Once it’s gone…

Ambassador Hotel  19th century

It doesn’t take much to change a neighborhood, for good or bad. That is what we were really talking about here at Dallas Heritage Village on Tuesday night at our annual membership meeting. We unveiled a new exhibit in the depot, about the importance of the railroad. It compares what the Texas and Pacific did to Dallas and to Jefferson, in east Texas, ensuring that one grew into a successful big city while remained a small town. None of it was really a big plot. The Texas and Pacific was pursuing its own goals of profit and growth, not trying to build Dallas and shrink Jefferson. I leave it to you to determine which city got the better deal. Jefferson is a charming town with lots of historic architecture preserved and still in use. Dallas cannot claim the same degree of survival for its historic buildings.

Tuesday night we had a panel discussion on the past, present and future of our little area of Dallas. I talked about how the Cedars neighborhood has changed constantly for 150 years, remaining a place of home, work and leisure for changing populations and times. Tanya Ragan spoke of how one little incident, the vandalizing of her property, led her to organize the Farmers Market area and its stakeholders. Now the Farmers Market is moving forward at breathtaking speed, with new construction and new ways of serving customers. They are simultaneously creating a new market and bringing back the one Dallasites used to love. It was and will be a gathering place for urban consumers and rural growers, a place of exchange for goods and ideas, embracing the modern ideal of living, working and having fun in one small area. Michael Przekwas, president of the Cedars Neighborhood Association, shared the neighborhood’s recent triumphs in reducing crime and improving the quality of life, while bracing for the whirlwind of new development and investment that has arrived in the Cedars.

We here at the museum don’t think it appropriate to preserve every single old thing in existence. I myself once threw away a moldy doily rather than fight to preserve it. That was OK, because there are a lot of Victorian doilies around, we will never run out, and nobody will pass their entire life without seeing the lacy constructions that used to cover parlor tables. Hard as it is to say goodbye to a historic building, we can’t keep them all. Since time has already thinned the herd considerably in the Cedars, we have lots of empty lots and a manageable number of historic structures. That was the basis of my plea to any developers who might have been listening on Tuesday. Where the land is empty, build something new and exciting, reflecting the neighborhood’s future. Where an older building still stands, renovate to a new use and keep history in place for all to see.

We weren’t talking about the historic buildings that have disappeared from downtown streets, though they were in the room with us, minus those historic structures that were so stealthily removed while citizens were busy watching a Sunday football game. Personally, I liked those buildings, which is not a legitimate basis for a preservation decision. Professionally as a historian and preservationist, I can argue that they were representative of the early commercial structures that lined the streets of a young Dallas as it struggled to grow as a commercial center. They were highly adaptable, as has been proven in many other cities. They represented historic design, such as terra-cotta decoration, which are worth preserving as a historical record and can inspire future creativity. They were also cute.

Downtown Dallas doesn’t have as many empty lots to fill as the Cedars does, unless we count the parking lots. But it has a similarly limited population of historic buildings. Keep some of them, from the earliest days through today. Keep the masterpieces, like the Majestic Theater and the Adolphus Hotel. Keep some littler ones as well, to remind us of the places where daily life used to happen. They can’t all move to the farmers market to house the Green Door Public House. (Kudos to Craig Melde, Wildcat Management, and Ruibal’s Plants of Texas for that.) And they won’t all fit in Dallas Heritage Village, though many formerly homeless historic structures have happily landed here. Some of those cute buildings need to stay exactly where they started, silently speaking of history and challenging developers’ brains to come up with a more creative solution than a wrecking ball.

If you’d like to learn more about the recent demolitions in downtown and assist efforts to save remaining structures, please support our friends at Preservation Dallas. They are looking to all of us who love historic buildings to speak up. For more information:


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