they think he’s lying. Philadelphia has no equivalent. Our history isn’t less, it’s just different. As Robert Meckfessel notes in Mark Lamster’s article on the Ambassador, Dallas is just coming to the age when our greatest growth and development would be considered historic. Dallas could be to the mid-Twentieth Century what Chicago is the early Twentieth Century.
  • Let’s learn to look at our built heritage less as individual landmarks and more as a collection of culturally rich neighborhoods or areas. Sometimes the historic character that attracts us is not just defined by the architecture, but also by the businesses, the people and the traditions. Last year, AIA Dallas advocated for the preservation of these qualities when it issued its Policy Statement on Local Architectural Heritage. Deep Ellum could still benefit from this perspective. For Bishop Arts and North Oak Cliff, it’s an imperative.
  • Let’s return the Kalita Humphreys Theater to what it is, and what it should be: the fusion of art and architecture that could well be Dallas’ most important building. It doesn’t look like our most important building anymore. It has reached a crossroads and does not appear well prepared for the future. Before long-term commitments are made, let’s undertake a strategic plan that achieves some consensus about how best to restore and adapt it, a plan with substantial public discourse and an economic model that can perhaps guarantee its financial security for the foreseeable future. There is so much to be done here.
  • Let’s develop ways to protect and preserve the smaller buildings and the modest neighborhoods that suffer the most when property values rise.
  • Let’s specify that any projects receiving City of Dallas assistance (infrastructure improvements, TIFF funds, zoning exceptions, tax abatements, etc.) preserve and incorporate historic and potentially historic buildings into their development plans. No more City assistance to accomplish the equivalent to what the fire did to the Ambassador.
  • And of course, Fair Park. Let’s continue to develop recognition that Fair Park itself is National Historic Landmark and one of our nation’s most remarkable architectural and cultural achievements. Most people still see Fair Park through the “lens” of the State Fair, but we need greater understanding that it is much more than home for the Fair. It is our Alamo, the celebration of a century of progress made possible by the sacrifices on the battlefield.

Majestic Hotel, 1905 Dallas directory (ad, detail)

This is by no means a complete list. As Dallas progresses more deeply into the Twenty First Century, we need to create a culture of preservation. Dallas in the past has been a place that asks “why?” when it comes to saving our history. We need instead to be asking “why not?”