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Beloved Dilbeck Houses Face the Wrecking Ball in Dallas

The Treasures of a Renowned Architect are in Demolition Danger Even as His Legacy Looms Large

BY // 07.19.18
It is the tale of preservation we know all too well: With its beloved wisteria vines and horsehead gate the first design elements to go, a beloved 82-year-old Dilbeck cottage in the Park Cities faces an uncertain future. Here we look at the long storied history of this master architect.
 

The house on the busy corner of University Boulevard and Preston Road was always my favorite. As a child, I was delighted by the charming horsehead on the picket gate in front and the wisteria that bloomed around it. I fell in love with the house’s magical exterior long before I knew anything about its architect, Charles Dilbeck, who designed the 1937 duplex in the fanciful French farmhouse style he became famous for.

Its placement on a busy corner in Dallas was no accident: Dilbeck often put his best houses on prominent corners to elicit attention, and this one drew legions of admirers. As the decades passed, the gate began to droop on its hinges and some of the boards rotted. The slow decline only added to the charm.

An enormous tangle of climbing wisteria vines and foliage eventually swallowed up the two-story house, and for a few weeks each spring, a glorious shower of lavender blooms rained down. The house had all but disappeared. Only a portion of the white washed, slurried-brick wall remained visible, its horsehead gate standing guard like a sentinel over a mysterious kingdom.

In late March, I snapped a picture of the house as I waited for the light to change. The timing was lucky — the wisteria, in full bloom, was at its peak. I posted the shot to Instagram, and from the comments, a lot of other people loved this house, too. In May, it was sold, and someone put a shot of it on Facebook. I was devastated.

The wisteria was completely uprooted and an old two-story crape myrtle had been butchered in the process. Worse, the horsehead gate was gone, a gaping hole left in its place. Was the house being torn down? No one seemed to know.

I raced over to inspect the carnage and peered inside the open front door. To my relief, plastic drop cloths covered the floors and walls, and workers on ladders chipped paint from between the ornately carved plaster ceiling beams. The exterior’s changes might be worrisome and inelegant, but this wasn’t a teardown — at least not yet.

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Dilbeck-designed houses, especially in the Park Cities, are in constant peril of the wrecking ball.

“It’s frightening,” says architecture historian Willis Winters. “Houses of architectural importance are disappearing at an incredibly fast rate.”

Winters, who has written extensively on Dilbeck, spent the last 12 years working on a monograph about the architect. In October, he’s slated to give the keynote presentation during the Preservation Dallas tour of Dilbeck homes. It all comes down to economic pressures, Winters says. The hotter the real estate market, the more dangerous it is for old houses, regardless of who designed them. And the threat is greater than it has ever been: Dallas is booming, and land value in the Park Cities continues to skyrocket.

“Dilbeck built 20 houses on Bryn Mawr [in University Park],” Winters says. “One or two get torn down every year.” 

That said, some people would rather preserve an old house than tear it down. Malee Helm, who purchased the Dilbeck duplex on University in 1995, had previously lived in a Dilbeck on Park Lane for 10 years. (That house, which included horse stables, has since been torn down.)

“I was enamored with the peculiarity and charm of his houses,” Helm says, happy to co-exist with the quirks and age-related issues an old house inevitably brings. For the house on University, she upgraded bathrooms but kept the original tile. The duplex’s two kitchens almost look like time capsules from the era, with original cabinets and other details. Peeling linoleum floors were replaced with black-and-white tile.

Initially, Helm used the two-story duplex as a single family home and installed an elevator inside a closet for her daughter. “I was always careful not to make changes that would interfere with the wonderful, original details,” she says.

When Helm moved to Bluffview 15 years ago, she rented out the house. She listed it last summer with Ebby Halliday Realtors for $1.2 million.

“It’s one of Dilbeck’s best works,” Winters says. “All of Dilbeck’s vocabulary was in full bloom — inside and out.”

An Architect Apart

Charles Stevens Dilbeck designed hundreds of houses during his long career. Between the 1930s and 1960s, he built French farmhouses and ranch houses throughout Dallas, particularly in Preston Hollow and in the Park Cities. His romantic cottages were influenced by old French and Irish architecture, along with early Texas structures. He was on par with other great architects of the era — Hal Thompson, Anton Korn, Fooshee & Cheek and George Dahl — who all made significant contributions to the Park Cities with classical revival and Tudor styles. But Dilbeck stood out.

“He was the most individual and iconoclastic of them all,” Winters says. “There is charm in Dilbeck’s work you don’t find in the more straightforward design of the others.”

Mostly self-taught as an architect, Dilbeck didn’t travel to Europe to see the houses that influenced his work. Instead, his inspiration came from books and a fertile imagination. Born in Arkansas in 1907, he grew up in Tulsa, where he helped his contractor father on job sites. He was a prodigy from an early age: At 11, he helped design and supervise the construction of an African-American church in Tulsa. At 15, he went to work as a draftsman for a lumber company, preparing and modifying house plans. Still a young man, he began designing entire subdivisions of cottages for developers.

“As he gained experience, his style began to blossom and emerge,” Winters says.

In Tulsa, that style was primarily French with a touch of Irish. “He did 200 to 300 houses in [Tulsa’s] Florence Park. Each one is extraordinary.” 

In 1929, after two years of formal study in architecture at Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University), Dilbeck dropped out to work for a Tulsa developer. There, he built modest spec homes along with grand custom residences for the town’s elite. The Great Depression scuttled his young business, and he moved to Dallas in 1933. The 26-year-old worked briefly with George Marble, an established Park Cities architect, before going out on his own.

“He became popular right away by doing work for Dallas oil barons, building estates on Preston Road and Northwest Highway,” Winters says. “A couple of them are still around.” 

Charles Dilbeck, circa 1930 at a Dallas motel he designed. Photo courtesy Willis Winters

Dilbeck, who died in 1990, was extraordinarily prolific, building more than 300 houses throughout Dallas including Lakewood, Preston Hollow, Bluffview, and Oak Cliff. He built a subdivision of 14 small cottages — all still standing — in Cochran Heights east of North Central Expressway along Henderson Avenue. He also built apartment buildings, hotels, shopping centers, and country clubs.

Only a handful of his commercial buildings remain, including the refurbished 1947 Belmont Hotel in Oak Cliff. One of his most colorful is the Hotel El Rancho in Gallup, New Mexico, built for Dallas-based movie theater mogul R.E. Griffith, for whom Dilbeck had also built a house on McFarlin Boulevard in the Park Cities. During the 1930s and ’40s, Gallup was a hot location for shooting Westerns. The hotel was built as luxury accommodations for the likes of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Mae West. The architect even put a stable outside Kirk Douglas’ first-floor suite so his horse could be close by. 

Dilbeck was a master at making buildings look centuries old, long before it was a trend. He often salvaged lumber and brick from the Trinity River bottoms, a dumping ground for demolished buildings during the early half of the 20th Century. If the rescued pieces were misshapen or charred from fire, so much the better.

He used a variety of materials on the outside of his houses to make them look like they’d been added to over time, including stucco, brick, stone, and wood shingles. Bricks were laid in slightly wavy patterns to look as if they’d shifted over the centuries; a slurry of stucco made them look rustic. Roofs were made from concrete tiles and heavy shake shingles. Inside, he often paneled walls in pecky cypress because it looked old, and he used weathered, exposed beams to reference ancient French barns. 

“He designed things to look like they were old and distressed — almost like they might fail,” says architect Nancy McCoy of Quimby McCoy.

She specializes in preservation architecture, and has restored four Dilbecks, including a sprawling ranch house in Westlake built in 1942 for former Dallas Morning News publisher Ted Dealey. Scott and Kelly Bradley bought the house in the 1970s while Dilbeck was still alive and called the architect out to fix its “sagging” roofline. Dilbeck took a look and said, “That’s how I meant it to be.”

When development encroached on the house, the Bradleys had it dismantled and moved to a safe location. It was McCoy’s job not only to reconstruct it, but to build additions that looked as though they were original.

“Restoring a Dilbeck is fraught with problems,” she says. “He used salvaged materials that are not easy to find. Also, he had his own looseness, a casualness, to his houses that masons today might interpret as poorly done and try to clean up. Also if you’re not careful, his style can be over-exaggerated.” 

For Dilbeck, magic was in the details. One of his signature elements included the Dutch door, which he sometimes flipped upside down, “for whimsy and the unexpected,” says architecture historian Jann Mackey, who frequently lectures on Dilbeck’s work at SMU. He hired famed metal artisan Henry Potter to make wrought-iron door hardware and built monumental fireplaces with special hooks for cooking pots over a fire, just as they would have centuries ago. Leaded-glass windows were custom made. Warm materials and charming details made even his biggest, high-ceiling rooms feel cozy.

A Treasured Home’s Uncertain Future

The house on University includes many of Dilbeck’s most recognizable signatures, but it also has unique elements that set it apart. Plaster ceiling beams and corbels in the downstairs living room are beautifully carved with oak leaves and acorns. The Dutch front door is accessed through an extraordinary slurried-brick and flagstone courtyard, reminiscent of an ancient stable. A stone staircase, which winds its way to the upper unit, has steps made from old railroad ties.

“When you add all these details together, that’s what gives his houses magic,” says Mackey.

What can be done to protect houses like the one on University from being torn down? Homeowners living in Dallas can apply for landmark designation with the city or create deed restrictions that prevent them from being demolished by future owners. Tax incentives, such as what are offered to developers in downtown Dallas, are a great way to encourage preservation, says Katherine Seale, former president of Preservation Dallas, who happens to be restoring a Dilbeck in Preston Hollow. 

In the Park Cities, it’s a whole different ball game. Landmark designations issued by the nonprofit Park Cities Historic and Preservation Society are essentially ceremonial. Houses get bronze plaques but no legal protection.

“We have talked many times about how to put teeth into our landmark designations,” says board member Taylor Armstrong, “but with no legal force behind them, the only thing we could come up with was a deed restriction.”

To make things easy, a lawyer for PCHPS drew up a sample deed restriction and offered it to homeowners.

“We’ve had no takers so far,” Taylor adds. “People shy away from deed restrictions in the Park Cities because it’s the land that is so increasingly valuable — not the houses.” Deed restrictions can also be hard to enforce because there are no legal entities or volunteer groups willing to police them in the Park Cities. And real estate agents, who have a vested interest in selling houses, often discourage people from using them.

Downstairs kitchen of the duplex on University Blvd. Courtesy Ebby Halliday Realtors

Malee Helm talked to several different real estate agents before deciding to skip a deed restriction for her Dilbeck on University, she says. “I was told it was hard to sell a house when you do this,” she offers.

Instead, Helm is relying on oral assurances from the house’s new owner that it will not be torn down. Kent Stainback purchased the house in late May through 4116 Investors LP, of which he is president. He is also chairman and CEO of Dallas-based commercial real estate and brokerage company, The Stainback Organization, whose website lists commercial developments in Dallas near SMU and throughout Texas.

Paperwork was filed with the Texas Secretary of State to create 4116 Investors in March 2018. Since then, Stainback’s limited partnership has purchased at least two other houses next to Helm’s.

Helm says the new owner has promised that he plans to fix the Dilbeck up and lease it out, not tear it down. She kept the horsehead gate just in case.

“It was shocking to see that crape myrtle come down, and it seems like they could have kept some of the wisteria,” Helm laments.

It’s not clear what the future holds for one of Dilbeck’s most cherished properties in the Park Cities. The fact that 4116 Investors has purchased several properties in a row may not bode well for the Dilbeck in the long run. Because the block is zoned MF2, it means a three-story apartment or condo complex could be built there, joining other multi-family complexes that have recently popped up nearby.

Asked for comment on this story, Kent Stainback did not return multiple calls or emails. We also reached out via email and text to Ford Stainback, VP of brokerage and development for Stainback Organization, who brokered the deal for his father’s company. Ford also did not respond.

At the closing, Helm penned a handwritten note to the new owners, “letting them know how happy I was they were keeping this treasure intact, and honoring its legacy,” she says. “It would break my heart if it were torn down.

“I have to hope it has fallen into good hands.”

Note: The  July 2018 print issue of this story incorrectly stated The Stainback Organization as the new owner of the Dilbeck house at the corner of University Blvd. and Preston Rd. The new owner is 4116 Investors, of which Kent Stainback is president. The error has been updated here, along with new information that became available after print deadline: 4116 Investors was formed in March 2018 and has purchased at least two other houses on the same University Blvd. block.

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