As Marcus House Works Its Way Toward Historic Designation, Lessons Learned

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The Marcus House as it looked during construction in 1938
On August 11, 2008, Mark and Patty Lovvorn wanted nothing more than to tear down their massive house on Nonesuch Road, the famous manse designed by Roscoe DeWitt for Stanley Marcus in the 1930s. "Energy inefficiency" was the reason offered in the couple's letter to the Texas Historic Commission, which urged the couple to reconsider. They eventually did, after preservationists and a far higher authority had a word with them.

In March of last year, the Landmark Commission's Designation Committee began the process of designating the so-called Marcus House, and the surrounding three acres, a city landmark. The Lovvorns -- who, in 1999, asked the THC to deem the house as a state landmark -- were on board, though not without some convincing.

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Says Katherine Seale, Preservation Dallas's exec director and a member of the Designation Committee, "At the first meeting they were opposed to landmark designation, but they wanted to be part of the process. We asked them during the meeting: 'What are you concerns?' They said, 'We need more space, we need to upgrade the house and all of the systems inside.' They said, 'We like the house, but it doesn't meet our family's needs.' And we said, 'You can make an addition to the house, and you can update all of your systems.' We worked with them point by point to meet their concerns. They were really open-minded."

Today, it's the City Plan Commission's turn to consider designation -- the final stop before it reaches the city council. City staffers who've worked with the Lovvorns through this process believe it's expected to pass without a problem. You can read the briefing prepared for today's meeting here; it contains a concise, detailed history of the house, as well as what the Lovvorns can and can't do to it in the future. (They can, for instance, tear down the garage and other "accessory structures" not original to the house.)

The whole give-and-take process provides proof, says Seale, that just become something's designated as historic doesn't mean it's encased in amber.

"It's a fluid process depending on the property and the owners' concerns," Seale says. "That's what so unique about the landmark process: Whether it's security or whether it's the level of resources available to the owners or whether it's changes they want to make in the future, all of those things are considered when the designation report is written. So, yes, this is a great example that illustrated that their needs could easily be met through the designation process. This is a couple that was convinced the historic designation would not allow them to do the things they needed to do, and that's what we hear time and time again from property owners who say they don't want to be a landmark because it will hem them in. The process is so fluid we can almost always accommodate, within reason, their concerns.

"Historic preservation doesn't mean you're preserving something in past tense. The past is the past. It's gone. It's over. We're not trying to preserve something in time. But we are working with significant assets to keep them relevant. ... It's not one without the other."
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