Photography by Danny Fulgencio
The two-story white house on Zang Boulevard is dripping with Dallas history.
Built in 1910, the house was the residence of Dallas Mayor George Sergeant, who was known as the “Centennial Mayor” because he served in 1935 and 1936, the year Dallas was in the national spotlight as celebration central for the 100th anniversary of Texas statehood.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt are said to have sipped lemonade on the front porch when they visited the centennial as Sergeant’s guests.
Sergeant lived in the house until he died in 1971, and it was vacant for years before Bishop Arts developer Jim Lake Cos. bought it in 2011.
The house was a big ol’ mansion in its day, and now it’s in the shadow of hulking adjacent apartment buildings, a shining piece of old Oak Cliff, smack dab in the heart of the new. Jim Lake Jr., whose family company began redeveloping Bishop Arts in the 1980s, calls it “the crown jewel of Bishop Arts.”
Now the house is getting a dramatic new act as a restaurant and bar, The Mayor’s House.
Experienced restaurateurs, husband-and-wife partners A.J. Gilbert and Martha Madison, are expected to open The Mayor’s House as soon as this month.
“Finding something with this kind of historical value is really rare and really special,” Madison says.
Sitting near the second-story windows, there is a view of the Downtown skyline. The Oak Cliff streetcar whirrs by and dings as it pulls into Bishop Arts Station.
“I fell in love with this site,” Gilbert says.
Gilbert and Madison met while working in the restaurant business together in Los Angeles. They owned and operated six Luna Park restaurants in San Francisco, L.A. and New York.
They’re front-of-the-house stock: Gilbert started in the business as a busboy, and Madison started as a cocktail waitress.
Madison, an actress who is originally from Houston, started in the restaurant business while trying to make it on Broadway. After several years of trying, she realized she just didn’t have the singing chops, and she headed to the opposite coast, where she was cast as a series regular on “Days of Our Lives.”
That’s right, Martha Madison is Belle Black, the daughter of Marlena (Deidre Hall) and John Black. Her character was one half of a soap super couple with Shawn Brady, the son of ’80s soap power couple Bo and Hope. She wound up marrying Victor Kiriakis’ son, Phillip, because of so many misunderstandings. Then she had a baby that she assumed was Phillip’s but was really Shawn’s, conceived while they both were in a hypothermic coma.
Anyway, Madison took over the role in 2004 and is the reigning Belle Black. The TV show was put on indefinite hiatus in November, but when we interviewed her at the Mayor’s House, Madison had just returned from shooting scenes in California when we interviewed her in October. Since then, it’s been announced that Madison will return as Belle, alongside the return of Phillip and Shawn, in a digital continuation of “Days.”
Madison says she loves working on the show, and especially, with Hall.
“She really is like a second mother to me,” she says.
Soap operas only shoot about 20 weeks out of the year, and the cost of living in California is so high that many soap actors have their residence elsewhere.
Madison and Gilbert came to North Texas because her sister lives in Frisco, and they wanted to find better schools for their daughter, 6-year-old Charley.
Compared to operating restaurants in California, they say, everything seems so much easier here.
“It’s an incredibly difficult business,” Gilbert says. “This has been an easy project for us because the landlord is doing a lot of the work, and we don’t have the financial pressure that a lot of restaurants get into early on, when construction is delayed and things like that.”
Lake added an outdoor dining patio to the northern side of the building. But all the historical details, including a grand staircase and built-in bookcases, are still there. The décor is what you might expect in any tastefully renovated historic house. Patterned wallpaper and bold paint colors that make the original refinished molding pop, a mix of wood tables and modern chairs.
The restaurant’s chef hadn’t been announced as of The Advocate’s press deadline.
“We just want it to be fun, easy but delicious and really extraordinary food and make some kind of statement about what Dallas is now,” Gilbert says.
One of their Los Angeles restaurants was near the Museum District, and there could be a guy in a tux for a charity event sitting next to a guy who rode his skateboard there, Gilbert says.
They’re aiming for that same level of approachability for the Mayor’s House.
“That’s the trick is to make it feel accessible but also feel special,” Gilbert says.