It was just a simple question. . .

Dallas Heritage Village closes two months–January and August–every year.  As much as I love our visitors, it can be really, really nice to be closed.  This time gives us time to plan, work on some more involved projects and catch up on a few things–both at work and at home.  This January, I was looking forward to tackling a few big projects at work, as well as finally organizing my home office.

And then, at the end of the first work week of 2016, I asked a very simple question that has uprooted all of my plans.

On Thursday afternoon, I was chatting with our neighbor Michael about a variety of things (per usual!).  He said “You know that blue Victorian house on Griffin?  Something is going on with it.  All of the upstairs windows are open.”

Me: “Well, use your investigative powers and see what you can find out.”

The next afternoon, Michael forwarded an email to me from another neighbor (sent around 2:50 p.m.), reporting that there was a bulldozer parked in front of the house.  Michael called me almost immediately and was already in his car to go check things out.  I told him that I would call my friend David at Preservation Dallas to see if there was anything we could do.  Dallas recently passed a demolition delay ordinance for any building over 50 years old, and our neighborhood is a part of that overlay.  David, God bless him, picked up the phone late on a Friday afternoon.

My simple question: “Is there anything we can do?”  David told me to call and email the preservation officer at the city.  While I was doing this, Michael posted (around 3:15) pictures on social media of the bulldozer.

I copied them into the email I was writing and hit send.  Within 30 minutes, I had a phone call from Robert Wilonsky from the Dallas Morning News wanting permission to use the photo.  I gave him Michael’s number and headed to a meeting.  Coincidentally, it was with a board member who happens to be a preservation architect–and we were talking about the deferred maintenance inventory at DHV.  So, I figured if I was ever in a meeting constantly checking social media, this was the right issue and the right board member. Because social media was exploding.

That night, I had drinks with Michael and we strategized a bit: if we can stop the demolition, what options are there?  Can this home get a new lease on life?

The next morning, I was minding my own business, sipping coffee, when this got published:

Victorian home in The Cedars, built in 1880s, soon to become a Time Warner parking lot

And then this:

Time Warner Cable says it needs to raze Victorian home in Cedars for hub site, parking

Throughout the weekend, I kept a close eye on social media conversations, jumping in when I felt appropriate.  My goal: make sure that people understood that DHV couldn’t just rescue the house.  With a huge needs list of buildings we already care for, the only way we could consider accepting the house would be with a very large check.

On Monday, I spent the morning filming a few of our early supporters as they talked about the early days of DHV.  We were founded to save a house from becoming a parking lot.  So when a colleague stood at my door and said “I just let in a reporter from Channel 8 news in.  They want to talk to you,” the historical parallels just slapped me in the face.  Here we are, at the dawn of our 50th anniversary year, and there’s another preservation battle.  But this time, we’re not sure moving the house to a museum is the best choice.

The story aired on Monday night.  And then they kept running it.

Temporary reprieve for 19th century Dallas house

I had become the face of this particular historic preservation crisis.  In the last few weeks, there have been dozens of conversations with people that want to save the house (and then realize the cost), people that have family that lived in the Cedars, board members, neighbors, and preservation friends.  Though I know I have done other things this month (like have some important conversations about the growing homeless issue in Dallas. Or conversations with the board about growing our budget.  Or important staff training.), I feel like all I’ve done is think about this lonely, threatened blue house.

In all honesty, I don’t think this particular preservation crisis wouldn’t have gotten the media attention if it hadn’t been for its location.  It’s very visible from a major interstate, and it just looks totally out of place.  It’s a gateway to the neighborhood–but also a symbol of all of the abuse the Cedars has endured over the years.

Though the media flurry has calmed down a bit, there have been other articles in recent weeks as we move towards the all important Landmark  Commission meeting on Monday.  My favorite might be this one:

Near-demolition of Victorian house: Here’s what Dallas got right

And this one caused my jaw to drop.

DALLAS PRESERVATIONISTAS ARE OUT TO GET SOME MONEY AND SOME MUSCLE

We’re definitely still in the middle of this. But as I reflect on this month that didn’t go as planned, I know that dropping everything to work on this was the right decision.  Even if the house ultimately comes down (and I don’t think it will), it will still be a victory. For once, a historic building in Dallas didn’t come down in the middle of the night.  People across the city are talking about historic preservation, the Cedars, Dallas Heritage Village and Preservation Dallas. There’s a rising push to do more for the historic fabric that’s left in this city.

One of my recurring jokes is that there are no history emergencies.  The stuff is already old, and it’s just getting older.  But these events have reminded me that sometimes we have to act quickly to save the past.  David, my colleague at Preservation Dallas, knows this quite well, but these aren’t the kind of battles that history museums typically get involved with.  But maybe we should?  It certainly seems like an important part of being a community anchor, even if we can’t save the house ourselves.  Working side by side with David on all of this has been a great learning experience for me.  He knows how to build the arguments about history relevance.  He knows what to do in a crisis. We’ve worked together before, but this whole incident is taking both our personal and institutional partnerships to a new level.  Very soon, I think we’re going to need to have an adult beverage.  Or several.

So here it is, almost the end of January.  Somehow, I’ve managed to complete the do-or-die portion of my to-do list, but other big projects remain on the back burner.  And I’m so very tired.  I was supposed to be rested as we head into spring.  Oh well.  I guess this is the life of an executive director in a changing neighborhood.

 

 

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About Melissa

Professional history and museum nerd, among other things. I've worked at Dallas Heritage Village since 2004, first as the educator, and became Executive Director in 2014.
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