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Preservation Ordinance Backfires

The Dallas Morning News, April 7, 2001

The Dallas City Council’s recently revised historic preservation ordinance will have the effect of halting historic design in the Munger Place Historic District.

The ordinance does so by adding the federal Interior Department’s preservation guidelines, which require any addition in the district to look new, not old. Yes, new, not old. The department doesn’t want a new addition to look historic because it will confuse future generations of architectural historians.

Such an approach may be advantageous when dealing with an individual landmark building that definitively identifies an architectural style or historic event. But it isn’t advantageous to Munger Place, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places not as individual houses but as a collection of houses celebrating a continuous style stipulated in the city’s first planned development in1905.

While a simple, square, two-story frame house with a front porch may not stop many people in their tracks, a 10-block neighborhood of those houses sharing a district architectural vocabulary is charming and significant.

In 1973, the city plan department, the plan commission and professional preservationists didn’t want to make Munger Place a historic district because it was in deplorable condition. Houses had been torn down, porches had been removed, and architectural detail had been lost.

But during the next several years, much damage was undone. Even though the original source material, photographs and drawings had been lost, homeowners successfully re-created Munger Place detail indistinguishable from what had survived in the neighborhood. For instance, front porches that had been torn off were replaced with porches of a Munger Place design.

When the neighborhood began to regain its shape, it achieved historic designation in 1981. For 20 years, the goal has been to preserve the original and, if the original has been lost, to rebuild it with a design that looks original. Each year, this Dallas neighborhood has recaptured part of its original style.

Now, though, the goal won’t be that simple. If a homeowner seeks to replace an aluminum front door with a Munger Place style glass panel wood door with egg and dart beaded molding, the application could be turned down because the new front door might look original to the house. Looking original would be in violation of the Interior Departments’ standards. The same is true for other architectural elements, such as railings and columns.

The department’s preservation guidelines may protect a national academic approach to specific historic structures, but they don’t protect the pleasing aesthetic character and continuity of a Dallas neighborhood. Indeed, the guidelines serve only to impede and frustrate the future restoration of Munger Place.

The city’s recently revised preservation ordinance may be well intentioned, but it denies the Munger Place Historic District the chance to continue its evolution back to the Munger brother’s original vision. The City Council can and should solve the problem by adding a superseding clause that allows missing architectural elements to be replaced with ones that mimic the original design found in this historic neighborhood.

Real estate broker Douglas Newby chaired a group that petitioned to make Munger Place a historic district in 1977, and he helped fashion the ordinance that was passed in 1981.

Douglas Newby is the #1 Realtor for Significant Properties.