Artesian water. Electric lights. Paved roads. The cool breeze coming off the Trinity River.
These were the amenities the developers of Winnetka Heights used to lure Dallas residents to the city’s newest suburb in 1908. Since that time, the neighborhood with 600-plus homes has experienced both prosperity and disrepair. One hundred years later, things are looking up.
The original foursome
T.S. Miller and Leslie Stemmons, co-owners of a real estate and insurance business, were the driving forces behind the creation of Winnetka Heights. (Yes, that’s Stemmons as in Stemmons Freeway.) The duo also was responsible for developing other property in Oak Cliff, such as Lake Cliff, Evergreen Hills, East Kessler Park and Rosemont Crest.
Winnetka Heights started out as the Midway Addition in 1903, until Miller and Stemmons bought into it and took over. They recruited Roman Waldron to the effort, and Waldron in turn pulled in J.P. Blake. Each of the developers built a house in the neighborhood; the only two still standing are the Miller home at 101 N. Montclair, and the Blake home, now commonly known as the Turner House, at 401 N. Rosemont. Waldron lived in the Rosemont estate at Rosemont and Davis, which has since been replaced by an apartment complex*, and Stemmons’ home was once where the Salvation Army building at Rosemont and Jefferson now stands.
(*In a Dallas Morning News story dated Oct. 25, 1958, Leslie Stemmons’ three children — John, Storey and Elizabeth — are quoted as seeking a zoning change “for our old home place” into apartments at the northeast corner of Jefferson and Rosemont. Among those present who opposed the change were Ruth Chenoweth, who later led the charge in Winnetka Heights’ turnaround. In that fight, however, she wasn’t successful.)
What’s in a name?
Developer Leslie Stemmons attended school at the University of Chicago and was so enamored with that city’s affluent suburb of Winnetka that he decided to name the new Dallas neighborhood for it. Winnetka legendarily derives from a Native American language and means “beautiful land”.
A history of activism
On one of the 1912 rosters, Edgefield was owned by the Texas Northern Pacific Railway, and Winnetka Heights Village sued the
railroad to have the barbed wire fence taken down.
The American Arts and Crafts movement drove Winnetka Heights developers to select Prairie and Foursquare architectural styles for the homes in their new neighborhood. The movement was a departure from the Victorian era, and at the time Winnetka Heights was being formed, these architectural styles were the latest trend. They were much simpler than the ornate Victorian homes, and the designs were meant to provide space where families could spend time together.
The early years
Oak Cliff was incorporated by the time the original developers began marketing Winnetka Heights, but the new neighborhood was still in the country. Wealthy families were quick to snatch up property during the first wave of Winnetka Heights development, building opulent Prairie-style homes on what we today consider double lots. The neighborhood built up from the south, from 12th Street north to Davis and between Rosemont and Willomet. Colossal columns with curved granite bases were erected at the corner of Jefferson and Willoment, signifying the entrance to Winnetka Heights, though no one seems to know when they were torn down. By the 1920s, it was a thriving upper- to middle-class neighborhood. Edgefield was the very first street to have homes built on it and the first finished-out street, but not all of the homes were Prairie-style mansions. Even before the Great Depression hit, a recession caused division of some of the larger lots, and scaled back building to make smaller bungalows more common on the neighborhood’s streets.
The Blake-Ferguson-Turner House
When J.P. Blake built his home at 401 N. Rosemont in 1912, it cost $50,000. In comparison, the two homes still sitting across the street from the house cost $4,500 and $5,500 to build. Rowena Benton Ramsey bought the home in 1917, and in 1923, sold it to Monta Ferguson, who parceled out the nearly four-acre estate. (Ferguson’s daughters were photographed with the massive urns that formerly sat at the Jefferson entrances to the neighborhood.) Ferguson lost the house during the Great Depression, and the Ferguson family moved to a smaller house in Winnetka Heights. Foly B. White purchased the house in 1942, and the newly formed Oak Cliff Lutheran Church bought it in 1948, using the main house as its sanctuary. In 1957, the house was purchased by the Oak Cliff Society of Fine Arts, its current and final owner, and in 2002 was renamed the Turner House in honor of Mrs. E.P. Turner, the society’s founder.
Many Winnetka Heights homes were heated by coal (some still have a coal chute and a place in their basements where the coal bin sat), but the first central heating unit in Dallas was installed at 127 N. Montclair. The Turner House had one of the first indoor steam showers in the city, made of marble.
Mrs. Godowsky comes to call
A story from the Dallas Morning News society page dated Feb. 22, 1922, which describes the reception of Mrs. Leopold Godowsky, the wife of a famed pianist and composer, gives a taste of the Winnetka Heights developers’ status in society. Mrs. J.P. Blake and Mrs. Roman Waldron were two of the hostesses at the Blake house reception: “The attractiveness of the home decorations lay in the arrangement of the flowers and their combination of color. In the hall, single tall palms sentineled the door, while cut vases of rich-red Richmond roses were used on the tables. At the end of the hall, punch was served from a smilax wreathed with red roses and lilies of the valley twined in green. On the mantel in the music room, a single large cluster of white Killarney roses was reflected in the glass behind. In the library, where the receiving line stood, the lights were softened to harmonize with the window box effect of the golden jonquils thickly clustered on the mantel. Over the bookcases ferns and smilax were arranged, with here and there a yellow flower. The hostesses stood at the head of the line, presenting Mrs. Godowsky. Mrs. Blake wore a gown of gold-tinted charmeuse, with a black and rose tunic and bodice effect, with a French flower cluster at the waistline. Mrs. Godowsky wore a gown of black Chantilly lace, over black satin. Mr
s. Waldron wore an Irish crochet, over white charmeuse, with a corsage bouquet of Irish pink roses at the bodice."
Winnetka Heights’ proximity to downtown has always been a draw, made even more enticing over the years by the presence of various methods of public transportation. The first streetcar to come across the Trinity River traveled down Jefferson Boulevard, and the Interurban railway lines went down Davis and eventually ran into Fort Worth Avenue. Even the short-lived electric buses came to Winnetka Heights; a map shows a trail curving around Methodist Hospital and down to Davis, and then heading west on Seventh. The streetcars stopped running in the ’40s and ’50s, and the rail lines eventually were paved over.
Notable Winnetka Heights names
• W.H. Adamson — lived on North Montclair, principal of Oak Cliff High School, which was later renamed for him
• Ellis Cockrell — lived at the corner of Ninth and Montclair, developed Cockrell Hill
• W.J. Evans — lived at 300 S. Montclair, was on the Federal Reserve Bank board of directors and was secretary to Mayor Joe Lawther, 1917-1919
• Thomas Jefferson Hubbert — lived at 137 S. Montclair, was appointed by President Grover Cleveland as the U.S. Pension Examiner for Texas and the Old Indian Territories
• Judge William Franklin Ramsey — chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas board of directors and also on the board that won the contract for Methodist Hospital
• J. Waddy Tate — lived on South Montclair, mayor of Dallas, 1929-1931
The World War II collapse
Even before World War II, some Winnetka Heights husbands who were heading overseas had carved up their homes into boarding rooms and apartments so their wives would have money while they were gone. The occupants of those rooms would often be other women who moved into the city to work, and Winnetka Heights was convenient, being on the streetcar route to downtown. The housing shortage after the war, however, is when many of the Foursquare homes were sectioned off into smaller living spaces. Simultaneously, the middle-class families that had been moving into Winnetka Heights for decades were turning their gaze to newer ranch homes with three bedrooms, air-conditioning and wall-to-wall carpet. Winnetka Heights and other older Oak Cliff neighborhoods that had once been Dallas suburbs were now considered the inner-city.
The 1957 tornado that roared through Dallas touched down in Winnetka Heights. On South Willomet, it lifted an apartment from atop a garage and set it down on the other side of the yard.
The 1974 formation of the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League by Mary Griffith and the late Ruth Chenoweth turned the tide. By that point, not many people even referred to the neighborhood as Winnetka Heights — it had simply been conflated with the rest of older Oak Cliff. In 1975 Griffith, Chenoweth and other supporters convinced the Dallas city council to make Winnetka Heights the first planned development district in the inner city. The designation prevented owners from further dividing their houses into multiple smaller living spaces, and when a home that had already been carved up was sold, the designation provided the impetus for banks to give people the financing to buy homes in the neighborhood and restore them to single-family residences. A historic district designation followed in 1981 — the largest one in the city, encompassing roughly 600 homes and protecting the neighborhood’s unique architectural characteristics. Over the next two or three decades, homes that had sold for $30,000 or $40,000 in the ’70s began listing for $300,000 or $400,000 as the Arts and Crafts style made a comeback, and young families sought to live closer to downtown.
Winnetka Heights Holiday Home Tour
What/ A glimpse of eight historic homes in the Winnetka Heights neighborhood, all decked out for Christmas
When/ Saturday, Dec. 13, noon-8 p.m.
Where/ Tour homes are: 319 N. Willomet, 219 N. Willomet, 126 N. Winnetka, 210 N. Edgefield, 226 S. Edgefield, 300 S. Montclair, 119 N. Windomere and 207 N. Rosemont
Cost/ $12; $15 on tour day
For more information/ 214.946.3813 or whhometour.org
What else/ In honor of the neighborhood’s centennial celebration, an 8-10 p.m. after-party will be held at the Turner House, featuring heavy hors d’oeuvres provided courtesy of Kavala Mediterranean Grill, fine wines, a DJ playing music, the silent auction wrap-up, and a wine pull. The $30 after-party tickets are limited and can be purchased at whhometour.org.
Winnetka Heights residents Carla Boss and Vicki Fitzgerald
Boss and her husband, Butch, moved to the neighborhood in 1977 and were among the original urban pioneers. Vicki Fitzgerald and her husband, Richard, moved to the neighborhood in 1997, and she currently serves as the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League vice president of neighborhoods. Both women have held various roles in both the league and the Winnetka Heights Neighborhood Association over the years, and Fitzgerald spent the last two years heading up a committee comprised of neighbors Ellen Carter, Lisa Shirley and Erin Slettebo, who researched Oak Cliff history to display at this year’s home tours. The images and information in this story come courtesy of hard work on the part of all of these women.