A Slow Walk Through Cedars History

By: Bennett Miller, 07/25/02

You can access the Cedars neighborhood traveling south from downtown Dallas using five streets: Harwood, St. Paul, Akard, Griffin, and Lamar. Each street crosses Interstate-30 with a standard Texas highway overpass. The freeway, once part of the Cedars, is now a barrier clearly defining a neighborhood that until one hundred years ago served as stepping-stone from the city’s business to its bed and living rooms.

It is little different from the freeway ring’s separation of downtown from the Oak Lawn area or East Dallas neighborhoods. Except in this case cavalier zoning changes allowing indiscriminate use of the Cedars land, sending this district into a spiral of decline. The 1960s construction of the R. L. Thornton below-grade freeway, plus introduction of cumulative Heavy Commercial zoning almost ceded the area to a perpetual throwaway condition. Large Victorian homes and cottages, many built before 1900, gave way to quickly constructed apartments. Pleasing nineteenth and early twentieth century commercial buildings on main thoroughfares were either abandoned, used for industrial purposes, or became less than elegant nightclubs and bars. Heavy industrial districts to the east, south, and west encroached with industrial service firms, with related trucking and distribution facilities. The Interstate-30 freeway canyon cast a final indig-nity at the Cedars by prompting government to close the below-grade highway to all hazardous cargos and redirected those loads through the Cedars.

A new subdivision became known as the Cedars because, according to its developers in the early 1870s, the prairie was covered with Red Cedar trees (or at least some species of conifer). The only confirmed cedar trees remaining in the neighborhood are at the original City Park now named Dallas Heritage Village on Gano Street.

Though a number of additions to the original city limits occurred on the southern boundary, the major expansion occurred after the east west crossing Texas & Pacific Railroad crossed Dallas’ first steam line, the Houston & Texas Central Railroad in 1874, along what is now Pacific Avenue…the tracks effectively blocking northern development. The original City Park was purchased, and the surrounding acreage became the site of a profusion of Victorian cottages and mansions for many of the city’s early entrepreneurs. A mule-drawn streetcar line from downtown enhanced development for more than just the wealthy. Major thoroughfares leading south to the new subdivisions were named for nineteenth century city stalwarts like Alexander Harwood, W.C.C. Akard, and Henry S. Ervay.

Since its emerging from prairie land the Cedars was defined by the growth of transportation in Dallas. The district, now geographically bordered by Interstate-30 (1960s) to the north, the original Houston & Texas Central Railroad (HT&C - 1870s) tracks to the east, the original Gulf Colorado & Santa Fe (Santa Fe - 1890s) tracks to the south, and the Missouri Kansas & Texas (MKT/Katy – 1890s) tracks to the west. Within those boundaries, a slow walk or drive through the streets will illustrate the City’s architectural progress from each decade from the 1880s to the first decade of the twenty-first century. It is an area of Dallas in which, that despite its current scruffy appearance, one can see birth, decline, and reincarnation. This history describes changes that occurred in the Cedars from development in the later 1870s when it was home to many of Dallas’ wealthiest citizens. Some lasting pieces of infrastructure remain if you know where to look. Many original red brick streets are now either covered with asphalt or replaced with municipally standard concrete, that is except the patches of South Akard where eroding asphalt allows the brick to peek through. There are even blue and white inlaid tile street signs in older precast concrete curbs along Akard from Powhattan Street south to Seegar Street. There are few if any of these unique street signs left in Dallas today, as most have been removed for standard curbs and gutters. Another vestige of neighborhood infrastructure is the remaining concrete slab from a Dallas fire station at 2300 South Ervay, where in 1899 maps show two companies (Engine No. 1: 7 men & 4 horses, 1-2nd class steamer and 2 horse hose reel & 1-1800’ hose; and Hose Co. 2: 5 men & 4 horses, 1-2 horse hose reel, 1 chemical engine and 1800’ hose). The slab sits near an underpass created to eliminate a railroad grade crossing in 1950, and is still city property. During that decade three Santa Fe Railroad grade crossings were eliminated to free the increased post World War II automobile traffic between southern Dallas and downtown. The Harwood Street overpass constructed in 1952 pleasantly duplicates many concrete Art Deco features of 1930s depression era government sponsored construction.

The oldest still existing structure in the area is an 1884 brick cottage with a steep gabled roof, extended at the rear, with decorative exterior raked chimneys, and an elaborate cornice at 1609 Durant Street. It was the site of an early neighborhood telephone exchange where a homemaker plugged neighbors into the rudimentary but expanding telephone network (which originated with a single phone wire through the Cedars from the central fire station on Main Street downtown to the water works at Old City Park). It is now a private home. During the 1890s a number of still existing homes and enterprises were erected, among them the two story Langley feed and grain store at 1501 Beaumont Street, and the two story Sklar Grocery and residence at 2001 South Ervay Street, both now contain loft units. The Langley building, a Dallas Landmark, is a heavy timber and masonry structure with street side corbelling with a dentil effect. An eye-beam lintel with cast rosettes inserts protects the large front windows. The Ervay Street fa?ade of the old grocery at 2001 has been plastered over, hiding the original brick. A fa?ade setback supported by cast iron columns had been covered with brick before the stucco. The elaborately designed columns are still visible from the interior.

After the turn of the nineteenth century railroad access increased industrial development at the edges of the neighborhood, slowly affecting the peaceful existence of the affluent residential enclave. Immediately south of the Cedars, Coombs Street was deeded to the Dallas Terminal Railroad and Union Depot Company to lay track for the delivery of short haul freight to projected industrial developments. Two of the early works were Austin Brothers Road and Bridge Company and the American Beauty Mill (originally the Cockrell family’s Todds Mill), both started by prominent Dallas families. The Cedars was effectively boxed in by the railroads, the H&TC to the east, the Santa Fe to the south, and the MKT to the west. With the new Dallas Terminal Railroad delivering to track spurs all around the neighborhood’s perimeter, the wealthy homeowners gradually moved to new subdivisions north and east of the central city.

The next decade did see more commercial construction. During 1900 to 1910 the Park Hotel ( later Ambassador), the five-story Hughes Candy Company, and a two story pharmacy and residence were built and still can be seen in the 1300 to 1500 blocks of South Ervay Street. The six-story hotel was one of Dallas’ finest located alongside the original City Park. Originally red brick, it was plastered with stucco and paint during the 1920s. An elegant lobby and ballroom were restored in the 1980s. The basement rathskellar is no longer used (as it probably was during prohibition years). One unique treat for visitors to the neighborhood to see is the fa?ade of the original livery stable and carriage barn across the street at 1311 South Ervay. Though the typical brick stable exterior is in tact, the structure now contains offices for a heavy equipment company. The Hughes Candy Building is a fine example of early twentieth century heavy timber and masonry industrial architecture. The facade brickwork, now restored, is patterned with three rows of corbelled banding and large rectangular raised patterns. The structure’s most recent use was as a sugar cone bakery. It is now being restored for residential lofts. The 1907 two-story Rheinlander Pharmacy with residence above is one of the very few structures in Dallas with an unfinished beau d’arc timber and stone basement. The architectural masonry detail is typical of the time, as is the original stained glass and oversized double sash windows. The building has been remodeled for lofts. Dallas’ first apartment buildings were constructed during that decade, the only remaining apartment structure in the Cedars at 1529 Sullivan, built in 1909 was recently converted to loft apartments.

Around this time the neighborhood began to change from its early upper class residential character to a commercial district with scattered working class housing. Automobiles were increasingly important and South Ervay and South Harwood Streets were lined with multiple dealerships. The city’s first public gasoline station appeared downtown in 1912. One of the oldest remaining showrooms was a Franklin dealership at 1601 South Evay, built in 1914. The two story brick red brick structure with manmade limestone trim at the corner of Ervay and Gano Streets was designed with a diagonal front, probably to accommodate a gasoline pump. It has large traditional automobile show windows, and traditional octagon shaped white tile flooring. The building survived several additions when the Franklin Automobile Company went out of business and a Ford dealership took over. The building now is being converted to lofts. Coincidentally, even after the many auto dealerships were constructed, a small still existing single story tile and stucco harness shop was built at 2003 South Ervay, to serve a dwindling horse and mule population. It is now a loft studio. Larger industrial and commercial facilities also were built during that decade, including in 1918: a rather plain two story leather tannery and taxidermy works at 2220 South Harwood; the Sears Roebuck massive red brick warehouses and store with distinctive concrete belt courses on South Lamar in 1912; and at the southern edge on both sides of the Santa Fe tracks the American Beauty flour mill, also in 1912. The mill, a stripped down brick and concrete version of eighteen and nineteenth century American and English mill construction is the only example of its type in North Texas. A 1948 highly restricted Art Deco concrete addition contains glass block windows and simple pilasters as detailing. These three industrial plants can be seen today and are filled with residential lofts. The Lamar School at 1403 Corinth Street was built in 1915 to accommodate an increasing working family population. The City Park School was constructed soon after in 1919.

Early in the decade the City changed all the street address numbers to better accommodate its expanding geography. One interesting vestige of that change is on a side porch of an 1888 Victorian home (now a residential treatment facility at the corner of Browder and Griffin (East) Streets. When the Thornton Freeway was built during the 1960s, Browder Street was cut off in front of the house. Though the entry is now on Griffin, the pre-1911 street number “285” can be seen still etched on the glass transom over the original entry door. Scattered along both the main thoroughfares and back streets like Gould, Park, Seegar, are many circa 1910 cottages with though much deteriorated, gracefully turned posts, fish scale shingles, and well-milled windows and doors. Some older home sites can only be identified by concrete stops leading though a still existing retaining wall.

The 1920s was the decade for many still existing commercial buildings to be constructed, as the neighborhood increasingly lost its graciousness and mixed industry with working-class housing. An exception was the elaborately decorated Eagle Apartments’ fa?ade contained railings, balustrades, an eagle motif at the roofline, a double back stair entry with railing, and a lion’s head fountain at street level. It was easily the architectural jewel of the neighborhood in 1920 at 1615 South Ervay. It is now condominium apartments. The Newland Hotel at 1108 South Akard was completed at about that time for a working class clientele. This plain masonry with limited detail served the neighborhood with an A & P Grocery on the ground floor, and the thirty-two hotel rooms (with only sixteen baths) above. There were also smaller apartments and rooms for working people. The Nugrape Bottling Company at 1719 South Ervay (which produced a grape flavored drink during the prohibition years, and converted to carbonated grape soda in 1932) completed its second floor with apartments. The Great Atlantic and Pacific Grocery Company (A&P) did the same on a second and third floor in the 2000 block of South Ervay (this store moved from its Akard Street location under the Newland Hotel, where its place was taken by a Piggly Wiggly store with a still visible sign). Single family cottages, now mostly disappeared except for old concrete steps, stone retaining walls, and vestiges of metal fencing, bordering now vacant lots.

The depression years of the 1930s brought more low cost brick apartments, now gone, except for 1816 Lear Street. One new structure still used (though not for its original purpose), a very modest Art Deco style theater at 1707 South Ervay. After World War II, during the 1940s the Sears complex was expanded in much the same red brick and man-made stone style. A single story plain brick warehouse at 1715 Ervay next to the Nugrape bottlers was site of a strip tease night club, The Silver Spur, owned by Jack Ruby (who also managed the Ervay Theater next door). The area became more devoted to fast living with the introduction of several low cost motels, and the conversion of the original A&P grocery store in the 2000 Block of Ervay to the Round Up night club. The Round Up was distinguished by a single appearance by twenty year old Elvis Pressley, who with a couple of musician friends left the Big D Jamboree, a Dallas favorite western music venue at the Sportatorium on Cadiz Street, in a pay dispute ($200 offered and $600 asked) and drove to the Round Up to perform. The area’s reputation for hard living took on more credence as housing deteriorated, and many middle income families with means to move left for new suburbs on northern farmland. The 1950s saw little new construction except for a number of service businesses like printing companies, along Akard Street catering to the commercial center of downtown (which centered at Akard, Main, and Commerce Streets. A small architectural vestige of the time is the original KXIL radio station building at Akard and Belleview Streets. Also in 1955 the federal government built a plain red brick post office sub station with scant detail at 2120 South Ervay Street. The substation building, replaced by a new facility on Grand Avenue, is now a photography studio.

The 1960s brought major changes. Construction of The R. L Thornton Freeway (I-30) permanently separated the Cedars from the central business district and razed a number of Landmarks including the Morton Flour Mill on Cadiz Street, Shearith Israel Synagogue on Park Street and eliminated about one third of the original City Park. It was during this period that Mill Creek which had previously been covered where it began in East Dallas but ran open in the Park was permanently channeled underground. The Park, the City’s first public park, and site of Dallas’ early water works, reinvented itself and became a museum of early Dallas life. Designed, assembled, and operated by the Dallas County Heritage Society, it is now a functioning and interactive village displaying north Texas life from 1840 until 1910. Though it is geographically part of the Cedars, and historically overlaps forty years, it doesn’t represent Cedars history.

As previously described, in 1965 a City Ordinance No. 10962 rezoned the area for Heavy Commercial (HC) use allowing cumulative zoning, which meant anything up to the most noxious industrial uses could exist next to housing or retail establishments. Commercial uses squeezed out most residential occupancies with the exception of hastily-built low income apartments newly set on vacant lots, to become tenements within ten to fifteen years. A grocery store at 1722 South Harwood became a commercial bakery, then a machine shop. The soft drink bottler at 1719 South Ervay became an upholstery shop, and then a circuit board factory. The auto dealership at 1601 South Ervay (Ford) became millwork shop. In the 1970s more homes, apartments, cheaper car insurance, and commerce deteriorated, accompanied by increases in crime and prostitution.

The 1980s saw mixed progress. Increases in homelessness caused in part from reduction of federal social service budgets, and the proximity to highways, and low cost transportation produced feelings of frustration, narcotics abuse, prostitution, and hopelessness. At the same time the country as a whole saw a rebirth of urban living sparked by clogged freeways, high energy prices, and a nostalgic interest in empty masonry structures with pleasing architectural detail. A dozen buildings in the Cedars were converted to lofts with both condominium and leasing residents. Also a number of new commercial food business structures were built or converted. Contemporary building methods with tilt wall concrete or metal cladding housed Nogales Produce Company at 1400 South Harwood and Sea Food Supply Company at 1500 East Griffin. Also, a modern structure now housed the Sears Roebuck Credit Union (Resource One) at 1200 Belleview Street as the Cedars first bank. Finally the Pilgrims Pride Chicken processing plant and Bridgford Foods bakery built huge facilities on the neighborhood fringes. In 1989 a City Ordinance, No. 20395 again rezoned the area with a new Planned Development District (No. 317), to correct the cavalier use of HC zoning in the 1960s, though somewhat late to save the district from decline.

The 1990s were mostly years of slow but steady neighborhood progress. Sears Roebuck buildings on Lamar Street, long empty, were sold to a Canadian developer who began a conversion to lofts and office space. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit System built a light rail station at Wall and Belleview Streets, winning a statewide architectural design award. The Dallas County Community College System designed a contemporary structure for the Bill Priest Center for Economic Development at 1402 Corinth Street. IBM took over a modern former Sears’s office building at 1100 Belleview Street. Loft conversions continued, though no new residential or multifamily construction took place, and vacant lots increased with the forced demolition of remaining deteriorated housing.

The decade beginning with 2000 was marked by additional residential loft conversions to remaining vacant industrial structures. The City chose the Cedars to locate a new eight story police department headquarters at the 1400 block of Lamar Street. A planned reconfiguration of the 1960s below-grade Interstate 30 and its bridges might bring better access to the area from the freeways and downtown within the next decade. Two other plans should have positive impacts. First, Dallas Heritage Village’s development as a living history museum with community-wide events such as a circus and old-fashioned Christmas and Fourth of July celebrations continues to heighten interest in the neighborhood. And finally a revision of the Planned Development District by the City Planning Commission and Council should eliminate vestiges of poor planning that restricted residential and retail development during the past half century. Non-conforming uses continue to be phased out and high traffic corridors are designated for improvement. The latter should be accelerated by a Tax Increment Financing District (Reinvestment Zone No. 4) now in place, allowing new ad valorem tax revenues generated by neighborhood development to be used for local infrastructure improvements instead of deposits in the City’s general fund. A similar tactic was used for improvements to the State Thomas (Uptown), and CityPlace districts.

References:

Dallas Public Library

  • City of Dallas building permit ledger, 1905 - 1912
  • Dallas City Directories, 1885 - 1940
  • Sanborne Insurance maps, 1899 -1970

City of Dallas Department of Economic Development, Building Services

  • Building permit files, 1910 - 1922

City of Dallas Department of Planning & Development

  • City of Dallas zoning maps, 1929, 1942, 1965, 1989

Dallas County Clerk, Records Building files

  • Dallas County deed records (1895 -1912)

Dallas Morning News

Dallas Times Herald

Dallas Historical Society Library clipping file

McDonald, William L.: Dallas Rediscovered: A Photographic Chronicle of Urban Expansion 1870 -1025 Dallas, Texas - The Dallas Historical Society - 1978

Oberst, Stanley, and Torrence, Lori: Elvis in Texas: The Undiscovered King, 1954-1958
Plano, Texas - Republic of Texas Press - 2002

Payne, Darwin: Dallas, An Illustrated History Dallas, Texas – Windsor Publications, Inc. - 1982