By Chris Dummit
Staff Writer of The News
When George and Debbie Simon went shopping for their first house in 1977, they were looking for something with character — with the warmth of dark wood, beamed ceilings and a stone hearth. They wanted a quiet neighborhood with oak trees and begonias, a place where they could begin a family.
What they found was a 1913 redwood frame house selling for $16,000 in the Winnetka Heights area of Oak cliff.
Today, after six years and $60,000 in renovation, the house has been restored to its original look. The property’s value has multiplied almost nine-fold and this week, the house won the 1983 Restoration House of the Year Award, which is sponsored by Douglas Newby & Associates. The award was presented Monday at the couple’s home by Dallas Mayor Starke Taylor.
“We were not really in this for personal gratification,” says George Simon, a 31-year-old businessman who owns Montclair Investments. “We wanted to publicize the proper face of Oak Cliff. This whole area is being underutilized.
But we are proud of what we have done.” he says. “It is a visual accomplishment. In today’s society, it’s often hard to find a sign of something you have done. We can look at this home and be proud of it for ourselves.”
To get to that point, the couple had to come a long way.
When the Simons, now parents of three-year-old Justin and six-month-old Ashley, first saw the one-story house at 300 S. Montclair Ave., they knew it was a special place.
“When we walked in,” says homemaker Debbie Simon, “we just said, ‘Oh, God. This is a little jewel.’ ”
But it was a diamond in the rough. The house had been unoccupied for two years, and was marred by peeling paint, cobwebs and dust balls. But the Simons still saw the potential in the handcrafted dark woodwork and wainscoting and antique, leaded glass. They also saw the space they needed to start a family – three bedrooms, two baths, separate living and dining rooms, family room and spacious front porch.
It was only the third house they had seen, says Mrs. Simon, and “we thought about buying it for three days. It had only just come on the market, but we thought this one would be snapped up pretty fast.”
They signed a contract for the house and began to dream of floor plans and furniture. Before the actual restoration began, Simon studied books on carpentry and design. Then they got cold feet.
“All the fears and second thoughts came,” says Mrs. Simon. “When we first saw the house we said, ‘Sure, we can do it – no problem.’ But when we thought about it later, we both got scared.”
“It was really more work than we anticipated,” he says.
They seriously considered just selling the house, but by February 1978, Simon had finished drawing up plans and excitement began to overcome the fear.
For six months, they worked every evening and weekend – tearing down walls, moving doors, gutting the kitchen and staining and finishing the extensive woodwork. Meanwhile, they continued to live in a rented house in Arlington.
By July 1978, the house was livable, and the Simons moved in. That fall, they were asked to let the house be part of the old Oak Cliff home tour in October. Though two of the rooms still were not decorated, the house already had become an area showplace.
Today, the house is furnished with a mix of antiques, reproductions and classic, contemporary styles. The kitchen and dining room are covered with floral wallpaper. Antique pictures decorate the living room walls. One bathroom features a bathtub with legs. Most of the rooms have hardwood floors. The redwood exterior of the house has been restained and highlighted with white trim.
Obviously, it caught the eyes last month of several Oak Cliff neighborhood activists, who nominated the house for the restoration award. This is the first time in the award’s five-year history that only Oak Cliff houses have competed. Previous entries all have been located in East Dallas.
Oak Cliff was spotlighted this year because many of the restorations begun seven to 10 years ago are now being completed, says Douglas Newby, owner of Douglas Douglas Newby & Associates. Next year both Oak Cliff and East Dallas homes will be considered for the award.
To make the final selection, a committee of seven area professionals – in architecture, interior design, historical preservation and neighborhood impact – judged the Simon house, as well as five others, for workmanship and “restored to live-in” style.
“Restoration is a goal for people trying to capture the antique feeling of a house, without restricting themselves by trying to make it a museum,” says Newby. “When you go into an old house, it either feels old or it feels remodeled. Restoration means capturing the era but still allowing comfort by today’s standards.”
The Simons decided to restore the house instead of remodeling because, “it seemed like that’s what should have happened here,” Simon says. “There was so much built-in character, I just couldn’t imagine decimating it.”
The Simon house was more difficult to judge than some of the others, says selection committee member Bill Booziotis, president of the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
“It is an atypical home, built by individuals who were working much in their own style,” he says. “They were very sensitive to the problems, and very resourceful and inventive in their solutions.”
Booziotis says the Simons have been attentive to details, such as matching the wood in the new rooms to that in the restored areas.
The judges also considered the impact each house had on its neighborhood and on Dallas: Was it leading the way in the area? Would it provide leadership for the rest of the city?
The Simon house also has made quite an impact on just the Winnetka Heights area, says Newby. “There was not much restoration going on anywhere in the city six or seven years ago. The Simons were some of the first people down there.
“It is also a small house (2,600 square feet) with a very grand look. Other people will be able to look at it and say, ‘We can buy ourselves a cottage like that and make it into an award-winning house.’ “
Jim Hart, a city councilman for Oak Cliff, says the Simon House is just one example of the results being seen now in the South Dallas suburbs.
“We are anxious to see continued development of this type all through the area. It is important for the future stability of the city.
“When neighborhoods go downhill, the tax base shrinks. That’s the biggest threat now all over the city. In Oak Cliff, we’re looking at good quality planned development and redevelopment, both residential and industrial.”
In 1977, Winnetka Heights was still relatively untouched by development, George Simon says. But it also was an area with a reasonable chance for success. The area has since blossomed, he says, through the interest of strong neighborhood preservation groups and through the mayor’s Southern Dallas Task Force, which was formed this summer to help upgrade neighborhoods.
Today, if the Simons were going to buy the same house in the original condition, it would cost about $55,000 – about $40,000 more than it cost six years ago, George Simon says.
Even with the property’s increased worth, the Simons say they are not interested in selling their house. But if they were, Mrs. Simon says, “we’d be very picky about who we sold it to. They would have to have the same walk-in-the-door feeling that says, ‘Oh, honey, this is it.’ ”