Quirky Dallas Street Retains Quaintness

Roswell Court may look like a New England village, but it is no place for a Puritan.

When, 20 years ago, Rod Serrette first moved to the tiny Oak Lawn street, just a beer bottle's throw from the Cedar Springs entertainment district, he would occasionally awaken to find strangers smoking dope or having sex on his front lawn.

"What you do," he advises homeowners in similar circumstances, "is turn the garden hose on them."

He no longer needs to use the tactic on Roswell Court. Things are better now.

Residents have installed electronic gates that front nearby streets and have erected tall fences to block casual access from the alleys. That and the growing affluence of the surrounding neighborhood have returned Roswell Court to something of the quaint beauty envisioned when it was built 86 years ago.

But not at the cost of its rakish air.

"It's surprisingly quiet, except on Saturday nights, when you hear some cowboy yell, 'Yee-HA!' at 2 in the morning," said Steven Tutt, whose house backs up to a bar. "And then you realize what a strange, odd oasis this is."

In the nine decades since Roswell Court was created, Oak Lawn has built up, then deteriorated, then welcomed successive waves of hippies, gays, blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

Now, luxury condos are being built, young professionals are moving in, and the area is changing once more.

But the 14 houses of Roswell Court thought by some to be one of Dallas' shortest streets have remained remarkably unchanged.

Residents say first-time visitors remark that the street reminds them of San Francisco. Or Cape Cod. Or New Orleans. But not, in any case, an urban neighborhood in North Texas.

"It's its own little island," Serrette said. "It doesn't feel like it's any part of Dallas."

Neighborhood leaders in the 1970s and '80s sought historic protection for Roswell Court. A 1985 city survey listed its houses as a "high priority for preservation."

Yet landmark status was never granted. Neither residents nor anyone in the city planning office can remember why. And there is no movement to restart the process.

Katherine Seale, director of Preservation Dallas, praises Roswell Court as "unique. There's really nothing like it in Dallas," but says it is not officially considered endangered. "It's really not on our radar."

Some residents worry that such confidence is misplaced.

"The land value here exceeds the value of the houses," Tutt said. "This place is in danger."

What protection Roswell Court currently has may come from the slack economy and from the street's quirkiness.

"I think the reason that hasn't occurred at Roswell is you've got these little lots and a lot of them are owner occupied. The developers would have to get everybody to sell," said Neil Emmons, who represents the area on the city's planning commission.

No two houses there are exactly alike, although all are designed in Massachusetts colonial style. He is particularly impressed by their modest scale.

"It's work-force housing, that's what's interesting," Emmons said. "That's what we want again housing that firemen and teachers and cops can afford in the center city not just housing for the rich."

The street was built in 1923 by Raymond P. Caruth a cousin of W.W. Caruth, one of the city's most prominent land owners who hoped to "create a unique reproduction of a New England village from plans he had acquired there," according to a 1974 application for city preservation status.

The development originally was named Caruth Court, though the application said the developer always intended to call it Roswell Court. When the change occurred is unclear. The name also appears as Roswell Street in various private and government documents over the years.

It is not, properly speaking, a city street at all, but an easement Caruth carved from the 14 private lots.

He referred to the 14 structures as "honeymoon cottages," although most were duplexes housing one-bedroom flats. Rent was $175 per month equivalent to about $2,200 today and marketing was aimed at young married members of the city's elite.

The neighborhood deteriorated after World War II, and if the elite continued to visit, they tried not to get caught.

A 1975 article in the Dallas Times Herald described the area: "Cheap bars, X-rated movie houses and strip joints ... give a tawdry, blowzy look like that of a fallen woman who has seen better days."

Roswell Court touched bottom in the 1960s and '70s. A code complaint from that era describes a street blighted by overgrown lawns, an abandoned car, a garishly painted house, rats, broken windows and transients.

Renovation began about that time, as hippies and then gays moved into the neighborhood. But the turnaround was slow.

As late as the 1980s, cars cruised the street in search of drugs or prostitutes.

"There was a flophouse across the street," said Mark Jarouse, a longtime resident. "People were supposed to live there for free in exchange for fixing it up, but they never did. There was one girl who just slept on the porch every night."

Jarouse would put plants out in front of his house, and discover them stolen in the morning.

The construction in the 1990s of gates at either end of the street and of high walls along the parallel alleys has made a huge difference, he said.

"When we got that gate in, that was the turning point," Jarouse said. "People were able to see that it was safe, and they were willing to fix up their houses. It became more of an enclave."

There is still no homeowners association organized or otherwise.

"If an issue comes up, I call a couple of people up and go knock on a few doors," Jarouse said.

He notes that residents last year held a Fourth of July party, the first in decades. Most of the houses have undergone or are undergoing extensive renovation.

Still, no one would confuse the street with Highland Park's Beverly Drive.

The nearby crossroads of Cedar Springs Road and Throckmorton Street, though less exclusively gay then it once was, still hosts street festivals that run late into the night. Even ordinary weekends can turn noisy when the bars close.

This is the price of in-town living, Jarouse said.

"When you live here you just accept that there are four or five nights a year when you're not going to get any sleep," he said. "It's just something you get used to."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us