Longtime conservationist still sold on Oak Cliff neighborhoods Efforts have helped preserve several areas from downward spiral

The Dallas Morning News - Tuesday, June 4, 2002
Author: LaKISHA LADSON, Staff Writer
When Ruth Chenoweth walks through the Bishop Arts District in Oak Cliff, area residents say, it's as if a legend is gracing the streets.

"Ruth is an institution here in Oak Cliff," said Don Allen, co-owner of Bishop Arts Floral. "Her name has just been associated down here for years."

Since the 1970s, Ms. Chenoweth has been dedicated to preserving, protecting and promoting Oak Cliff. Her research efforts have helped preserve several Oak Cliff neighborhoods and brought recognition for some of them at the city, state and national level.

"You can drive through any part of north Oak Cliff, and she knows the history of every house in the neighborhood," said David Haedge, a Winnetka Heights resident and board member of Preservation Dallas. "She basically single-handedly saved the neighborhood from its downward spiral and made it what it is today - a vibrant neighborhood," he said.

But Ms. Chenoweth insists that her role was just one part of a much larger group effort.

"I did the documentation and historical research," she said, describing her work gathering county records, oral histories and survey documents. "That's the way you start to develop. You have to have people understand that there is a place there, that it has value ... then the history becomes important."

Ms. Chenoweth moved into her home in Winnetka Heights in 1957 with her late husband, Samuel Joseph Chenoweth, and their two children. The neighborhood was platted by prominent Dallas developers such as Leslie A. Stemmons and Thomas S. Miller Jr.

But as the neighborhood aged, it began to deteriorate. Ms. Chenoweth and neighbor Mary Griffith decided to turn things around.

"I think Ruth has always been able to see a vision for the neighborhood from very early on," said Mrs. Griffith, who along with Ms. Chenoweth, co-founded the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League and the Winnetka Heights Neighborhood Association.

In 1975, the City Council granted Winnetka Heights a planned-development zoning district - the first for inner-city Dallas. That step led the way for the neighborhood to receive historic district zoning in 1981 and a Texas Historical Marker in 1982. It has since become listed with the National Register of Historical Places.

Ms. Chenoweth's love of the neighborhood and determination to bring in families who would appreciate and protect the homes brought her into the real estate business in the 1980s, a time when others tried to discourage her, she said.

"I had to sell a neighborhood and then sell the house," she said. "There was just no way I could separate the two."

On weekdays, Ms. Chenoweth still rises about 5 a.m., drinks two cups of coffee and reads the newspaper. She continues to operate Ruth Chenoweth Realtors on Davis Street.

She said she's grateful that her research, available at the Dallas Public Library, has become a tool for other preservation efforts. But she said she's also content now to let others take a leadership role in preserving Oak Cliff neighborhoods.

"I feel like it was really a privilege to have been a part of the work that put things in place and then watch somebody else make it bloom," she said.

But that doesn't mean she has run out of ideas or energy.

"I don't think she has slowed down," said Jim Anderson, a city of Dallas senior planner who has known Ms. Chenoweth for about 18 years. "She is very active in a different direction."

Ms. Chenoweth still has visions for her beloved Oak Cliff. She wants to see the Bishop Arts District full of authentic boutiques that entice visitors to stay or invest their money. She wants downtown workers to move back to the inner-city area - the location she believes is the city's best.

"I think it is fun to bring exciting people to the Cliff; to see them find a house and hear them talk about it," she shared. "If we can keep the quality of restoration up ... there is no reason why we should not really be the best place in the city to live."