Ask any local preservationist, real estate writer, or residential architecture enthusiast about the books on their reference shelves at home, and don’t be surprised when they all mention Virginia Savage McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses as a must-have.
“Way back when I was in college, I had to purchase A Field Guide to American Houses for one of my preservation classes,” said Preservation Dallas executive director David Preziosi. “Little did I know at the time that Virginia’s book would become a bible for me as I surveyed thousands of historic buildings during my career.”
McAlester died April 9 at Baylor Hospital at age 76 after a lengthy battle with myelofibrosis.
“Locally, in Dallas and Texas, no others have made so great an impact on the historic built environment as Virginia Savage McAlester,” said another former executive director, Katherine Seale.
“Dallas owes a great deal to Virginia and her vision set in an unwavering determination,” said Dwayne Jones, who was Preservation Dallas executive director from 2001-2006. “The historic and architectural landscape would be quite different if she had not risen to the preservation cause early in her life.”
“She had a tremendous impact on preservation in Dallas,” he said, adding that McAlester was part of a group that led the way in showing the city how to use preservation to improve neighborhood economics.
“They used preservation as a tool to revitalize neighborhoods,” he said. “It attracted investment in those neighborhoods.”
Those early efforts included revitalizing Swiss Avenue, which became the city’s first residential historic district, and helping develop revolving loans to attract more investment in historic neighborhoods.
McAlester was also one of the founders of Preservation Dallas, which began in the seventies as the Historic Preservation League. She also had a hand in getting Fair Park designated as a national historic landmark, Preziosi said, and raised millions to preserve the buildings there.
Catherine Horsey, who was executive director from 1993 to 2000, said that McAlester came up with the name Preservation Dallas, and even visited her in Atlanta to convince her to take the job with the newly renamed organization.
“Virginia’s influence on Dallas’ historic buildings and neighborhoods cannot be overstated but was not limited to her hometown – she was known nationally for her work,” Horsey said. “Hers was a life well-lived.”