Real Estate / Mansions


A Historic Dallas Church Hits the Market for $8.4 Million, But It Comes With Secrets

BY // 04.15.16
photography Michael Hunter

Dig This: An architecturally significant former church, built in 1910, hits the market for $8.4 million — with a few surprises inside.

Bryan Crawford is waiting on the steps when I arrive. A senior vice president with Briggs Freeman Sotheby’s International Realty, he offers to walk me through one of his listings: a resplendent former Presbyterian church built in 1910 by architects Herbert Miller Greene and James P. Hubbell, designers of some of Dallas’ greatest landmarks, including Old Parkland, the Dallas Morning News building and the Neiman Marcus flagship downtown.

Ushering me through massive iron-and-glass front doors, he waits for my reaction. All I can do was put my hand over my mouth and shake my head in amazement. “Pretty awesome, isn’t it?” he says, smiling.

Sunlight streams through the two-story rafters into the sanctuary in front of us, sparkling off the polished hardwood floors, crisp white plaster moldings and columns. Crawford runs a hand over a wall of 106-year-old exposed brick, which had been uncovered during renovation.

“All of the bricks in the building are stamped with “Texas” on them,” he says. “Most of the oldest buildings in Dallas have [them], and it’s the bee’s knees when you find it.”

Over the decades, the church had become a funky space for an art gallery and temporary offices. In the 1980s, the large open areas had been divided and the beautiful architectural details covered over. The current owner, who bought it in 2013, spent two years bringing the dilapidated building back to its original glory, Crawford says. Carefully preserved, the building has been converted to include stunning offices perched high above the sanctuary, enclosed in glass. The bell tower has been turned into a five-story one-bedroom apartment, and the back of the building houses 14 additional office suites and a sound studio.

A backup generator keeps computer servers running should the need arise. With an $8.4 million price tag, the owner is willing to split the 16,800-square-foot space in half. It’s zoned for both residential and commercial use. “Let me give you a tour,” Crawford says, sensing my distraction. But it’s no use, and he knows it; the tour will have to wait, because it’s impossible to ignore the 38–foot-long, 12-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus Rex in the room.

Most people walking by 2700 Fairmount Street have no clue as to the extraordinary natural-history cache hidden behind its elegant Beaux Arts façade. It’s an exceedingly rare private collection that includes a mounted composite T. rex skeleton named Roosevelt, a mounted Triceratops prorsus skeleton, T. rex skulls and teeth, along with other specimens. The pieces date to the Cretaceous period, 65 to 80 million years ago.

Dinosaur bones, skulls and other fossils and specimens are famously collected by billionaires such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, movie moguls Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage. But with their scarcity, size and multi-million-dollar price tags, mounted T. rex skeletons are rarely found outside museums. So the big question is: How did Roosevelt end up in Dallas, of all places — and inside a church?

Great Bones/Dallas Church
White space: The church’s second level overlooks the sanctuary.

It turns out the king lizard tyrant belongs to Theropoda Expeditions, a 4-year-old commercial excavation company whose website lists an Allen, Texas, address. Wooden crates stamped Theropoda are stacked against the walls of the sanctuary, ready to be unpacked. Crawford tells me the company is owned by the same man who owns the church, an eccentric entrepreneur who dabbles in real estate, retail, tech startups and, lately, paleontology. I’m dying to find out more.

“I don’t know if he’ll talk to you,” Crawford says. “He’s pretty reclusive — sort of a Howard Hughes type.” Later, I realize that the mysterious owner and I have already met. He introduced himself as an employee of Theropoda while I was taking notes at the church and offered to answer questions about the dinosaurs. In his early 40s, he has a mop of blond curls framing a sunburned face, giving him the roguish appeal of an outdoor adventurer — more Indiana Jones than Howard Hughes. After weeks of trying to track him down again, he calls me from his house in the Caribbean. He agrees to an interview as long as I don’t use his name.

Originally from Georgia, Theropoda’s owner moved to Dallas after purchasing a handful of retail furniture stores. On a buying trip to a gem-and-mineral show five years ago, he first became enamored with fossils. “When I realized I could actually buy dinosaur bones, I fell in love with it,” he says. “Like any hobby, I took it to the next step, and that next step led me into the field.”

He put together a crew of inexperienced fossil hunters like himself and headed to the Badlands of eastern Montana, where the largest numbers of T. rex and Triceratops have been found. “I had no real knowledge of how to find dinosaurs, but I have a pioneering sort of personality,” he says. “I’m the kind of guy who intentionally gets lost in the mountains just to explore.”

After researching the most promising areas to find bones, they chartered a plane and diagramed the area via GPS. On the ground, they negotiated short-term leases with ranchers who owned the land. For weeks they hiked the vast terrain, peppered with “rattlesnakes, rocks and scrub,” searching for bone fragments poking up from the ground. The Badlands’ dry terrain is covered in sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils that have been eroded by wind and water, making it easier to spot fossils and bones. A geologist assists them now, and it takes months to unearth specimens once a site is identified; bones can be scattered over hundreds of feet, and it’s not unusual for a specimen to be reconstructed from multiple sites.

The conditions are dirty and often miserable, with temperatures swinging from frigid to sweltering. Many more months are devoted to identifying, cleaning and prepping bones (Theropoda now has a paleontologist who manages their lab), but the effort is worth it. During their first season in the field, the team unearthed a Triceratops and the holy grail of dinosaurs: the T. rex.

Valued at just under $2.4 million, Roosevelt is one of about 56 T. rex specimens discovered since the species was identified, in 1905. One of the most complete mounted T. rex specimens currently on exhibit, it’s assembled from 45 percent original bone (from three different sites). It’s also one of only three known T. rex skeletons in private hands, says Tommy Heitkamp, a former natural history department manager at the L.A. offices of auction house Bonhams. Heitkamp came on board with Theropoda in 2012 and now oversees its field operations.

“Everyone has heard of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops,” he says. “On the open market, material from these animals enjoys a premium. They are the most sought-after dinosaurs and only appear in a handful of geological formations, which means there is limited ground and a lot of people looking for them.”

Because of this, Theropoda (nomenclature for a suborder of dinosaur that means “beast foot”) focuses on lesser-known species that draw excitement from the scientific community. Among their recent discoveries is a mummified Ankylosaurid with preserved skin, keratin and possibly muscle. “Ankylosaurids are incredibly rare in North America,” Heitkamp says. “We’ve had a few paleontologists fly to Montana to look at it, and they are unable to confidently identify the species, meaning it may turn out to be a new species entirely after more study.” Other discoveries include a partial Centrosaurus — possibly the first discovery of the genus in the United States, he says. They’re currently working on a site that contains more than 11 juvenile Gryposaurs, an unusual species of the common duck-billed dinosaur.

This renovated 1910 church is home to a T. rex and friends.
This renovated 1910 church is home to a T. rex and friends.

Most of their digs are in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota; in an average season, Theropoda explores 100 sites. Heitkamp attributes the team’s discoveries to an eagerness to investigate the most remote spots. “Our success has come from thinking outside the box and not always trying to follow what other companies are doing and where they’re looking,” he says. “We want the complicated skeleton of a dinosaur you’ve never heard of, 120 feet up on a cliff.”

In their quest, they dig deeper and for a longer time than the competition, he says. A paleontologist who traveled to one of their digs was astonished at the massive quarry they’d dug. Says Heitkamp: “[The paleontologist] told me, ‘There’s not a museum or university in the world that would dig a hole this big for a dinosaur.’ But that is the hole in which the Ankylosaur was discovered.”

Theropoda Expeditions is relocating its entire collection of dinosaur skeletons, skulls, fossils and bones from a remote Montana warehouse to the church on Fairmount. The shipment will include a juvenile T. rex skull reconstructed from 94 percent original bones from a single animal — one of the most complete ever recovered. Plans are to turn the former church’s front rooms with their two-story ceilings into the first dinosaur showroom in the world.

“The Dallas market,” says Theropoda’s owner, “makes sense. There’s a large stable of natural history buyers here.” The city’s location is also easily accessed by wealthy collectors and museum officials who can’t (or won’t) travel to the middle of nowhere to buy a fossil.

By now you’re probably asking the same question I did: What’s going to happen to the dinosaurs once the church sells? They’ll be disassembled and moved to an 8,000-square-foot building nearby. At $8.4 million, properties like the 106-year-old church aren’t quick sales.

“We expect it to be a long process,” says Crawford. “It’s not a mansion in Highland Park.”

Still, he’s gotten nibbles from a segment of the market looking for unusual office space, including people in fashion, marketing and advertising, lawyers, the energy business and a few billionaires. The building’s owner says he bought it “without a firm idea of what I was buying it for. I just fell in love with it and wanted to take on the project of renovating it. It’s really a contrast to have the dinosaurs in the church, and I moved them there partly for selfish reasons — I just love being around them.”

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