Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Teardown of historic Dallas building revives look into demolition process

Before the dust – or the controversy – settled Monday over a demolished Oak Lawn office building, the destruction of the midcentury structure has energized efforts to change Dallas' preservation policy.

The worksite was idle Monday. Final demolition of the former insurance building at 2505 Turtle Creek Blvd. was halted by building inspectors for the second time in two days.

City officials said the building's owners had begun tearing down the building before turning off the electricity and gas and had failed to protect a tree on the site.
The start of the teardown early Sunday had been temporarily halted by city officials, who said the demolition permit had not been posted.

At issue is a one-story 1959 building designed by Dallas architect Harwood K. Smith as the Dallas office of the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York. The Canada-based Great Gulf development company plans to use the site for a high-rise building that would house a hotel, condominium units and a restaurant.

The building's greatest legacy may be that it rekindled the city's efforts to protect historic buildings.

After the Old East Dallas YWCA was torn down last year, there was widespread discussion of enhancing a so-called red flag procedure designed to give preservationists time to save a historic structure. Although the exact mechanism has yet to be spelled out, the plan would be based on an already existing process in which a list of buildings considered for formal historic designation are sent to the building inspections office.

When a property owner applies for a demolition permit, city employees put a temporary hold on the application if the building is on that list.

Under the new procedure, the list would be expanded to include all properties deemed by the staff to have architectural merit. The list has been compiled (2505 Turtle Creek Blvd. was on it), but it had yet to be sent to the Landmark Commission for approval.

Preservationists thought they had saved the 2505 Turtle Creek building this month after the City Plan Commission unanimously denied a Great Gulf request to permit alcohol to be served on the property. The owners filed for a demolition permit the next day.

Newt Walker, the Dallas real estate broker who found the Turtle Creek site for Great Gulf, said opposition to the project came from a small group of neighbors.

Mr. Walker said the plan had been enthusiastically embraced by neighborhood leaders when it was proposed and that the insurance building's architectural significance did not come up until the zoning hearing.

"My question is: Where were they six months ago?" he asked.

Mr. Walker said owners plan to work with the neighbors to come up with a compromise.
He dismissed suggestions that the Sunday demolition was triggered by a story that morning in The Dallas Morning News that singled out the structure as an outstanding example of midcentury architecture.

He said weekend demolitions are common, especially near the center of big cities.
"The idea that this was some midnight raid or was done out of vindictiveness is absolutely ridiculous," Mr. Walker said.

But preservationists were nonetheless shocked.

Katherine Seale, executive director of the private Preservation Dallas, said the fact that the plan commission's decision was unanimous made it extremely difficult to overturn.

"We know how things work at City Hall, and we felt pretty confident that the building would be saved," she said.

Earl Schander, one of the neighbors opposed to the new project, was not mollified by Monday's second stop order.

"Things have been topsy-turvy here, and now we've got a pile of glass and steel and brick that we're going to have to live with for a long time," he said

When preservationists first sought to save the building, considered a prime example of postwar style, its design was wrongly attributed to Howard Meyer, considered the city's finest midcentury architect.

The building's real designer, Mr. Smith, founded the giant architectural firm, HKS Inc., whose projects include American Airlines Center and the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, but his work is regarded as artistically inferior to Mr. Meyer's, according to Willis Winters, who has authored several books about Dallas architecture.

The building at 2505 Turtle Creek may have been an exception, he said.

"This is a beautiful, beautiful building," Mr. Willis said. "I think it was easily one of the best examples of his work."

Spurred by the latest news, the Landmark Commission may get the proposed list of historic buildings at its May meeting, said Kate Singleton, chief planner in the city's preservation office.

"We had always been saying that we wanted to get it to them in spring or early summer, and then this happened and we said, 'OK, that was the sign we needed to get it done,' " she said.

Final implementation will require approval by the City Plan Commission and the Dallas City Council, but Ms. Singleton said she believed officials were motivated.

"I think everybody feels it's better to do this sooner rather than later," she said.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008