Virginia Savage McAlester, 'Queen of Dallas Preservation,' dies at 76

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Virginia Savage McAlester, 'Queen of Dallas Preservation,' dies at 76
Virginia Savage McAlester sits in her living room in Dallas, Dec. 18, 2013. McAlester, an architectural historian, author and preservationist who was widely known as the “Queen of Dallas Preservation,” died on April 9, 2020, in Dallas. She was 76. Laure Joliet/The New York Times.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Virginia Savage McAlester, an architectural historian, author and preservationist who was widely known as the “Queen of Dallas Preservation,” died April 9 in Dallas. She was 76.

The cause was complications of a stem cell transplant in 2013 to treat her myelofibrosis, a chronic form of leukemia, her partner, Steve Clicque, said.

Born and raised in Dallas, McAlester was an early organizer of efforts to landmark her city’s historic neighborhoods. Her delicate looks and soft voice belied the fact that she was a formidable opponent and a powerful activist in a town where demolition and development are still a religion.

“It looked like an episode of ‘This Old House’ crossed with ‘Cops’ with a little civil disobedience thrown in,” is how a local TV station described McAlester’s protests in 2004 to save a dilapidated Sears Craftsman-style kit house in the Swiss Avenue Historic District, the first neighborhood she worked to preserve. Her daughter, Amy Talkington, recalled spending much of her childhood in her mother’s station wagon, parked in vacant lots and blocking flotillas of bulldozers.

Mark Lamster, the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, said that McAlester was as much of a Dallas landmark as the neighborhoods she championed. “When she came out and said something, the whole political establishment stopped because of who she was and the esteem the entire city had for her,” he said.

“There was tremendous backbone to her,” he added. “And a profound sense of decency and care for the environment as expressed in its buildings and its history.”

It was her 1984 book, “A Field Guide to American Houses,” written with her second husband, A. Lee McAlester, a geologist, that made her a household name among preservationists and architecture buffs. The “Field Guide” was a joyfully exhaustive, truly egalitarian encyclopedia of the country’s architecture that encompassed stately Victorians, Cape Cod saltboxes and humble ranch houses — a feat of classification in more than 500 pages.

It was revised by McAlester in 2015 to include contemporary styles like Millennial Mansion (her term for a McMansion), and clocked in at more than 900 pages. “If you had the arm strength to carry the ‘Field Guide’ everywhere,” wrote Alexandra Lange, the architecture critic at Curbed, “you could walk down any street in America and identify the style, age and component parts of each and every home you pass.”

To research the book, McAlester loaded the family into a brown, shag-carpeted Good Times van and crisscrossed the country cataloging houses. This often led to confrontations with the police, who tried to stop her from taking photos. More often than not, Clicque said, “You couldn’t say no to Virginia.”

The couple met two decades ago, when she asked him to join a protest against Albertsons, the large supermarket chain. “She said, ‘Come and wear this red badge that says “No” and stand in the middle of this vacant lot with us,’ ” Clicque said. “It was one of her successes.” A developer and contractor, Clicque went on to take photographs for McAlester’s books (in addition to the “Field Guide,” she wrote or co-wrote a number of books on architecture).

A fourth-generation Dallas resident, Virginia Savage was born May 13, 1943. Her father, William, was a lawyer and a former mayor of Dallas. Her mother, Dorothy, was a preservationist in her own right, buying up abandoned properties on Swiss Avenue, where the family lived, to protect them from being razed.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1965 with a degree in architectural sciences, McAlester moved back to Dallas — to a house on Swiss Avenue, as it happened — with her first husband, Clement Talkington, a vascular surgeon. Building on her mother’s efforts, she helped create a fund to buy and renovate threatened houses in the area, and lobbied to make the neighborhood a historic district, which happened in 1973.

McAlester was a founder of Preservation Dallas, which has helped designate more than 4,000 local landmarks, and Friends of Fair Park, which raised $200 million to protect that park’s 277 acres from development and to restore its art deco buildings. In 2014, she was given the key to the city; in 2019, Southern Methodist University awarded her an honorary doctorate.

Both of her marriages ended in divorce. In addition to Clicque and her daughter, McAlester is survived by her sister, Dorothy Savage; her son, Carty Talkington; and two stepchildren, Martine McAlester and Keven McAlester.

Noting that McAlester’s death occurred while much of the world is sheltering in place, Peter Simek, the arts editor of D Magazine, a Dallas monthly, wrote that one way to pay homage to her legacy was to practice what he called “wakeful wandering” and celebrate the architectural details that make each neighborhood unique.

She recognized “that homes do more than shelter us,” Simek wrote. “They reflect and inform who we are.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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