A Dallas Difference Maker: Virginia McAlester

Next time you pass any of the remaining prewar brick ramblers being replaced by post-modern cubic behemoths, you may want to skim through A Field Guide to American Homes to better understand what you’re actually seeing.

(ABOVE: Virginia McAlester in 1972 founded the Historic Preservation League, now known as Preservation Dallas. Courtesy photo)

As the veritable bible for identifying older houses, the book is the equivalent of a bird-watchers’ guide for the residential architecture encountered not just in Dallas, but across America. “The Guide,” as it is known, is the work of the “human embodiment of preservation” in American residential architecture, experts say: Dallas’ own Virginia McAlester.

McAlester was honored this spring at a symposium on historic preservation at Southern Methodist University, which hosted a distinguished panel of design and architecture leaders to discuss her efforts to protect Dallas architectural history from the perpetual forces seeking to remake it.

“Dallas is one of the few large cities in America where one person can make a difference,” the late Margaret McDermott told UT Dallas art professor Richard Brettell when he first moved here as a “callow kid” from Chicago, Brettell said. “Virginia McAlester was one of those persons who has made a difference.”

McAlester’s landmark field guide is the standard reference on American residential architecture across eras and regions, and she has been recognized by the American Library Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation for her scholarship.

“Virginia was meticulous in describing exactly how to go about establishing a historic district.” -John C. Waters

Before publishing the book, McAlester was the founder of the Historic Preservation League in 1972, now Preservation Dallas, which has helped designate and sustain more than 4,000 landmarks. It is a model adopted by many cities for historic preservation.

In 1984 she created the advocacy group Friends of Fair Park, which successfully petitioned to protect and preserve the permanent buildings in Fair Park, site of the 1936 Texas Centennial, now home to the State Fair of Texas and a broad range of museums and cultural venues. Her many awards include receiving the key to Dallas in 2014, an American Institute of Architects honorary membership, and the Friends of Fair Park Spirit of the Centennial Award in 2017. In May, McAlester added another accolade to the list: an honorary doctor of arts from SMU, in recognition of her life’s work.

McAlester, who was not able to attend, watched remotely by live video as the auditorium erupted in applause and her honorary degree was conferred.

Her other books include Great American Houses and Their Architectural Styles, A Field Guide to America’s Historic Neighborhoods and Museum Houses: The Western States, and Homes of Park Cities, Dallas: Great American Suburbs.

Other panelists at the symposium included John C. Waters, who pioneered preservation legislation in the state of Georgia and has written preservation plans for numerous cities.

“Virginia was meticulous in describing exactly how to go about establishing a historic district,” Waters said. “And it is a real tribute to Virginia that the things she wrote a while ago are still useful today.”

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