The Blue House

Preservation groups come together to rescue very old house in Dallas

Preservation groups come together to rescue very old house in Dallas

Browder house
The Browder house was visible to motorists driving on I-30. Photo courtesy of Homeward Bound

In a big win for the preservation of cool old things, a historic home near downtown Dallas has been saved from destruction. Called the Rosenfield House, it's one of Dallas' oldest homes and became a cause celebre in 2016 after it was in danger of being destroyed.

But in a scenario that could hopefully be replayed in Dallas, a variety of players — Preservation Dallas, Dallas Heritage Village, the Cedars Neighborhood Association, Dallas Jewish Historical Society, and Charter Communications — worked together and found a place to move the house, less than a mile away.

Also known as the Browder House, the structure was a two-and-a-half story, Queen Anne-style house located at 423 Griffin St. W., that was built in 1885 for Max J. Rosenfield. (Flashback Dallas, the historical blog, details its early history.)

The lot where it sat was owned by Time Warner, now Charter Communications, who were told by the city of Dallas that they needed to build a parking lot to fulfill a zoning requirement. When its neighbors in the Cedars District noted that the building was going to be razed, they raised a ruckus.

For the next two years, neighbors, preservationists, and property owners worked together to keep it, says Katherine Seale, chair of the Landmark Commission.

"We've never had such a team effort with so many moving parts to save a landmark," Seale says. "It was a monumental effort."

Charter Communications, which owned the property, paid for the move.

"Charter is a huge company, and sometimes it can be difficult for a large corporation to be flexible and responsive — but they were," Seale says.

Seale acquired a lot for it at the corner of Browder and Beaumont streets in the Cedars district, across from the bar Lee Harvey's. Eventually, they found a like-minded developer in Mark Martinek, who is passionate about restoring old homes.

They moved the house in April, breaking the structure into sections and hauling it in the middle of the night to minimize impact on traffic.

It now sits next door to two century-old shotgun houses that have won preservation awards. "It'll help create a sense of an older neighborhood," Martinek says. "If the pressures of development arise, we'll have this historic enclave."

In its new location, it will be restored to its original glory.

Martinek, who is a resident in the Cedars district where he lives in another very old home, says that it was important to save, despite the upheaval of the move and the loss of some interior fittings.

"It's not an easy thing to do, but I think it's worth it," he says. "It's up there as one of the oldest houses in Dallas, and it's an interesting house given its history as being among the first spec houses they built over here."

The interior had already been gutted, so he'll rebuild to be historically accurate.

"I've been speaking with Davis Hawn Lumber about creating an example for the molding that we can use as our guide," he says. "One important thing is the windows. Unfortunately, someone took some of windows out, so we'll have to rebuild all of those in the original sash style they used in 1885.

"We'll just meticulously go through the lens of what would have been there in 1885 and that's what we'll put back," he says.

And while the exterior is in poor condition, it is at least intact.

"In 1885, everything was hand cut and nailed with square nails — it was perfectly well crafted," he says. "The wood is all old-growth Southern wood. The frame itself is magnificent. That in and of itself is worth saving. Then you have the Italian revival architecture which is cool. Some of what was there has not been well cared for, but the core is intact and we can definitely preserve that."

Martinek has been working on old houses for 25 years.

"I've saved houses in much worse condition," he says. "Each of those two shotguns were in worse shape. I just redid a house in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans that was falling down before Katrina.

"But a frame house is always repairable," he says. "It's expensive and it takes time, but having done it enough times, I have some economies in my approach."

That said, this is not likely to be a profitable venture.

"At this point we'll barely break even," he says. "But we'll save this house, and in the long term that is worth doing. The value is not exclusively in how many dollars it's worth. The value is in old houses."

Preservation in Dallas is a constant battle. "We have a long history of interesting architecture, but we don't appreciate what we have," he says. "We're destroying things that are an integral part of our culture."

Seale hopes that the house will serve not only as a touchstone for the neighborhood's heritage but as a potential model for other salvages in the future.

"Most developers are just taking advantage of what the city is allowing them to do," she says. "The Cedars neighborhood has lost so much of its built fabric that they recognize how important saving it is, and therefore approach things differently. The Cedars recognizes that what makes their neighborhood valuable is retaining their heritage."