Historic houses come tumbling down
Teardowns are threatening the character of some older communities
Mike Matthews doesn't claim that Davy Crockett hung up his coonskin cap in the Park Cities neighborhood of Dallas or that Texas hero Stephen Austin slept there. Still, he strongly believes that the historic character of the area filled with homes originally constructed from 1910 through 1940 is worth saving.Skip to next paragraph
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The threat to his community? Teardowns.
Teardowns aren't new, of course. The practice of demolishing a small house in a desirable neighborhood and building a huge new house on the lot has been around for a number of years.
But now the practice has gained a new wrinkle: Homes with some historic significance are being torn down and replaced by oversized McMansions out of character with the neighborhoods in which they're located.
It's becoming such a pervasive trend that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has named teardowns in historic neighborhoods to its annual list of 11 Most Endangered Places.
"In just the last two years we started hearing more and more about this trend," says Adrian Fine, who tracks and writes about the teardown threat for the trust. "We had no idea it was so pervasive."
More than a hundred communities in 20 states have been identified as dealing with actual teardowns or threats of them.
Mr. Matthews estimates that about 100 homes are bulldozed in his community every year. Many incorporate hard-to-find craftsmanship and features such as slate roofs, Tudor styling, and stained-glass windows.
The trend really hit home for Matthews when the house next door was leveled. It was similar to his own home, a charming 2,400-square-foot Tudor, built in 1929. In its place is a nearly completed 6,500-square-foot French country-style home, with an asking price of about $1.4 million.
A bond portfolio manager, Matthews loves the patina of Park Cities, which is made up of University Park and Highland Park, handsome communities near Southern Methodist University, which are now engulfed by Dallas. This area is full of well-built and well-designed homes, many of which originally belonged to prominent Dallas families.
But is that enough to designate the neighborhood "historic"? Therein lies one of the big difficulties in saving significant old houses from being torn down and replaced: The definition of just what is historic varies from community to community, state to state.
In some cases, the houses are the designs of well-known national or local architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Richard Neutra.
While high-profile homes such as these make headlines, those truly at the heart of this issue are regular homes that collectively give a neighborhood its cohesive appearance and appeal, its architectural and environmental rhythm.
"Teardowns radically change the fabric of a community," says Richard Moe, the National Trust's president. "Without proper safeguards, historic neighborhoods will lose the identities that drew residents to put down roots in the first place."
Although a study by the trust cites examples of historic teardowns from New Jersey to California, suburban Dallas has been hit especially hard.
Two years ago Matthews decided "enough is enough." So he went door to door seeking to gauge interest in saving the neighborhood.
As it turns out, there was plenty. By the end of 2002, Preservation Park Cities, the grass-roots advocacy group he organized, is expected to reach its goal of 1,000 members. This is an impressive number since only 400 people generally vote in Highland Park elections.
"You have a community beginning to cry out for [preservation]," says Craig Melde, an architect who lives in the neighborhood.
And it's not just in the Park Cities, or Dallas, that people recognize the threat posed by teardowns in historic areas.
In cities across the country, the same pattern holds: Affluent suburbanites weary of long commutes seek closer proximity to city jobs and amenities. To feed this market, developers and speculative builders buy up old homes in inner-ring suburbs and in-town residential neighborhoods, often from elderly residents, then level them.
The problem for these older areas occurs when buyers want large, new homes and don't seem to mind the costs, either in dollars or demolition.
In Atlanta, Karen Hubner of the city's Urban Design Commission, says it can be agonizing to watch neighborhoods lose historic fabric. Yet it happens if no one approaches her understaffed office seeking historic protections and designations.