Munger Place Historic District: A complicated love note to one of Dallas’ most unique neighborhoods

by | Design, Home

What made FD’s Christopher Mosley love Munger Place? Less vice and a lot of history

by CHRISTOPHER MOSLEY | photographs by ANDI HARMAN

It has taken me more than a decade to warm up to my own neighborhood. I started frequenting houses of mildly questionable but mostly harmless repute — houses where the new friends I was making were living — in the Munger Place Historic District in 2004, after a move from Austin. The very next year, an SUV barreled into a Brothers Fried Chicken restaurant at the corner of Fitzhugh and Gaston avenues, the northwestern boundary of the district. One customer was killed. The driver of the SUV fled on foot and hopped on a DART bus. This wasn’t a great first impression.

Around the same time, a coworker named Jessica had moved out of her parents’ house in a manicured swath of Richardson near the University of Texas at Dallas to, unbeknownst to her at the time, become a pioneering resident of Munger Place. (There are still wild rabbits darting from garden to garden in the town she left. Well-scrubbed 19-year-olds from the suburbs living alone were not exactly the demographic in this part of East Dallas in the early 2000s.) Eventually, other friends followed her. Her house became a hangout, or a place to sober up before heading to the M Streets or back to the ’burbs.

Violent crime peaked in 2004, and nearby neighborhoods that were supposed to serve as entertainment districts for Munger Place — Deep Ellum and Lower Greenville among them — were either in decline or simply treacherous. This area of Dallas was fairly bleak. Gunshots were a constant. This was years before the so-called Texas Miracle and a decade before Tinder, which now seems filled with smiling upper-middle-class transplants from Boston, all within a mile radius of the place. For perspective, there were 110 fewer murders in Dallas in 2014 than there were in 2004. The changes in neighborhoods such as Munger Place were gradual. It was completely normal for friends’ cars to be broken into four or five times in a very short period. I had no idea why anyone would want to live here. No Victorian-style abode could be worth such headaches. But they told me it had its perks. Friends would California-roll through stop signs practically in full view of the police, marijuana smoke drifting lazily out of the car windows. I was amazed at the nonchalance. “You have to really be doing something around here for a cop to notice you,” they would say. Not one to partake myself, I was both impressed and terrified.

When I ask Jessica what she remembers of the little gray house she lived in on Junius Street in 2004, she says, “There was a hooker living downstairs. Gunshots at 3 p.m. and helicopter and high-speed chases through the neighborhood at night. Why was I living there at such a young age?” She is now married to an attorney and lives “in the Plano of Atlanta.” At one point, Jessica had an exotic-dancer pole bolted into her own living room floor at a house on Tremont Street. It was slightly out of the Munger Place Historic District, in equally troubled Junius Heights. “I’m trying to liven up the ’burbs now,” she says.

It makes historic and economic sense that it took the district so long to stabilize. After being founded in 1905 by its namesake brothers — a cotton-gin innovator named Robert and his brother Stephen, a banking director — the Great Depression gave it an economic thwacking that took decades from which to recover. Even then it was only through being designated as a historic district in 1980 that it was saved from Dallas’ ever-reckless twin scythes of development and speculative real estate. Even after its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, Munger Place was ping-ponged in various controversies involving both the city and the federal government.

The Reagan administration reduced the investment tax credit in the mid-1980s, which had been passed in 1981 to further preservation projects exactly like Munger Place. Dallas was desperately in need of such help, as it was one of the top handful of major cities that qualified for such special funds. Munger Place played heavily into that statistic due to the fact that the neighborhood has the largest collection of prairie style houses in America, according to its website, more than 250 in all. Swiss Avenue is considered an outgrowth of Munger, but has surpassed it as far as tony reputations are concerned. Munger Place and East Dallas, on the other hand, have the reputation of being the most eclectic part of the city that doesn’t have nightclubs. In a 1984 article on the Republican National Convention, Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow used the neighborhood to provide some color on how Dallas’ other half lives. He described it thusly: “Junius Street, and all of the Munger Place Historical District in East Dallas, is an area of young people and old homes, new politics and old-fashioned neighborliness.” He then reported on a collective of charitable, self-described “gay male nuns” known as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Whatever you think of the neighborhood, it has always been interesting.

I moved to Munger Place this spring, and one of the first articles I read while sitting in my new sunroom was a 1999 interview with my landlord in The Advocate about how many of his properties in the neighborhood are haunted. What a start. I had never romanticized this area the way so many friends had, bragging about how they could spend way too much on pancakes at Garden Cafe. I was wondering if moving here was a mistake.

And then one summer night, I cut through the neighborhood on foot as a respite from the swerving nightcap drivers of Greenville and Gaston avenues and Live Oak Street. I carefully zigzagged through backstreets on the way home from a bar, which happened on a few occasions. There, in relative silence, I saw the towering abodes of Worth, Tremont and Junius streets in a new light. There, after midnight, just a shade past tipsy, I felt genuine affection. Sure, the design motif of wraparound porches is a somewhat dark relic of the American Indian Wars — it originally evolved out of the need for homeowners’ total coverage during attacks — but this is a neighborhood that has had to shake off its share of bad memories. It has a quiet dignity, its replenished facades hiding scars and holding the secrets of all the politicians, preservationists and escorts who shaped the area. The dimly lit houses remind me of my favorite children’s book, 1964’s Miss Suzy, written by Miriam Young and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. It’s about a squirrel that is forced to leave her tree house by a street gang of tougher squirrels. She stumbles upon an old, abandoned dollhouse and is then saved by a group of toy soldiers. There’s a lesson in there somewhere about the evolution of communities and the paradox of gentrification.

Today, the historic district holds a mixture of elderly couples, young professionals, punk-rock gardeners and transplanted careerists — and me. I have fallen for Munger Place. The beauty of the houses in this meticulously planned neighborhood is no longer lost on me. On a late-night spring walk, I came across a large old house with a place for rent. The brochures out front touted the one-bedroom apartment’s affordability, at $1,495 a month. Of course, I fall the moment love is sold at a premium on the market. A cute little duplex used to be $695.