Katherine Seale, chair of the Landmark Commission, is bringing a new attitude to preservation in Dallas. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

The erstwhile El Corazon de Tejas restaurant on Davis Street does not fit the traditional definition of a historic landmark structure.

Built in 1940 as Wyatt Food Store, it was a ubiquitous commercial structure, not a highly stylized expression of a particular style by a notable architect or emblematic of the period in which it was built. It was old, yes, but old and historic are not one and the same.

And yet, before a bulldozer razed the restaurant in May, 899 people had signed a Change.org petition to save it.

“When you’ve got a thousand people who care about a structure, you have to ask, ‘OK, why is it that a thousand people are begging the [Dallas] Landmark Commission to save this building?’ ” says Katherine Seale, the commission’s chair. “Why is this important, and how does this capture a sense of place for a city and a community? That informs how you do preservation.”

These questions characterize the City of Dallas’ new and arguably improved approach to preserving its history, led by Seale, the former executive director of Preservation Dallas.  The program has “matured,” Seale says, so that the city can examine not just buildings with architectural significance but also the rest of the cultural landscape.

At this point, Seale says, “we have a pretty good understanding of the historic resources we’ve got, up to World War II.” Moving forward, the city needs to look at “everything between the buildings.”

“Historic preservation gets its authority because it is a public good, so it has to be linked back to what is in the best interest of the public,” Seale says. “We need to take ourselves away from that hyper-focus on the exterior of a building.”

Along the same vein, the landmark commission is now looking at buildings that are important to a particular culture, people or neighborhood.

“It doesn’t have to be the highly stylized buildings; something can carry just as much meaning if it’s a brick box,” Seale says. This will lead to more focus on areas such as Jefferson Boulevard, she says, that have escaped prior preservation attention.

It may apply to El Corazon, too, even though the building is gone. The original Wyatt’s was the kind of structure that wouldn’t stand out in a slideshow of images as preservation-worthy, Seale says. But then the commission began looking at the context in which it was built.

The role of Davis Street in Oak Cliff’s history was as an automobile corridor — the arterial connection that linked Oak Cliff to downtown Dallas by the late 1930s. It was part of the Bankhead Highway, the first paved transcontinental highway in the United States.

All buildings on Davis are a reflection of that automobile corridor, Seale says, and the Wyatt’s store is “a great example of trying to attract thousands of passersby to stop in and patron the business,” Seale says.

She points out the signage that reached into the sky as a style of art-deco architecture fitting for a roadside store that was trying to grab drivers’ attention. The building’s tower above its entryway, which faced Davis Street, and the row of windows across the first story enticed customers as well, she says.

Seale says she and other commissioners’ initial concern was that the outcry to save El Corazon was no more than a backlash to CVS, which purchased and razed the property (more on that on p. 7). The role of the Landmark Commission is not to prevent unpopular development, she points out, but to preserve and maintain the city’s history.

And much of Oak Cliff’s historical sense of identity is dependent on its relationship with Downtown and with all of the surrounding neighborhoods, Seale says, all of which is captured in the Wyatt’s building.

“When you start removing buildings like El Corazon, you start to erase the very thing that makes Oak Cliff, Oak Cliff, especially when you replace it with something that could be anywhere,” she says. “CVS is emblematic of ‘Anywhere USA.’ So we’ve got something so characteristic of our identity and it’s being replaced with something that is foreign to Davis Street.”

The building lay just outside the recently established Oak Cliff demolition delay overlay, a large chunk of northern Oak Cliff protected by an ordinance that requires a 45-day waiting period for a developer to obtain a demolition permit. This is perhaps Seale’s greatest accomplishment since being appointed as Landmark Commission chair in 2012 by Mayor Mike Rawlings.

The initiative sprung out of a grim Sunday in 2014 for the preservation community, when a wrecking ball razed several historic Downtown buildings with no warning. When it comes to Dallas’ historic resources, the preservation community needs time to work with owners to see whether a deal can be brokered, Seale says.

Michael Amonett, Oak Cliff’s landmark commissioner, wants to see the demolition delay overlay expanded. A new map he has proposed includes the site of the former El Corazon (see page 10).

Expanding the map would require a lengthy process. In the meantime, Seale, Amonett and the rest of the Landmark Commission are exploring the possibility of writing landmark criteria for a building that no longer exists.

“Can you do historic preservation if you already have a demolition permit?” Seale asks. “Could new construction do the same thing that the pre-existing structure did? New construction in historic districts has to fit into this larger context — can you do that on a street, without a district, on an individual structure?”

The commission is in the process of exploring such questions. Depending on their answers, even though El Corazon is gone, its historic significance may be resurrected.