The Historic and Architectural Resources of Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2015, The Gombach Group.
T.L. Marsalis was responsible for creating Oak Cliff on the west side of the Trinity River valley overlooking Dallas, and his promotion and development ensured its early success. Oak Cliff soon was described as "a city within a city" and subsequent development and neighborhood growth was fed by Dallas' rapid expansion of the early 20th century. However, the evolution of Oak Cliff as a distinct but dependent suburb to Dallas was a measured difference from the original settlement of the area.
Following the typical development patterns of the late 19th century, investors acquired large tracts of land just beyond the Dallas city limits and created the new, quasi-independent community of Oak Cliff. By partitioning the land into blocks and lots, developers realized large profits as each building site was sold. Developers advertised these areas as healthy, open spaces with parks, lakes and accessible means of transportation such as streetcar lines [see: Streetcar Suburbs, 1888 to 1928], railway services and, in later years, efficient automobile routes. Conveniences such as mail delivery, indoor plumbing, electricity, street lighting and paving were also promoted to attract more families. The success of these early suburban developments reflects the popular ideal of rural living within a mainly urban context.
Early History of Oak Cliff 1841-1887
W.S. Peters and associates first settled a Republic of Texas land grant in 1841 for the area now encompassing Oak Cliff. Peter's Colony served as the first permanent settlement in the region and proved to be an attraction for other settlers many from the Upper South and Middle West. John Neely Bryan, founder of Dallas, and William H. Hord, founder of Hord's Ridge, were two of the most prominent early settlers. Hord and family arrived in January 1845 from Tennessee and built a log cabin on high ground overlooking the west bank of the Trinity River, in present-day Oak Cliff. Others soon followed and this area developed as a rural, agricultural community of 80 to 90 families eventually known as Hord's Ridge. William Hord later became a prominent politician, serving as the first county clerk in Dallas County in 1846 and later as county judge. Original settlers to the area (including Samuel Browning, son-in-law of W.S. Peters, and John Crockett, later lieutenant governor of Texas) envisioned Hord's Ridge as the county's primary community and campaigned for its designation as the permanent county seat when elections were held for that purpose in 1850. Despite their efforts, Dallas, which had served as the temporary seat of government since the county's creation in 1846, narrowly defeated Hord's Ridge. The result of the election relegated Hord's Ridge to a secondary position in the county and cost the community the influence and commercial trade that came with county seat designation. Nearby communities such as La Reunion, Lancaster and Cedar Hill flourished briefly through the 1850s and early 1860s, but most economic activity and expansion took place in Dallas east of the Trinity River, opposite Hord's Ridge and present-day Oak Cliff.
One of Dallas County's earliest and most influential settlers west of the Trinity River was William Brown Miller, who emigrated from Kentucky in 1847. By 1868 he had acquired over 7,500 acres of land in southwest Dallas County, much of it covering present-day east Oak Cliff. Miller became one of the largest landholders, cotton growers and slave owners in the region. His former slaves were some of the first residents to settle in the area of the Tenth Street Historic District. Many of these early residents centered their life around the African American Elizabeth Chapel C.M.E. [Colored Methodist Episcopal Church], one of the oldest religious congregations in the area. The current church building was constructed in 1911 with additions in 1926 and is a contributing element in the district.
For Dallas and the region, the arrival of cost-efficient and reliable rail transportation (the Houston & Texas Central Railroad) in 1872 initiated an era of steady and prosperous development. The railroad brought merchants, bankers, carpenters, contractors, skilled laborers and many others, including T.L. Marsalis. Upon arriving in Dallas in 1872, Marsalis established a wholesale grocery business which developed into one of the largest and most successful operations of its kind in the South. During his 17 years as a wholesale grocer, his annual sales at times exceeded $20 million.
Although Marsalis attained tremendous personal wealth, he also contributed much of his time and energy to the development and improvement of Dallas. He helped organize the first fire company, participated in the organization of the Merchants' Exchange, and was a charter member of several of the railroad companies that built lines to the city.
Oak Cliff Develops 1887-1903
Joined by John S. Armstrong in 1884, T.L. Marsalis began to diversify his business operations. He conceived the idea of giving Dallas a residential and manufacturing suburb, and in 1887 he and Armstrong created the Dallas Land and Loan Company. They purchased 2,000 acres of land, which includes much of present Oak Cliff, from Judge William H. Hord (including the 640-acre Hord Homestead tract) for $500,000 and began their development of the area. Their new community was on an elevated plateau overlooking Dallas and the surrounding countryside to the east. They selected "Oak Cliff as a name because of the massive oak trees that sat high upon the rocky cliffs overlooking the Trinity River.
Lot sales in Oak Cliff officially began on October 31, 1887. An advertisement in the Dallas Morning News described the development as "...the Beautiful Suburb of Dallas! On the Bluffs, High, Picturesque, Well Drained, Healthy, Beautiful, Lakes, and Parks." The project met with immediate success, as a result of the Dallas Land and Loan Company's promotional efforts, as well as its foresight in providing easy access to downtown Dallas via its streetcar system. In a two-day period in November 1887, more than $51,000 in land parcels were sold for residential construction. The Daily Herald called it, "a great beginning of what will be the grandest suburban town in the South." An 1890 advertisement for Oak Cliff also touted its amenities, transportation conveniences and upper-income desirability.
Despite Oak Cliffs promising future, Marsalis and Armstrong's business relationship strained soon after the suburb was established. Marsalis thought it best to withhold some of the lots from the market during the initial property sale in anticipation that prices would rise. Armstrong, on the other hand, wanted to sell as many lots as possible, and the partnership dissolved as quickly as it had taken shape. Armstrong left to manage the wholesale grocery business, while Marsalis took over the real estate operation and proceeded to develop Oak Cliff entirely on his own.
Marsalis had absorbed the initial land purchase, as well as street improvement and promotional costs, and began an aggressive building campaign in the late 1880s to encourage development within the suburb. He paved streets at a cost of $200,000 and imposed deed restrictions on all land transactions, requiring improvements to properties within a year of their purchase. Such measures, Marsalis assumed, would encourage prosperity and rapid growth.
The original Oak Cliff Township extended to Colorado Boulevard on the north to just beyond Miller Street (now Denley) on the east. Thirteenth Street bordered the south side, and the west was bounded by a north/south line between Spring Lake (later called Lake Cliff) and Marsalis Park. This area includes all or parts of the Lake Cliff, Lancaster Avenue, and Tenth Street Historic Districts. Subsequent suburban expansion in Oak Cliff occurred primarily to the west of the original township.
The founding and initial development of Oak Cliff reflected an investment trend that was occurring with greater frequency in Dallas during the late 19th century. Out-of-state capital interests were injecting millions of dollars into the Dallas real estate market: Jarvis-Conklin Mortgage Trust Company of Kansas City ($6 million); National Loan and Trust Company of Kansas City ($1 million); George W. Baylor Real Estate Company, representing financiers from London and New Orleans ($25 million); and individuals Pierre S. du Pont, Anthony Drexel and J. Pierpont Morgan.
Marsalis understood the relationship between the streetcar and real estate development, and with financial support from a group of investors which included J. H. Simpson of St. Louis, Leon Blum of Galveston, Lieutenant Governor J. R. Hindman of Kentucky, and T. Field and J. T. Dargan of Oak Cliff, they formed the Dallas and Oak Cliff Elevated Railway Company in early 1887. By May of that year they obtained permission from the Dallas City Council for right-of-way within the city limits and began construction soon thereafter.
The Dallas and Oak Cliff Elevated Railway had an authorized capital of $400,000 and at times as many as 200 men, with a monthly payroll as high as $18,000, were employed for its construction. The local firm of Bavousett and Larkin Engineers headed the project.
Modeled after New York City's elevated metropolitan rail system, the Dallas and Oak Cliff Elevated Railway ran from Commerce to Jefferson streets in Dallas, across the Trinity River and continued along the newly platted Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, through and near several of the nominated historic districts. The steam-powered railway crossed the river on a rail viaduct and was promoted as "the first elevated railway in the South." In fact, the Oak Cliff "elevated" line ran above ground only while crossing the Trinity River. Its name played the dual role of calling attention to this engineering feat as well as differentiating the line from other streetcar systems around Dallas.
Once it reached Oak Cliff on the west bank, the line branched into two sections: one led toward Spring Lake (later Lake Cliff Park) while the other continued along Jefferson Boulevard to the end of the line at Tenth Street, in Oak Cliffs commercial center and within the Lancaster Avenue Commercial Historic District. Small wood passenger stations stood at every other street crossing along the route. The main ticket station was in the 100 block of Jefferson Boulevard.
By 1894, the steam-powered railway to Oak Cliff was supplanted by a system powered by electricity. Ten years later, a loop was completed in Oak Cliff with a path along Jefferson Boulevard, Tyler Street, Seventh Street and Bishop.
"Suburban real estate located over five or six blocks from a trolley line was difficult or almost impossible to sell." Indeed, the electric streetcar was the key to Oak Cliffs founding and early success. It was the mainstay of passenger transportation in Oak Cliff until the 1930s, and residential and commercial development was dependent on rail line placement. In addition, the extension of the streetcar line and the subsequent placement of stops within established residential areas sometimes led to its redevelopment as a commercial district.
When Marsalis platted the town, he utilized a rather rigid and uncreative north/south and east/west grid which completely ignored the Trinity River valley and surrounding topography. The exception was Jefferson Boulevard, which curved gently along the lines of elevation for the first 1-1/2 miles after crossing the Trinity River. As the topography became more gentle, Jefferson turned to the southwest and then west, just west of the hills of the Tenth Street Historic District. This circuitous route may have made it easier for the steam traction engines of the planned streetcar line to climb the 90 feet from the riverbank to the Jefferson - Lancaster intersection.
At the outset, Marsalis promoted the community as a health resort and utilized an advertising campaign typical of suburban developers across the country. In 1889 he built the $150,000 Parks Hotel (demolished) that he hoped would bring more people to Oak Cliff and ultimately contribute to the suburb's overall growth and development. This monumental wood building was modeled after the famous Hotel del Coronado in San Diego and featured "life-restoring mineral baths." Literature promoting the Parks Hotel cited the wonders and experiences of Oak Cliffs "cool and healthful breezes away from the dust and heat of the city" and noted that "to the south and southwest for hundreds of miles stretch level and unobstructed prairies over whose bosom these breezes sweep from the Gulf without infections from insalubrious conditions."
Marsalis also created Oak Cliff Park (now called Marsalis Park, or the Dallas Zoo) from 180 acres of the old Hord property, and he enticed Dallas residents to visit Oak Cliff by giving free rides on the streetcar. By 1889, the park was fully landscaped, including a dam constructed across Cedar Creek, forming a two-mile-long lake that contained 25 million gallons of water. A 3-story dance pavilion with a cedar-plank floor and a summer opera house were also constructed on the grounds. None of these features survive.
Although he promoted the favorable climate and recreational advantages of the community, Oak Cliff became better known as a fine residential section and a convenient addition to Dallas. Advertisements boasted that Oak Cliffs homes were only three miles from the Dallas business center with railway connections every 10 minutes from downtown Oak Cliff. A number of prominent and successful businessmen of Dallas built their new homes in Oak Cliff during this period, including F.N. Oliver, later mayor of Oak Cliff; Oscar Dietzel, publisher of the Texas Post: James T. Dargan, vice-president of Security Mortgage of Dallas; and Colonel William W. Lang, president of Texas Paper Mills Company (on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad). Ewing Avenue, 2-1/2 blocks east of the Lake Cliff Historic District, was initially developed as the most prestigious street in the community, and large 2-story Queen Anne-style residences lined blocks between Colorado Boulevard and Jefferson Boulevard. By the early 1940s, however, all of these pre-1900 residential buildings along Ewing Avenue had been demolished and replaced by commercial buildings. In fact, remarkably few pre-1900 buildings survive in Oak Cliff.
Best known as a residential area, Oak Cliff also had many retail and manufacturing businesses early in the suburb's history. Its initial commercial center developed near the intersection of Jefferson Boulevard and Tenth Street, including much of the area within the Lancaster Avenue Commercial Historic District. By 1890, for example, Oak Cliff claimed four grocery stores, one feed and grain store, two meat markets, two physicians, one hardware store and three miles of transit line feeding into downtown Dallas. In all, the small community housed some 75 businesses. Since the Dallas and Oak Cliff Elevated Railway terminated at this intersection and a station house stood nearby, businesses naturally gravitated toward this important location because of the large activity and flow of people. Subsequent commercial development extended westward along Jefferson Boulevard following extensions to the streetcar line and later interurban line to Fort Worth (1901). Nevertheless, the heart of Oak Cliffs commercial district remained the intersection of Jefferson Boulevard, Lancaster Avenue and Tenth Street. By 1905 as many as 20 brick commercial buildings stood near this intersection, although none of these original structures are extant.
Marsalis successfully brought a variety of manufacturing establishments to Oak Cliff including Edward G. Patton & Company's great patent medicine laboratory; Colonel William Lang's Texas Paper Mills Company; the Oak Cliff Artesian Well Company (which supplied the town's water independently of Dallas); the Oak Cliff Ice and Refrigeration Company; and the Oak Cliff Planing Mill. The planing mill and the paper mill were the only enterprises which offered any sizable employment opportunities in Oak Cliff. Thus, Dallas still provided goods and services for and employed most of Oak Cliff's residents. In fact, the headquarters of the Dallas Land and Loan Company, the Dallas and Oak Cliff Elevated Railway, the Oak Cliff Water Supply, the Electric Light and Power Company, and the Oak Cliff Hotel Company were all in Dallas even though the focus of their business operations was in Oak Cliff. In short, Oak Cliff, though incorporated in 1890, was already highly dependent on Dallas, belying Marsalis' desire for his development to remain independent.
As co-founder and principal developer of Oak Cliff, T.L. Marsalis continued to play a pivotal role in the suburb's development through the early 1890s. Between 1888 and 1890 his Dallas Land and Loan Company opened several smaller additions west of the original township, which pushed the boundaries of Oak Cliff south and west to Pembroke, Eighth and Willomet streets. The Hillside Addition, which included the North Bishop Avenue Commercial Historic District, was among the largest and most important of these developments. Although much of its property was later replatted as part of the Miller and Stemmons Addition, the Hillside Addition reflected Marsalis' success and Oak Cliffs appeal to upper middle class whites. By 1890, only three years after its founding, Oak Cliff claimed a population of almost 3,000. To accommodate the influx of residents, Marsalis and others created new additions, most of which were developed near existing streetcar lines. In 1890 Marsalis boasted that Oak Cliff had nearly 2,000 completed residences, over 30 miles of paved streets, a water works system and a planned electric light plant.
Education was another concern of Marsalis, and at the outset he had planned to establish an institution of higher education in Oak Cliff. As early as 1889 he chartered an application for the Oak Cliff Female Institute, selected a site and commissioned an architectural rendering of the proposed building. He insisted the college would open sometime in 1892 on the south side of Eighth Street between Marsalis and Lancaster avenues. However, the nationwide financial Panic of 1893 depleted available revenue, and precluded the Institute from becoming a reality.
Nevertheless, Oak Cliffs first public educational facility, the Oak Cliff Central School (demolished), opened in 1893, and at the same time, the Park Hotel was converted to the Oak Cliff College for Young Ladies. In 1895, Dr. Edward G. Patton established the Patton Seminary, at the northwest corner of Lancaster and Ninth streets. The school was taken over by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1905 and became the Texas Baptist University. The institution closed after a few years because of financial difficulties and the building was razed.
The national economic Panic of 1893 stifled growth and expansion in Oak Cliff and Dallas and forced retrenchment by Marsalis and his pool of investors. He sold the Dallas Land and Loan Company and all its holdings to Bartholomew Blankenship's Dallas and Oak Cliff Real Estate Company which divided the spacious lots of Marsalis' original development into smaller ones to allow for the construction of a greater number of modest and less expensive houses. Marsalis' elite community where the "wealthy maintained class distinctions away from the turmoil and egalitarianism of Dallas" began to wane, and the suburb began its reorientation as a predominately middle-class area. The heterogeneous housing patterns begun in the 1890s discouraged future high income residential development. While economic homogeneity became established in Oak Cliff in the late 19th century, so did racial segregation. From a small, 19th century community of freedmen, Oak Cliffs African American population grew quickly after the Tenth Street Addition was platted by Marsalis in 1890. Black laborers, business owners, and professions moved into the new subdivision, which was platted in a part of Oak Cliff that had a tradition of African American residency since the end of the Civil War. The Betterton Circle Addition was opened in 1904, expanding the Black subdivision to the south. The two additions comprised the nominated Tenth Street Historic District, bounded by East 8th Street, Moore Street, East Clarendon Drive and South Fleming Avenue.
The historic district includes modest vernacular residential, commercial and institutional buildings, representative of a unique ethnic community that developed in response to the hardening grip of Jim Crow policies in Oak Cliff, Dallas and the southern United States in the early 20th century. The establishment of a Black-owned business district only a few blocks east of the older, ensconced commercial district at Lancaster and Jefferson avenues powerfully illustrates the lack of social interaction between whites and African Americans. While the Tenth Street and Betterton Additions became largely independent of the rest of Oak Cliff, their history can not be divorced from the context of the larger community.
Marsalis' goal to have Oak Cliff develop as a town independent of Dallas was never realized, and finally was abandoned by the turn of the century. Between 1900 and 1903 Oak Cliff voters defeated various proposals for annexation to Dallas, but the suburb's growing financial difficulties led residents to finally pass the annexation referendum by a mere 18 votes in 1903. The annexation issue created a bitter division among the residents of Oak Cliff, but the newly annexed suburb proved to be a prosperous and dynamic extension of Dallas' westward expansion.
Dallas' Growth and Expansion in Oak Cliff 1900-1944
The annexation of Oak Cliff was but one indication of Dallas' substantial growth during the early 20th century, and the event heralded community-wide prosperity, expansion and development. Dallas further consolidated its position as the primary marketing center in the region; creating many new jobs and an increase in the city's population. With an increased demand for affordable housing, suburban developments extended in virtually all directions from downtown Dallas.
After annexation, Oak Cliff once again attracted land speculators and the suburb experienced rapid change and development. New subdivisions, both large and small, were created to ease Dallas' housing shortages. These real estate developments generally were established along existing streetcar lines or along newly constructed interurban railways, such as the Fort Worth Interurban line along Oak Cliffs Jefferson Boulevard.
One of the largest and most important of these new subdivisions was the Miller and Stemmons Addition. (The Miller and Stemmons Historic District comprises the central core of the addition, and is roughly bounded by Neches Street to the north, Elsbeth Street on the east, Ninth Avenue on the south and Woodlawn on the west). The addition, about 10 blocks west of the original Oak Cliff plat, opened in December 1903 and was developed primarily by Scott Miller and Leslie Stemmons. Much of its land originally was part of the Hillside Addition, which was platted in 1890 by T.L. Marsalis' Dallas Land and Loan Company. Initial development occurred principally on Bishop Avenue where large classically inspired dwellings were built. These houses represented the first substantial residential construction projects in Oak Cliff since the Panic of 1893. Bishop Avenue, which extended through the middle of the Miller-Stemmons Addition, became the showcase street, no doubt because of its streetcar traffic. (The Bishop Avenue Historic District is adjacent to and south of the Miller-Stemmons district.) Scott Miller and Leslie Stemmons, like other successful developers in Oak Cliff and Dallas at that time, recognized the many marketing advantages of majestic homes lining the streetcar route.
The Miller and Stemmons Addition encouraged similar real estate developments nearby. In 1905 John Zang opened the Crystal Hill Addition, an area south of the Miller and Stemmons Addition and bordered by Bectdey, Davis, Elsbeth, and Neches streets. His original plans called for an exclusive, affluent subdivision, but initial property sales were disappointing and he was forced to parcel out his holdings to other developers in the 1910s. The area was then marketed for middle-class housing.
Several smaller subdivisions opened subsequent to Miller and Stemmons and Crystal Hill additions and continued the pattern of locating along streetcar or interurban lines. The Mills Addition, for example, opened on land between Jefferson, Ellis and Mills streets and the North Texas Traction Company (interurban rail) right-of-way.
Taking cues from T.L. Marsalis' early real estate promotional schemes, local businessmen Charles A. Mangold and John F. Zang in 1906 acquired land around Spring Lake, in the north part of Oak Cliff, which they developed into the Lake Cliff Amusement Park. A man-made lake, created several years earlier by the social group Llewellyn Club, was planned to attract people to this part of Oak Cliff and to spur still more real estate development. Mangold and Zang invested heavily in the park and erected carnival rides, dance pavilions, a roller-skating rink, three theaters (one for opera, one for "motion pictures" and one for live performances) and a large pool and bathhouse.
The amusement park succeeded in encouraging residential development in the area. However, it proved unprofitable, and in 1913 Mangold and Zang conveyed the land to the City of Dallas for $55,000. Southwest of the lake, established neighborhoods like the Miller and Stemmons and Crystal Hill additions, to the southwest, experienced growth because of the park. Owners of previously unimproved tracts of land also benefitted from its operation. Nearby property to the south and east of the park also became attractive areas for residential development especially after the city dismantled the rides and other amusement park-related structures and then redeveloped the land as an urban park. The tranquil setting helped attract people to the area.
Other parts of Oak Cliff were also developed during the early 20th century and much of this activity was concentrated along Jefferson Boulevard and west of Tyler Avenue where the Fort Worth Interurban line was built in 1901. Numerous subdivisions opened close to Jefferson Boulevard which pushed Oak Cliff farther westward and made the suburb more elongated and decentralized. This pattern mirrored earlier developments that also followed streetcar lines. A large fire in 1909 destroyed some of Oak Cliffs housing stock but did not hamper the enthusiasm for new subdivision development.
One of the best known of these new residential subdivisions was the Winnetka Heights Addition, much of which is in the Winnetka Heights Historic District. In 1908, T.S. Miller, J.P. Blake, L.A. Stemmons and R.S. Waldron platted the area to be one of Oak Cliffs more exclusive and prestigious subdivisions, and they promoted it extensively in local newspapers. They cited its many advantages and amenities. One advertisement described it as "Dallas' Ideal Suburb." Another advertisement appearing in 1910 said that "Winnetka has the requisites necessary for a home or investment. Each lot has Artesia Water, Gas, Lights, Telephones, Cement Sidewalks, Curbs and Gutters and Paved Streets." Consequently, lots sold quickly and the area soon attracted many financially successful citizens including R.S. Waldron who built a large, Classical Revival-inspired home that he called Rosemont (razed 1957). More common, however, were Prairie School style homes that were constructed in the first years of development. During the late 1910s and 1920s, lots were subdivided to make room for more modest but still finely crafted bungalows and cottages.
As Winnetka Heights was planned and initially developed, another subdivision, the Oak Cliff Annex, was established north of Winnetka Heights, along the Oak Cliff streetcar route. The Oak Cliff Annex differed, albeit minimally, from other contemporaneous subdivisions in Oak Cliff because it departed from the rigid grid plan that was used throughout the suburb. While much of the addition featured the familiar rectangular block, lot, and street layout, the Oak Cliff Annex had one thoroughfare (King's Highway) which extended diagonally through the addition and terminated at a streetcar stop at Seventh and Tyler streets. The subdivision's developer, the Interstate Realty Corporation, was probably trying to stimulate interest in the area by creating a panoramic view from the streetcar. Despite this scheme, the Oak Cliff Annex grew slowly, in sharp contrast to its neighbor to the south, Winnetka Heights. Some of Oak Cliff Annex's first buildings were multi-family units, still extant, which housed residents of other developments as they waited for the completion of their homes.
As a result of the various development schemes and Dallas' continued growth, the population of Oak Cliff rose to 8,179 by 1910, an increase of 125 percent from the decade before. The suburb contained 21 grocery stores, two bakeries, two dairies, six meat markets, four drug stores, three restaurants, four saloons, a hotel, and the only bowling alley in Dallas at the time. The influx of the middle class resulted in the establishment of new mercantile businesses and professional services, several clinics, 13 churches, a cemetery, seven public schools, a fire station and eight physicians. Nearly all commercial development was concentrated in small pockets adjacent to street railway stops and transfers (e.g. Jefferson Boulevard and Davis Street).
† Daniel Hardy, Hardy-Heck-Moore and W. Dwayne Jones, Texas Historical Commission, Historic and Architectural Resources of Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas, nomination document, 1990/1994, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.