By Saying No to Xeriscaping, Heavy-Handed Historic Preservationists Fight to Keep Legacy of Waste and Slavery

Categories: Schutze

SHZ_GetOffMyLawn_TitleImageV2.jpg
Sure, historic preservation is a great idea, if people could just decide what history to preserve. In a recent decision to make East Dallas homeowners rip out native plants and replace them with sod, the Dallas Landmark Commission has come down solidly on the side of stupid history.

The commission ruled March 4 that Maja McFaul and Burton Knight must scrape away a low-to-no water xeriscape of cactus and other plant species and replace them with a water-sucking carpet of grass.

Let's see. The most common water-sucking grass used in Dallas is Bermuda. And what is its history? Nobody knows for sure how Bermuda grass got to this country in the first place, probably from India or Africa, but one theory is that it came as seed in contaminated hay used as bedding on 18th century slave ships. Wow, we really need to celebrate that history, don't we?

ThisYard-Final-02.jpg
This kinda thing has got to stop. History demands it.
Now estimated to cover 15 million acres, Bermuda grass is the black plague of water wasting. The EPA estimates that a typical Bermuda grass lawn consumes 10,000 gallons of water per year above rainfall.

Burton Knight, the guy who redid a small lawn in the Junius Heights neighborhood with cactus, drought-tolerant plants and decomposed granite, has a horticulture degree from Texas A&M. He was awarded a preservation fellowship with stipend by the National Garden Conservancy based on an essay he submitted on garden history, reviewed by a national panel in New York.

In the materials Knight submitted to the Landmark Commission he included another brief essay on the history of gardens in Dallas, with descriptions of desert and prairie-looking gardens popular with early pillars of the community, including his own forebears.

Then there is this: His neighborhood, like the one I live in, is an official "historic district" by city ordinance. That means you can't even repaint your house the same color without official permission. For an alteration like the one Knight wrought in his yard, you have to invite a special panel of your neighbors, called "The Task Force," to come look at your plans and then give you a thumbs up or down.

Look, I was a huge supporter of all this stuff back in the day. In the '70s and '80s City Hall wanted to turn the entire inner city into used car lots, tenements and double-decked expressways. Their whole idea was to deep-six the city as a place to live and get everybody out to the suburbs where Dallas mayors and members of the private Dallas Citizens Council had invested all their own money. Historic preservation in inner city neighborhoods was the only grass skirt we had to cover our extreme vulnerability.

My own home is now divided on some of this. My wife is still a big defender and sometime member of our own task force. I call them the taste Nazis. If you ask me, the whole idea of historic preservation has morphed into an excuse to impose a suburban-style conformist monoculture on an urban realm that yearns and needs to be diverse and quirky instead.

But here's the deal in the Junius Heights case: The Junius Heights task force sided with the homeowners. It was split vote, but most of the task force members were cool with Knight's xeriscape lawn and told him he could keep it.

But then it went to the Landscape Commission. I must just be dumb about that. I thought if you won at the task force level it was over and you were home-free. But according to city paperwork, someone called "The Opposition" appealed the decision of the task force to the commission.

Whatever. The commission voted to make Knight tear out his water-conserving lawn because it wasn't "historically appropriate." So my question. Which historically appropriate?

Appropriate to the way-back history of what was really here before the arrival of the palefaces? Appropriate to later history when Dallas was a new town full of characters who went their own way? Appropriate to a more recent era when I happened to live in Junius Heights? The guy two doors down from me ornamented his lawn with a concrete Virgin Mary in an up-ended bathtub, which most of us on the street loved and appreciated. I would even say Bathtub Mary was part of why we wanted to live in Junius Heights and not Plano.

No, of all the eras from which it could have chosen, the commission in its wisdom decided the one chapter it needed most to preserve was the early and mid-20th century invasion of middle and working class homeowners who proudly carpeted their lawns with water-sucking slave-ship weeds from another continent.

I don't know about anybody else, but I'm about at the point where I could start a movement to have this whole part of town redesignated as an official McMansion District: Any new construction must include at least five different materials on the street-facing façade, must contain at least 6,000 square feet of living space and must be designed by a contractor who did not complete high school. I honestly think it would cut down on the asshole factor.

But now you must excuse me, because I need to call over to the Y and see if they still have rooms available tonight. (Saying anything bad about historic preservation is soooo touchy around here. Better to mock the Blessed Virgin.)


Sponsor Content

My Voice Nation Help
58 comments
MrRuskin
MrRuskin

Why is it that instead of having an article about how people with giant stupid lawns are wasting tons of water and stealing land from local farmers to build lakes, we have an article about some idiot who thinks the only way to have a water wise lawn is to pretend we live in Phoenix? That home existed with a lawn long before this city became a water hog.

Why is a professional landscaper ignorant of the history of Dallas landscapes and the blackland prairie? Why is a Dallas landscaper too stupid to follow the zoning of the neighborhood? Why is someone who bought a home in an historic district suddenly ignorant of that fact and a victim of it? Why can so many of us do just fine watering our lawns two to four times a year using native plants and letting the grass get a little brown at time (who cares)? And we don't have to have a dirt and cactus lawn to do it.


Yeah, people in neighborhoods set up rules to make sure the neighborhood stays nice. That is how, say, I can keep a dude from having cars up on blocks out front, or a lady from having 50 cats. The historic district is one of the best things that could have happened to that neighborhood.

LakeWWWooder
LakeWWWooder

I have photos of  my Junius Heights home going back to 1916 and it has ... a lawn.   A couple of  years ago This Old House Magazine named JH Historic District one of the top places for families to buy historic homes, citing the schools.

Manny
Manny

The person in question did the work to his yard without the proper review or paperwork that's required in historic districts.  If had the plan had been reviewed first, he wouldn't have to "rip" anything out.  The Commission only told them to go back and do a landscape plan and come back for approval.  They also told him to include some type of grass - including xeriscape buffalo - for our grassland prairie topography and to go with his Texas perennials vs. a moonscape.  The cacti and agaves were determined to have nothing to do with Texas lawns but were more appropriate for Arizona.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

"Now estimated to cover 15 million acres, Bermuda grass is the black plague of water wasting. The EPA estimates that a typical Bermuda grass lawn consumes 10,000 gallons of water per year above rainfall."

 Jim, your BS meter should go off on this.  First off, St Augustine is more common in Dallas proper, as it's more shade tolerant.  The Burbs and new construction gets Bermuda.  But your asinine fact is to broad to have any meaning.  In fact, Bermudagrass would be a better choice here, as a lawn can be maintained with once a week watering in the hottest months only, with no additional water.  So, your "EPA" factoid is stupid, as it's relevant to which climate?  Which area?  A national stat is not something that has any statistical relevance.  

Also, they're preserving a 50's and 60's version of landscaping design.  In the 30's and before native plants were much more common, as were fruit bearing trees, the white painted trunks (Bordeaux mix) and a few conventions I don't think they really would appreciate.  Your general argument is fine, but the way you uncritically accept data is truly worrisome.    

WmBTravis
WmBTravis

So, let me get this straight.  When the Government invests the latest harvest of the looted fruits of its citizens' labor in an offensive (albeit highly environmentally-friendly) Staff of Ra high-rise, it's EVIL.  But when its commissioners are required to cast their glass on Junius Heights and circumspice with an eye as to what is not offensive to that neighborhood, it must embrace that which is most-definitely out-of-place and unquestionably shun its legal-obligation; all to embrace that which is perceived to be most-definitely environmentally-friendly? 

This is a really silly screed from someone desperate to be relevant.  Relevant with that younger demographic.  That brat-pack that saps the aging writer, strains him to keep in touch.  But when that older writer's foundation is rooted in the edginess of an RFK-liberal, he'd be today's total sideshow if he didn't continually tack left; looking for that cause that is cool with the readership.  Liberating!  But from what . . . those, those TURF GROWERS?

Racist?  Really?  Anyone eat okra?  Then you-too must be racist.

diane2400
diane2400

I read somewhere that turf is the number 1 crop in Texas.  I haven't been able to substantiate this, but it's an intriguing thought.

Xeriscaping doesn't need to be gravel and desert plants.  Buffalograss, although difficult to establish, looks great, requires little water and mowing.  A lawn of a tuft grass such as Texas sedge (carex texensis, I think) looks meadow-like but I believe it passes a lot of the requirements set by homeowner's groups.

This insistence on the traditional lawn is madness - a waste of time, money, and water.  I'd be interested in learning the history.  Surely the settlers of the west didn't plant them!  It must have risen with the 'burbs.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Jim, for your McMansion District, don't forget to include the requirements of at least 3 clashing architectural styles with the mandatory two story entry way; and, a minimum of at least 8 hips on the roof and 4 gabled dormers with no apparent reason for being there.  The sides of the house are to be covered with hardiboard, with no exceptions.

cactusflinthead
cactusflinthead

It doesn't have to be bermudagrass. Despite what the spellcheck says it is all one word. Buffalograss qualifies as a xeriscape plant. About a pound of N a year/1000ftsq vs 3-4x that for bermudagrass. It has a very low water requirement and often never gets tall enough to get the code enforcement up in arms. The drawback is the initial cost. But, it sounds like they are going to have to shell out some dollars anyhow. It is usually about double the price of St. Augustine or bermudagrass, but you will make that back in what you don't pay for water. King Ranch grass has 609 Buffalo for about 200 a pallet. 

And the list of plants we are not sure got here with us or were here already is quite extensive. Dandelions among them, so is plantain, which among some tribes was known as "white man's foot" because it seemed to follow us wherever we went. Hell, tumbleweeds (aka Russian thistle) arrived with wheat seed from Europe. 

Guest
Guest

Turf grass has many positive benefits, like consuming carbon dioxide, reducing the effects of the heat island, and cutting down on dust and dirt. Plant some grass and water it.

Also if you can't form a coherent argument without declaring the opposition a closet racist then you are a turd.

Craigley
Craigley

Poor Big D(isaster) loses it more every day.

wifey
wifey

I don't think the Y in Dallas rents rooms. You must be remembering Detroit. But the Como Motel in Richardson is still in business. Heck. It is probably due historic designation itself. Here's the number: 972-235-5266.

roo_ster
roo_ster

JS:

 So, you like intrusive  quasi-gov'tal functionaries when they do what you want, but not when they do what you don't want?  Go figure.  Some might learn a lesson from this and advocate for less-intrusive gov't & quasi-gov't intrusion.  Some, but not all, I am sure.

The cactus-folk knew what they were getting into when they moved into their digs.  They wanna plant all sorts of goofy stuff in their lawn, they have almost the entire city of Garland in which to xeriscape.  Oh, they don't want to live in a place as gauche as Garland?  Life is all about trade-offs.  In this case, trendy zip code vs xeriscape.  Somehow, I doubt the cactus-folk will stick to their principles and move to Garland to plant a xeriscape in a frumpy zip code amongst neighbors who do not appreciate their exquisite expression of sustainability.

http://ken_ashford.typepad.com/.a/6a00d834515b2069e201053605c23c970c-800wi

anon
anon

Come on. This isn't the same as some Frisco HOA ordinance where you call in your neighbors for a fine if their lawn turns brown. I'm in a historic district and my front lawn is varying shades of green, but I've never so much as thrown down a grass seed. Whatever is growing there is doing just fine on its own. The only time I water is when I need my foundation to shift so my front door will lock again. 

As for hating on the historic districts, it's easy to hate on them now that they don't seem necessary, but they were the organizing force that kept City Hall from ruining the assets that are the basis for a boom in close-in property values. They've held and increased their value significantly better than all adjacent but similarly developed districts in the city that are not historically protected. As for Phelps comment about keeping out brown people, I'm not exactly sure what he's talking about. Many/most of the historic districts were redlined by banks long before the neighbors organized. 

mcdallas
mcdallas

Wasn't cotton grown in that area before the homes went in?  Will the panel ask them to pull their grass and plant a cash crop?

everlastingphelps
everlastingphelps topcommenter

Well, considering that we came up with the idea of deed restrictions and "preservation districts" and "Task Forces" to keep black and brown people out of Certain Neighborhoods, it only makes sense that they continue the racist tradition of planting the slave ship weed.

bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

Can't we just call them Property Value Escalation Districts?  You wouldn't need to have zoning districts for Ross and then Historical District for Junius Heights and then the Belmont Addition Enforcement Committee and on and on. You could just say all of District 14 is a Property Value Escalation Distriction.  

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

Do the mandatory lawn owners get to send their water bills to "the opposition" and the Landscape Commission? Seems only fair.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

Historic preservation is fine. It's just not applied evenly. 

I'd like to see less Disneyfication of genteel neighborhoods and more True Grit -- preservation of Dallas' industrial-railroading-cattledeiving past. Where are the slums of yesterday? If we can preserve a Swiss Avenue of mansions, surely we can restore a slum block to its original appearance. Where are the banging boxcars and rows of farm implements on the docks down in the West End? If we're going back to streetcars, couldn't we have coal wagons and horse poop on a few residential streets? Backyard chickens -- with crowing roosters, thank you Laura Miller. A tethered goat here and there. Everything north of Northwest Highway was cotton farms well into the 1940s. Wouldn't a gin and a few dozen bales look fine at, say, Inwood and Walnut Hill?

"Historic preservation" has nothing to do with history and very little with preservation. It's sort of charming in its place. if you like Colonial Williamsburg or Ford's Greenfield Village, you'll love Junius Heights.

   

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@WmBTravis 

Yeah, that youth demographic is really fired up about landscaping issues.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@cactusflinthead bermudagrass and buffalograss both need full sun.  In these neighborhoods the yards tend to have too much shade to use those turf options with much success.  Thus, St Augustine comes in.  Horseherb and Violets can be used in lieu of turf in shade and can be mown. 

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@Guest 

So you do support slavery, then.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@wifey 

I usually rent the party room at the Park Cities Y. 

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

@wifey I recommend a little motel next to the Asian Massage place on Harry Hines.

Pretend yer in Phuket.

cantkeepthetruthdown
cantkeepthetruthdown

@roo_ster I don't see much grass in the yards of Hollywood Heights. Maybe they could move there.. I've heard keeping chickens is trendy these days too!

bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

@anon I don't just hate on the historic districts.  I also hate on displacement caused by gentrification. 

casiepierce
casiepierce

@Michael.MacNaughton Yup. That was before the "suburbs" back then, before there were streetcar companies to shuttle people to and from their "country homes" and their city jobs.

observist
observist topcommenter

@bealotcoolerifyoudid  I live in Junius Heights.  The historic district hasn't raised property values... at least not any faster than a savings account.

observist
observist topcommenter

@bmarvel  Yes, I anticipate Junius Heights becoming a regional, even national tourist destination.  Just a couple more years until the historic district overlay really starts to work its magic.

cantkeepthetruthdown
cantkeepthetruthdown

@bmarvel Why would we need a slum of yesterday when there are slums of today all over this city? You just need to leave your whiteopia once in a while to find one. 

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

@bmarvel Horsepoop in the streets, backyard chickens, goats... you just described my neighborhood.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@bmarvel 

Doing research on creek drainage in East Dallas, I learned that one reason the creeks in the M-Streets area were put into underground conduits in the '20s and '30s was to stop residents from shitting in them. How about some historical accuracy on that one, eh? Would we have to send history teams around to re-train people in how to do it? 

cactusflinthead
cactusflinthead

@scottindallas @cactusflinthead I have seen dwf, mondo grown as turf in deep shade, fescue and the occasional shady tee box with zoysia. I doubt they would let him get away with the vine alternative. Not knowing the amount of sun he has it is hard to make recommendations. I am not as fond of St. Aug as I used to be. I see a lot of it with disease issues. But, Jim's concern about bermudagrass is a moot point if it is a heavy shade area, it won't grow without some good direct sun for part of the day and up underneath the big trees it will eventually die out. You can go the fescue route but it is even more water demanding than bermudagrass. 

anon
anon

@bealotcoolerifyoudid @anon gentrification is a fact of life. sorry. always has been and always will be. attempting to legislate to prevent it creates far more harm and distortions than any possible benefit of trying to keep a neighborhood's residents in place forever. 

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@cantkeepthetruthdown

truthdown - Ah, but they're not hisftoric slums.

By the way: My "whiiteopia" is about 75 percent Hispanic. Drop by any time and I'll show you around.

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

@JimSX @bmarvel The bar owners on Lower Greenville tried to revive that tradition. Angela said no.

bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

@JimSX if the Landscape Commission would just issue an appropriate ruling on the M-Street matter, I'm sure nature would take its course. No training necessary.

cactusflinthead
cactusflinthead

@tomhoop @cactusflinthead @scottindallas Way cool. I wonder if that is the same or a similar fern that grew above the spring out at my grandmother's place near Abilene. It sure looks like it. It was really leathery textured and had the waxy sort of coat that one finds in species found in arid climates. The notable feature was how the spore structures were all crowded to the back edge of the leaflet. It was up in the hills south of town and I only found one stand of it in some sandstone fissures surrounding a spring. Neat. Now where can we get some of that? 

observist
observist topcommenter

@scottindallas @cactusflinthead  Scott - how can a person contact you for landscaping work?  If you don't want to publicize, could you email me @ observist@yahoo.com ?

cactusflinthead
cactusflinthead

@scottindallas @cactusflinthead No, it isn't little bluestem. I would have to do some digging to find out what version it is, it was a plot out at the farm. A better adapted bluegrass. Yeah, cast iron plants are underused and lentens are virtually unknown. Turk's cap is fine, gets all over the place if you let it. Coralberry is a hard sell, looks too scruffy for some. I like it though. Aww I don't know about ferns and our clay. Have seen too many stands of Holly and woodferns in places like the FW botanical and grown too many myself. A little bit of compost sure helps them. I don't really like the concept of being a monoculture turf. I had much rather see us use our green spaces in a more diversified way, but that gets back to the original point by Jim. My problem was that all things considered, if it were possible to grow a decent yard, sufficient light, etc, turf does not necessarily have to be bermudagrass and does not have to have a high water demand. Nor does it have to be associated with slavery. I agree there are a lot of options on shade spots. I knew a lady that grew some impressive peonies. For whatever reason they liked her shady porch area and while they looked tattered in high summer they were great early in the season. I grew some really nice maidenhair ferns for her in the same spot. She had that shitty marled clay of NRH and parts north. 

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@cactusflinthead @scottindallas I use lots of perennials, though ferns and hostas are by no means water wise, nor do they like our heavy soils--aspidistra, lenten roses, turk's cap, liriopes, coral berry are better choices that do better in our soil.  

I don't know of a "TX Bluegrass" unless you're talking about "little Bluestem" but that's not a turf grass.  When I lived in Albuquerque after college, I found myself in landscaping, again; and there they use Kentucky Bluegrass, which can't generally take our heat, but must be able to survive in the right location.  I haven't really seen it at all here at grass purveyors though.  I tried to push Buffalo, but everyone wanted something their kids could play in.  Now that's really wrong, installing lawns in Albuquerque, so I moved back here.  

That really affected me, and what irks me about Jim's EPA average bermudagrass water demand, we're humid here.  Dallas is a lush place really.  We're a grassland, after all.  I appreciate both thrusts of Jim's article, that these groups have too much power and that grassy lawns are too heavily relied upon here. 

cactusflinthead
cactusflinthead

@scottindallas @cactusflinthead Yeah, they get some sun in the afternoon, but it varies. Sometimes they get hard-headed and are bound and determined to try zoysia instead of fescue. You can't grow horseherb for a tee box. Sometimes you just keep flinging seed or sod at them until something takes. A prof of mine in Sville had a really nice stand of Tx bluegrass. Where in the world you could find some is another question.  Live oaks are usually the culprit for this scenario, though magnolias can be even denser shade. There is a reason why that ground was bare. People just don't grasp the concept of a plant's need for those photons. I had rather go the route of ferns, hostas and good ground covers than to keep hammering my head against the wall. Heaps of perennials that love that sort of environment. 

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@cactusflinthead @scottindallas Zoysia is a full sun grass too.  That tee box may have been shady at the time, but it must get more sun than you reckon.  Most people don't appreciate sun exposure as we professional gardeners do (I say this pinkie extended)  No, it's funny what people consider sun.  

I hate seeing people put St, Augustine or worse Bermuda under a big live oak where there was no grass.  It takes 2-3 years to totally fade away.  You can prep the soil, but that only does a bit better.  I've lost jobs to people who keep trying 2 and 3 times to re-sod.  After all that, sometimes they remember that I gave them good advice.  What really perplexes me is to see them dedicated to someone who gave them self serving info. 

observist
observist topcommenter

@kduble @observist @bealotcoolerifyoudid  Perhaps, but you can't attribute demand in the neighborhood to the historic district overlay.  Property values increased much faster before the the overlay.  It's very difficult to tease apart the effects of the overlay from the underlying neighborhood demand from the rise and fall of the overall real estate market.  All I know is my house is worth slightly less than the purchase price + cost of improvements I've made over the past 8 years.

Now Trending

Dallas Concert Tickets

Around The Web

From the Vault

 

General

Loading...