As a child growing up just outside Preston Hollow, Peter Flagg Maxson was already proving different from his peers. When his grandmother asked Maxson, then 12, what he wanted for Christmas, he gave a rather unconventional answer.

“Most boys my age were asking for baseball bats. I asked my grandmother for a Chippendale table. They should have suspected something was terribly wrong,” he says with a chuckle. (Chippendale refers to a furniture design that has elements in common with Queen Anne pieces.)

Not surprisingly, eccentric boyhood interests have turned into a career for Maxson, who now lives in Austin. After earning his bachelor’s degree in history, he went on to receive his master’s in architectural history.

“I’ve had a lifelong interest in history,” he says.

It was that interest, combined with Maxson’s Preston Hollow upbringing, that first got him interested in the recent Legacies of Dallas History Conference. When he heard the conference was going to concentrate on Dallas neighborhoods, he submitted a proposal to research and give a presentation about Preston Hollow.

“It was a neighborhood, of course, that I had known my whole life, and one consideration is that things were changing so rapidly there,” says Maxson, referring to some of the teardown controversy the area is experiencing.

“A lot of times people don’t think of 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s houses as having histories, when in fact dozens of houses in Preston Hollow would probably qualify for landmark designation.”

“I thought it was good to remind people of what wonderful historic resources there are. I would like to foster an appreciation of both the architectural merit and the history of these houses. No every old house is significant, but a certain number of them are.”

Of the teardowns themselves, Maxson has mixed feelings.

“Some of it is inevitable,” he says. “Sometimes there are really first-rate houses being built, and sometimes first-rate old houses are replaced by second-rate new houses.”

After Maxson’s proposal was accepted, he went to work, dedicating three months of research to the architectural past of an area roughly between Preston Road and Inwood Road, north of Northwest Highway. He concentrated his studies on the years between 1920 and 1950, and included some sections west of Inwood.

In his research, Maxson studied the collections of the Dallas Historical Society, poured through records at the library and delved into municipal archives cataloging documents from when Preston Hollow was its own town (see accompanying story, page 5).

He also studied old photos and referenced a book published by Eva Potter Morgan, daughter of Henry Potter, whose Potter Art Metal Studio made many of the architectural elements – lighting fixtures, balconies, grills, stair rails, andirons, fire screens, weather vanes, fences and gates – that still adorn some of Preston Hollow’s most historic homes.

“I knew a certain number of old-timers from Preston Hollow and was able to talk to family and friends,” he says.

One old-timer who helped Maxson’s research – in spirit anyway – was Everett L. DeGolyer. The DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University is named for Maxson’s grandfather, who donated a huge collection of books, manuscripts and photos, including many materials on Texas history, to the university.

Through all his research, Maxson concluded that Preston Hollow can probably be considered the most prestigious neighborhood within the city. He points out that many of the homes built in the neighborhood during the time period he studied were built by architects who came to be known for their thoughtful designs: Frank Lloyd Wright, Ira DeLoache, Charles Dilbeck and Philip Johnson, to name a few.

Given the history of affluence in the area, it is perhaps hard to imagine that, at one time, Preston Hollow was considered a largely rural counterpart to the city of Dallas. This “country element,” according to Maxson, can be traced back to the area’s earliest settlers and planners.

“There were very few trees. Most of it was open pasture land,” Maxson says. “I vaguely remembered from earliest childhood that people in Preston Hollow had horses. And there were a surprising number of homes with stables even into the 1950s. I would talk to people, and they’d say they had a chicken coop.”

Though residents would now be hard-pressed to find a chicken coop or stable in their neighbor’s back yard, evidence of the area’s rural roots can still be found in its winding roads and lack of curbs and sidewalks in some places.

“So many of the Park Cities (streets) are laid out in a grid pattern, where as Preston Hollow streets were winding and pretty,” Maxson says.

Though he now lives in Austin, much of Maxson’s work remains focused in the Dallas area. He recently wrote the information for a historical marker at Baylor University Medical Center and also conducts research for the Park Cities Historical Society. He has helped buildings in Highland Park and University Park receive landmark designations.

And one of his next projects will keep him focused on Preston Hollow. He is donating research about his alma mater, St. Mark’s School of Texas, so it can be honored with a Texas Historical Marker.

Maxson believes his passion for the history of buildings is something everyone can benefit from.

“It’s fascinating to learn more about where we have been, to know where we are going.”

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