Photo by David Leeson

Photo by David Leeson

Mother’s Day in East Dallas — quick, what comes to mind? Brunch with Mom? Flowers? How about the Swiss Avenue Historic District Mother’s Day Home Tour?

Though it is a lovely, well-oiled machine now, tales of its formation and the early days of the tour offer a fascinating glimpse at a much younger Dallas.

“We wanted people to know about our neighborhood.”

Little-known fact: Mother’s Day has its roots in the post-Civil War ideals of peace activists Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis. The home tour, too, came about at the hands of activists — the neighborhood variety. Worried residents organized the tour as a reaction to an alarming trend of urban decay on the street. The once elegant face of Swiss Avenue, the first paved street in Dallas, changed after World War II. Rapid growth and the baby boom necessitated the conversion of formerly single-family dwellings to rooming houses and apartments.

“Converting to multi-family use was considered patriotic,” says Virginia Savage McAlester, longtime Swiss Avenue resident and author of a several books on architecture. Over time, though, the changes wrought on Swiss Avenue’s homes created an aura not of stability but of transience. Realtors, recalls McAlester, actively steered clients away from Swiss Avenue properties, even labeling the area as “dangerous.”

Determined to change perceptions, preserve their neighborhood, and earn historic district designation, McAlester and others involved in the Historic Preservation League circled the wagons. “We wanted people to know about our neighborhood,” she says. Thus was born the home tour 41 years ago.

Harryette Ehrhardt, former State Representative and Swiss Avenue resident for 43 years, remembers the first tour, her own home among those opened to the public. “We anticipated a few hundred people and had 2,500,” she says. Adds McAlester, “We were stunned by the large turnout.”

Martha Heimberg was there for the first tour and vividly recalls fun preparations. “Some of us bolstered our historic spirit, dressing up in period outfits. Dorothy Savage, a founding member of the Historic Preservation League, went into her fabulous closet and retrieved beautiful vintage dresses and priceless hats and long gloves that her fashionable mother had worn in the 1920s and ’30s. Virginia McAlester, Dorothy’s daughter, and I had a fabulous time putting our outfits together.”

Those early tours were fun but perhaps a bit “naive,” Ehrhardt laughs.  Docents now guide guests through homes, but back in the day, it was “very much a do-it-yourself thing. We had no help to show the house and simply opened it up for folks to wander around as they liked.” And money matters, well, they were a bit more relaxed back then. Ehrhardt remembers counting admission fees with neighbor Virginia Bonifeld.  “We went around and picked up money during the weekend, dumped it on her dining room table in front of her open window and counted it out with piles of dollars, fives, etc., no protection from anyone walking by.”

“We think of these homes as in our care for generations to come — not as our personal property as much as ours to take care of for the next generation. The tour is a way of saying thank you to Dallas.”

Unfortunately, their trusting spirit didn’t always serve them well. At one of the first tours, a group of filmmaking students from a prominent local university approached them with a desire to make a documentary about Swiss Avenue, its history and the home tour. McAlester said they were thrilled, eager to possess a “great historic record of our neighborhood.” At the students’ request, Swiss Avenue Historic District sprang for 16 mm film for the cameras and even a helicopter for some cool overhead shots. Tour organizers went all out with period costumes and antique cars to lend authenticity to the scene. Students were observed busily filming all the goings-on, and the tour ended. Weeks passed, no word from the students. Alas, organizers never saw one frame nor heard from the students again. Here’s hoping that one of those students reads this and does the right thing, lo these many years later.

Despite this disappointing episode and the inevitable learning curve involved, Swiss Avenue folks have always heartily embraced the tradition, gladly opening up their homes. McAlester’s house, built in 1917 and in her family since 1921, has been part of the tour at least a couple of times. Though happy to do their part for the tour, McAlester admits getting a home ready for such scrutiny is no easy feat. McAlester laughingly recalls her father, Wallace Savage (mayor of Dallas in the late 1940s) complaining, amid the frantic cleaning, repainting and general fixing up, that they were “going to a lot of trouble to show people how we really live.”

The activist spirit of Mother’s Day lives on in the organizers of the Swiss Avenue Historic District Home Tour. Funds go back into the community: neighborhood schools, branch libraries, the beautiful median running from Fitzhugh to La Vista. And history is preserved: “We think of these homes,” Ehrhardt says, “as in our care for generations to come — not as our personal property as much as ours to take care of for the next generation. The tour is a way of saying thank you to Dallas.”

Read more about this year’s home tour here.

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