The Wilson Block Historic District, owned and operated by The Meadows Foundation, encompasses 22 acres of turn-of-the-century Victorian houses and new, compatible buildings. The district is unique not only for its architecture, boasting the largest collection of late nineteenth-century houses in Dallas, but also in its current use as a model incubator project for local non-profit organizations. The district is recognized as a City of Dallas Landmark District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to a lot for their own home, Henrietta Frichot Wilson and her husband Frederick Wilson also acquired an entire city block from Henrietta’s uncle, Jacob Nussbaumer. An early Dallas settler, Nussbaumer came to North Texas as part of the utopian La Reunion colony established just west of Dallas in the 1850s.
The Wilsons built six additional houses on the block as rental properties, most of which remain today. Early in the twentieth century, children played in the lot next door to the Wilson’s house, deliberately left vacant for that purpose. Neighbors could stroll in Central Square Park, the second public park to be built in Dallas, on the corner of Swiss Avenue and Oak Street.
As the city of Dallas grew in subsequent decades, many families moved away from the area, and commercial buildings replaced many of the Victorian houses. The Wilson Block was the exception – the Wilson’s son Laurence continued to live in the family’s house until the late 1970s and retained the other houses on the block as rental properties.
In the 1970s, the real estate developer Fox and Jacobs acquired many properties in the neighborhood, including the Wilson Block, with the intention to build a neighborhood of new homes near downtown. Ultimately, though, the developer made the Wilson Block available to the Historic Preservation League, the organization that later became Preservation Dallas.
The League enlisted the support of Dallas’ Meadows Foundation, which restored each of the houses on the block and moved its own offices into the Wilson House. The Meadows Foundation saw the potential of the Wilson Block as the nucleus for a unique campus of non-profit organizations. In addition to restoring the existing Wilson Block structures, endangered Victorian houses from other parts of the city were moved to Swiss Avenue and restored. The foundation also partnered with the City of Dallas to restore Central Square Park. Additionally, the Meadows Foundation added buildings for meetings and other support facilities, and in 1993 built a large new facility nearby to house its own operations. Since the completion of the foundation’s new headquarters, Preservation Dallas has occupied the Wilson House – offering tours, research assistance, and preservation services. The Wilson Block is now home to a community of 39 non-profit agencies working collaboratively with one another in rent-free office space.
Visitors to the Wilson Block are captivated by the two blocks of stunning Victorian architecture. Although each home is unique, they share common characteristics including steeply pitched, irregularly shaped roofs and dominant front-facing gables. All of the homes are wood construction, with textured shingles and clapboard siding used for visual interest. Many of the houses have porches along their front, and sometimes, sides. Queen Anne houses like those in the Wilson District often feature multicolored paint schemes; three or more different colors may be used on the exterior of the houses to accentuate the elaborate trim work.
Originally, most houses had rear screened porches both up and downstairs. The upstairs porch normally was a sleeping porch, and the back downstairs porch was an open space for household chores such as washing, ironing, and food preparation. All of the houses on the Wilson Block had cisterns on each porch.
*photos by Mike Morgan and Steve Clicque