Highland Park Village

Good design is too often judged to be a luxury, accessible only to high-dollar public projects, prestigious corporate ventures, well-endowed institutional buildings, or homes for the very rich. Highland Park Village contradicts this premise and demonstrates how quality architecture can enhance everyday life, providing a significant virtue for even the most humble of building types.

The town of Highland Park began as a typical upper-middle-class suburban real estate venture in the early decades of the twentieth century. Its developers, Hugh Prather, Sr., and Joseph Filippe, owned a 1,400-acre tract of land just north of Dallas which they declared to be a separate municipality and deed restricted heavily. The area was reached from Dallas by Preston Road – the first paved street in Highland Park and one of Dallas’ first major highways. The name of the development was a combination of “high land” and “park,” indicative of the town’s elevation (approximately 100 feet above that of Dallas) and of its “garden city” planning attitude which set aside 20 percent of the land for park space.

The location of the Dallas Country Club in Highland Park in 1911 added cachet to the northern prairie, and by the 1920s residential development in the town was expanding briskly. By the end of the decade it became apparent that a business district was going to be needed to serve the growing population. In 1929 Hugh Prather, Sr., one of the original developers, announced plans to build a “shopping village” on Preston Road directly across the street from the first green of the Dallas Country Club golf course.

Prather took his new venture very seriously. After some preliminary planning, he and his architect, James B. Cheek, made a trip to the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929 to help them visualize and authenticate the atmosphere they wanted for the new center. The primary architectural attraction for them there was notably not the later-famous German Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, but a popular series of hamlets, recreated on the fairgrounds to demonstrate typical Spanish vernacular styles. Cheek made sketches, and together, in Barcelona, he and Prather formulated a preliminary design for the development. On their return to the United States, the planners made a second pilgrimage, this time to southern California and to Mexico to study the currently popular “Mission Style” architecture. But they found it generally less inspiring than the Barcelona prototypes.

The architects and developers also investigated closely the “Country Club Plaza” shopping center, developed by J. C. Nichols several years earlier in Kansas City. This project was already being touted as the wave of the future and is now generally accepted to be the first example of the now ubiquitous shopping center building type.

Highland Park Village, however, made one significant alteration to the Kansas City precedent. Rather than facing stores to the street as Country Club Plaza had done, Highland Park Village was planned to face stores inward, toward parking at its center. For this reason it was acknowledged by the Urban Land Institute and others as the first “self-contained” shopping center in the United States and, thus, the prototype for the modern suburban shopping center.

Six separate retail and office units as well as two gas stations were planned for the original Highland Park Village on 9.9 acres of land. The project was phased, with two units completed in 1931, two more in 1935, and the final two in 1947.

Initial marketing of the lease space was as innovative as the project’s design. An elaborate model of the whole center was built at one-quarter-inch scale, using carefully crafted textures and colors to simulate the stucco surfaces, the tile roofs, the plateresque ornament, and even the reja grilles and balconies planned for the buildings. Miniature automobiles and landscape elements were added for realism. The model, as well as close-up eye-level photos of it, was housed in a small temporary pavilion on the site even before the first permanent buildings were begun. This elaborate and expensive marketing mechanism was used to sell the architectural qualities of the place as one of the project’s dominant assets.

The visual character of Highland Park Village has, since the project’s inception, been an important part of its success. The stoutly constructed masonry buildings with plaster and tone exterior finishes give a feeling of permanence and quality. The gentle rhythm of arches, soft color and texture of clay tile roofs, and judicious enhancement through ornament and detail all contribute a charm that has endeared the center to its Highland Park community.

Though the town and the center have become somewhat more exclusive in recent years, Highland Park Village has been, for much of its history, a modest affair. The local A&P was one of its first tenants, and drugstores, a post office, barber and beauty shops, a local movie theatre, doctors’ and dentists’ clinics, etc., have long been its staple goods. A 7-Eleven arrived in 1953 and, refreshingly, Safeway is still one of the major tenants.

It is delightful to see such a convenient, congenially scaled, gentle and gracious built environment housing the necessary activities of everyday life. It is also instructive to observe its economic success and stability over its long tenure. At Highland Park Village, good architecture has served its investors as well as its users well.