This article originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News on April 10, 2020.
Virginia Savage McAlester, the architectural historian, author and preservationist who was a Dallas institution in her own right, died Thursday at Baylor Hospital. She was 76.
McAlester had been fighting myelofibrosis for years, a testament to a doggedness she brought to all things in her life. A petite woman with a blonde bob, she had an innate sense of propriety and a beatific smile that hinted at a heritage of Southern gentility. She appeared fragile, but her looks belied a tough constitution and intellect, qualities that together made her a successful advocate for the causes she championed.
They were many. McAlester was a founding figure behind virtually every preservation institution in her native city, including Preservation Dallas and Friends of Fair Park. The distinguished Houston architectural historian Stephen Fox called her the “Queen of Dallas Preservation.”
Her dominion, in fact, extended well beyond Dallas. Her book, A Field Guide to American Houses, first published in 1984 and revised in 2015, was a landmark in itself, and has sold millions of copies, teaching Americans about their homes in clear, concise language.
“Virginia McAlester tells you exactly what you need to know about your neighborhood,” architecture critic Alexandra Lange wrote in a 2019 appreciation of the book.
It was also a tool for professionals, for preservation groups around the country who considered it an essential resource. “It’s on every preservationist’s bookshelf, and I guarantee you that it’s falling apart,” said David Preziosi, executive director of Preservation Dallas. “When the new version came out, it was an event. It was as if a new version of the Bible had come out.”
Her own home, the 1917 Harris-Savage House, is on page 514, an example of Mission-style design, albeit an atypical one, built of wire-cut brick with a slate roof.
She had lived in the house as an adolescent — she moved back into it to care for her parents, Wallace and Dorothy Savage — and it then launched her career, in a manner of sorts. In the 1970s, Swiss Avenue, once the city’s most elegant address, had fallen into disrepair, a victim of the city’s relentless suburbanization. McAlester remained, and she led the effort to designate the area as a historic landmark district, the city’s first.
Those efforts gradually led to the restoration of the neighborhood, which has regained its old character and affluence — so much so that well-heeled neighbors have attacked the street’s landmark Aldredge House, the linchpin of the Swiss Avenue preservation movement, as a nuisance due to its programming. McAlester rallied its defense, and in 2018 helped broker an arrangement safeguarding its future.
A sense of civic responsibility was a family trait. Her grandfather, William R. Harris, was the attorney who led the impeachment case against the corrupt Texas Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson in 1917. It was Harris who purchased the family’s Swiss Avenue house, in 1921. McAlester’s father, Wallace Savage, was also an attorney and served as mayor of Dallas from 1949 to 1951.
It was her mother, Dorothy Savage, that spurred McAlester’s interest in architecture and its preservation. “She knew there was something odd about me and houses,” McAlester told this paper in 2014, “because every time we’d be visiting, I’d say I needed to go to the bathroom. She couldn’t say ‘no,’ but she knew I’d just go in there to look at the ceilings, the fixtures, at every single thing. It made her so angry because all I was going to do was sit there studying this room while she’s standing there tapping her foot.”
McAlester, a graduate of Hockaday, attended Radcliffe College, which allowed her to take classes at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
One evening, she was accosted returning to her dorm. "Suddenly, almost out of nowhere, a sort of unusual man in a weird green suit just appeared, right next to me, and said, ‘You should be a model,’” she said in 2016. When the man refused to leave her alone, she whacked him with her drawing board and ran away. “I just felt the presence of evil.”
Years later, reading a book about the Boston Strangler, she learned that he was notorious for his odd green suit. "That was when I was certain that, lo those many years ago, I had been alone, in the Cambridge Common, all alone, with the Boston Strangler."
Having survived that fateful encounter, she returned to Dallas, where she married the vascular surgeon Clement “Mack” Talkington, and moved to a home on Swiss Avenue.
It was there that she took up her mother’s fledgling preservation efforts, hinging her activist zeal to professional competence and political skill.
Her first efforts were directed at the crumbling houses of Munger Place, one of the city’s first planned developments. When she was told it did not meet the city’s criteria for preservation, she led the establishment of the Historic Dallas Fund, which purchased and helped restore 23 homes.
The knowledge that there was a commitment to those homes attracted new buyers, leading to a wholesale revitalization of the neighborhood.
Next came the landmark district designation for Swiss Avenue, in 1973. A book on those efforts, The Making of a Historic District, authored with Lyn Dunsavage, was a primer for preservationists, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
She was author or co-author of numerous other books, including A Field Guide to America’s Historic Neighborhoods and The Homes of the Park Cities, Dallas: Great American Suburbs.
“To say she was passionate about her cause is an understatement,” says her daughter, Amy Talkington, a Los Angeles-based film and television producer, who was often enlisted in her mother’s preservation efforts. That included sitting in the family car in front of a bulldozer preparing for a demolition. The gambit worked.
In 1984, McAlester focused her attention on the city’s most significant neglected architectural legacy, leading to the founding of the advocacy organization Friends of Fair Park. The group raised funds for preservation and planning projects, and also worked on programming for the park. But McAlester quietly broke with the group over policy differences, notably the group’s refusal to adequately address the needs of the neighborhood and the institutional dominance of the State Fair.
It was in that same year that she published the Field Guide, which she had been working on since 1978. She credited two men, in particular, for their inspiration: her father, who late in life had abandoned his legal career to write a mystery novel; and her second husband, Lee McAlester, a geology professor at Southern Methodist University, who told her that if he could write a book on the earth, she could do one on houses.
Both of McAlester’s marriages ended in divorce. Three of her four children — Amy Talkington, C.M. Talkington and Keven McAlester — became filmmakers. McAlester attributes their careers to a decision, in the early 1970s, not to fix the family’s broken television, thereby forcing the kids to make their own dramas and shoot them on Super-8 film. A fourth child, Martine McAlester, is a volunteer and sales associate in Dallas.
In 2013, she received a stem-cell transplant in an attempt to halt the progress of her myelofibrosis. It was during the recovery from that surgery, when her health was deeply compromised, that she completed the revised edition of the Field Guide, once again proving her toughness and unflagging energy. It was a lesson learned a year later by her granddaughters, Clementine and Virginia Adams, during a trip to Washinton, D.C. McAlester was tireless in touring them through the nation’s capital, prompting the question, “Is this a vacation?”
In recognition of her achievements and efforts on behalf of Dallas, she was given a key to the city by Mayor Mike Rawlings in 2014. In 2019, SMU bestowed her with an honorary degree.
Upon her death, she was at work on a sequel to the Field Guide, dedicated to commercial buildings.
She is survived by her longtime partner, Steve Clicque, her sister Dorothy Savage, four children and two grandchildren. A memorial service will be at a later date.
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