It’s somewhere around 100 years old, the bathroom is barely big enough to turn around in, and the closet space is a joke.
Welcome to virtually every home in neighborhoods like Junius Heights and Vickery Place.
The going rate for such a house is well over $200,000, and that’s without the latest updates. A renovated house can easily price for $350,000-$600,000 — sometimes more.
How is that possible? Simple: historic preservation.
“For the City of Dallas, historic preservation has been the single-most effective urban design tool,” says neighborhood architect Daron Tapscott, who has renovated close to 300 historic homes in East Dallas.
“You had 50 years of suburbanization, which is still ongoing in North Texas, and now we’re entering the next 50 years of urbanization. When you drive down Swiss Avenue, Junius Heights or Munger Place, that’s what you see — that all of a sudden the city reversed itself.”
The reversal happened with the establishment of historic and conservation districts, types of residential zoning that protect neighborhoods’ architectural style and character, creating a cohesive feel. Each district has different rules and varying degrees of standards, regulating things like how close a house can come to the property line, how tall it can be and what building materials can be used.
While the added restrictions can complicate the renovation process, they also help increase the home value, Tapscott says, so the payoff is usually worth the effort.
“Every conservation district gives homeowners the guarantee that anything they invest is going to be returned,” he says, “because they know that the neighborhood is going to be stable.”
Mark Rieves is one of the many East Dallas neighbors who took a chance on a little Vickery Place bungalow in 1992, long before the neighborhood became a conservation district more than a decade later.
As a bachelor, he wasn’t bothered by the tiny kitchen with a water heater in the corner, or the claustrophobic dining area, or even the small closet and master bathroom, but when he married his wife, Priscilla, something had to give: They either had to move or renovate the century-old house.
While serving as a neighborhood association board member, Rieves played a significant role in creating the Vickery Place conservation district in 2006, following the lead of the M Streets and Belmont Addition. After that, the Rieveses decided to stay and remodel their home.
The zoning change in Vickery Place has been “huge,” Mark says.
“It allows you to say, ‘OK, we can drop money in this and be able to stay here,’ and not have to move because people are going to ruin our property values. You can’t build this huge 36-foot thing right on your property line. And the new builders are building things that fit now, and they’re local builders.”
The Rieveses called on Tapscott, who has lived in the Belmont neighborhood for 32 years, to help with the renovation. Tapscott was trained as a modernist, but he says he is fascinated by the details of old construction, so he is best known for his ability to take old houses and give them a comfortable, contemporary feel within the original, historical context.
“I really want a house to reflect the way we live now — more open with closet space and big bathrooms,” he says.
With his help, the Rieveses added square-footage to the back of the house, including an entirely new master bathroom, large walk-in closet and a spacious back porch.
One of the key home design elements Tapscott likes to improve is how people move through a house.
For the Rieveses’ house, they ripped out a wall between the kitchen and dining room (which Tapscott noted was a “disaster”) and removed a closet from the kitchen’s back corner to create a connection with the hallway.
“So in the mornings when they’re up and want coffee, they don’t have to go all the way around the house,” Tapscott says.
“If you walk into a house and something just doesn’t feel right, it’s usually because the hallways don’t work or something is wrong with the circulation.”
In the end, the bungalow went from a 1,400-square-foot house with one bathroom to a 2,200-square-foot house with three bathrooms, Mark says.
At around $120 a square foot, these extensive remodels aren’t cheap, but they are worth it — not just for the enjoyment of the homeowners, but also for the resale value.
Mark bought his house for $60,000 and property value had steadily rose after the zoning change. Now the going rate for property in his neighborhood is somewhere around $350,000.
“We would never have spent this without the conservation district,” Mark insists. “Never. We would have just sold out and moved.”
Rene Schmidt, president of the Junius Heights Historic District, had a similar experience. He bought his house in 1996, and it was in shambles — as was the neighborhood.
“Junius Heights was sort of a pejorative word. Nobody would live here,” Schmidt recalls.
“His Realtor told him, ‘Tell them you live in Lakewood,’ ” his partner, Lee Lattimore, adds.
When Schmidt bought the house, the Realtor told him the previous owner used to come and go through the window because the front door didn’t open. He didn’t bother to lock the window because he had been robbed so many times.
Despite all that, Schmidt says he “loved the house and loved the neighborhood.”
Junius Heights was established in 1906 and is the largest collection of arts and crafts and craftsman-style homes in the southwest, according to the website. With the help of Schmidt and other neighbors, it became Dallas’ largest historic district in 2005.
While conservation districts aim to maintain a certain architectural style, historic districts preserve the structure exactly as it was originally built, adding more red tape when it comes to changing the exterior.
Still, Schmidt says it has made all the difference in his decision to remodel his home, which was built in 1916 and had only seen a couple of miniscule and very bad renovations since then.
He also employed the help of Tapscott. Because it was made of cedar stumps instead of bodark, the foundation of the house was rotting, but historic district rules don’t allow demolitions.
“So we spent a lot of the time redoing the foundation,” Tapscott says.
Tapscott also helped Schmidt update the kitchen downstairs, but the biggest project involved adding a second story to his home by turning his attic into a music room.
In keeping with the regulations in Junius Heights, Schmidt could only raise the roofline on the back of the house to accommodate the new space.
The second floor was transferred to a whole new foundation made of eight brand new piers, which were placed underneath the existing foundation, so the two foundations of the first and second floors work in tandem, Tapscott says.
Not only that, the front porch had no piers under it, which had caused it to shift over the years, so they had move it back where it was.
While many would say good riddance to houses like Schmidt’s, Tapscott says he loves to “resurrect houses.”
“I would argue that the primary reason not to tear a house down is that some of the materials are not replaceable,” he says.
“Sometimes, too, it’s the ultimate green. When you think about the amount of embedded energy that goes into processing the original lumber, brick, glass and all that, when you leave as much as you can intact, it’s the original form of conservation.”
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