Where the value lies in restoring DFW’s historic buildings: Q&A with Jerry Merriman

March 25, 2019

The Statler Hotel, 1401 Elm, the old Dallas High School and the Tower Petroleum Building are a few of the notable historic projects taken on by Merriman Anderson/Architects Inc. in recent years.

The Dallas architecture and design firm, which recently received the 2018 Award for Excellence in Historic Architecture by the Texas Historical Commission, is responsible for the restoration of 22 historic buildings in downtown Dallas and Fort Worth.

President and founder of the 32-year-old company, Jerry Merriman, spoke with the Dallas Business Journal about the impact of renovated historic buildings and the challenges his firm faced in the restoration of one of Dallas’ signature landmarks.

What role do you think historic buildings have in the built environment?

It’s really a big deal. The rehab and renovation of these buildings not only bring those buildings back to life, but they help spur new construction too. We’re seeing it in Dallas. We’re starting vertical construction on projects inside the core that probably wouldn’t be happening if we hadn’t been successful as a city in filling up all these buildings.

Everybody wants to bring these buildings back to life because then the new construction comes with it. In a lot of the towns that have let their city centers decay over the last two or three decades, it’s a catalyst that really spurs development.

Do you think enough historic buildings are preserved in Dallas?

In our city center, we’ve done really well. If you look at some of the isolated buildings around the entire city, maybe there have been buildings that haven’t been saved.

Since downtown development really took off and the city really energized it with TIF funding, this city has done a pretty good job of saving these projects. The Landmark Commission has been a big part of that, too.

What was the goal for the Statler Hotel renovation when you embarked on the project?

The owner had a vision, and he wanted the building to be brought to life. Being dedicated to the entertainment venues and the food and beverage venues to really bring people in was a big decision.

If you go there now, people come from all over to go there. That ended up being the goal: To make it a unique and special place and play off of its heritage. There are not many buildings like it in the country.

You look at that building, and it’s not like it has 2,000 apartments or anything. It has 160 hotel keys and a couple hundred apartments, but it had six entertainment and food and beverage venues, which normally couldn’t be supported by that quantity of rooms. It is definitely relying on downtown and the whole Dallas area.

Every time I’m in that building, I feel like I’m somewhere else. It feels so unique to Dallas, and I think that was the goal from day one.

What did that building look like when you first stepped inside?

It was a disaster. There were still rolling racks full of china and coffee pots just sitting there. All the bellmans’ uniforms were still there. The rooms upstairs still had beds in them and the rooms were shoebox-types of rooms – very small by today’s standards.

It was really a sight to see. You kind of wondered, “What are we getting into here and what’s going to happen?” But it slowly came together. We got the demolition complete, and all these finishes like the terrazzo and marbles were all pretty much intact.

The Dallas Morning News building next door was the same way. One of the levels of the basement had a foot of water in it,and the theater down there was totally decimated.

Do you think the revitalization that’s happened around the Statler would have happened if that building hadn’t been restored?

It might have happened maybe in a different way and maybe 10 or 15 years later. This spurred a lot of development and the connectivity. I think it made things happen faster, and it made things happen with more continuity and history.

What we’re hearing from people starting to look at infill sites on the parking lots and what not is, “Oh yeah I want to be next to that building. That’s the best building.” Playing off of a Statler or a Tower Petroleum, they want to be near those buildings because it’s part of Dallas, which is a plus.

Maybe I’m bias, but it’s really, really accelerated what’s happened downtown over the past few years.

How have the historic projects you’ve worked on impacted the new construction work you do?

We think about that a lot in terms of materials. Are we designing to meet what’s going to be en vogue for the next 10 years, or are we looking at a 50-year building? It makes us look at the quality.

Doing these complicated deals, like the Statler and 1401 Elm, and doing those big renovation projects are oftentimes more complicated than doing a ground-up. It’s really prepared us for a lot of things on the new construction.

You look at 1401 Elm, and that building is 54 years old. The curtain wall system is in really good shape because, when they built that building, they used top quality and the best they could buy. That’s a really good lesson for us to learn on new construction.

First National Bank that built the 1401 Elm building, which was their headquarters, thought they were going to be there for the next 100 years. They bought materials that were going to stand the test of time. Some of our corporate clients now will take that approach, but they’re not quite as confident that they’ll be there for 100 years.

A lot of people don’t realize that these [historic] buildings can go pretty high up on LEED certification and sustainability. They can be brought up to some pretty significant current standards.