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Going Deep Into Deep Ellum: Developers And Neighborhood Advocates Rediscover The Original Freedmen's Town

When walking Deep Ellum as part of the Dallas black history tour they host, Dallas natives Don and Jocelyn Pinkard often find themselves staring at the Knights of Pythias building. 

The Pinkards of Hidden History DFW tours stop in front of the historic Pythias Building in Deep Ellum.

The 104-year-old building, which sits at the corner of Elm Street and Good Latimer, is in the midst of a major restoration project, being converted into a boutique hotel by Westdale and Vine Street Ventures.

Deep Ellum is facing unprecedented redevelopment and developers are working with neighborhood groups to preserve, and at times resurrect, its various stages of history.

The area is best known now for its music scene of the 1990s and early aughts, when it was considered cool, edgy and innovative. Some redevelopment projects are working to respect that history. But an even older part of Deep Ellum's past, largely forgotten, is getting some new attention — a century ago, it was an African American freedmen's town.

“By far, the Pythias Building is the most impressive,” Don Pinkard said, while running through all of the stops on his African American history tour. 

The building is a silent pillar of the Dallas black community, having survived the arrival of the urban highway decades ago, when U.S. Highway 75 sliced its way through Downtown Dallas, destroying older buildings.

“It’s one of the [first] few buildings in this state designed by an African American,” Don Pinkard said. “It was designed by an African American called William Pittman, the first licensed African American architect. All of the money and capital was financed by a group of African Americans.”

Those investors opened the building in 1916, creating an urban hot spot where civil rights leader Booker T. Washington took to the ballroom stage on the top floor during a period of endemic racial inequity in America. 

The Pythias building granted African American professionals, including the area's first black surgeon and dentist, permission to hang out their own shingles in Downtown Dallas. When recently freed African Americans weren't building up their businesses in the building, they were shopping on Elm Street. 

“Another reason we wanted to come to Deep Ellum [on the tour] is because African Americans could not make purchases ... back then,” Jocelyn Pinkard said. “But we could come to Deep Ellum and make purchases of clothing. They would sell to us and allow us to try on clothing and shoes.”

A rendering of the The Pittman Hotel when the Pythias building is fully restored.

Everything has changed since then, multiple times, and the neighborhood is shifting again. The Deep Ellum Foundation, which manages the public improvement district, considers today's redevelopment activity unprecedented. Many of the foundation's board members are also Deep Ellum landlords. 

In the past year, The Epic mixed-use development opened its doors and secured a landmark tenant, with Uber Technologies set to bring hundreds of employees into the neighborhood. Asana Partners already has roughly 30 buildings in the area, and Hines is active in the neighborhood.

“I would say the redevelopment is happening faster than it traditionally has happened in the past,” Deep Ellum Foundation Board President Jon Hetzel said. “To escape the boom-and-bust cycle that it’s always had in the past, [Deep Ellum] really needs to evolve out of being just an entertainment district. That being said, we don’t want to lose what’s special about Deep Ellum, and that in large part has to do with its varied history.”

The Pinkards accept that change is inevitable in any neighborhood, but like other Deep Ellum advocates, they want the area's lost history as a freedmen's town for newly emancipated African Americans to survive the next urban revival.

Dallas already forgot this history once. 

Don and Jocelyn Pinkard watch the restoration of The Pythias Building, a prominent site on their Hidden History DFW tours.

The Pinkards grew up in Dallas and were young adults in the 1970s and 1980s. They themselves never learned of Deep Ellum's black history until they retired and launched their Hidden History DFW tour, which highlights Dallas sites with deep ties to the African American community. Deep Ellum features heavily on their Downtown tour. 

The couple hope developers arriving in Deep Ellum will preserve the area's black history, including the neighborhood's long ties to the blues and jazz artists of the 1900s.

“I feel it's OK to come in and take over the buildings,” Jocelyn Pinkard said. “Time does change, and nothing is going to stay the same. We would be ignorant to think it would stay the same, but we also should be reminded of the history.”

The Pythias building itself had been forgotten for decades, and Westdale and Vine Street have made moves to honor the black history there as they bring it back to life.

“The building sat empty and dilapidated for nearly 60 years before it was purchased by Westdale and historically registered with the National Park Service,” a spokesperson for the EPIC Dallas Hotel told Bisnow in a statement.

The developers intend to restore the fourth-floor ballroom to its original glory, while naming the hotel The Pittman, in honor of the building's famous African American architect. 

Wall art commemorates Deep Ellum musicians.

Developers now diving into Deep Ellum are leaning on local guidance to keep the neighborhood authentic. 

To keep developers from turning historic strips of the community into flashy urban centers, the city and the Deep Ellum Foundation are taking a carrot and stick approach to development. For starters, the foundation is saving older buildings from destruction by attaching historic preservation designations to those assets. Others are being saved through onerous and cost-prohibitive building codes. 

“We try to do a lot of it through the zoning code,” Hetzel said. “For example, we re-did the zoning, and we made it to where if you [revitalize] an old building, you have no code parking requirements. There is a significant advantage to not tearing down the old buildings ... you get out of providing code parking.” 

Developers who do come down to Deep Ellum risk overshooting the mark if they fail to consult with the foundation or Deep Ellum's Community Association on their design concepts. It took numerous meetings with the Deep Ellum Community Association and landlord Asana Partners for LandDesign to figure out the best way to activate a swath of empty space sitting between two buildings on Main Street.

When LandDesign received the task of creating a pedestrian-friendly center in a parking lot owned by Asana, the designers first proposed the creation of murals featuring famous musicians who played in Deep Ellum. 

“Asana, said no, we can’t try to create history,” LandDesign principal Heth Kendrick said. “We can’t try to replicate history in the sense of making it artificial.”

Asana with the help of LandDesign turns a Deep Ellum parking lot into an authentic pedestrian-friendly center.

Instead, LandDesign, with the help of Hill & Wilkinson and architecture firm GFF, engaged with Deep Ellum stakeholders to preserve dated bricks from older wall murals in the area. The team used those bricks to create a sea wall with steps and natural seating areas for pedestrians. 

When someone walks on the site today, they are still standing on concrete sidewalks, surrounded by fixtures that match the steel and weathered-brick elements of Deep Ellum's post-industrial buildings. 

“I think where we as designers go right, is when we listen more and talk less,” Kendrick said. “We have learned so much from our client's interactions with the Deep Ellum Community Association. We were not looking to come in and enhance the community but to be a part of the community.”

Hetzel said a majority of developers coming into Deep Ellum take this in-depth approach, which results in projects that fit in well. For Kendrick, the biggest mistake a developer can make in Deep Ellum is to forget the area thrives on the adrenaline of living on the edge.

“In some ways, there is a sense of excitement and danger and exploration that still goes on when you go to Deep Ellum,” he said.  

Wall murals capture the essence of Deep Ellum's nightlife.

Kendrick's biggest fear is a future where Deep Ellum's nightlife scene is lost, and its industrial grittiness is replaced with what he calls the Disney-esque version of Deep Ellum. 

“If we are not careful, it will become the antiseptic version of Deep Ellum where you lose that sense off danger,” Kendrick warned. 

The Pinkards believe all of Deep Ellum's goals are possible, as long as the historic buildings are honored in some way. Most of the African Americans who remember Deep Ellum as a sanctuary during times of mass discrimination are now deceased. Buildings like the Pythias are the only reminders of their rich history in Deep Ellum. 

“It makes the history a living history when you can visualize, or at least internalize, the reason why this building was here,” Jocelyn Pinkard said.

You can learn more about Deep Ellum development and its unique history at Bisnow's upcoming The Future of Deep Ellum event