To Save or Not to Save

To Save or Not to Save

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Contributed by:
David Preziosi

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To Save or Not to Save: The Moral Dilemma

Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. That’s a historic preservation mantra which has driven numerous efforts to save places important to communities across the country. Countless irreplaceable historic landmarks—which tell the story of the people and events that have made our country what it is today—have been or are threatened by both neglect and development pressure. The only way to prevent many of these places from disappearing is to add a layer of legal protection in the form of special preservation zoning.

The decision to protect properties in this manner can often go against an owner’s wishes. Is it moral to inflict regulations on someone who doesn’t want it? Does the public benefit of saving a certain historic structure outweigh an owner’s rights to develop their own property as they see fit and to the highest and best use? Moral or not, it is unfortunately something that must be done in order to preserve the cultural fabric of our country lest our built history that tells the story of the evolution of the nation be erased forever. This is certainly a contentious issue that deserves discussion.

How Did Preservation Efforts Evolve?

Widespread historic preservation efforts in the United States didn’t begin in earnest until after the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. Before that, preservation efforts mostly revolved around “ladies’ societies” preserving places of singular importance to the history of the country. The most famous example is the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association which, in the 1850s, fought to save Mount Vernon from demolition. Their only option was to raise enough money to buy the property. It is now one of the most visited historic sites in the country and continues to educate the million plus visitors each year about George Washington and life in the 18th century. Efforts by local municipalities to protect specific historic areas of cities didn’t start until the 1930s with Charleston, SC, leading the way as the first city to establish an “Old and Historic District” which provided zoning protections for the historic buildings in the Battery neighborhood. Five years later, New Orleans, LA, established the Vieux Carré Commission to monitor development in the neighborhood of the same name. Those cities were driven early on by a desire to protect their rich architectural heritage; however, other cities didn’t see that as beneficial until much later.

In the 1960s, two actions in New York City helped turn the tide for historic preservation efforts and brought them into the consciousness of the mainstream public. The first was the 1963 demolition of Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead, & White. The venerable structure lasted only 53 years and was replaced in 1968 by Madison Square Garden, designed by Charles Luckman Associates. That demolition led to the creation of the New York City Landmarks Law in 1965 which provided protection for structures designated significant to the city. The next action involved Grand Central Terminal which was designated a landmark under the new law. Penn Central Transportation Company, the owners of Grand Central, filed an application with the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1968 to build a 55-story office tower on top of the 1913 terminal. Their justification was the desire to benefit from the site’s development rights above the terminal. The request garnered much public attention and Jackie Kennedy, Philip Johnson, FAIA, and Jane Jacobs publicly rallied against the plans. The owners’ request was denied due to the fact that the addition would have been destructive to the historic and aesthetic features of the landmark. The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court as the owners believed the denial constituted a taking of the company’s property without just compensation. In 1978, the Supreme Court sided with New York City, noting that the decision was not a taking and that preservation of historic landmarks is “an entirely permissible goal” for cities. This decision cemented the right of cities to protect their historic resources through regulation and had huge impact on the preservation movement.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Bess Myerson, former consumer advocate for New York City, were flanked by architect Philip Johnson (left) and Ed Koch, U.S. Congressman from New York, as they left New York's Grand Central Station after holding a news conference on January 30, 1975. All four were supporters of the Committee to Save Grand Central Station to prevent the construction of an office tower over the city's landmark train station. Photo: Associated Press/Harry Harris

Grand Central Air Rights Building, proposal drawing, circa 1969 / unidentified photographer. Marcel Breuer papers, 1920-1986. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.


What About Us?

Preservation efforts in Dallas didn’t start intently until the early 1970s with Swiss Avenue the heart of that effort. By then, the once stately neighborhood of grand revival homes from the early 1900s had seen better days and were run down and neglected. Weiming Lu, the assistant planning director at the City of Dallas, was the first to suggest a historic district for the area in order to stabilize and protect it. A study was performed to explore options for a historic district, as well as to determine the parameters of a preservation ordinance. While this was occurring, a developer proposed a 10-story apartment development on Swiss Avenue conforming to the area’s multi-family zoning. The proposal quickly garnered attention and frightened property owners. If approved, it could mean more houses would be demolished for apartments.

The application made its way through various city departments until a resolution was passed by the city council blocking the project. The developer then sued the city, and the case went to the Texas Supreme Court where the city’s decision not to grant the permit was upheld. While the case was working its way to the Supreme Court, the city adopted its first historic preservation ordinance in 1973. A few months later, the Swiss Avenue Historic District was approved and became the first in Dallas. Since then, 20 more historic districts have been established.

In the early 1970s, a ten-story apartment development on Swiss Avenue was approved that quickly garnered attention and frightened property owners along Swiss Avenue who feared that it could lead to the destruction of more houses for apartment development. The neighborhood fought the project, and the city council eventually blocked it from going through. Photo courtesy of Virginia McAlester, Hon. AIA.

As seen in New York, the demolition of important historic structures can have a catalytic effect and that has certainly been true in Dallas. The demolition of the 1948 Art Moderne-styled Dr Pepper building in 1997 was a rallying call to improve the preservation ordinance. Even with the Dr Pepper building’s status as a City of Dallas Landmark, there was no way to prevent its demolition. That led to a stronger ordinance that gave the Landmark Commission the right to deny any demolition request of a landmarked building.

In 2014, the destruction of four buildings between Main and Elm streets in downtown Dallas woke up the public and the city to the fact that, if a building is not a designated landmark, demolition could occur without any public input. The outcry over the loss of those buildings caused the city to develop a task force to study those issues. They recommended the creation of a Demolition Delay Ordinance to give the city and public time to review demolitions of non-protected historic structures. That ordinance, passed in 2015, includes the downtown area and a portion of North Oak Cliff. Since then, only two buildings have qualified for the full review process—both in Oak Cliff and both residential structures. The solution for the first was to move it to another lot to avoid its destruction, and the second one is likely to have the same fate.

Out of 124 landmarks designated by the City of Dallas since 1973, only three have been designated over the owner’s objection. They are the Knights of Pythias Building in 1989, St. Ann’s School in 1999, and Old Dallas High School/Crozier Tech in 2000. All three had developers who wanted to destroy the buildings and redevelop the sites. There was incredible community support to protect them; they were important to the history of the African American and Latino communities. When it came time for the Dallas City Council to vote on designating them as landmarks, a council “super majority” was required for approval due to the opposition of the owners. All three were approved, which subsequently stopped the demolition of these significant places. After designation, two of the three properties changed hands and went to developers that knew they could make something special from the historic properties. Since then, St. Ann’s School has been rehabilitated as a restaurant, Old Dallas High School is undergoing rehabilitation to become office space, and the Knights of Pythias building will be incorporated into a hotel development as part of a mixed-use project.

The uncertain future of a vacant historic property and the enormous development pressure has also driven the Landmark Commission to initiate the landmark designation process on several other important buildings. After the surprise and quick demolitions that occurred downtown in 2014, the Landmark Commission has become more proactive in trying to protect historic buildings outside of the demolition delay area by initiating the designation process when threats to those buildings become evident.

The City of Dallas Landmark Districts are defined areas with a significant concentration of structures unified by their architectural style or related historical events. They are protected by historic district ordinances with preservation criteria, specific to each district, administered by the Dallas Landmark Commission. A Certificate of Appropriateness must be obtained before any work can begin on any property within a Landmark District.  

Dumpster Divers Drive Decisions

In August 2015, dumpsters arrived outside of the 1938 Lakewood Theater on Abrams Road in Dallas. Workers soon filled them with theater seats, causing a viral outcry on social media and leading to rumors that this was the start of the demolition of the unprotected theater. The owners denied they wanted to demolish the venerable structure. Hearing the community concern and nervousness that without protection there would be no way to stop the demolition if the owners changed their minds, the Landmark Commission swung into action. They scheduled a public hearing for the building to determine if they should initiate the Landmark designation process. Many concerned citizens showed up at the hearing, filling the council chamber. They were armed with a petition with a whopping 5,000 signatures that called for landmark status of the building.

A dumpster appeared in front of the Lakewood Theater in August 2015, catching people’s attention and driving the fear that the materials being removed from the theater was a prelude to demolition of the iconic Lakewood landmark. People quickly claimed a piece of Lakewood history by “dumpster diving” for materials before they were carted off to the landfill. Photo courtesy of Virginia McAlester, Hon. AIA.

Photo: Steve Clicque

The owners became wary of what the designation of the building could mean and the possible restrictions which could limit what they could do with the recently vacated building. At the meeting, the commission decided to initiate the designation process, giving the city two years to secure a landmark for the building and work with the owners to develop a set of criteria for its preservation. During that time, the building was protected from changes to the exterior or demolition without the permission of the Landmark Commission. The owners, still wary of landmarking, came to the table and worked with the Designation Committee in crafting a set of preservation criteria that built in the flexibility to make changes to the exterior while preserving important features like the neon-clad tower, marquee, and overall form of the building. By the time the process moved along to the city council, the owners were on board and the theater was designated a City of Dallas Landmark in September 2016.

On to the Meadows

Another significant property in Dallas is the Meadows Building on Greenville Avenue. This classic structure, built from 1953 to 1955, also faced a demolition threat. This time the owners were exploring options for the removal of the original rear wing of this important mid-century gem to improve access to a 1980s office tower on the property. Just like the Lakewood, the building was placed on the Landmark Commission agenda to consider initiating the designation process. Once again, the public turnout at the meeting to support the initiation was huge. The owners objected based on the possibility of not having permission in the future to remove the wing. The Landmark Commission voted to initiate the designation process in February 2016, protecting it from unapproved changes for two years. The owners have since decided to save the original wing and are now developing rehabilitation plans before working with the Landmark Designation Committee on the preservation criteria for the building and site.

In the past two years, the Forest Theater, the Bianchi House, 1923 North Edgefield, and the Eagle Ford School were all initiated for the designation process in order to protect them from possible destruction. However, the Landmark Commission was not able to start the designation process in time to save three historic properties: the Dallas Independent School District headquarters building on Ross Avenue, the El Corazon de Tejas restaurant in Oak Cliff, and the Elbow Room on Gaston Avenue. Demolition permits were issued for all three by the city before the landmark designation initiation cases were heard and those demolition permits cannot be rescinded by the city unless the owner chooses to do so.

In the spring of 2017, the El Corazon de Tejas restaurant was demolished to make way for new development. Even though the building dated back to 1940 when it opened as a Wyatt’s Grocery Store, there was little that could be done to prevent its loss. A demolition permit was pulled before the Landmark Commission could consider initiating the landmark designation process for the beloved Oak Cliff building. Photos: Preservation Dallas

It’s About the Right Thing

On the flip side, there are owners who chose to gain landmark status for their buildings and protect them for the future. Most have done so to take advantage of property tax incentives available for City of Dallas Landmarks, depending on the amount of investment made in the rehabilitation of the building. Recent examples include One Main Place, the Allen Building, expansion of the Adolphus designation to include the additions made in subsequent years, and even a significant Charles Dilbeck-designed house on Park Lane.

Historic preservation has long been controversial in the United States as we live in a property rights-focused society, especially in Texas. The establishment of legal protections for historic areas or buildings is often seen as infringing upon the rights of the owners. Is that moral to inflict such control over a property when an owner doesn’t want it or when it restricts the full use of allowable development rights? Those statutes and regulations are needed as there is too much pressure to develop to the highest extent possible and for developers to get the maximum return on their investment—even at the cost of our nation’s heritage. Historic preservation regulations have been determined to serve a greater public purpose by the courts and one that cities can use as a tool if they so choose in order to protect those places that give a community identity and those that are important to the cultural heritage of a city.

Could you imagine New Orleans without the Vieux Carré? How about a Swiss Avenue with high rises? Or how about Dealey Plaza without the Texas School Book Depository after calls for its demolition following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? All of that could have happened if there wasn’t a legal way to protect our city’s and our nation’s historic places.

We have lost much of our built history in Dallas over the years and would have lost much more had there not been the tool of preservation regulations to use. So, the answer is yes to the question of whether or not it is moral to legally protect historic properties because if there were no tools to do that we would have far fewer of the places that make our nation’s cites architecturally and culturally diverse places to live, work and visit.

David Preziosi, AICP is the executive director of Preservation Dallas.