Residents protect historic trust

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Al Key/Denton Record Chronicle
The Gertrude Gibson house on Bell Avenue is shown Monday in Denton.

Brian Wheeler’s home on Bell Avenue is decades older than he is, but even at age 60, it’s one of the youngest properties on the street.

The century-old craftsman bungalows that line both sides of the avenue with their colorful hues, shuttered windows and Victorian touches, set the historic neighborhood apart from the cookie-cutter planned communities so common today.

When Wheeler and his wife, Victoria Hodge, went house hunting 11 years ago, their wish list was short: two bedrooms, tall trees, something with some charm and located close to Wheeler’s work at the Elm Fork Education Center.

A historic home was not even a consideration.

But over time, he began to appreciate what other homeowners in the Bell Avenue Historic Conservation District felt: that their relationship to their homes was more than just that of an owner, it was as though they were protectors of a historic trust.

“The attitude of most of the people that are really active in the neighborhood is that we are just caretakers of these properties,” Wheeler said. “We are temporary to those buildings. They are ours as much as we want them to be, but we are a blink for most those homes.”

Bell Avenue residents have demonstrated that attitude time and again.

They mobilized and brought their request for historic conservation district status before the Denton City Council; they have fought off threats from aggressive developers who didn’t share their same preservationist values; and they remain ready to beat back any encroachment.

The avenue is lined with large trees that shade the historic properties, which are pristinely conserved in their near original state.

Many bungalows have been altered with larger bedrooms and open floor plans to accommodate more modern tastes.

Yet residents pay meticulous attention to every paint color and window trim, every gable and dormer, treating their homes with the utmost care.

Their responsibility as caretakers of history prompted residents to unite in 1998 and seek historic conservation district status for the neighborhood.

Mark Sandel, a Texas Woman’s University professor of social work, recalls that the neighborhood began to organize when rumors circulated that a Braum’s restaurant might be built there.

“We were concerned that if that restaurant came in, that something else might come in and people would start selling their houses, and they would be torn down,” Sandel said. “We wanted to protect the integrity of the neighborhood.”

Sandel, who still owns property in the district but has since moved to a quieter neighborhood, wasn’t alone in his sentiments.

Psychologist Deb Conte emerged as a leading neighborhood activist, urging residents starting in 1998 to pursue historic conservation district status. A first organizational meeting was held in her large, white 1920s-style bungalow on the corner of Bell and Sherman avenues.

“We spent a lot of man hours canvassing the neighborhood,” Conte said. “It took us quite some time, because we really didn’t have any experience or know what we were doing.”

The definition of what constituted a historic conservation district became a sticking  point for many residents who just didn’t want limitations placed on their property.

“Some people just didn’t care,” Wheeler said. “[They said] it restricts our property rights. … We can’t just paint our house. We have to take our paint samples up to the Historic Landmark Commission.”

Alterations to their property had to be consistent with existing homes and structures. The idea of having all property changes pre-approved by the Historic Landmark Commission felt like governmental intrusion.

“We tried to create ours in a way that best was able to allow each property owner to express themselves as much as possible within certain guidelines,” Conte said.

What started as a district of approximately 200 homes was cut back to a district of 30 homes by the time the historic conservation district status was achieved in 2005.

Conte has remained an advocate for Bell Avenue, jumping to its defense whenever residents feel that the neighborhood needs protection.

In 2009, developer Rod Taylor wanted to build six duplex buildings on a vacant lot — prime real estate — at the corner of Bell and University Drive, across the street from TWU.

“It could have fit at least 75 bedrooms and a nightmare associated with parking,” Conte said.

Things got “highly contentious” recalled Wheeler. Taylor invited homeowners to a meeting at the library to discuss the project, but he already had drawn up plans.

Taylor couldn’t be reached for comment.

“He had everything done,” Wheeler said. “It wasn’t like he was interested in our input.”

Bell Avenue residents lobbied the City Council, speaking out at meetings, some of which lasted until after midnight.

“Residents would take shifts,” Wheeler said. “There was a couple who would stay all night because they didn’t want to miss anything.”

The city voted in favor of residents who believed that the addition would cheapen the neighborhood and be incongruous with the historic nature of the district.

The corner remains vacant, which makes it a constant temptation to developers, so residents remain alert.

“It’s always a concern,” Wheeler said. “If the council changes, and councils do change, we could be getting into this fight many times.”

Denton historian Mike Cochran said people not familiar with the rich history of areas like Bell Avenue only see dollar signs. They are ignorant of the decades of history that lie behind the properties, to the memories that the street holds for Denton natives.

“Neighborhoods are always under threat by outside sources that either want to use it as a thoroughfare or don’t believe that their money-making project will adversely affect the neighborhood,” Cochran said. “The value of the Bell Avenue neighborhood has no beauty for them, so they see it as an opportunity.”

Nearby TWU has not approached Bell Avenue residents about the property, but homeowners say there is a possibility the university might show some interest.

The university is landlocked and growing, making the property a natural target.

TWU also owns the former residence of Gertrude Gibson, a 1929 Bell Avenue home designed by famed architect O’Neil Ford.

After Gibson, a TWU employee for more than 50 years, died, the university began restoring the home in 2004.

Demolishing what it worked to preserve would seem a paradoxical choice by the university, residents acknowledged. But that doesn’t allay their fears.

“I know that state property has eminent domain,” Conte said. “I know from a neighborhood stance — we would certainly hope to work with them.”

As long as the residents remain successful in protecting their district, Wheeler said he has no plans of leaving Bell Avenue.

On the contrary, he hopes the conservation district will expand to include homes in the original plan. He also wants real estate developers to realize that the value of the undeveloped properties comes from them being located in a historic conservation district.

“I think right now a lot of developers see it as a liability,” Wheeler said. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to work with those crazy people that live on Bell Avenue.’ It’s hard not to come off looking crazy when you’re trying to preserve that. But if we don’t do it, then no one is going to.”

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one story in an ongoing series spotlighting different neighborhoods in Denton. The stories by journalism students are part of an ongoing partnership between the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas and the Denton Record-Chronicle.

 

 

 

 

 


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