A new historic landmark for East Dallas?

The Bella Villa hopes to regain its former grandeur. (Photo by Will Maddox)

Royal Grant Hockett penned his own obituary the week of his death, finishing it the day before he died. Within the obituary, he provided a key piece of information that may lead to an apartment building becoming a landmark in Vickery Place.

The building has a long and twisting history. The structure is on the site of, and believed to be a remodeled version of, the old Vickery Place schoolhouse, which was a functioning school in Vickery Place before the area was annexed into Dallas ISD. Numerous Dallas Morning News archive articles list booster club and neighborhood meetings there throughout the 1910s and ’20s.

The schoolhouse is now the Bella Villa apartment complex, which stands at the corner of Miller and McMillan. It has probably caught your eye. Its white stucco walls, blue window frames, and terra cotta roof tiles look nothing like the homogenous apartments that seem to be multiplying in East Dallas.

Though the architecture is unique, the building has fallen into disrepair in recent decades, due to absentee landlords. On Wednesday morning, the back door stood ajar while trash bags piled up in the fire escape. Most of the mailboxes in the lobby were empty and unlabeled, and the creaky floor looked like it hadn’t been swept in decades. Window units chugged along, attempting to cool the building on a steamy morning.

According to Hockett’s obituary, he was a part of the real estate deal that turned the schoolhouse into what was at that time an elegant apartment building. There are numerous wedding announcements during the 1930s and ’40s, of upper middle class couples returning from their honeymoons and moving into Bella Villa. “Dr. and Mrs. Cummins are at home in the Bella Villa apartments at 5506 Miller Ave.,” one announcement reads from the society page of the Dallas Morning News on Aug. 1, 1941.

The Landmark Commission unanimously voted recently to initiate landmark designation for the formerly upper-crust complex. Mike Birrer and Daron Tapscott, Landmark Commission members and East Dallas residents, led the drive for the designation. The vote means that nothing significant cosmetically can be done to the building for two years, while the commission researches the property in order to determine its value as a landmark. If approved, it will go to the City Council for a vote on landmark status.

“One reason to save this building is that this could be one of Dallas’ earliest adaptive reuse projects,” Birrer says. “They used all or part of old school to make apartment building. Apartments are all the same these days, and it is important to preserve historic buildings so that people can actually see the different styles and ways of living.”

Landmark designation has its obstacles, especially when the owner is not on board. East Dallas has seen its fair share of landmark designation battles, including Lakewood Theater, the Dallas ISD administration building, and the Elbow Room. Fortunately, Birrer says, the new owners have been supportive of the pursuit of landmark designation.

“We need to think about preserving our historic apartment buildings,” Birrer says. “People cycle through them instead of living in them permanently, and there is no voice for those buildings. That is why we have lost so many already. Today, there is nothing with the look and grandeur of Bella Villa.”


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