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Virginia Savage McAlester


“I always said I wanted to live until a hundred or ninety-five but now I realize that it doesn’t matter how long you live, it only matters what you did in the time you were alive. It seems like Ginx lived a really, really long time because she did so much.”

– Virginia Eileen Adams, Virginia McAlester’s 9 year old granddaughter

 

Be a part of the Virginia Savage McAlester Tribute to create programs that preserve and enhance the quality for neighborhoods, places, and landmarks in Dallas.

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The passing of Virginia Savage McAlester, one of Dallas’ most influential and important historical preservationists, in 2020 was a loss for the entire preservation community. Virginia was a noted author, champion of historic preservation and a wonderful friend of Preservation Dallas. Her legacy is immense and extends across the nation.

Several of Virginia’s friends and Preservation Dallas came together to create a special tribute in honor of Virginia Savage McAlester. This tribute has focused on raising funds to honor Virginia’s memory and as part of the tribute, the following has been done:

  • A commissioned sculpture dedicated to her attributes was created by local artist Kat Warwick and placed in the garden of the Aldredge House, located in the Swiss Avenue Historic District and across from Savage Park, named for Virginia’s family. This sculpture was unveiled at a dedication ceremony in October of 2021.

  • A Tribute Fund to honor her legacy of preservation advocacy in Dallas has been established by Preservation Dallas to provide opportunities to fund future programs and surveys in key historic neighborhoods and venues like Fair Park.
  • An ongoing Virginia Savage McAlester educational program in partnership with the Dallas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and other partners organizations for lectures, scholarship in historic preservation and neighborhood advocacy will be created in the near future.

 

Virginia was beloved and respected by many. Below are thoughts from several people on Virginia and her incredible work over the years to save the historic places she loved and to educate the nation about the importance of historic architecture through her scholarly works.

Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster wrote on her passing: “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.” He noted that McAlester was as much of a Dallas landmark as the neighborhoods she championed and said “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.” “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.”

The distinguished Houston architectural historian Stephen Fox called her the ‘Queen of Dallas Preservation.’ He commented on her book A Field Guide to American Houses that “The book really had a significant influence nationally as a kind of handbook that enabled people locally to be able to identify typical American houses and talk about the characteristics of architectural styles.” He noted that most architecture books focused on elite buildings and the work of well-known architects – not homes in ordinary neighborhoods from small towns to bigger cities.

David Preziosi, Executive Director of Preservation Dallas, said, “Virginia has left us a tremendous legacy with all that she did here in Dallas to preserve our precious historic places. She also left preservationists around the county an incredible gift with an amazing book that gives us the words to describe the places we so valiantly fight for every day.”

McAlester was honored in May of 2019 with an honorary doctorate from SMU. Even with her health in decline McAlester couldn’t be kept from the ceremony. Daughter Amy Talkington said, “She was in ICU on a ventilator on Monday and on Saturday she was at SMU because she was determined to do that.”

“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.”

– Mark Lamster, Dallas Morning News

The National Trust for Historic Preservation noted, “From her seminal A Field Guide to American Houses, to her tireless work and leadership in Dallas and Fair Park, Virginia united Americans behind our movement with a common language and cause for the places that tell their story and make their neighborhoods feel more like home…remembering with gratitude the enduring legacy of history, community, and culture she leaves behind.”

Noting that Ms. McAlester’s death occurred while much of the world was sheltering in place, Peter Simek, the arts editor of D Magazine, 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.”

Penelope Green of The New York Times explained that Virginia’s book A Field Guide to American Houses, published in 1984 and revised in 2013, made her a household name among preservationists and architecture buffs.

Grafton Dulany Howland of Dallas and Director Emeritus Harvard College said, “I will miss Virginia. She had an inspirational perspective on our great city and all that is Harvard!”

“Virginia united Americans behind our movement with a common language and cause for the places that tell their story and make their neighborhoods feel more like home.”

– National Trust for Historic Preservation

Sharon Grigsby of The Dallas Morning News reported on McAlester’s receiving of the Key to the City saying, “Like so many of our true female heroes in Dallas, Texas and beyond, Ms. McAlester hasn’t made a lot of big headlines. She’s never been about grabbing the spotlight. Looking through DMN clips, I found that more often than not she shows up as part of thoughtful teams doing important work.” She went on to say “I’ve argued for years that one reason we haven’t yet had a female Texan of the Year is because women so often lead in ways that don’t create a big buzz or fit into a neat one-­year time frame. Female problem solvers and team builders go about their work quietly as they make a big difference year after year. Ms. McAlester is a prime example of someone with those attributes. What a well-deserved honor!”

Here are some reflections from past Preservation Dallas Executive Directors:

I met Virginia in 2001 when I joined Preservation Dallas and began working on Discover Dallas, a survey of our city’s historic neighborhoods. I learned a great deal from her as we worked together for many years on many issues. Virginia’s approach to every preservation issue always started with informing herself. She gathered statistics, spoke with experts, found case studies, examined ordinances, studied the codes, met with decision-makers, and familiarized herself with the law. Virginia was deliberate in her course of action and was always laser focused. When it came to an issue, she would carry on that way for days, even weeks, sometimes months and occasionally years. She was also dynamic, as the best preservationists always are. History teaches us that the world is always in motion and always changing. She respected all sides in an issue and credited her father for teaching her that your obstacle today may be your solution next week. Virginia’s work continues today with all that we do in preservation. Locally, in Dallas and Texas, no others have made so great an impact on the historic built environment as Virginia Savage McAlester.

– Katherine Seale, Preservation Dallas Executive Director 2006-2011

Virginia always had a way of knowing what the next preservation crisis would be in Dallas. I’m not sure if she had a sixth sense or had an inside track on information. Nonetheless, she was quick to coalesce the troops and devise a strategy. You had to almost always go along and get on board. I can remember long voice messages on the answering machine, when we all used those. Her messages would run so long that they would take the entire tape and so she would call back another time or two and continue her message.

Dallas owes a great deal to Virginia and her vision set in an unwavering determination. The historic and architectural landscape would be quite different if she had not risen to the preservation cause early in her life. She gave a full lifetime to seeing her native community continue to tell its past for generations to come.

– Dwayne Jones, Preservation Dallas Executive Director 2001-2006

Be a part of the Virginia Savage McAlester Tribute to create programs that preserve and enhance the quality for neighborhoods, places, and landmarks in Dallas.

give now

 

A special thank you to the following contributors
to the Tribute Fund to date

 

Clementine Adams & Virginia Adams Dr. & Mrs. Phillip Hansen Ann Piper
James Adams & Audrey Maxwell Jason & Alisha Harper Katherine Power
Serra Akboy Ilk The Harvard Club of Dallas David Preziosi
Amy Aldredge Michael V. Hazel Melissa Prycer
Ellen Amirkhan/Oriental Rug Cleaning Company Bill & Debby Heathcott Terri M. Raith
Jim Anderson & Sara Bloch RuLan Hebeler Skikha & Ganesh Raj
Ann Bagley Martha Heimberg Ralph M. Randall
Caroline Giles Banks Katy Ehrhardt Henderson Linda Rayes
Debra Barrios Philip C. Henderson C. Angelique Reagor
Suzanne Bartolucci Barry Henry Paul & Leigh Richter
Zaida Basora LaRue Howell Henry Paul & Joan Ridley
Beth & Rick Bentley Dealey Hendon Carol Roark
Bernbaum/Magadini Architects Sydney S. Hicks Lisa Ricci Rofsky
Kathryne S. Bishop Barenda Hino Debby & Kevin Rogers
Larry E. Boerder Katherine Homan Lorie & Keith Routh
Tom & Virginia Bonifield Kaki Hopkins Janice Salmon Interiors LLC
Steven Lee Bourn Daniel Huerta & Steven Park Rene R. Schmidt
Bill & Jody Bowers Walt & Bea Humann Steven Schuyler
Chris Bowers & Veronica Cuadra Carl Hunermund & Kara Murphy Cynthia Scofield
Kelly & Scott Bradley Debora Hunter Scovell Family Foundation
Marie & Pete Brookhart Carl & Claire Janak Diane & John Scovell
Sandy Brothers & Mike Holub Alfredo & Margaret Jimenez Katherine D. Seale
John Brown John E. Johnson Mrs. William Seale
Mr. & Mrs. Stuart Bumpas Greg Johnston Dale Sellers
Joe Buskuhl Dr. & Mrs. R. Ellwood Jones Belinda Senevey & Adele Malpert
Dealey Campbell Teresa Musgrove Judd Nancy Shelton
Roger L. Carroll Mike Judd SHM Architects
Karen Casey Christopher & Katie Kelsey Mrs. George A. Shutt
Cal & Clare Buie Chaney Paula Lambert Danelle Smith
Jane Chapman Gary Lawler Gary Smith
Scott Chase Ann Addyman Lawrence Suzanne Naomi Smith
Steve Clicque Veletta Forsythe Lill Linda Solomon
Gary C. Coffman Julie Lowenberg Carolyn Speed
Philip & Melissa Crew Susie Lowry Tricia Stammberger
Kyle Crews Steve Lucy Susanne Starling
Michelle & Peter Darby Kay Lunceford JIm Stone
Barbara Davidson David G. Luther, Jr. Mary K. Suhm
Carrie Davis Jay & Virginia Macaulay Summerlee Foundation
Bess Dickson Alfred Martinez & James Prothro Glenna Taite
Sally Dobbie Elizabeth Mast Amy Talkington & Robbie Adams
Jan Doherty Pauline Mayfield CM “Carty” Talkington
Sharon Dorsey Keven McAlester Olive Talley
Angela Downes Arch C. McColl, III Halden Tally
CJ Early Nancy T. McCoy Richard E. Thacker
Maureen Eason JoAnne McCullough Patrick Thuemmel
Harryette Ehrhardt Linda McFarland Shawn & Cheryl Todd
Jane Ellison Judy McMillen Julie Travis
Nicky DeFreece Emery Patricia & Robert Meckfessel Molly Van Ort
Jean, Nate & Daniel Eudaly Mark & Sheri Miller Eloise Vellucci
Chaitan & Courtney Fahnestock Peggy & Dave Millheiser Katherine D. Seale
Laura Freeland Norma Minnis & Gary Gray Fen & Sharman Vesecky
Ross & Lois Finkelman Josephine Mitchell Lynn Vogt
Friends of the Aldredge House Linda Mitchell WaaL.architecture
Wilson & Betty Fuqua Anna Mod Liz Wally
Woodrow & Susan Gandy Evelyn Montgomery Joan & Alan Walne
Monty Garretson Carol D. Morse Mike Warren
Ann Gaspari John & Anne Mullen Evy Kay Washburne
Mary Geisler Kara Murphy John C. Weber
Sam & Shannon Gilliland Randall Naegele Chad West for Dallas
Lester Godwin Mary & Weldon Nash Bonnie Wheeler
Peggy Lubben Gould Michelle Nichols Shirley Whitfield
Erin Granberry Laura Noe Marsue & Bill Williams
Mike & Debbie Gray Mike Northrup Willis & Jan Winters
Suzi & Jack Greenman Beth Offutt J. Mark Wolf
Mary & Clifford Grum Glenn & Larry Offutt Mattias Wolf & Dorothy Buckley
Elizabeth Gunby Marcel Quimby Janel Broussard Wood
Lynn Hamilton Alicia Quintans Ed & Kathy Zahra
Joanna & John Hampton Dan Patterson


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