By Chris Wellin
Staff Writer of The News
They are more than just structures of old wood and paint, more than brick boxes seamed with mortar. To their owners, homes in such neighborhoods as East Dallas, Oak Cliff and Oak Lawn are almost monuments. They are champions that rise from the rubble left by decades of the city’s northern migration.
To Dallas newcomers, however, these neighborhoods often remain hidden amid acres of condominium villages, high-rise office buildings and shopping centers.
So, in celebration of these classics and to provide a worthwhile guide to restoration areas for the city’s newer residents. The Historic Preservation League of Dallas has published A Guide to the Older Neighborhoods of Dallas.
This oversized, 95-page book, which retails for $15, is filled with black and white pictures of pastoral neighborhoods and century-old craftsmanship. A winsome narrative describes each of 32 areas in terms of history, architecture and the development of the neighborhood organization.
But aside from being a history book, the guide was designed to help Dallas home buyers, who have shown more and more interest during the past 10 years in the older neighborhoods.
“When I first came to the league three years ago, all the questions on the telephone and in writing regarded the older neighborhoods,” says Jim Bratton, executive director of the league. “People moving to Dallas, current residents, bankers and realtors wanted to know what housing stock was available and safe, what would make a good investment and what the particular areas were like.”
These questions aren't usually answered within the Dallas real estate community, says Doug Newby, chairman of the book committee and owner of Douglas Newby & Associates Real Estate. “The real estate community steers everyone to North Dallas and Richardson. Since more people live and work up there, the salesmen just tell newcomers, ‘Here’s a house with three bedrooms.’ Most people don’t have the time to look further. And it takes time to look at older neighborhoods.”
Newby says the book can help shorten the time needed to get to know each location. The book includes maps of the different streets in each area and helps identify which neighborhoods are on the way up and which have yet to climb. The book also mentions most of the zoning conditions and the general availability of houses in each area.
But perhaps more than anything else, the book is a repertoire of bucolic phrases: “striking facades,” “sweeping lawns,” “gracious life of a slower-paced era.” The character of Dallas, according to the book, is in the older neighborhoods – areas that recall days when this huge cruise ship of a city was nothing more than a few cotton patches and dairy farms.
Much of the current information about each area was gathered from neighborhood associations, says Bratton. Questionnaires where sent to areas that met the league’s criteria: strong neighborhood activity, architectural continuity and strong geographic boundaries. Homes also had to be within Dallas city limits – as it was platted in 1940.
Residents were asked about the styles of homes, the personal history of the area and the changing boundaries. The final 32 neighborhoods were pared down from the answers and from each area’s willingness to participate.
Newby considers the book comprehensive. “If you look at this,” he says, pointing to the books’ map locating the featured neighborhoods in East Dallas, “there really are no substantial holes.”
The book begins by introducing Dallas as a city exploding with restoration activity. In fact, it touts Dallas as leading the nation in many ways.
Says Newby, “From having inner-city areas with 95 percent absentee-ownership, with the highest crime rates and areas absolutely slated for demolition, then having those areas turn around and become historic districts – well, I don’t know any other place in the country with that amount of turnaround in 10 years.”
Areas such as Swiss Avenue and Munger Place in East Dallas, which were at one time zoned for high-rise development, now provide the city with some of its showiest mansions, the book points out. Most of the other neighborhoods, too, were destined for some sort of new development, and have since been preserved by the ingenuity of neighborhood committees.
Interest in restoration began in East Dallas in the 1970s because urban pioneers found an inexpensive source of distinctive housing, Newby says. He points to one East Dallas home that sold in 1975 for $7,500 -- $3,000 less than what it first sold for 70 years before. It now is worth more than $175,000.
Because of its major role in the restoration movement, the book begins with a tour of old East Dallas. (The book is strongly influenced by East Dallas in other ways: Much of it was financed by East Dallas residential and commercial owners, and of the 32 neighborhoods described in the book, 15 are located there.)
Built between the 1880s and the 1930s, the neighborhoods in this area fanned east and north from Dallas’ central business district. The architecture ranges from the plain-Jane look of prairie styles to the stateliness of Colonial styles, from the warehouse residences of Deep Ellum to the Tudor elegance of Greenland Hills.
The book also delves into the unusual history of some neighborhoods, uncovering such details as the heritage of South Boulevard, a section located southwest of Fair Park. The homes in this area were those of prominent Jewish families in the early 1900s. In Dallas, as in other cities at the time, affluent Jews and Christians traditionally maintained separate neighborhoods.
Oak Cliff neighborhoods are pictured next in the guide, beginning with an introduction to this area’s Cinderella history.
The stepchild of Dallas neighborhoods, Oak Cliff often gets little respect from most Dallasites for such reasons as its distance from the booming north and its economic and cultural hodge-podge of residents. On the other hand, Oak Cliffers are fiercely loyal and protective of their enclave.
Oak Cliff began in the 1800s as a separate city named Hord’s Ridge, the book explains. The area became a part of Dallas in 1903 after two unsuccessful annexation ballots.
Development by men with such familiar names as Marsalis, Kessler and Zang was meant to turn Oak Cliff into the garden spot of the area. Carnival midways, dance pavilions and theaters were constructed around Lake Cliff to spur growth. But for many reasons, the area never became a true resort community.
Houses fell into disrepair and were sectioned for multi-family dwelling after World War II. Only in recent years has restoration brought back some of that former gentility.
Oak Lawn is represented by only six neighborhoods, mostly because tremendous growth has squeezed out many of the strictly single-family neighborhoods.
The book characterizes Oak Lawn as diverse and full of urban vitality. Dallas’ residential development began in this area with huge estates sprawling on the banks of rippling streams. Mansions were surrounded by smaller bungalows and brick residences. Charming Victorian houses with gingerbread detail are still preserved in the State Thomas Historic District.
The Oak Lawn area spawned its own ritzy, retail establishments, as well, and dipped deeply into the arts. Today’s Oak Lawn, then, is an eclectic combination of uses, according to the book.
Neighborhood organizations are helping retain the area’s heritage through protection of the narrow streets, landscaping to further proliferate the abundant oak trees and reinstitution of trolley traffic down McKinney Avenue.