By MARIANA GREENE
Betting on the Belmont
Maybe business acumen alone was never going to inspire anyone to save the old Travelodge high above a down-at-the-heels thoroughfare in Oak Cliff. Luckily for the property, Monte Anderson also had religion.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 2006
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Charles Dilbeck’s seemingly simple details provide architectural interest in the contrast between light and shadow.
901 Fort Worth Avenue,
Dallas, Texas 75208
Betting on the Belmont
The 47-year-old Oak Cliff businessman is an activist first, he says, and a developer second. And he vows his current real estate project, the restoration of the landmark motor lodge at Fort Worth and Sylvan avenues west of downtown, is not just another deal. It’s a mission, one that came to him from God, wearing a business suit.
He says the hotel’s rebirth and the redevelopment of the sur-rounding area, which has been in decline for decades, is a divine mission that could lead to healing a city, a community and his own deep wounds. Had he refused the assignment, he believes, he would never meet the Big Suit in the Sky.
People who knew the place before the makeover would have trouble believing what the property has already become, only half-way through his plans for it.
For more than a half-century, it sat high atop a chalk rock pinnacle with unobstructed views of the downtown skyline. Although it was christened the Belmont when built in 1946, most native Dallasites recognize it as a Travelodge, its logo a drowsy bear in a sleeping cap. To children of the ’50s and ’60s, the motor lodge was a mysterious fortress high above old Highway 80, the sheer cliff impenetrable with curtains of kudzu vine.
Called the Belmont again, it has not yet staged a grand opening but has been booking guests since November, in rooms ranging from $125 to the $550 terrace suite. The hotel was 100 percent occupied on New Year’s Eve. A Highland Park mom has reserved more than a dozen rooms for her daughter’s 18th birthday slumber party. The chichi boutique hotels across the Trinity are sending guest overflow the Belmont’s way.
A film crew from LA, in town to shoot a music video, discovered the hotel while scouting abandoned buildings for locations and happily moved in for their stay in Dallas. The lounge (designated a “private club” in dry Oak Cliff) is packed on Friday and Saturday nights, Mr. Anderson says.
And it wouldn’t have hap-pened, had it not been for Mr. An-derson and his mission.
Tied to Oak Cliff
It’s an incredibly different situation from the first time Mr. Anderson set eyes on the property. “When I was a little kid, my dad took me to eat at the Hungry Bear,” the coffee shop at the foot of the motel property, says Mr. Anderson. “We never drove up the hill. Never.”
Like almost everyone else who streamed down busy Fort Worth Avenue and barely glanced up, Mr. Anderson had no way of knowing that an architectural treasure slumbered above him on the chalk cliff, camouflaged in kudzu.
The California-style “motor hotel,” as it was described in newspapers when it opened in 1946, was owned by J.B. Malone of Wichita Falls and Walter R. Smith of Henderson, who also were proprietors of the Belmont Motor Hotel in Wichita Falls. The late Charles Dilbeck, acclaimed locally for his quirky, supremely livable residential designs in Oak Cliff, East Dallas and the Park Cities, designed the complex, which he described in newspaper accounts as the first of its class in the Southwest.
A two-story hotel and one-story “lodges” with individual garages were grouped on three levels of the elaborately landscaped five-acre plot. Rooms were “winter and summer air conditioned,” with “floor-to-floor carpeting,” modern, colorful furnishings, balconies and porches.
At 50 feet above the busy high-way, the motor hotel also offered stunning views of the expanding Dallas skyline, with the neon light show from nightclubs, lounges, restaurants and other motor courts glittering in its wake east along the avenue.
“It’s a mix of art moderne and bungalow, which was coming in style in the ’40s,” says Dallas architect Sally Johnson, a member of the restoration team. “For all of its sameness, the rooms are different, every last one. Dilbeck was a master at creating spaces people would relate to for all ages.”
Ms. Johnson discovered the property shortly after she moved to Dallas in 1978 and imagined having her office there.
“I thought it had wonderful buildings and a wonderful site. It’s such a great hill. That panorama brings out the global thinking of people. It’s obvious Dilbeck sat and looked and wondered.”
Whatever panorama Dilbeck saw from that promontory in the ’40s, 30 years later, when Mr. Anderson was a kid growing up in south Oak Cliff, the vision was gone.
That Oak Cliff became a victim of white flight. As fear and racism drove residents away, property values and businesses suffered.
“I grew up in a perfect little neighborhood, Polk Terrace, at Polk and Camp Wisdom,” says Mr. Anderson, who attended David W. Carter High School at one point. “My dad was one who stayed for a while. He said they may be a different color, but these are people just like us.”
Eventually, the upheaval surrounding court-ordered school busing, including physical threats made in the classroom against two of Mr. Anderson’s sisters, spurred the family to leave Oak Cliff and move as far south in Dallas County as it could go, to Cedar Hill.
The teenage Monte was angry to be uprooted from the neighbor-hood he loved, angry about leaving Carter High, angry at the people he blamed for forcing his family out. And the anger stayed with him long after he became a man.
He transferred to another school but “skipped school more than I went.” He took up professional Motocross racing “until I got busted up enough that I quit,” he says, acknowledging false teeth and a shattered left femur.
He joined his father in a construction business in 1982 and began selling real estate in the southern suburbs a few years later. He also found himself tiring of white flight — his friends’, his clients’ and his own.
“People were using up one place and moving to the next as soon as people of a different color moved in,” he says. “I got tired of being part of that.”
He became involved in southern Dallas County business and civic organizations. He founded his own commercial real estate company in 1991 at the same time the Superconducting Super Collider was under construction near Waxahachie, and real estate speculation around it boomed, then went bust, when Congress closed the project down.
He was ready to give up on the whole southern sector.
“I’m fed up,” Mr. Anderson remembers saying in 1994. “I’m moving to Coppell.”
And he and his wife, Rosa, began looking for a place to live in that northern suburb. At that point, however, Mr. Anderson had the revelation that set him on his life’s course.
“One night I had a very vivid dream,” he says.
In the dream, “I moved to Coppell, died and went to heaven. I’m a workaholic; in my mind, God’s in a suit, like a businessman. And here I’m expecting this great job in heaven, because I’m a good worker.”
Instead, in his dream God shook his head ruefully. “WHAT?” the real estate developer asked. And he received the answer: “When I needed you most, you bailed out. You left.”
“From that day forward my options were taken away,” he says. “White flight destroyed a big part of my life. For a while I was mad at black people. Today, one of my prayers is that I become color-blind. I have to put my money where my mouth is.”
Monte Anderson’s expertise is in real estate — brokering, leasing, development, property manage-ment, investment. Using the skills and knowledge he has accrued. Mr. Anderson sums up the that began the morning after the 1994 dream: “We want to create places of natural integration.” Not just in Oak Cliff, but in all of southern Dallas County. And not only between races but also between economic classes, the haves and the have-nots.
Mr. Anderson did not take on this job single-handedly, and his plate is full with other ventures, all of them in Dallas’ southern sector. He holds office in chambers of commerce; raises money to restore the Texas Theater on Jefferson Boulevard, where Lee Harvey Oswald was captured; and restores buildings that are part of the historic fabric of a town or neighborhood, including the old fire station at Bishop and Davis, adjacent to Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District.
Aside from the Texas Theater, which is a nonprofit enterprise, Mr. Anderson, like any developer, does deals to make money for himself and his backers. But in focusing on southern Dallas, he’s hardly chasing easy money.
It was in August 1999 that he first became connected with the Belmont. He bought four undeveloped acres behind the rundown motel, thinking the site would make a swell location for a townhome development once Trinity River improvements materialize. But he wanted nothing to do with the white elephant next door.
In October 2003, however, he spent one night at Hotel San Jose on Austin’s South Congress Avenue. Once a down-at-the-heels midcentury motel, it was transformed into a boutique hotel that has helped revitalize South Congress. The similarities to the Belmont were not lost on him.
“I drove back to Dallas the next morning, drove straight up here and asked to speak to the owner.” He left with an agreement to buy it. Few investors, however, shared his vision.
“Nobody wanted to loan me money to do this,” he says, having been turned down by about 25 lenders. One bank “wouldn’t even walk across the street with me to look at it.”
The First National Bank of Edinburg, Texas, did agree to the loan and were joined by the Bank of DeSoto, Texas Mezzanine Fund, Southern Dallas Development Corp., a couple of Kessler Park physicians and the Andersons’ own money.
“My wife and I have to risk everything to do this. I had several nights of struggle,” says Mr. Anderson.
Although Oak Cliff council members and city planning staff have been supportive, he says, there’s no end to frustrations.
The feds weighed in on the invasive kudzu vine covering the cliff, warning that it could not be pulled up and dumped in a land-fill, without composting it for a year. The city wouldn’t allow him to burn it. Finally he learned he could graze it to death — and hired goats. Although they were successful, the goats often escaped into the busy intersection, were stolen or were targeted for pellet gun practice.
Mr. Anderson says he deliberately hires people who live south of the river, from the project manager and landscape designer to the plumber and hotel staff. He will, he says with a smile, make exceptions for those from inner-city neighborhoods near downtown.
The values of graceful community and natural integration are central to the design of the Belmont and the adjoining property. Neighborhood residents, Oak Cliff politicians and business people are counting on it to provide the template — and impetus — for the redevelopment of Fort Worth Avenue. Many people, such as Dallas City Council member Ed Oakley, think Mr. Anderson’s plans aren’t just empty talk.
“I have to hand it to him, to go into a piece of property like that, to put his money where his mouth is,” says Mr. Oakley, whose district includes a few blocks of Fort Worth Avenue considerably west of the Belmont. “It’s exactly what we need in this city, someone taking that kind of initiative.”
Mr. Oakley says he sometimes stops by the newly popular Bar Belmont in the evenings, on his way home, and he always finds Mr. Anderson leading patrons on walking tours of the property.
“Monte is a big piece of the catalyst,” says the councilman, to other developments under consideration — not just along Fort Worth Avenue but also on Singleton Boulevard in West Dallas. “Other developers see this and are thinking to themselves, ‘If he can do that, I can do that.’ “
With the 10-month-long restoration of the Belmont structure complete, Mr. Anderson has bro-ken ground next door on the Villas at Dilbeck Court. The 34 residences will range from $600-a-month rental lofts to $750,000 garden homes. Nine lots out of 34 are spo-ken for, one of them his own. He expects the first owners will be able to move in by January 2007.
Meanwhile, he is living at the hotel until operations smooth out, while his wife splits her time between the hotel and their Oak Cliff home.
He and other Oak Cliff supporters hope their efforts spur redevelopment east toward the planned Calatrava bridge and west into the residential neighborhoods. A few big projects, hints Mr. Oakley, are poised for announcement.
Mr. Anderson has enticed a Las Colinas businessman to open Spa Belmont and a Total Body Fitness health club across the hotel parking lot. He’s signed up Carol McHenry, an owner of the erstwhile Rosebud restaurant in Uptown, to be food and beverage director for the old coffee shop reborn as an upscale diner. His efforts to lure conveniences such as a dry cleaners, an organic grocer, or beauty salon are still a dream.
But he’s not one to give up on dreams.
“The mission guides the money today,” he says.
“My goal is not to be king of the world, the biggest real estate company in the United States, as it once was. I want to live as small as I can live. I want to plant as many trees on this earth as I can. I like different people, different colors, different cultures, and I want them to live around me.”
ABOUT THE DESIGN
Although the Belmont originally was designed for the motorist, its current incarnation banishes automobiles. Valets whisk cars out of sight at reception. The driveways through the complex have been replaced with narrow ribbons of blacktop; weathered concrete driveways have been repurposed as faux-flagstone paths, terraces and patios. The original one-car shelters at each bungalow have been converted to patios with chairs and cushioned lounges.
“This is meant to be a place to enjoy the outdoors, even in Dallas, Texas,” says Sally Johnson, the project architect. The original breezeways, terraces, scenic lookouts, meandering paths and inviting green pockets, she adds, could lead to interaction among guests, providing an invitation “to get out of our air-conditioned lives.”
Oak Cliff landscape architect David Hocker has created an urban setting for the restored hotel, choosing native and adapted plants and trees that can take the harsh sun and windy hill, and which will require little water.
North Texas Council of Governments