Photo by: Danny Fulgencio

Katherine Seale: Preserving Dallas like a boss

As chair of the Dallas Landmark Commission, Katherine Seale spends countless hours working to protect the city’s history. Preservation is her passion, so much so that she left her job as executive director of Preservation Dallas in 2012 when Mayor Mike Rawlings appointed her to chair the commission. She jumped at the chance, simply because she thinks it’s the most effective way for her to help save Dallas’ historic resources.

Yet when it comes to her own neighborhood of Preston Hollow, Seale is fully aware that historic preservation often is implausible.

Preservation works well in areas that are in “revitalizing condition,” she says, with lower land values. The city can, for example, invest in public infrastructure to attract investment in historic properties. This in turn creates jobs, brings in resources, adds ad valorem taxes to the base and, ultimately, not only stabilizes land value but also increases it. Then the structures on the land, also known in tax lingo as “improvement value,” increase in a commensurate level.

But Preston Hollow has high land value and relatively low improvement value that are not proportional to each other, Seale says.

“In that context, it’s difficult to do historic preservation,” she says. “You really are asking a property owner to not realize the full value of their land. They’re fighting market pressure, and market pressure really is too strong to fight.”

It’s the main reason that Preston Hollow is full of teardowns, with extravagant homes replacing more modest ones, including some that are architecturally significant. Seale herself lives in a circa 1930 home designed by prolific Dallas architect Charles Dilbeck, which she and her husband have worked to restore to its original condition.

She doesn’t expect the same of every homeowner, however. Seale is no taxidermist when it comes to saving community landmarks. She cherishes history, but she believes there has to be some value to the public in saving old buildings from demolition.

“Historic preservation gets its authority because it is a public good, so it has to be linked back to what is in the best interest of the public,” Seale says.

Her work on the Landmark Commission exemplifies this belief, pushing to save structures such as the circa 1937 Lakewood Theater, a 137-year-old Victorian house along Interstate 30, the circa 1955 Meadows Building on Greenville Avenue and, in West Dallas, a late 1800s Victorian farmhouse and an early 1900s schoolhouse where Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, attended.

In most of these cases, the property owners aren’t on board with historic designation, or at least weren’t initially. But when it comes to Dallas’ historic resources, the preservation community needs time to work with owners to see whether a deal can be brokered, Seale says.

“Fifty percent of the equation is recognizing what has meaning to people. The other 50 percent of the equation is figuring out how to keep it for the future,” Seale says. “We can say all day long that we’ve done our part, which is recognizing what’s important, but we’re now to the point where we have to reach out to the developer, sometimes the homeowner, and help them.”

The city needs more tools in its belt to encourage historic preservation, Seale believes. Developers are looking for a return on investment — “they’re not charitable,” she says.

She wants to conduct a new survey of Dallas’ historic resources, but this one would go further than just identifying what she calls the “relic buildings.” It would look at the context in which areas were developed — why and how they came to be.

At this point, she says, “We have a pretty good understanding of the historic resources we’ve got, up to World War II.” Moving forward, the city needs to look at “everything between the buildings.”

“We need to take ourselves away from that hyper-focus on the exterior of a building,” Seale says, “and really look at it as, ‘What is it we’re trying to preserve here? What, really, are the core elements that make this important to the citizens of Dallas?’ ”

Once those core elements are identified, Seale hopes to see the city step up in its efforts to save them.

“We don’t have a local program, and yet we’re telling people what they can and can’t do with their property. We don’t want developers to walk all over preservation, yet we don’t really have anything to set the bar high,” Seale says. “The core is becoming more and more valuable, the land values are rising, then can historic preservation be done only in a place where you have a revitalizing condition?”

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