How a ‘haunted’ mansion set the design standard for Dallas houses

Millermore is not the oldest house in Dallas, nor is it the most significant, at least by the standards of architectural history. Certainly it isn’t the most famous — that would have to be Southfork, the portico-fronted ranch house of the Ewing family in the 1980s primetime soap, although that house isn’t actually in Dallas, but in Parker, about 45 minutes north of the city line.

So why does this series begin with Millermore?

The answer is simple. Dallas would not exist without Millermore, at least not as the metropolis that it is today. The story of the growth of Dallas from a small town on the prairie into a major American city runs straight through Millermore’s front door, with a stop on its pleasant, shaded verandah. Beyond that existential role, Millermore is the house that established what a Dallas house should be: a showplace. Not just a home, a functional machine for living, but a bold statement of arrival and taste.

The house gets its name from the man who commissioned it: William Brown Miller. He arrived in Dallas from Missouri in either 1846 or 1847, depending on who’s telling the story. By family lore, he came for the warm weather, as a cure for tuberculosis. Finding the area promising, he claimed a 640 acre headright — a settler’s prerogative, at the time — and purchased an additional 1,200 more at .25 cents an acre. This new plantation was about 5 miles south of the Trinity River and what is now downtown Dallas. Then it was just barely a place. The first log cabin in town, built by John Neely Bryan, was then barely five years old. A replica of that house (not the original, as some would have it) sits on the square in front of the Old Red courthouse, not too far from its original location.

“Dallas as I first remember, was a village of log cabins and board shacks with vacant lots between them surrounding a little brick courthouse, and with sand heaps for streets,” Miller’s son Dick told The News in 1931. Stampedes in town were a frequent nuisance. “People got used to it, and thought no more of it than the people of today do of the thousands of automobiles running at top speed in all directions.” Some things never change.

Having assembled his property, Miller left to retrieve his family and possessions from Sedalia, on the road between St. Louis and Kansas City, in Missouri. He barely made it. According to his son Dick, a group of kindly Native Americans found him on the route, emaciated and nearly dead from fever. They nursed him back to health and sent him on his way. Years later, after Millermore was built, the chief who had rescued him came to visit, but refused to sleep indoors. As Dick Miller told it, the chief was too “savage” for the ways of the white man, but one might also wonder if that decision was something of a protest. For centuries, the land on which the house sat had been inhabited by native peoples. It was not uncommon for the Millers to discover arrowheads on what they had claimed as their property.

Millermore in 1966, after it's move to what is now Dallas Heritage Village.
Millermore in 1966, after it’s move to what is now Dallas Heritage Village.

But that was later. Back when Miller returned from Sedalia with his family, he brought with him a number of black men and women as slaves. Among them was an older woman known as “Granny” whom Miller had purchased for $100, and Henry Critz Hines, an enterprising man who had been entrusted into Miller’s care.

The establishment of Miller’s plantation began with the construction of a log cabin along what is now Bonnie View Road, just a few miles south of Oak Cliff. The site chosen was below the bluff on which Millermore would eventually be constructed, so it could be closer to the creek that was its source of water. They brought the doors, window frames, and glass for the cabin with them from Sedalia; the lumber was cut locally. It began as a single room with an attic where the children slept, and was gradually expanded. Later, when Millermore was completed, the cabin was turned over to the enslaved. (Eventually it became a school for the family children and their friends.) Of course, they had been the ones to do most of the construction, on the cabin, just as they had on the “Big House,” as Millermore was known in those early years.

There was a lot of work to do on the frontier, and the enslaved African Americans did most of the hard labor. The women made clothes and linens on spinning wheels and looms they carried with them from Sedalia. Laundry was notably difficult work. requiring trips carrying heavy loads back and forth to the creek. The men worked the fields and built fencing — a lot of it. Miller’s plantation comprised 150 acres of farmland and 300 acres of pasture, and all of it had to be enclosed. Miller demanded it, because he wanted his high grade stock — he imported Berkshire hogs and Durham cattle — kept from breeding with wild native razorbacks and longhorns.

The fencing job took so much time that work didn’t begin on the Big House until 1855, and construction was slow, owing to a paucity of materials. There was no Home Depot in frontier Dallas, no purveyor of upscale building materials for a fashionable home. Much of the lumber came by ox-cart from Jefferson, in East Texas. Cedar beams were cut locally and put together with pegs. The stone for the chimneys was quarried nearby, but it took time.

Millermore Mansion in 1966 (left) and in 2022 (right).
Millermore Mansion in 1966 (left) and in 2022 (right).

Who designed it? There was no architect. Architecture was not really a profession in the United States at the time; design was left to builders, and they took their cues from pattern books and their own experience. The model chosen for Millermore was Greek Revival, like the plantation houses of Alabama. It would have a deep front porch, good for sitting out under the shade, supported by four evenly spaced Ionic columns. Although the prime view was north to the Trinity and fledgling Dallas, the house actually faced to the south— toward Houston — in order to capture the breezes.

From a distance it looked grand, but if you got up close it was in fact fairly modest. The door was just a door; simple, nothing special, by no means grand. And if you walked around the side, you saw that it was hardly architecture at all: just a big box, two stories tall, without much in the way of detail or complexity. Upon entry, there was a central hall, with four rooms to a floor, two on either side of the hall, each room 20 feet square. The stairway was utilitarian, with no sweeping moments of baroque drama, no elaborate details or filigree. The only extravagant feature, and it wasn’t that extravagant, was a tidy little porch centered over the entrance.

Detail of the stately Ionic column at Millermore at the Dallas Heritage Village in Dallas.
Detail of the stately Ionic column at Millermore at the Dallas Heritage Village in Dallas. (ALLISON V SMITH)

This was frontier elegance. In the context of advanced residential architecture of the United State at that time, it was provincial, a good thirty years or more behind the design standard for elite homes in the northeast. And compared to leading European models, it might as well have been a lean-to. Versailles, the non-plus-ultra of sophisticated residential architecture, was nearly two hundred years old.

But in North Texas, Millermore was the height of refinement, and it established a pattern for Dallas architecture (and Dallas culture, generally) that lives on to this day: If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Millermore spoke of pride and arrival and good manners, and if it was a bit ostentatious, then so be it. To make it on the prairie required no little gumption.

But for all its pridefulness, there was also something insecure in its need for self-proclamation, and in the fact that, aesthetically, it was so objectively derivative of more sophisticated and assured homes from the plantation South, which were themselves a kind of bastardization of European elegance. And this, too, would remain an essential characteristic of Dallas and its architecture: a paradoxical conviction of its own greatness conjoined to an essential sense of inferiority when compared to the great cities of the nation, and especially those in the dreaded North: New York, Boston, Chicago.

Millermore at Dallas Heritage Village.
Millermore at Dallas Heritage Village.
(ALLISON V SMITH)

The status of Dallas as a significant metropolis, by any standard, was no forgone conclusion when Millermore’s Ionic columns were set in place. What made the city was the arrival of the railroad, and what made the railroad arrive was Millermore. William Miller understood that the success of his plantation, and the would-be city next door, was dependent on transportation. Where the Houston and Texas Central (HTC) Railroad put its tracks would be determinative. Miller didn’t leave that decision to chance. He bought $50,000 of stock in the railroad, and made sure it came to Dallas, ceding right of way through his own plantation so it would stop right at his property. On July 16, 1872, the whole county came out to see the inaugural locomotive, 21 tons of puffing metal, pull into the stop they called Miller’s Landing.

This was not Miller’s first foray into transit planning. Crossing the muddy and unpredictable waters of the Trinity was a persistent challenge for the settlers of early Dallas. Just after the Civil War, in 1866, Miller formed the Honey Springs Ferry Company to provide service across the river. To run the operation, he turned to Henry Critz Hines, the formerly enslaved man who Miller had brought with him as chattel when he came to Texas.

In a memoir written in 1941, Miller’s granddaughter, Evelyn Miller Crowell, recalled Hines as one of her grandfather’s “strongest and best slaves.” Eventually, Miller either sold or turned the ferry-crossing business over to Hines, along with enough nearby land to establish a community with other freed slaves from Miller’s own and neighboring plantations. That settlement would be known as Joppa. The land given over for Joppa fit the proverbial description of poor Black neighborhoods: it was on the other side of the tracks, stuck between the HTC rail line and the flood-prone waters of the Trinity River. The community that developed on it was first made up of shacks and lean-tos, and over time, when there was a little more money, the shot-gun type houses familiar throughout the Black diaspora in the South — narrow homes with a few rooms opening one onto the next from front to back, with a porch out front. A few still survive to this day.

Simple as they were, the houses of Joppa might be understood as mirrors of the Big House across the tracks. The earliest of those houses were built by the same hands that put Millermore together, piece by piece. The residents, likewise, took pride in their homes, and in the community they built out of nothing.

Millermore at the Dallas Heritage Village in Dallas.
Millermore at the Dallas Heritage Village in Dallas.(Allison V Smith)

Though it is now largely forgotten, Miller was a participant in one of the ugliest incidents in the city’s early history. On the brutally hot afternoon of July 8, 1860, a fire broke out in front of the Peak Brothers Drugstore downtown. Caught by the wind, the fire spread rapidly, reducing much of Dallas to ashes. An angry city pinned the blame on a nascent slave rebellion, and three black men were lynched on the banks of the Trinity. And this is where Miller came in: also detained were two suspected Iowa preachers, both white and abolitionist, who were accused of abetting the plot. Miller was one of three community grandees selected to determine their fate. Unlike the African Americans, they were spared the noose, but publicly whipped and thrown out of the county, ordered never to return.

The descendants of the enslaved families that settled in Joppa convene every year to celebrate their heritage, and they can take some satisfaction in the current state of affairs. Joppa still stands. Its isolation, between the railroad and the Trinity, has always been both its curse and its salvation: it has meant a long history of neglect and intermittent abuse and exploitation, but it has also been protective. The little enclave, out of sight and mostly out of mind, has persevered and grown. Its population is rising, becoming more diverse, and more stable. Its best days, arguably, are before it.

Millermore’s grandest moment was the wedding day of Evelyn Miller Crowell, on June 9, 1925. The journalist and historian Vivian Castleberry was there to document the great event. “Millermore was turned into a fairyland, with an aisle of white satin flanked by ferns and flowers stretching across the lawn ending in the altar under a giant elm tree,” she wrote. Some 600 guests sat as Miller Crowell walked down that aisle in a white chiffon gown with a silver slip from Henri Bendel.

It was, you might say, all downhill from there. Over the ensuing years, as the Miller family sold off property, and development constricted around it, the house fell into disrepair. Today, a housing project occupies what was once the most prized address in the city.

Will Smith, 87, at a Millermore open house in 1966.
Will Smith, 87, at a Millermore open house in 1966.

In that fall from grace, Millermore is emblematic of the difficult relationship Dallas has with its built history. Always focused on the future, Dallas has never been too protective of its past. If you travel to older Southern cities — New Orleans, Savannah, Charlotte — you will find the past is present not just metaphorically, but in the preserved physical environment. In Dallas, the past tends to be forgotten, erased or, in the case of Millermore, moved to new environs.

Millermore was saved, but just barely. It took a restraining order to keep Texas Wrecking and Salvage from demolishing it in 1966. The campaign to save it led to the formation of the Dallas Heritage Society, which held an open house at Millermore after the bulldozers had been called off. Hundreds came out for a look at the endangered house, among them Will Smith, an 87-year-old who had worked for the Miller family for some 50 years as a man Friday. Because some things hadn’t changed all that much in Dallas, Smith, who was Black, was told he couldn’t park at the house with the rest of the guests. But he found a spot, and then planted himself in front of the house, cigar pursed between his lips. His memories of the Miller family, and of Millermore, were fond. “I’ll still come around once in a while to look at it,” he told a reporter from The News at the time.

Not long after, Millermore was disassembled and moved to its current resting place in Dallas Heritage Village, the city’s retirement home for displaced architectural treasures. Some say it is haunted by the ghost of William Brown Miller’s second wife, Minerva Barnes Miller, whose spirit may or may not live on in an upstairs bedroom. For a small donation, you can walk inside and find out, and imagine yourself back in pioneer days. Or you can sit on the porch, and look out toward the skyline of Dallas, the city that made it possible, and then left it behind.

This series is a produced in collaboration with non-profit publishing house Deep Vellum, which will release a compilation of these essays in the coming year.

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