Located on green, tree-studded hills overlooking downtown Dallas, and bordered by the Stevens Park Golf Course, Stevens Park Estates is one of Oak Cliff’s gems. The neighborhood began development in 1926 from land owned by Annie Stevens, daughter of Dr. H.S. Stevens, a prominent Oak Cliff resident.
The original deed restrictions mandated that only two story brick or stone structures be built on Colorado Boulevard and Plymouth Road, as well as all corner lots on interior streets. Unique circulars play parks were incorporated at the ends of each block for the safety and enjoyment of the children. This commitment to children continues with the community designed and funded children’s park at Lauraette and N. Oak Cliff Boulevard. The homes were predominately constructed in the 1920s and 1930s, with development into the 1950s. Architecture is mostly English Tudor, Spanish Eclectic, and Colonial style, with some 1940s and 1950s ranch styles added. Inside, many homes contain original features such as leaded or stained glass, plaster walls, period light fixtures, and colorful Art Deco baths with pedestal sinks. Home sizes range from quaint bungalows to large estates, some with multiple sized lots.
The Stevens Park Estates Neighborhood Association was founded in 1981 and concerns itself with maintaining the prestige the area has always enjoyed. Issues of beautification, code enforcement, and Crime Watch are of particular importance. The association plans and hosts several neighborhood gatherings during the year. This involvement combined with stable property values and elegant homes make Stevens Park Estates as sought after today as it was in our grandparents’ generation.
Stevens Park and Kessler Boulevard
by Jim Barnes
To a great extent the Kessler-Stevens district was created in three rapid steps taken between 1921 and 1925. First, a Boulevard and Parkway were routed; then, two golf courses were opened; and third, four residential subdivisions named “Kessler” and “Stevens” were platted. Though major traffic arteries were added later, and newer subdivisions have opened in each succeeding decade, the basic character of the lower Coombes Creek valley was established during this relatively brief period.
The “Kessler Boulevard” (now called “Colorado Boulevard”) and “The Kessler Memorial Parkway” were invented by famed landscape architect George E. Kessler. (pictured left) They were proposed conceptually in 1911, and more specific routes were mapped during the spring of 1921. After Kessler’s sudden death in 1923, a frenzy of deification-by-newsprint accelerated development. The new residential district, situated along the scenic traffic corridors Kessler had conceived, opened by 1925.
In his comprehensive 1911 master plan for the entire city of Dallas, George Kessler proposed a gigantic boulevard loop around all of Oak Cliff. It was described in brief verbiage with an accompanying illustration. The only segment actually built was the stately Oak Cliff Boulevard heading south from Sunset High School then turning east at Burlington, grand wide easements that today have no apparent reason. The loop “parkway boulevard” was a planning device Kessler had employed quite successfully in his 1893 design for Kansas City. It was widely published and much sought-after, repeated in many cities.
In 1918 Kessler returned to Dallas and spent several years working on implementation of the larger facets of his 1911 plan. During that period he was hired to design the path, between Beckley Avenue and Davis, for his Coombes Creek boulevard and parkways. Though directly across the Trinity from downtown Dallas, the Coombes Creek valley was then still covered by primeval woods along its slopes. West of Beckley the only roads ran along Sylvan, Edgefield, and Wheatland Road (modern Plymouth and North Oak Cliff Boulevard). It was a peninsula of green surrounded by expanding urbanization.
In June of 1921 Kessler, accompanied by the entire Board of Commissioners, two civil engineers, and L.A. Stemmons, formed an automobile caravan and crossed the concrete Houston Street Viaduct to explore Kessler’s proposed routes. They were able to drive only about a mile west into the forest along the route Kessler proposed for his “boulevard”, traveling up what is now Greenbriar Avenue. “The Dallas Morning News” reported that the routes for two “parkways”, running along both sides of Coombes Creek, were impassable to their cars. The district was repeatedly cited as being one of the most scenic landscapes in Dallas County. Kessler exhorted the public that the time to act was at hand, that the natural beauty of the area might well be lost forever if lands were not quickly set aside for preservation.
Shortly after Kessler’s death, the City and the landowners initiated action. Half of what Kessler proposed in 1921 was never built. A never-built “Stevens Parkway” running from Beckley along the north side of the Coombes Creek and entering the Stevens Park Estates along a 100 foot wide right-of-way now demarked as Atlantic Avenue was promoted in a newspaper map of 1929. In the late 1950s most of that north creek bank was finally procured by the Dallas Fort-Worth Turnpike (Interstate 30). The great boulevard loop proposed in 1911 circling grandly up Coombes Creek and back down Cedar Creek (past the Zoo), was discussed for decades but never completed. Proposed fragments show up on ancient neighborhood plats like Elmwood’s and Wynnewood’s. Efforts seem to have ceased after the extension and widening of Hampton Road and the sudden creation of the Fort Worth Cut-Off (State Highway 1B now called “Fort Worth Avenue”) during the 1930s. Just prior, Kessler Parkway had been proposed as the link to the new Commerce Street Viaduct, an effort to provide a beautiful automotive shortcut into downtown for the western transcontinental highway then entering
Dallas along Davis Street (US180). Obsolete were the sedate carriage traffic of an 1893 Kansas City parkway and the 15 mile per hour Sunday drives in the automobiles of the 1911 Dallas elite. Nothing in Kessler’s vision had anticipated the unnatural character of future high-speed roadways.
The Middlebrook Sisters and their “Haunted House”
by Jim Barnes
In 1910, Dr. Edwin Middlebrook of Kansas City purchased the old Stevens’ family farmhouse, on the site of today’s “Middlebrook Place”. His wife moved in with their three children: Cecilia (22), Eddie (18), and Marguerite (15); but Dr. Middlebrook moved to Pecos and after a long illness he died in 1916, a financial disaster from which his wife and daughter’s never recovered. They buried him in an unmarked grave.
Brother Eddie left Dallas shortly after his father’s death. The women were refined ladies, left without “means” in a men’s economy. Mother Julia never had a job. Cecilia had studied piano. Marguerite was as an artist, a student of J.B. Martin who visited with other local artists such as Edward Eisenlohr and Frank Reaugh. Her landscape paintings were entered at the State Fair, but never sold. I can find none that have survived.
Neither sister married; neither had children. As their fortunes dwindled, they clung together and they clung to their treasured home. The senile mother (82) died in 1943. The two story wooden mansion deteriorated into a shambles, not a flake of paint left, daylight peeking through the tattered wood-shingle roof. The sisters lived alone in the middle of 3 1/2 unkept acres; no electricity, no gas, no plumbing, no air conditioning.
In the late 1950s teenagers started showing up to gawk. It was the quintessential “haunted house”: wildly overgrown decaying Victorian splendor, with a barking black dog and two tiny hunch-backed spinsters. Plymouth Road would be littered with beer cans and broken bottles. Most of the curious visitors were friendly, but more than a few were not; to them the tiny frail old ladies were treated like real “witches”. Bravely intoxicated teenagers yelled, spit, hit them with rocks or sticks, and smashed all their windows. Firecrackers blazed. As many as eighty assailants were arrested over a typical weekend of havoc. The Sisters refused to buy a gun; never did anything either provocative or retaliatory.
Only the sisters went inside their house. Their widowed sister-in-law drove in from Kilgore each month to give them a small check, their only income. They would stand at her car window and talk, never inviting her in. Stacked books, newspapers, antique furniture and ornate old woodwork could be seen through the doorway. The sisters stopped going upstairs, and slept in front of a fireplace. They burned wood or coal for heat, and used candles or kerosene lamps for light. Windows were boarded shut; the glass had all been smashed. Many remember chatting with charming and witty sister Cecilia; shy and reclusive Marguerite talked to almost no one.
One day Marguerite fell at the grocery store and broke her hip. She struggled home, lay down in front of a fireplace, and eventually died. Cecilia lived for another year and a half. In the early morning hours of January 25th, 1972, an airliner radioed the control tower at Love Field that they could see a fire near the Stevens Park Golf Course. By the time the firemen arrived, the dilapidated old Middlebrook house was totally engulfed in flame. The heat scorched paint on 1800 Marydale, across the street. Cecilia’s body was found in the ruins. The official autopsy and arson reports found “no evidence of foul play”, though some people still have doubts. The “Dallas Times Herald” ran a picture of the charred debris as their front-page photo. The “Dallas Morning News” followed with another prominent account. The “haunted house” was already legendary in North Texas.
Like her mother and sister before her, Cecilia’s body was cremated, ashes scattered. Everything was gone, up in smoke.
The Middlebrook sisters’ legacy lives on today in many of the iris that are the dotted throughout the neighborhood. Cecilia would often walk through the neighborhood leaving her prized iris bulbs on doorsteps as gifts to her neighbors. So the next time you see some of the beautiful iris that greet us every Spring, you might just think of the Middlebrook sisters.
Bishop Dunne and St. Cecilia
by Jim Barnes
At the very highest crest of the hilltop on West Davis Street, just above the shrouded sanctuary of St. Cecilia Church (devastated by a 5-alarm fire on the 17th of August 2007) once stood an abandoned semicircular driveway lined with big old junipers. This was all that remained of what was the official residence of the Roman Catholic bishop of Dallas presiding over a diocese covering more than 100,000 square miles, the northern half of Texas, spanning from Texarkana to El Paso.
Edward Joseph Dunne was born in the hamlet Gortnahoe, County Tipperary, Ireland on the 23rd of April 1848; but grew up in Chicago. There, he was chosen bishop of Dallas and his formal consecration service was held on the 1st of December 1893 in the All Saints Church he had founded and ministered for the previous 19 years. Technically, Dunne was the second bishop of Dallas (which had been sub-divided from the Diocese of Galveston) but his predecessor had resided here little more than one year before being relieved of office. Bishop Dunne ruled for more than sixteen years.
In December of 1903, ten years after being consecrated bishop, and after long rooming in a small rectory near the new Dallas cathedral construction site, Dunne purchased the West Davis hilltop for his new home. Presumably construction started soon thereafter 1906. He purchased 35 additional acres to the north, giving his Church ownership of an 80 acre parcel (the E.1/2 of the S.W. 1/4 of the William Myers Section), running
1.4 miles west from modern Mary Cliff Road to a ravine and 1.6 miles north from Davis Street to the tree-line separating Stevens Park Golf Course’s “front” and “back” nine. Dunne’s accomplishments included expansion of his diocese from 28 to 90 churches, building the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Ross Avenue (now the Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe), starting the St. Paul’s Sanitarium (now St. Paul’s Medical Center), and founding Holy Trinity College (now the University of Dallas). He died from a heart attack at age 62 while convalescing in Green Bay, Wisconsin on the 5th of August, 1910; and, at his family’s request, was buried in Chicago’s Calvary Cemetery.
Dunne’s successor, Joseph Lynch, selected Swiss Avenue for a new bishop’s residence. One account is that the Davis Street house sheltered orphan boys when Dunne was still alive, another version suggests that the orphans arrived in 1917 when a brick addition doubled its size and it was officially named the Dunne Memorial Home for Boys. The original wooden residence was demolished first (apparently in the 1940s) and the brick addition was later razed, shortly after the orphanage closed in 1971.
In 1933 a new St. Cecilia parish congregated on the land. Sanctuary construction began in 1948. Dallas County once labeled the site a “Catholic School”, and indeed the St. Cecilia School continues to operate (pre-K thru 8th grade), But when construction of the new Bishop Dunne High School was initiated in 1960, its site was shifted farther south, and at that point the large amount of extra acreage on West Davis (other than 11 acres previously transferred to the Stevens Park Golf Course) was sold for private developments. Today this land is occupied by: Timbergrove Circle, Twelve Hills Nature Center, the Chris V. Semos campus, the eastern addition to trendy Kessler Woods, the sites of 4 demolished apartments, Country Green Apartments, a One Stop Food Store strip shopping center, and the Casa Trevino seniors housing notched into the hillside just below the old cedar lined driveway.