BEAUTY AMID THE BLIGHT - Kessler area resists Oak Cliff decay, maintains charm

The Dallas Morning News - Monday, November 6, 1989
Author: Bruce Tomaso, Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News: THE

To get to the Kessler area from downtown, one can take Commerce Street west, past the fleshpots, liquor stores and bail bond agencies of Industrial Boulevard, past the county jail, past a strip of auto repair shops and wrecking services.

Or one can take the Houston Street Viaduct across the Trinity River, past a lumber yard, Rosemarie's Home Cooking, an abandoned motel, an abandoned 7-Eleven, and a strip of florists, clinics and fried-food restaurants that draw their trade from Methodist Medical Center.

Either way, the trip will take less than 10 minutes. There is no such thing as rush hour for Kessler residents who work downtown.

And either way, the trip will end on a pleasant -- and, to first-time visitors, surprising -- note. The Kessler neighborhoods, nestled amid the rolling hills and limestone bluffs of Oak Cliff, are a scenic island plunked in the middle of the urban decay that has afflicted so much of Dallas south of the Trinity River.

"It's the most beautiful part of the city,' said Steve Wolens, a lawyer and Democratic state representative who lives in a stately 60-year-old house -- complete with a backyard log cabin -- on Lausanne Avenue near Colorado Boulevard, in the heart of Kessler Park.

"There's an overabundance of trees. There's an overabundance of open space -- Stevens Park Golf Course and the parks that surround us. There are birds and squirrels everywhere. The streets are wide, all of the homes are impeccably maintained -- and it's a stone's throw from downtown,' he said.

Throughout the city's frantic push northward during the past decade, Kessler, with its elegant homes, quiet, curving streets and proximity to the city's heart, has remained one of Dallas' best-kept secrets.

"We still find that many people, even realtors, in North Dallas have all these stereotypes and misconceptions about our part of the city,' said Ruth Chenoweth, an Oak Cliff preservationist and real estate broker.

"I was talking to a man from North Dallas about a very nice house in Kessler Park. When I quoted him the price, he said, "I think it's a little high for that part of the city.' Well, I didn't respond at first. Finally, I told him, "That part of the city is as desirable as any location in Dallas.'

Kessler Park -- named for its designer, George Kessler, the city's first master planner -- was developed in the 1920s. Today, the Kessler area is usually defined as including four contiguous neighborhoods -- Kessler Park, West Kessler, East Kessler and Stevens Park -- bounded roughly by Interstate 30 on the north; Hampton Road on the west; Beckley Avenue on the east; and Colorado Boulevard or, farther west, Davis Street on the south.

The area derives its special physical character from something that is rare in north-central Texas -- hills -- and something that was rare in the early part of the century -- automobiles.

Its streets, thickly lined with pecan trees, live oaks, maples and cedars, wind over and around the hills of east Oak Cliff. Few are laid out on a strict north-south or east-west axis.

"Kessler was one of the first residential areas in Dallas to be developed after the automobile came into popular use,' said Ms. Chenoweth. "A lot of earlier developments were built along the spines of streetcar lines. Kessler, built for people who weren't dependent on the streetcars, has more curved boulevards, isolated little side streets and cul-de-sacs, streets that run right up the sides of the hills.'

On any weekend, joggers and walkers wend their way through those hills, huffing on the way up and coasting on the way down.

At odd turns through the pastoral maze, the downtown skyline suddenly reveals itself above the crowns of the trees. But round a corner and the skyline disappears; then, only the late-model import cars parked along the curb, and the occasional TV satellite dishes, belie the impression of stepping back in time.

"It's an old-fashioned neighborhood in the sense that everybody knows everybody,' said Darwin Gaines, president of the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League and a West Kessler resident. "People talk to their neighbors. At the same time, they respect one another's privacy. It's a very Fifties-ish sort of atmosphere.'

A hallmark of the area is its eclectic architecture. Tudor-style mansions abut low-slung ranch houses. Red-brick colonials coexist with granite-columned Greek-revivals. Home prices range from $100,000 to more than a million.

A concrete, art moderne house at Cedar Hill and Colorado, built in the 1930s, was the first all-electric home in Dallas. And, according to the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League , a stopping point for tours sponsored by Westinghouse during the 1936 Texas Centennial State Fair.

Less than a half-mile north on Cedar Hill Avenue is one of the oldest homes in Dallas: The Rock Lodge, believed to have been built as a stagecoach stop in the 1870s. The lodge, with five fireplaces and 2-foot-thick limestone walls cut from a nearby bluff, was later a restaurant.

"I grew up in Oak Cliff, and my dream was always to buy a house in Kessler Park,' said Ki Edwards, who has lived in the house for 12 years. "When my husband and I heard the old Rock Lodge was for sale, we were fascinated by its history.'

Kessler's architectural mishmash is testimony to more than a half-century of building to suit the changing tastes of the well-to-do. Unlike other inner-city neighborhoods that were once exclusive, fell into disrepair and then were revitalized, Kessler has always been a choice area. Just behind Methodist Medical Center is a section nicknamed "Pill Hill,' for its population of doctors.

"Homes were never subdivided into three or four apartments, like they were in, say, Munger Place,' said Mr. Gaines.

"Kessler Park didn't have to come back. It never went anywhere.'

Many Kessler streets -- those that don't have the word "hill' in them somewhere -- take their names from the generation of real estate magnates who developed the area.

Allison Drive and Stemmons Avenue were named for Leslie Allison Stemmons, the father of John Stemmons, whose family once owned most of the land where East Kessler is now. Junior Drive was named in honor of the son of Hugh January, the exclusive sales agent for the original Kessler Park and, later, the developer of East Kessler. In 1933, at age 13, Hugh Jr. died of a heart attack while playing in a neighbor's yard.

Mr. January's real-estate partner, Roy Eastus, built a house on Eastus Drive where his widow, 80-year-old Peggy Eastus, has lived for 45 years.

"The neighborhood hasn't changed at all, unless it's changed for the better,' Mrs. Eastus said.

The same cannot be said for Oak Cliff as a whole. Despite the best efforts of boosters like Mr. Wolens, Ms. Chenoweth and Mr. Gaines, a stigma attaches stubbornly to the area.

Oak Cliff's poorer neighborhoods, and there are many, are blighted. Industries and social service agencies that no one else wants -- from lead smelters and junkyards to halfway houses and drug rehab centers -- have been pushed across the river for decades. Just beyond the confines of Kessler in any direction, "the contrasts do become extreme very quickly,' Mr. Gaines said.

With alcohol sales banned since 1956, Oak Cliff has no fancy restaurants. Theaters, glitzy malls and upscale supermarkets all have followed the path of development: away from downtown, to the north.

Kessler residents say that's a nuisance, but one they'll gladly tolerate.

"I spend maybe two hours a week shopping,' said Mr. Gaines. "I spend a lot more time than that in my home, on my street, in my neighborhood.

"If I have to drive 20 minutes to get to NorthPark, that's more than a fair tradeoff.'