Century-old Highland Park home demolished over calls for preservation in Park Cities

The demolition of a 94-year-old home is prompting an outcry from neighbors and preservationists in the affluent enclave of Highland Park.

The home at 4415 Fairfax Ave. was torn down beginning the morning of Aug. 21, marking the latest in a string of similar demolitions throughout the neighborhood in recent years. At just over 4,900 square feet, the four-bedroom, pier-and-beam home was built in 1929, according to Dallas Central Appraisal District records.

While its architect is unknown, members of Preservation Park Cities — which advocates for historic and architecturally significant homes in Highland Park and University Park — said it reflected the historic character of the community.

“It’s not that glamorous and big of a house, but it does reflect the historical development of the community,” said Craig Melde, a local preservation architect, founding principal of Architexas and a Preservation Park Cities board member. “I fear what will replace this house, as it contributed a nicely scaled house with historic character to the block.”

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A bulldozer is parked atop the demolished home at 4415 Fairfax Ave. in Highland Park. (Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Many others share similar thoughts, with signs recently posted along Fairfax Avenue that read, “Preserve our street,” “This has got to stop,” “Save our town!” and “Shame, shame, shame.”

The builder who bought and demolished the home disagrees.

“It was butchered in the ‘70s, and the house wasn’t salvageable,” said Rozie Samei, co-founder of Plano-based Avida Custom Homes. She and her husband, David, have been building homes in Highland Park for about 15 years and in Dallas-Fort Worth since 1992.

Samei said they were open to remodeling it after making an initial offer in late May and before signing the contract June 2, but changed their minds after seeing the inside of the home before closing.

“We wrote the contract on good faith that were going to go in and renovate the house, but when we got in and inspected the house, it didn’t look like I can do anything with it,” Samei said. “That was mentioned to the agent, and the agent assured me there is no problem with that.”

Elly Holder of Compass, the agent who represented the seller, would say only that “at the time we executed the offer, the seller’s understanding was that the home would be renovated.”

Avida bought the home June 16 from the Howard Family Trust, Dallas County records show. The price was not disclosed, but the Dallas Central Appraisal District listed the property’s market value at almost $2.7 million. The land is valued at about $1.83 million, while the home’s value is listed at about $832,000.

Samei said she let neighbors salvage some items, including light fixtures, doors, countertops, plumbing fixtures and an air conditioner unit.

The home at 4415 Fairfax, pictured prior to its demolition the week of Aug. 21.(Deborah Brown, Preservation Park)

Highland Park does not have regulations about the preservation of historic homes, the town’s development services director, Hugh Pender, told The Dallas Morning News in an email. The town received a request for a demolition permit on Aug. 15, and it was issued two days later because it met all the necessary requirements, Pender said.

Attempts to reach Howard family members for comment were unsuccessful. Samei identified several commenters on Instagram posts as family members.

“We are not anxious to see the house our parents lived in for 46 years torn down but we cannot control what a buyer does or does not do,” Tom Howard commented on an Instagram post by design blogger Christina Dandar, known as The Potted Boxwood. “We were told by several different real estate professionals that the house would probably wind up being a tear down due to its condition. Like it or not, the market ultimately decides what happens to these older homes.”

Community outrage

While the demolition took place, an Instagram post from Dandar received 1,766 replies. “My stance has always been, I don’t hate new builds,” she said in the post. “What I don’t love is tearing down a historically significant home to do so.”

Before and after the demolition, thousands of people made comments, largely in opposition, on social media posts from Dandar and Preservation Park Cities.

“It’s really unfair that I’m becoming a poster child for preservation, even though there are so many other homes that have been torn down by so many other builders,” Samei said.

A crew clears the demolished home at 4415 Fairfax Ave. in Highland Park. (Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Samei said people called her and told her what to do with the house. The Persian American builder also received several derogatory comments on her company’s account about her race and appearance.

While Samei’s intent was to live in the home and in the community, she said, the harassing comments have made her reconsider. She plans to build the home regardless. A city permit to build a new single-family home on the site was requested Aug. 16 but has not yet been issued, Pender said.

“We’re about to retire, and the plan was for us to live here in this neck of the woods,” Samei said. “I have friends up and down Fairfax. We wanted to live here, and this was going to be for me, but with all this animosity and hate and all these things that we are facing, we’re just thinking twice about it.”

Another neighbor on Fairfax, Liz Perry-Miller — who has lived there for 27 years — was surprised by how other residents reacted to the demolition. She said other homes have been torn down on the block with no similar reaction.

“There have been a number of historically correct homes that have been torn down, and I have never seen anything like this, ever,” Perry-Miller said.

She said the demolished home had very few original architectural features remaining.

“We believe in historical preservation; the house in question was not historically correct,” Perry-Miller said. “I think a lot of people on the block are new to the block, and they don’t understand, they don’t care, or they just don’t know the history of the home.”

Weekend fears

The weekend before the demolition, Samei saw a post from Preservation Park Cities on Instagram promoting a block party held Aug. 20 by neighbors to express their opposition.

She was alarmed by one comment on the post that asked “hypothetically” how to “decommission a big mechanical thing.”

A sign saying “Keep the Trees” and “Restore 4415” seen across the street as a crew works to clear a demolished home at 4415 Fairfax Ave.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Samei said she called the police to inform them of the event, told them she felt unsafe and asked for protection. She also said that on Aug. 19, when her contractor was trying to put a backhoe up, neighbors blocked it and wouldn’t let it onto the property.

During the party, an officer told one of the neighbors to stay on the sidewalk because there wasn’t a proper permit to close the street for a block party, according to an incident report from the Highland Park Department of Public Safety.

Samei parked in her driveway and watched to make sure nobody stepped on her property. The officer told her to not engage with the block party participants and to call the police if someone entered the site, according to the report.

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The fight to preserve

Preservation Park Cities had the Fairfax Avenue home designated as a landmark along with hundreds of other properties in Highland Park and University Park. The designation, which recognizes both architecturally and historically significant homes, does not legally stop homeowners from demolishing their property.

The only way to legally protect a home would be through a deed restriction, said Preservation Park Cities president Amy Beale.

“It was in poor shape but not beyond repair in our opinion,” Beale said.

A dust cloud rises as a crew clears the demolished home at 4415 Fairfax in Highland Park on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Neighbors on the block have voiced their opposition to the demolition. (Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

Highland Park, a town of just under 9,000 residents spanning just over 2 square miles, has some of the most expensive homes in the area, many varieties of mansions, and is where some of the biggest names in Dallas live, including Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

The house’s demolition comes after other homes in the community have been torn down, including a neoclassical mansion at the corner of Eton Avenue and Beverly Drive at the end of 2021, Beale said.

“That was the real catalyst for us. It wasn’t just teardowns. It was some of our most precious historic treasures,” she said. “That was gravely concerning.”

Unlike the city of Dallas, which has historic landmark districts such as Swiss Avenue, Munger Place and Junius Heights, Highland Park does not have ordinances to protect historically or architecturally significant homes.

In 2021, Preservation Park Cities started a separate campaign featuring 100 of what it considers its most significant homes in the community. The organization is creating a coffee table book featuring them. The Fairfax Avenue home was not included on the list.

Save the ‘top 100′ houses in the Park Cities — before they’re demolished

Beale said the organization had presented the top 100 homes to Highland Park and University Park officials and that it was warmly received but there was no indication that any action would be taken. The list was completed in 2022, but since then, the community has lost three of the houses on the list, according to Beale.

“The general idea was we can’t get anywhere with the city or the town; we are going to make it part of our culture to realize and educate people on how important these treasures are, that these are really the architectural pillars of our community,” she said.

Melde, the preservation architect, said the Fairfax home was a good example of the popular colonial revival style of architecture from the early 20th century and had retained its architectural integrity.

“This house should have been rehabilitated,” he said. “An addition to the back could have been compatibly designed to provide a contemporary lifestyle.”

Melde said Preservation Park Cities is trying to bring more awareness of the diversity and quality of the community’s architecture.

“It’s pretty much unlike any other place in Texas really, and it’s eroding so quickly,” he said, adding that it was encouraging that the neighborhood was upset about losing the building. “Collectively, these houses are very important to the Park Cities.”

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