Once nearly extinct, the Lakewood Shopping Center fought back

The Lakewood Shopping Center truly was the “center” of Old East Dallas in its early days. After a period of decline, the center at Abrams Road and Gaston Avenue once again is bustling.

Lakewood Theater’s recently restored Art Deco façade and neon lighted tower, constructed in 1938, is the center’s most dramatic symbol.

The drama continues inside the theater. Backlit Art Deco statues and bold wall and ceiling art combine with an organ rising from the stage floor to make an event of each trip to the movies.

In the theater’s early years, East Dallas children flocked to Saturday morning cartoons, and young adults flocked to its portals for Friday and Saturday night “dates”.

The area fronting the theater is dominated by the beautifully restored Diener-Mills office building, constructed in 1934 to house the Lakewood library and Cabell’s Ice Cream Parlour.

During the 1970s, the Diener-Mills building nearly was demolished for a pizza-chain restaurant. A nostalgic group of residents risked their money to preserve the building.

The Lakewood post office’s first home was the corner of Kidwell and Prospect. Boasting a corner drive-through originally used as a letter-drop area, the building has been renovated for office use.

The French provincial building at Gaston and Abrams Parkway recently was renovated for use as Maine St. restaurant. Originally built in 1924 by Lakewood legend “Doc” Harrell, the Gaston Avenue Pharmacy’s soda fountain and lunch counter became a neighborhood gathering place.

Harrell was a director of Lakewood State Bank, and a door opened from his pharmacy directly into the next-door bank lobby. Lakewood State Bank became the largest independent bank in Dallas after moving across the street into a four-story section of a building (now Lakewood’s tallest) that is home to Lakewood State’s successor, First Interstate Bank.

In the 1960s, both the shopping center and surrounding neighborhoods declined. The once-bustling center became home to second-rate night clubs and marginal businesses. The theater stood empty. Storefronts needed paint and renovation. High-speed traffic bisected the center, and utility poles offended the eye. Parking areas were scattered and inconvenient. Property owners refused to renovate without a viable plan to correct these conditions.

But good things began happening. Swiss Avenue’s revitalization moved rapidly after the area obtained historic designation in 1973. The Munger Place area was next to upgrade. Absentee-owned rooming houses were steadily replaced by restored, well-kept homes. And this spirit of renewal spilled over into other Old East Dallas neighborhoods.

Energized residents and businesses joined forces in 1982 to hammer out the Lakewood Master Plan for development, orchestrated by the Lakewood-Skillman Business Association. The City Council became convinced that a widened, re-routed Abrams Road would benefit the center.

Additionally, $750,000 was raised to implement landscaped parking and the beautification of Harrell Park in memory of “Doc” Harrell. This project was completed in 1987.

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