Katherine Seale: Preserving Dallas landmarks like a boss

Katherine Seale sits in the entryway of the Meadows Building, one of several historic structures her leadership on the Landmark Commission has helped preserve. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Katherine Seale sits in the entryway of the Meadows Building, one of several historic structures her leadership on the Landmark Commission has helped preserve. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Neighbors sounded the alarm when interior demolition began on the historic Lakewood Theater a few years ago. Emergency response came in the form of Katherine Seale, the 41-year-old Landmark Commission chair who is changing the way Dallas views its own history relevant to new development.

In what was an unusual move at the time, Seale put in a formal request to initiate the two-year landmark process, halting demolition on the circa 1937 building.

Seale, the former executive director of Preservation Dallas, has made bold moves for preservation since Mayor Mike Rawlings appointed her to the Landmark Commission in 2012.

But she is no taxidermist when it comes to saving community landmarks. She cherishes history, but she believes there has to be some value to the public in saving old buildings from demolition.

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This belief is exemplified in her decisions to begin the landmark process for buildings even when the owners were reluctant or flat-out opposed.

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Details of the historic Lakewood Theater interior, which the City of Dallas landmarked in 2016. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Details of the historic Lakewood Theater interior, which the City of Dallas landmarked in 2016. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Historically, the commission rarely sought to landmark structures over owners’ objections. Seale says she was simply “tapping the breaks” on the Lakewood Theater until neighbors and the owners could meet to make their respective cases.

That tactic worked. Within a few days, the new owners agreed to seek landmark designation for the theater’s façade and its iconic tower, and also save the interior lobby’s art murals by the late Perry Nichols, one of the famed “Dallas Nine” artists whose regional work made a national impact in the ’30s and ’40s.

“This is something you ought to be very proud of as a city,” Seale told City Council members at the fall 2016 meeting when the theater became an official landmark.

Since then, the commission has employed the same tactic with success.

In one instance, the prospect of initiating landmark status led to a deal to move and save a 137-year-old Victorian house along Interstate 30. It also persuaded the new owners of the circa 1955 Meadows Building on Greenville Avenue.

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The historic Meadows Building on Greenville Avenue is considered the first “high-rise” outside of Downtown when it opened in 1955. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
The historic Meadows Building on Greenville Avenue is considered the first “high-rise” outside of Downtown when it opened in 1955. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Now the commission is hoping it will work with two properties in West Dallas: A late 1800s Victorian farmhouse and an early 1900s schoolhouse where Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, attended.

Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonsky, who calls Seale his “hero,” points out that this didn’t happen very often before she came onto the scene and “grabbed the city by its wrecking balls.”

Perhaps her greatest accomplishment so far is a new city ordinance that puts much of downtown and northern Oak Cliff in a protected zone that requires a 45-day waiting period before a developer may obtain a demolition permit. The initiative sprung out of a grim Sunday in 2014 for the preservation community, when a wrecking ball razed several historic downtown buildings with no warning.

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Before the ordinance, if a building was historic but not protected, the city offered same-day turnaround for demolition permits — the same reality that spurred Seale to action on behalf of the Lakewood Theater when she saw theater chairs being carted out to the dumpsters. When it comes to Dallas’ historic resources, the preservation community needs time to work with owners to see whether a deal can be brokered, Seale says.

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It doesn’t guarantee eventual designation; it simply buys time.

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Time might tell that a property is not worth designating as a landmark and, therefore, saving.

“There has to be a greater good than just preserving your bricks and mortar,” Seale says. “You have to be relevant.”

Now she wants to conduct another survey of Dallas’ historic resources, but unlike the one Seale carried out as a Preservation Dallas staffer in the early 2000s, this one would go further than just identifying what she calls the “relic buildings.” It would look at the context in which areas were developed — why and how they came to be.

At this point, she says, “We have a pretty good understanding of the historic resources we’ve got, up to World War II.” Moving forward, she says, the city needs to look at “everything between the buildings.”

“Historic preservation gets its authority because it is a public good, so it has to be linked back to what is in the best interest of the public,” Seale says. “We need to take ourselves away from that hyper-focus on the exterior of a building and really look at it as, ‘What is it we’re trying to preserve here? What, really, are the core elements that make this important to the citizens of Dallas?’ ”

Along the same vein, the landmark commission is now looking at buildings that are important to a particular culture, people or neighborhood.

“It doesn’t have to be the highly stylized buildings; something can carry just as much as much meaning if it’s a brick box,” Seale says. This will lead to more focus on areas such as Henderson Avenue and Deep Ellum, she says, that have escaped prior preservation attention.

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She hopes the survey will lead to more resources for the city to protect what is worth saving.

“Fifty percent of the equation is recognizing what has meaning to people,” she says. “The other 50 percent of the equation is figuring out how to keep it for the future.”

This is why Dallas needs a survey, she says, so that the determining factor isn’t the visceral reactions when a property is under threat of change.

“The community wants to hug and protect it; the developer wants to maximize their profit,” she says. “There’s for or against but no in-between. I’m calling for a return to a decision-making process. It’s always better to decide when you’re not under the wrecking ball.”

The Lakewood Theater sits empty now, the historic marquee exhibiting only the words “for lease.”

Jonathan Diamond, one of the CBRE brokers representing theater owner Willingham Properties Co., is optimistic about finding tenants. It could become “a cool bowling alley” and may even remain a movie theater, he says, undeterred by the building’s landmark limitations.

“Are there challenges? Yes, but they’re not extremely difficult,” Diamond says.

The vacancy likewise doesn’t dishearten Seale. The city decreed that the building’s physical attributes and its history as the anchor of a shopping center serving the surrounding neighborhood “was really the core of preserving the building,” she says. “It was not the [theater] use that equaled the public good.”

Now that the city has determined what it is trying to preserve and why this is in the best interest of the public, “everything else follows,” she says, “including the use.”

The historic Meadows Building on Greenville Avenue is considered the first “high-rise” outside of Downtown when it opened in 1955. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
The historic Meadows Building on Greenville Avenue is considered the first “high-rise” outside of Downtown when it opened in 1955. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

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