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Wells' Homeplace a Plano Landmark

12/31/98

By Sherry Jacobson / The Dallas Morning News

It was the rich, black soil that enticed the first pioneers to the North Texas prairie about 150 years ago, spawning a community of log houses that later became Plano.

"All this black dirt drew a better class of people," said William Wells, whose grandfather and namesake began farming cotton here in 1874. "We didn't have drifters. We had pioneers who wanted to make a home and work the good land."

The homestead built by Mr. Wells' grandfather in 1893 still stands amid the housing developments along Coit Road. The white Victorian house is a simple reminder of Plano's agricultural roots and a testimony to Mr. Wells' pride in his family history.

The 105-year-old house is among 19 city-designated historic landmarks that trace Plano's evolution from a loosely knit farming settlement in the mid-1800s to a small, self-contained city at the turn of the century with grand houses and handsome middle-class neighborhoods.

Over the years, local preservationists have struggled to save the old houses for posterity, fighting both redevelopment pressures and public apathy. In 1979, the city passed its first preservation ordinance. In 1982, four old houses came under the protection of that law.

"The city doesn't have that large an inventory of houses that are 100 years or older because so many of them were torn down over the years," said Maggie Sprague. She is chairwoman of Plano's Heritage Commission, which was created by the ordinance.

"But we are working to preserve as many as we can so that future generations can appreciate the richness of Plano's past."

Most of the city's oldest buildings are clustered in small neighborhoods around the old downtown strip on East 15th Street. Like older neighborhoods everywhere, they went through periods of decline followed by restoration attempts. But in Plano, a new city has sprung up west of North Central Expressway in the last three decades, seemingly with little connection to the older section.

"I never cease to be amazed that people are so surprised to discover this neighborhood over here," said Pam Hatcher, who heads the Haggard Park Neighborhood Association and lives in a 100-year-old farmhouse that was moved to Avenue H.

At one time, even city officials seemed to have little appreciation for the historic value of Plano's oldest homes. In the early 1980s, the city rezoned the east Plano neighborhoods for multifamily development.

"The city was waiting for apartments to be built there," said Kate Singleton, a community redevelopment consultant hired two years ago by the city to help revive downtown and the surrounding area. "It was a struggle to get the zoning back to single-family, but the homeowners won that battle." The zoning was changed last year.

Marcus Watson, who was hired this year as Plano's first heritage preservation officer, explained that the city has had to balance its rapid growth in recent years with the need to preserve its history.

"The development pressures are there, but the city has a commitment to preserving the historic areas," he said. "If it didn't, this all would be gone."

The surviving historic buildings have taken on the names of their most prominent former owners, amassing their own historical footnotes to the city's history as well as survival stories that rival those of the pioneers.

When Ron and Elta Chandler bought the historic Roller House on East 15th Street in 1975, the sellers were relieved that it had escaped the threat of demolition, said Mrs. Chandler.

"A father and daughter had bought it to restore it, but he got cancer and they had to sell it," she said. "It was on the market for several years, and I had watched it closely, waiting for the price to come down."

Too far from town

The Queen Anne-style house with a three-story turret looks almost like something out of a storybook. It was built in 1901 for the family of A.G. McAdams, a St. Louis architect and lumber dealer. He ran a lumberyard near downtown Plano and had the house festooned with wood accents, including a floating staircase and gingerbread trim throughout.

Despite such splendor, city folks often could not make the adjustment to life in Plano. It was particularly hard on the wives of local entrepreneurs who were not used to living in an emerging prairie town with dirt streets and few amenities.

"Mrs. McAdams was from Dallas, and she couldn't stand being five hours from her family by horse and buggy," Mrs. Chandler said. "They moved to East Dallas and built a house in Munger Place to be closer to them."

The McAdams family lived in the massive house only a few years before selling it to E.J. Roller, one of Plano's early civic leaders. His relatives kept the house until World War II and are most closely associated with it.

Since 1975, the Chandlers have updated the Roller House while raising four sons. The house received landmark status from the city in 1982.

Next door, the historic Carlisle House offers a vision of modern conveniences, though it was built only 11 years later.

The sprawling Prairie-style home featured electricity, central heat and the city's first indoor bathtub - rare amenities for 1912. It was the longtime home of H.B. Carlisle, whose downtown grocery store became the local gathering place for politicians, including a future speaker of the House named Sam Rayburn.

The Carlisle House was sold in 1976 to its current owners, Michael and Harriet Linz. Despite its World War II conversion into two apartments, the house retained its original light fixtures, linens belonging to the Carlisle family and a massive Stickley dining-room set purchased long ago to fit the scale of the oversized room.

Rich in stories

On a recent tour of her house, Mrs. Linz pointed out a number of unique features that also survived, including a beggars' bench positioned near a side entrance.

"Beggars who came to the door were offered a meal and could sit in the hall and eat it, but never with the family in the dining room," she said.

A favorite story about the Carlisle House is that it offered refuge to Plano schoolchildren when heavy rains washed out the dirt roads, she said. Unable to get home, the children would seek shelter in Mr. Carlisle's grocery store and then spend the night on the Carlisles' massive living-room floor.

The Linzes sought landmark status for the house in 1993. After that, they remodeled the kitchen and bathrooms and gave all 5,000 square feet an extensive refurbishing.

"For years, it was really drab and dark because of the eaves and the porches," Mrs. Linz said. "But we brightened it up by painting the woodwork white. It feels almost like a new house but with all the charm of an old house. We have the best of both worlds."

Over on Coit Road, Mr. Wells says he has been approached repeatedly by people who would like to buy his landmark house and transform it into something else. One planned to make it a tearoom.

Now 82, Mr. Wells holds out hope of turning the vacant house into a museum. It was declared a city landmark in 1992.

"If I live long enough and am able to do it, I want to have it as a reminder of my farm and the times when agriculture was the way of life out here," Mr. Wells said. "People have no idea what Plano was like in the old days. It's up to us to tell them."


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