Virginia Savage McAlester, ‘Queen of Dallas Preservation,’ Dies at 76

The Four Percent

Virginia Savage McAlester, an architectural historian, author and preservationist who was widely known as the “Queen of Dallas Preservation,” died on April 9 in Dallas. She was 76.

The cause was complications of a stem cell transplant in 2013 to treat her myelofibrosis, a chronic form of leukemia, her partner, Steve Clicque, said.

Born and raised in Dallas, Ms. McAlester was an early organizer of efforts to landmark her city’s historic neighborhoods. Her delicate looks and soft voice belied the fact that she was a formidable opponent and a powerful activist in a town where demolition and development are still a religion.

“It looked like an episode of ‘This Old House’ crossed with ‘Cops’ with a little civil disobedience thrown in,” is how a local TV station described Ms. McAlester’s protests in 2004 to save a dilapidated Sears Craftsman-style kit house in the Swiss Avenue Historic District, the first neighborhood she worked to preserve. Her daughter, Amy Talkington, recalled spending much of her childhood in her mother’s station wagon, parked in vacant lots and blocking flotillas of bulldozers.

Mark Lamster, the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, said that Ms. McAlester was as much of a Dallas landmark as the neighborhoods she championed. “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,” he said.

“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.”

To research the book, Ms. McAlester loaded the family into a brown, shag-carpeted Good Times van and crisscrossed the country cataloging houses. This often led to confrontations with the police, who tried to stop her from taking photos. More often than not, Mr. Clicque said, “You couldn’t say no to Virginia.”

The couple met two decades ago, when she asked him to join a protest against Albertsons, the large supermarket chain. “She said, ‘Come and wear this red badge that says “No” and stand in the middle of this vacant lot with us,’” Mr. Clicque said. “It was one of her successes.” A developer and contractor, Mr. Clicque went on to take photographs for Ms. McAlester’s books (in addition to the “Field Guide,” she wrote or co-wrote a number of books on architecture).

A fourth-generation Dallas resident, Virginia Savage was born on May 13, 1943. Her father, Wallace, was a lawyer who later became mayor of Dallas. Her mother, Dorothy, was a preservationist in her own right, buying up abandoned properties on Swiss Avenue, where the family lived, to protect them from being razed.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1965 with a degree in architectural sciences, Ms. McAlester moved back to Dallas — to a house on Swiss Avenue, as it happened — with her first husband, Clement Talkington, a vascular surgeon. Building on her mother’s efforts, she helped create a fund to buy and renovate threatened houses in the area, and lobbied to make the neighborhood a historic district, which happened in 1973.

Both of her marriages ended in divorce. In addition to Mr. Clicque and her daughter, Ms. McAlester is survived by her sister, Dorothy Savage; her son, Carty Talkington; and two stepchildren, Martine McAlester and Keven McAlester.

She recognized “that homes do more than shelter us,” Mr. Simek wrote. “They reflect and inform who we are.”

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