Oak Cliff history: The abandoned 1920s retail strip in North Cliff

Abandoned retail buildings occupy the 700 block of Pierce in the North Cliff neighborhood. Photo by Mary McLauhlan
Abandoned retail buildings occupy the 700 block of Pierce in the North Cliff neighborhood. Photo by Mary McLauhlan

I like to drive around Oak Cliff.

Quite frankly, I’ve told friends that if I ever disappear and my car and body are found in some strange place … (and no foul play is involved) it’s because I was just curious and took a spontaneous “detour” down some street I’ve never visited before and, obviously, expired behind the wheel. You’d think by now I’d have been just about everywhere in The Cliff, but there are still streets and parks and places to experience. And, time is passing. So …  I’m trying to do it all before my children determine it’s time to confiscate the keys and sell my car, and I find myself grounded, permanently.

A few months back, on one of my Sunday afternoon excursions, I decided to explore the North Cliff neighborhood off of West Clarendon. The neighborhood is an assortment of brick and frame houses from different eras that range from Tudor style to old farmhouse leftovers, certainly an interesting mix. Slowly driving up one street and down another, I meandered around taking in the ambience. Then, suddenly, my lazy, relaxing trek halted when I came upon an aging and deserted late-1920s retail strip in the 700 block of Pierce Street, with an odd placement (per today’s world): nestled inside a residential neighborhood. The dated, vintage strip center looked like something out of a Bonnie & Clyde movie or some Depression-era drama.

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Somewhat recalling the sight from an earlier and rapid shortcut through the area, this time the cozy enclave of brick buildings captured my attention. I was immediately enchanted.

These one-story, attached, retail buildings with cable-supported awnings reminded me of those movie or TV scenes where an old-timer from another era comes back for a visit and sits on the corner, staring at the buildings while envisioning how the town used to look back in the day. Imagining housewives in cotton shirtwaist dresses and grandmothers in 1930s-1940s orthopedic shoes — all with their Olivia Walton-esque hats and carrying brown paper bags of groceries. I could also picture 10-year-old boys in knickers and caps perched atop vintage bicycles, while milk and bread trucks made deliveries and the locals gathered under the awnings, which is probably a fairly realistic scenario for that era.

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The buildings seemed, to me, to be pleading for a reno.

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About two weeks after my visit, an acquaintance, Mary McLachlan, an avid cyclist, historical enthusiast and amateur photographer, posted some photos of the buildings online. She told others how she was recently cycling in the area, and the structures caught her attention. Like me, she was smitten. (I think we must be twins separated at birth … except for the cycling, of course.) A flood of comments and messages followed the post, most of them chock-full of delightful details and heartwarming stories.

Brian Haney, whose mother owned the J&J Beauty Shop in the strip, said, “[It] seemed like folding towels at home was never ending when I was a kid.”

“Sims grocery store was there,” typed Stephany Pitt White. “My mom would send me for milk, bread and cigarettes. Yep … a 10-year-old buying cigs.”

JoEllen Glasgow McVey posted that she and her grandmother often walked from Gladstone Drive to these little stores. “One was a variety store where my grandmother bought thread and other sewing materials,” McVey says. “That was a very looooooooong time ago!”

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According to Suzanne Welsh Burch, “A laundromat with front-loading machines was one of the center buildings. In the late ’40s. Mom and I would go get the family’s clothes washed, then drive the wet stuff home to hang on the line. We got our very own machine in 1951 when baby sister came.”

Ken Shields had a paper route on Catherine Street in the ’50s. “There was a grocery store and a bar. Can’t remember the rest. My older brother took the paper into the bar … dark and smoky in there … scared me.” Shields and his brother purchased Baby Ruth candy bars and Cokes in the grocery to celebrate the end of the paper route. “Then,” he wrote, “me ‘n my brother would ride our Radio Flyers down the hill and crash onto the well-kept yard at the bottom of the hill … good times.”

On the other side of Pierce sits an old vacant ceramics store, formerly Coat’s Variety Store, and beside that a more modern building, built in 1939.

“One of the stores was Bateman Ceramics,” typed Donna Clark Dorflinger who lived on Brooklyn Street. “My mother did business with him. He was a sweet man. The other store was a grocery store, where we went for groceries. On the other corner of the store was [a] store like a 7-Eleven.”

“Randy Reynolds’ aunt and uncle owned the tiny store at the end of the [streetcar] line on Pierce and Brooklyn,” posted Diane Lovelace Rogers, who drives by the old buildings several times each week. “Only the concrete slab is there [now]. I love these little buildings and wish I could think of something that could be done with them today.”

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These charming relics from the past remind us how life used to be, before everyone had a car and people rarely locked their doors, and when most of the moms were home during the day. Although change is constant, and progress invariably pushes out the old, I’d love to see these charming structures repurposed in some way.
However … I just checked my purse and the keys are still there. And my car’s still in the garage. So I’m outta here! I’ve got places to see. Better go for a drive while I still can.

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  • J4Jessica

    I met her right before she shut her studio down. I really wanted to rent the space for myself but she said the owner wasnt interested in renting the place out that she new of and he basically uses all those buildings as storage.. *sigh

  • Dana (Sullivan) Gillham

    I lived on North Winnetka and W. Davis. I am so glad that they doing something with Cannon’s Variety Store. I have a lot of memories of the shops on W. Davis, I guess that we lived in six different homes in Oak Cliff. When I got married in 1955 we lived on Mather Court and then on Crystal (?) I think, the yellow apartments off Sylvan and the Toll Road. Then three other places before moving to North Dallas. I now live in Hot Springs Village, AR. and love ready all the stories that are written and the pictures.

  • ShelleysLeg

    My grandfather and I used to walk this area from our home. The farthest place to the left on the corner was a drugstore/pharmacy at one time in the early 50s. I used to beg for a “nurse” kit from that store.

  • GayPrewitt

    Thanks for the info. Have been curious for a long time.I thought maybe they were tied up in a trust.

  • GayPrewitt

    We too lived in this neighbohood in 1948, at 2850 Brooklyn. My dad was a travelling salesman and was gone for weeks at a time, and since we only had one car, this little strip shopping center meant a lot to us. I have often wondere who owns it now. I am surprised it is still standing, and is still recognizable.

  • Gayla Brooks

    Your stories are always so good, girl!!!! Love ’em. And you’re right. What we remember is always interesting, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing this great story.

  • Lynda Welch Kokel

    Lynda Welch Kokel – Again you took me back to my growing up in Oak Cliff. We lived at 821 S. Tyler and we too had a small strip at the end of our block. There was Pribbles Pharmacy, a small grocery store – I believe there was another little store but cannot remember what it was. I loved walking down to the pharmacy because it had a soda fountain and some really neat gift items. I remember buying my feminine items as a teen and I had to ask the pharmacist for them. He would wrap the box in brown wrapping paper and tie a string around it. You did not see such items out on the shelves…for a teen I was always embarrased to ask for them. Times have sure changed in that area of shopping! You could find a gift for ANYONE in this store! If you needed something, you could find it there! Of course…back then we really didn’t need that much because we didn’t know there was that much to be had. I could also buy my parents cigarettes by myself…no questions asked! As a young girl and as a teen, I could always run to the grocery store and pick up just about anything we needed. When Terry and I were first married we rented a small duplex up the street from where I grew up…then I was walking down to the store to buy groceries for my new little family. $20.00 bought us enough food for a week and we splurged once a week and had steak! We would watch Stony Burke in front of the TV with our TV trays! THAT WAS A BIG DEAL!!! The things we remember!!!

  • Tex

    That is a shame.

  • I wrote the owner to inquire about the status of the buildings but never heard anything back…

  • Linda_Coleman

    You’re welcome, Gayla, and thank you for writing about the history of Oak Cliff’s forgotten gems.

  • Oak Cliff Townie

    Looking them up on DCCAD someone is paying a nice sum in property taxes on those very vacant but not quite Abandoned Buildings .

  • Gayla Brooks

    What a GREAT photo! Thank you so much for posting. And I agree about an artists’ enclave in this area. That would be wonderful.

  • Linda_Coleman

    In 2002, Olivette Hubler had an art studio in one of the spaces and I took this picture of her. I was hoping the launch of Studio d’Olivette would be the start of a little art colony in those spaces, but her studio was short-lived, and the spaces fell back into disuse.

  • Linda_Coleman

    Don Dorward and family own the buildings. They were always really nice about letting us use electricity from the buildings when we had National Night Out there, but have never been too interested in doing anything with those buildings.

  • Steve Bonner

    It was so cool how this story about the buildings unfolded. It was like watching an episode of the Twilight Zone. I went to 700 Pierce the other day to check the buildings out in more detail and even looked for Rod Sterling to be around to welcome me to the Twilight Zone. Keep up your great stories on Oak Cliff as I look forward to them each month.

  • Gayla Brooks

    I want to thank Mary MacLauhlan for the photographs and architect David
    Dacus for the architectural analysis of the buildings included in the
    photo. Also, thank you to all those who posted comments about the
    structures and neighborhood on the Oak Cliff Boomers Facebook page, and
    then allowed me to use your words. Sometimes…it takes a village! And
    thank you to my three wonderful children…who still allow me to drive. 🙂

  • Gayla Brooks

    I want to thank Mary MacLauhlan for the photographs and architect David Dacus for the architectural analysis of the buildings included in the photo. Also, thank you to all those who posted comments about the structures and neighborhood on the Oak Cliff Boomers Facebook page, and then allowed me to use their words. Sometimes…it takes a village! And thank you to my children…who still allow me to drive. 🙂

  • LeAnn Lewis

    Thank you for sharing about North Cliff, our fabulous neighborhood where we all know each other, and we still carry on a huge sense of community, like in the old days:)

  • LeAnn Lewis

    agree Linda, agree.

  • judi

    1948 – 1966

  • Judi

    Thanks so much for the trip down memory lane. We lived on Brooklyn Avenue until we got married.

  • Tex

    Who owns the property?

  • Eliza

    Thank you for this! I’ve lived on Catherine my whole life (I’m only 17) and I had no idea of its history. My parents used to know the woman who owned it shortly before she passed, and one of my neighbors whom lives around the building has told me stories of when she was a child and she’d go visit the shops. Me and a few friends love to come here and sit by the windows and talk away, so it’s nice to know the actual history of the building.

  • Linda_Coleman

    I’ve lived in the neighborhood since 1996, and I’ve always wanted to see some art studios move into this space. We have several artists and artisans in the neighborhood who have approached the owners about renting these spaces, to no avail. Apparently, the owners aren’t interested in any of the ventures that have been proposed, and it’s a shame, both for the neighborhood and for the owners. They could have been renting these places out all this time and making a nice income while enhancing the neighborhood. Instead, they’ve allowed this commercial space to just sit there an fall into disrepair.

  • OCA

    Thank you for posting this!! I live on Catherine, very close to this little gem. I’d love to see it be developed into something amazing! Great article!!