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Norman Alston
Contributed by:
Norman Alston

Dialogue: Lemons to Lemonade

In early 2020, the City of Dallas’ historic preservation program was moved out of the Department of Sustainable Development and Construction and reorganized as the Office of Historic Preservation. The program has evolved substantially since its creation in the mid-1970’s, to become not just one of Texas’ most respected programs, but also one of its most unique. This evolution has been sporadic, seemingly driven forward by disastrous losses of important historic buildings. Playing off of the old saying “When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade,” we assembled a panel of local preservationists who have long been in the trenches of the Dallas preservation program. They discussed how the City of Dallas’ Historic Preservation Program has used preservation losses (lemons) to leverage improvements to the program and make it more relevant and effective for the future (lemonade).

Participants included:

Veletta Forsythe Lill, Hon. AIA, who represented District 14 on the Dallas City Council from 1997 through 2005 during which time she led the push for important improvements to the Dallas historic preservation ordinance. She remains an active leader in the arts and historic preservation.

Katherine Seale, Hon. TxA., who recently chaired the Dallas Landmark Commission from 2012 to 2019 where she continually worked to broaden the city’s historic preservation program from a largely administrative one to a program that influences future development of the city by contributing to the urban planning process. Prior to her time on the Commission, she was executive director of Preservation Dallas. She remains very active in a number of historic preservation initiatives.

Marcel Quimby, FAIA, is founder of Quimby Preservation Studio and has been highly active in Dallas’ historic preservation program since the early 1980’s. She served on the Landmark Commission from 1987 to 1989 and has served on multiple Landmark Commission task forces and is a long-time member of the Designation Committee. She was also on the Board of Advisors for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and president of AIA Dallas in 1995.

David Preziosi, FAICP, has been executive director for Preservation Dallas since 2012. After graduation from Texas A&M University, he worked in historic preservation in Mississippi for 16 years. He writes a regular column for AIA Dallas’ Columns magazine.

Panel Moderator:
Norman Alston, FAIA is the founder of Norman Alston Architects, a state-wide preservation practice. He served on the Dallas Landmark Commission from 1989 through 1995 and chaired numerous commission task forces over a 20-year period. He was recently on the board of directors for AIA Dallas as Director of Advocacy.

Photo Credit: Liane Swanson

Norman: While some would say that the effort to preserve Millermore Mansion in 1966 marked the beginning of historic preservation in Dallas, I have always understood that Dallas’ historic preservation ordinance and program were a direct result of grassroots efforts in the 1970s to preserve and revitalize the Swiss Avenue neighborhood. More recently, I’ve learned it was in response to a specific threat to that neighborhood. What actually happened?

Marcel: Two things: There was no good east-west roadway through East Dallas. Proposals were made through the city’s Thoroughfare Plan to upgrade Swiss Avenue to a thoroughfare by removing the large, tree-lined center median. That, of course, invited interest from developers, which resulted in a 10-story apartment building being proposed to be located someplace on Swiss Avenue.

Katherine: Just to add to that, it was zoned for multifamily industrial so that the apartment building could be done by right.

Marcel: As was most of East Dallas following World War II, because they needed to get more people in town, because most of those homes had already been converted to multifamily, and because Swiss Avenue was looked at as a declining neighborhood.

Veletta: East Dallas in general was under assault from the Thoroughfare Plan. The Thoroughfare Plan, bad decisions on up-zoning, and the proliferation of multifamily all contributed to the decline.

Norman: There was no historic preservation program at that time. Where did the idea come from to use that as a tool to fight the Thoroughfare Plan improvements?

Marcel: Weiming Lu, Hon. AIA was the assistant planning director at the city of Dallas. He was familiar with historic areas elsewhere, and he was the one that met with Swiss Avenue folks. Coincidentally, the Texas Legislature had only recently authorized that type of zoning, so it hadn’t been an option earlier.

Katherine: The most interesting thing, I think, was that Weiming Lu was hired because of Goals for Dallas. Mayor J. Erik Jonsson’s Goals for Dallas was both a vision document and a planning document prepared in response to the aftereffects of the Kennedy assassination. Goals for Dallas included preservation of neighborhoods as one of its goals.

Marcel: So Swiss Avenue folks were organized because of the Thoroughfare Plan and other things, so they and the city saw this as a new opportunity. In 1973, Swiss Avenue was designated as the first historic district.

Kathryn: The developers of the high-rise sued the city because they could have otherwise done their project by right. Known as Corwall v. Dallas, the case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. Home rule had to be used to fight it. And the city did so successfully.

Norman: As I recall, the West End Historic District happened about the same time and was our first commercial historic district.

Photo Credit: Liane Swanson

Katherine: This is also because of Weiming Liu. This is a fascinating story that a lot of people don’t know: The City Council was really grappling with what to do with the School Book Depository Building [from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy]. Half of the sentiment was to tear it down as a signal to the nation that what happened to President Kennedy was not us. The other half felt like this happened, and we have to own it and this is part of the fabric of who we are. Weiming developed the idea of pulling the focus off the School Book Depository Building but include it in a larger district. So the goals were multiple. No. 1 was to have some say on what happens with the School Book Depository Building. No. 2, we would recycle all the adjacent vacant warehouses. No. 3 would bring in an entertainment use because we were trying to stabilize these neighborhoods that surrounded downtown.

The point was so broad. The clients were multiple. The methodology was programmatic. In other words, we were not doing preservation for the sake of preservation. We were doing it under the tenets of Goals for Dallas. It was all about quality-of-life issues, about bringing back the residential population and ensuring City Council was not going to be put in position of being on a national stage and struggling with what to do with the Sixth Floor. It was more about vision than regulation. It was an extension of the commitment to urban planning.

Norman: This is the beginning of the Dallas program, and we talk about the ordinance, but this really reflected something more. It’s a developing attitude.

Marcel: It’s an ethos

Katherine: It’s an ethic.

Norman: So the lemon in this case is the Kennedy assassination.

Marcel: And World War II. Goals for Dallas was specifically related to the events of 1963, but there was planning after WWII because people realized two things: After the war things were going to get better, and the suburbs were happening. Planning for this happened in the late ’40s and began to grow in the ’50s, so the banks and businesses wanted to be where the people were. So growth occurred in Preston Hollow, and the Meadows Building was the first multistory building outside of downtown. Central Expressway was built. These things all take time.

Norman: So now we add World War II to the list of lemons. That’s a basket of lemons, I guess. Looking for the next lemon, I don’t have knowledge of any other disasters before the loss of the Dr Pepper Building. Dr Pepper was a watershed moment. Anyone want to provide a summary?

Marcel: What was especially irritating was the DART rail in the planning stages. We knew DART was going to happen and they were going to have a station just to the west of Dr Pepper [the headquarters at Mockingbird Lane and North Central Expressway]. I remember having discussions with the Planning Department, and they were like, “Well, that’s DART’s problem. We don’t plan for DART.” However, if you plan properly for DART, this is part of it. You should do area plans, but nobody wanted to do an area plan, so I got really frustrated. We initiated the landmark designation process, and the property owners pushed back, but after a long and very difficult fight, we got it done. It was designated as a city of Dallas landmark, and the ordinance had a six- or eight-month demolition delay to give us time to work with the property owner to come up with alternatives.

Veletta: And that’s all it had!

Marcel: Yes, that’s all it had. It did not have permanent or strong protections against demolition. So Dr Pepper was demolished in 1997. The results of Dr Pepper are the first big change in the preservation ordinance. I remember sitting in this room with Catherine Horsey or Dwayne Jones (both former executive directors of Preservation Dallas), and going through all of that. It was a discussion of, “What do we need in the ordinance?” Catherine was smart enough to say that we were probably going to lose Dr Pepper and this is why. Now what do we want out of this? We had meetings in the room for months about what we wanted. Virginia McAlester, Hon. AIA (noted author on historic preservation and a leader of preservation efforts in Dallas from its very beginnings) was also there. Permanent protection was one of those things we wanted.

Veletta: It’s really not until the ordinance for St. Anne’s Catholic School in 1998 that we get real protections from demolition. The preservation of that school was very important to the local Hispanic community, which was not represented by any landmarks. We started by writing the new protections against demolitions into the individual ordinance for St. Anne’s, then we went back and worked those into the underlying ordinance so that they were in place citywide by 1999, when the demolition of Crozier Tech [Old Dallas High School] was being proposed.

There were two changes to the ordinance. The first was to put down all the reasons why you couldn’t tear something down. We increased the number of reasons why Crozier Tech was historic. The second came from the David Dean closet case on Swiss Avenue, where an addition is proposed that does not conform with the preservation ordinance. Mr. Dean gets his closet addition on Swiss, which had been denied at Landmark committee, because he was very well-connected politically. So he appealed to the City Council and got his closet approved. We went back with another modification within a two-year time frame to take the City Council out as an appeal option.

Marcel: So it goes to U.S. District Court. This is the beginning of the Landmark Commission’s quasi-judicial status.

Veletta: That got tested in court with Crozier Tech because we had stopped the demolition. The out-of-state owner had applied for the demolition permit, and it had been denied. He appealed all the way to the Texas Supreme Court and lost. He also tested the part of the ordinance where we had to appoint the mediation body. He tested that twice but lost them both.

Norman: So I can include a closet case with the other lemons. OK, continuing on, there’s one more disaster. We’ve been operating with those advancements to the program for a while, then we get to September 2014. The loss of the wonderful late 19th-century buildings on Main Street, right in the middle of one of downtown Dallas’ most picturesque and authentic historic block faces.

Photo Credit: Liane Swanson

Marcel: My story is I was in West Texas to see my father, as I did almost every weekend because he was in his later years, and my friend Diane lived downtown. So I’m driving in from West Texas about lunch time and I decide to drop something off with Diane as I came through downtown. Then I see all these people on main street and all these cars. I looked down the street and see what’s going on, and I think “Oh My God!” I take cellphone pictures and email Robert Wilonsky (former Dallas Morning News columnist), and I start calling.

David: You called me. That’s how I found out.

Marcel: Yeah, I was calling everybody. “Get down here! Look at what is going on!” I stay about an hour until it’s was nearly done, then I just went home and cried. I never made it to Diane’s. That was awful.

Norman: Yet it was not completely unexpected.

David: Mark Lamster [Dallas Morning News architecture critic and University of Texas at Arlington professor] had done an article around springtime about the building because he had a friend who had to move out of those buildings. We tried contacting the building owner reps. I called, emailed, sent letters saying we wanted to meet about it but heard nothing at all back. Then about August one of the magazines published an article about how the buildings were going to be reused, so we thought, “Oh, great! They’ll be saved! Then September comes along and the wrecking ball shows up. They pulled the demolition permit on Friday, and they were gone on Sunday.

Norman: So we all understand this was an unmitigated disaster, but it resulted in some of our greatest strides forward. Not in terms of the ordinance, but in much greater public awareness of preservation challenges and possibly strides in political influence. I was surprised at the people who jumped up and cried, “Foul!”

Katherine: Yes, Wilonsky’s article was huge. He already had a really strong following. This was the time where we didn’t have people writing for The Dallas Morning News or even the Dallas Observer who were as critical or articulate. He called them out.

Veletta: Remember we had gone from these years of fights until about 2003 when they were finished. Now we’re in 2014, and there had been no big fights during that intervening time. No one was on the council from the earlier time. And you cannot do these things without a constituency. You have to be able to fill the council chamber.

Norman: But that’s hard to get unless you lose something, which is the original premise of this discussion.

David: In the case of Lakewood Theater, there were a lot of people who came out.

Katherine: That was huge.

David: And that was a big social media push, too.

Norman: I think the Lakewood Theater is the best manifestation of the new realization by some in the community that, “Hey, we can really make a difference.” This is where they took out their frustration. “We lost the little downtown buildings. By God, we’re not losing this one.” So why didn’t that happen when the Main Street buildings were torn down?

Veletta: There was no particular constituency for those buildings, nor were there a large number of personal events or relations with that building. It was in a fairly secluded downtown setting, no one could see them as they drove by on the highway, and it was in an environment where there was, and is, a growing context of more contemporary architecture.

Norman: With the Main Street demolitions, public concern and awareness were revealed. What else came from that?

Katherine: As a result of the Main Street demolitions, I called the mayor [Mike Rawlings] and said, “You have 200 people at a meeting in the library and you have all this negative press.” He agreed to meet. I said the city’s response was there is nothing they can do. The public is outraged, but there is no call to action for them to do anything. I said that the real problem is that preservation is a decision-making process yet there was no process. Why is there no process. The city’s response was that they were not landmarked buildings. That’s just ridiculous. Even though it might be 250 years old and might be the most important building in the world, yet the city has no stance because it’s not designated? Because it technically doesn’t have the zoning? No. That’s ridiculous.

You need a task force with a really diverse group. It needs to include developers. You need big developers, small developers, you need Preservation Dallas, AIA, Greater Dallas Planning Council, landscape architecture, planning, and others. Get all these people together to break bread and let them come up with a response. So that was formed and resulted in nine recommendations, and we’re currently working to complete the last two. We need an updated Preservation Plan, and we need an updated historic resource survey. All the other recommendations are in progress.

Norman: So with each disaster, or lemon, it’s notable that the program has strengthened and hasn’t needed to retrench. We’ve lost important buildings, but the ordinance has advanced. Working across Texas, I have always said that Dallas has the best preservation program.

Katherine: We should be really proud of having an intact program.

Veletta: Our ordinance stacks up against the best ordinances in the country.

Marcel: We have long had a good ordinance and have had people who were willing to take the time and look at what’s effective on a national basis. Other cities look to us, and that’s a good thing.

Discussion led by Norman Alston, FAIA, principal at Norman Alston Architects.

Photo Credit: Liane Swanson