The architect’s works are disappearing everywhere but here in East Dallas
Often considered the city’s most prolific architect, Charles Dilbeck’s legacy is best represented in East Dallas.
In nearby neighborhoods like Preston Hollow and the Park Cities, Dilbeck’s small-statured houses are regularly reduced to rubble and replaced with more extravagant abodes. The residences that remain usually undergo extensive modifications or additions.
But dozens of the renowned architect’s works still stand throughout East Dallas, says Willis Winters, director of the city’s Department of Park and Recreation. At least 44 homes are scattered throughout Lakewood, Hollywood-Santa Monica, Casa Linda and Cochran Heights.
Winters has spent the past 20 years researching Dilbeck and is writing a book about the architect’s works. It’s a colossal undertaking because it’s estimated that Dilbeck completed 600 projects across the city between 1932-70.
“I don’t know if anybody else did that many projects,” says Donovan Westover, events and development coordinator at Preservation Dallas. “That reason alone makes him very, very prominent.”
Dilbeck’s success is an anomaly in many ways. Growing up in Arkansas, he worked alongside his father, a carpenter and builder, Winters says. He dropped out of Oklahoma A&M after two years, according to “The Drawings of Charles Dilbeck,” written by Jan Patterson, then a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Dallas. With limited formal training, Dilbeck dreamed up designs for Tulsa’s affluent oilmen when he was only 20 years old.
But his vision changed after the Depression rattled the nation. He relocated to
Dallas in the early 1930s, where he spent most of his career creating homes for middle-class families instead of building estates for the city’s elite.
His lack of formal education became Dilbeck’s greatest asset. Instead of following the guidelines of classical design, he played by his own rules, Winters says.
Dilbeck drew inspiration from French, Spanish and English architecture, but his most common designs were French Norman and Texas ranch. He often incorporated found materials, such as natural stone and wood, sporadically into each project. Because his style was so eclectic, his designs nearly are impossible to categorize.
The best way to describe Dilbeck’s work is idiosyncratic, although each project contains overarching characteristics, Winters says. His creations often included asymmetrical floor plans, oversized fireplaces, elaborate turrets and balconies.
“Most houses, even old houses, require a little bit of work to make it charming and make it something that’s reflective of who you are,” says Katherine Seale, chair of the Dallas Landmark Commission. “With Dilbeck’s, there’s so much charm you don’t have to work as hard.”
Dilbeck’s work is admired by local architecture enthusiasts, but there have been few efforts to preserve his meticulously crafted homes. Winters doesn’t believe any of the residences in Hollywood-Santa Monica or Casa Linda are at risk, but he hopes Cochran Heights homeowners make an effort to preserve their character by seeking a conservation district or historical overlay protection from the city.
“He’s one of the most distinctive residential designers of houses I’ve ever come upon,” Winters says.
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