How a fine old fire station survived Dallas wreckers

When an older downtown post office building and early fire station were in danger of being razed, the Dallas City Council got the message fast. Citizens had ''had it'' with the continuing sacrifice of historic buildings from the meager supply.

Last December, for example, City Manager Charles Anderson, armed with a court order, sent police squad cars to halt the wrecking ball before it struck the old Central Fire Station.

When the building was sold in January 1981 to the Zorina Corporation for $641 ,120, the corporation's broker had included during the negotiations a letter of intent which vowed to preserve the station's three-story, red-brick-and-stone facade.

When Zorina later said that preservation was not feasible in its plans to add two floors toward a five-story office building conversion, Kathleen Cunningham, interim director of the city's planning and development department, directed city building officials to withhold a demolition permit if plans to preserve the station's original facade were not included.

In the wake of last year's defacement of a prized art-nouveau building the day a demolition permit was issued, an ordinance was already in place which requires 120 days between permit issuance and demolition.

That, it was hoped, would give the city's landmark committee ''persuasion'' time with developers to cite tax benefits and the pluses of preservation, adaptive reuse, or both. If historic-landmark status is granted, the city's tax-incentives program now allows the freezing of the tax assessment for eight years and resale of certain unused building rights to developers elsewhere in the city.

During a heated conflict with Zorina, the city offered to buy back the old fire station with an added $60,000 of compensation for costs incurred to date. Abdul Azhar, an officer with Zorina, claimed more had been lost during the delay , and also that compensation was due for the ''bad publicity'' that was generated because of the differences with the city.

When the dust finally settled, according to landmark committee chairman Mary Ellen Degnam, Zorina had withdrawn its proposal to ask for historic designation and its tax breaks and Dallas had achieved a kind of architectural pyrrhic victory.

The original fire station now has been topped with two more floors which, with side and back extensions, have been sheathed in black glass, a rather incongruous consummation.

Another public outcry arose when the Postal Service real estate office announced the possibility of demolishing the city's downtown Italian Revival-style post office, built 50 years ago with WPA funds, and then letting a private developer erect an office tower with 91,500 square feet of space allotted free of charge to the Postal Service.

The Indiana limestone structure, with its exterior terra-cotta murals depicting postal history, rated among the top 75 by the Dallas Historical Preservation League on its inventory of downtown buildings which were suitable for historic-landmark designation.

The decision of the Postal Service followed a 21/2-year survey, according to William H. Brady, manager of the postal service real estate field office in Dallas.

Surplus land and properties were to be sold to help out the federal budget.

''The idea was to achieve the highest and best use of the land,'' according to Mr. Brady. But about a hundred protesters gathered at a public meeting, including architects, city officials, and members of the central business district, who generally support ''growth and progress.''

Juanita Craft, a former city councilwoman and respected minority leader, asserted: ''That building belongs to the public. Don't sell my share.''

Questioned, too, were the Postal Service's projection of a structure comprising vastly more square footage than the average space of the city's new downtown office structures, including the Arco Tower across the street and the new 50-story Thanksgiving Tower.

The president of the central business district, James Cloar, charged that ''the Postal Service ignored both the Dallas building codes and logic of commercial development.'' The director of the Postal Service's real estate department in Washington, D.C., acknowledged that ''the numbers were wrong.''

After a reexamination by a private Houston firm, Laventhol & Horvath, hired to find alternatives, total demolition proposals were scrapped.

Now a ''pre-offering'' of the Postal Service is advertising for private development of a smaller office building on the back-door area of the present structure. A local architectural critic concludes: ''The Post Office is not an architectural masterpiece, but it provides a rare and necessary relief from the soaring steel and glass towers that dominate downtown.''

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