Life in Dallas has been tough for houses built in the early years of the 20th Century, and many didn’t survive to see the 21st. We’re fortunate that our own neighborhood is still graced with grand vintage homes, but it’s also pocketed with vacant lots — former sites of beautiful residences that fell victim to fire, hard economic times, neglect, vandalism and, ultimately, the bulldozer.
A closer look at some of the structures lining Dallas’s oldest streets reveals that some of the remaining "old" houses aren’t old at all.
"Quite a few ‘infill’ houses were built in Munger Place during the mid-80s," says Rita Cox, president of Preservation Dallas. She adds that since many older houses were turned into apartments and are gutted during restoration, it can be hard to tell the copycats from the real thing — even on the inside.
"The replicas don’t have to be exact," she says. "Still, it’s tough to build in a historic district."
Although the purpose of historic standards is the same for all of Dallas’s protected districts, each district has its own set of guidelines based on the structures originally built there. Permission in the form of a "Certificate of Appropriateness" must be obtained from the Dallas Landmark Commission prior to breaking ground, but their historic design expertise also helps the prospective builder create an exterior that will pass muster, right down to details like paint scheme and style of porch railing.
A drive through Old East Dallas confirms that a surge in replica home building is occurring right now. And nowhere is new "old" construction more obvious than on Reiger Avenue in Munger Place, where David Weekley Homes is creating a cluster of lovely period houses that blend into the existing neighborhood. Our grandparents and great-grandparents saw houses like these take shape all the time; the sight is curious today.
David Weekley Homes has a lot of experience in creating "neotraditional" homes, says Weekley from his headquarters in Houston. The blending of old with new is in part for economic reasons, since much of the interior detailing of older homes is not cost efficient to reproduce, but also because today’s homebuyers typically have different priorities and desire more open floor plans. And, of course, these homes are much more energy-efficient than homes built almost a century ago.
Weekley says the Munger Place homes are selling well. According to Joe Vestano, new project manager for the Munger Place endeavor, David Weekley Homes is expanding its horizon farther into "niche" building rather than focusing on large residential developments. More attention is being paid to upper-end houses ($600,000 to $1.5 million) and also to the historic infill that’s taking place in Old East Dallas. It’s a strategy that expands the business and places them where other builders would not be.
Their first infill project "within the loop" (LBJ Freeway) was The Enclave at White Rock, says outgoing project manager Jim Monk. Construction on these homes started in ’98 and has recently been completed. With their "M" Streets look, these smaller homes were designed to fit into the existing neighborhood. In creating appropriate residences for Reiger Avenue, David Weekley Homes has developed several different historic home plans approved for Munger Place by the Dallas Landmark Commission. In addition to building these plans on their own land (they’ve purchased 13 lots on Reiger so far), the company will build any of them on a privately-owned lot.
Small plans too
With such large-scale copycat construction going on, one might not notice the individual projects popping up here and there. Architect Clint Strong and client Mary Williams have been collaborating on Williams’ new "old" bungalow in Munger Place for two years. ("Maybe a little longer," they say.) They expect construction to be completed by April 2001. Most of that time was spent in the design phase and, of course, in gaining approval on the exterior from the City.
This is the house that Williams plans to live in “always,” so long-range life changes were as important to consider as her current way of life. In determining exactly what would be right for her, Williams took inspiration from author Sarah Susanka and her book, The Not So Big House. She knew she didn’t need a large house if it were built to suit her life, so instead of the boxy Foursquare plan typical of Munger Place homes, she and Strong opted for a 1 1/2-story bungalow.
For convenience, Williams wanted one bedroom downstairs. She preferred the fireplace to be in her dining room, and she pictured a kitchen where people could congregate. Echoing the marketing expertise of David Weekley, she desired an open floor plan rather than separate, closed-up rooms. Williams and Strong weren’t as concerned with period authenticity as they were with the above considerations. By coincidence, though, interiors of the period tend to be quite open, with big rooms. So Williams’ house will be built much like an old one on the inside as well.
Strong isn’t recreating every detail that might be found in a period home; like David Weekley, he knows that to do so would be cost prohibitive. In his words, this is “a somewhat pared-down version.” The details may be fewer and less elaborate than those of a fine period home, but they’ll still evoke the elegance of an old house. Care is being taken to use no material that might stand out as too modern.
Appropriate reproduction light fixtures will be installed, as well as period-looking kitchen and bath hardware, and a beautiful old leaded-glass window. Kitchen counters will be topped with authentic 3"x6" glazed tile, in the style of the day. All interior doors were salvaged; new doors, according to Strong, just don’t have the right character. (Salvage places can mean "sal"-vation for the builder or remodeler looking for period details!)
One exterior addition suggested by the Dallas Landmark Task Force enhanced both authenticity and livability. The upstairs bedroom at the front of the home opens onto a wide, narrow balcony, the perfect spot to sip morning coffee and enjoy a charming view.
Soon, Mary Williams will have the best of all possible worlds. She’ll have the home she wants to dwell in forever, one that’s perfect for the way she lives, in a uniquely beautiful historic district, near people whose company she cherishes. At the same time, she will have done something wonderful for the neighborhood.
Inspiration vs. imitation
Not all the replica construction in East Dallas copies older single-family homes. Trey Bartosh and Joe Dann (Tremont Partners, LLC), together with architect Strong, have created a community of townhomes at 6100 Tremont offering the charm and convenience of an older neighborhood combined with high-quality construction and that intangible "something different."
Outside, they departed from the "formula" Dallas complex in both layout and design details. Inside, their designs are semi-custom, with some interiors more modern (Bartosh calls them "retro contemporary"), others closer to the ’20s in feel. They added interesting details, such as picture railing and pull-down swivel ironing boards. And they designed their own moldings; stock trim would’ve looked unsubstantial.
Changes in color scheme, and in countertops and light fixtures, make similar floor plans look modern or vintage as desired. These homes have been created for people who love the central location and the charm of decades past, but not the yard maintenance, leaky windows, limited closet space and constant upkeep of an old house.
Bartosh and Dann boast that they’re the only townhomes under $1 million that have both pier-and-beam foundations and Marvin windows. And they offer something else that doesn’t come with an old house: long warranties. Though Dann and Bartosh never set out to duplicate old construction, it has been their inspiration. Their project was so beautifully done, they won a 2000 Historic Preservation Achievement Award from Preservation Dallas.
Copycats and critics
A debate rages among architects and historic preservationists about replica housing, extending even to the definitions of terms like "replica" and "reproduction." Some architects have no interest in drawing upon the past for inspiration and think the only worthwhile design is something entirely new. Some fall to the other extreme, accepting only exact duplicates of specific historic plans.
Others hesitate to build exact fool-the-eye clones because they feel it creates a theme-park atmosphere and somehow cheapens the actual old homes that survive on a street.
But most agree that "copycats" are the best and possibly the only way to preserve the character of historic blocks pitted with empty lots. To the residents of these neighborhoods, they’re an exciting and extremely welcome development.
"We love to have them, and we love having new neighbors!" says Cox, who explains that for 10 years, Munger Place residents battled to get rid of the seedy convenience store and car wash at Reiger and Collette. Once these eyesores had met their long-overdue fate, David Weekley Homes entered the picture, and a neighborhood was brought back to life.
Cox herself has a vacant lot adjacent to her vintage Munger Place home.
She says: “I hope one day to have a new "old" home — right next door.”