West End CVB

photo by: Preservation Dallas

May 13, 2016

Pragmatic Preservation in an Economic Boom

  • By: Sophia Dembling

Katherine Seale is both evangelist and pragmatist.

As chair of the landmark commission for Dallas, Texas, Seale faces the formidable task of balancing her passion for preservation with the realities of a booming economy and skyrocketing land values.

“You can’t save everything,” she says. “You really shouldn’t save everything. Preservation has to be done in service to a higher undertaking. It has to start making these buildings important assets to the city.”

With people moving to North Texas at a rate of 200 per day and a similarly robust rate of corporate relocations, flocks of construction cranes once more stalk the Dallas skyline. And in a city bursting with future-oriented, can-do fervor, preservation is often positioned as the enemy of progress.

Seale is both frustrated by, and respectful of, the tension between preservation and bigger-better-newer; her goal is helping naysayers see how thoughtful preservation stands at the intersection of past and future.

“I don’t want to mummify a building,” she says. “It can no longer be just about landmark designations and putting in protections to prevent change. It has to reach for solutions. There is a point in time that we can actually start shaping the future with preservation.”

Although she was not involved in its preservation, Seale’s one-time nightmare scenario sits on Bryan Street, in the shadow of downtown: Dallas High School/Crozier Technical High School, built in 1907. After the school closed in 1995, a fight was waged to save it.

“There is a point in time that we can actually start shaping the future with preservation.”

Katherine Seale
Dallas High School

photo by: Luis Tamayo/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Dallas High School was designated a landmark in 2000 but used as a rebuke to preservationists as it sat empty and derelict for years. However, it has recently been purchased and will be repurposed for a mixed-use development.

“It was a powerful thing when all those alumni kept showing up to fight the demolition, month after month,” says Seale. The building was protected over the owner’s objections in 2000, then sat decaying accusingly for 15 years while plans to utilize it came and went.

“People ask if I regret that it was saved,” Seale says. “I’ve never regretted saving a building.” The building has “good bones” and “flexible preservation criteria,” she says. “It’s very valuable to a great many people.” The structure was finally purchased in 2015 for a mixed-use project, and Seale still cites it as a cautionary tale for lack of planning and vision.

Young and energetic, Seale grew up in the Dallas suburb of Rockwall, at that time a rural community. When she was an art history student at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, her thesis work on Louis Kahn’s barrel-vault Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth opened her eyes to the interaction between architecture and people. In 2001, after graduate school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, she took a job with Preservation Dallas. She rose to executive director of the organization before moving to her post with the city in 2012.

These days, Seale spends a lot of time advocating for Midcentury Modern architecture in Dallas. “In this period, influential architects were coming to Dallas and competition ensued,” she says. “A lot of really important architecture happened then, and the city has never embraced that time period as part of its identity.”

Statler Hilton in Dallas

photo by: Noah Jeppson/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The famous Statler Hilton will reopen in Dallas this year, with its 1950s flavor intact.

When Preservation Dallas started talking about the circa-1956 Statler Hilton Hotel, “there was very little support from our traditional allies,” Seale says. “Many saw the 1950s as the beginning of the degradation of the revivalist style.”

The city council was mostly unsupportive, and then-mayor Laura Miller was pressing for a large downtown park that would have required razing the Statler Hilton and other historic buildings.

“Thankfully we just kept talking about it,” Seale says. “Architects started advocating for it, then we were really lucky to get the National Trust for Historic Preservation involved, which brought national press.”

The Statler Hilton, which has no historic designation, was purchased and will reopen later this year, Midcentury flavor intact, as The Statler Hotel & Residences. (In the meantime, another important Midcentury structure, the 1955 Meadows Building, has come under pressure; the landmark commission has initiated designation proceedings over the owners’ objections.)

Seale also recently helped the city and property owner Time Warner Cable rescue a 1880s home, among the city’s oldest, located in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood on the edge of downtown. Intending to demolish the house to build a hub, Time Warner ultimately agreed to move the historic structure instead. In addition, Seale is monitoring heated discussions surrounding stewardship and the future of Fair Park—the world’s largest collection of Art Deco fair architecture—and changes in Oak Cliff—a long-neglected but gentrifying southern neighborhood at a tipping point, with developers getting starry-eyed and residents getting nervous.

Bishop Arts-CVB

photo by: Preservation Dallas

Bishop Arts CVB—Oak Cliff in southern Dallas has been gentrified in recent years and now faces increased development.

Perhaps foremost on Seale’s mind at the moment, though, is the West End Historic District (see top photo), a collection of red brick industrial buildings (including the infamous Texas School Book Depository, now the Sixth Floor Museum) tucked amidst the glass towers of downtown Dallas.

“The buildings are a really good example of where Dallas was in the early 20th century because we were connected by rail to all the important ports and cities,” she says. “The West End was a reflection of what was happening in Chicago and St. Louis. You can see the exchange of ideas.”

Designated in 1973, the West End saw a burst of energy in the 1980s, including a Planet Hollywood and festival marketplace. But it eventually lost steam and is now an underutilized asset abutted by acres of parking lots and rising land values. To open up discussion among developers, architects, and city planners about the district, Seale assembled and leads an ad hoc committee.

“The city of Dallas very specifically does not have a planning department where we would have these conversations,” Seale says.

So, pragmatically, she's making them happen herself.

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.

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