The night drew on. Tim Gieringer couldn’t sleep. His home spoke to him.
He listened, as walls shed their past, and floorboards bore their former occupants, the shoe marks of a child running across the wood grain.
There were Bible verses sung by renters long ago, and bread broke underneath the flooding light, in a breakfast nook surrounded by windows with stained glass flowers red and yellow.
There was laughter, and high-schoolers who flocked underneath the portico, the deep overhanging eaves shielding them from the pouring rain.
Tim sat in his living room, peering over old photographs and newspaper clippings and documents about his home, the records he dusted off in the basement of the downtown courthouse.
He wondered about all the other homes in the neighborhood and the stories they carried, or the ones which have fallen on deaf ears, and if they could be heard again.
Tim hovers his metal detector over broken pecan shells, as minutes turn to hours, and “bleeeep” – he begins to dig.
Dirt flings from the shovel, another hole in the backyard. On the deck sits a table full of small scraps of metal, antique toy cars, rusted screws, an old Texas license plate. This time, he brings the find into the house.
A small metal coupon from the 1920’s, bent and faded with engravings for 10- cent Palmolive laundry soap, joins old glass bottles and other collectibles in the entryway of Tim and Morgan Gieringer’s home on Congress Street in Denton.
“It drove Morgan a little crazy,” says Tim about the metal detecting, though the Gieringers, both research librarians at the University of North Texas, take preservation seriously.
Erected in 1922, their home is the first in the neighborhood to receive a Denton historic landmark, awarded by the Denton City Council in late October. They hope others in the area will join them in their longtime push to designate their neighborhood toward becoming a conservation district.
The narrative of the neighborhood is beginning to unfold, as the community stand at a crossroads, and residents seek to preserve the past in order to protect its future, fending off urban development from the outside and perpetual change from within.
“I have become intimately familiar with lots of individuals and families that are long gone,” Tim said. “I love this neighborhood and want to see it protected.”
A cat follows Bob Saringer on his evening walk, the cool St. Augustine grass inviting a pause from the feline.
“C’mon Amos,” says Saringer, who helped form the homeowners association in 1995 that unofficially christened the neighborhood. The street names lent themselves to a notable acronym as did the many pecan trees lining the sidewalks whose nuts crunched underfoot.
“We decided to call it the PECAN: the Panhandle, Egan and Congress Area of Neighbors,” says Saringer, standing outside his residence of 18 years on Egan Street.
The neighborhood stretches west from Malone Street to Carroll Boulevard. The south side of Panhandle Street was once the northern edge of Denton, with front yards of open fields. The neighborhood formed what was known as the High School Addition, which housed teachers, students and families of Denton High School (now Calhoun Middle School).
The words “Senior High School” are engraved on the front of the original Denton High, which moved to Fulton Street in 1957. Calhoun’s southern wing was once the site of John B. Denton College in 1912, the forerunner to Abilene Christian University.
Congress Street residents Glenda and Jerry Simmons were Denton High School sweethearts in the 1940’s, and daily walked by the house they now live in. Their son lives across the street, both homes painted in bright yellows and warm greens, like two parade floats.
“There were 405 students, and everybody knew everybody,” says Jerry, as Glenda applies bright red lipstick under the portico. “It’s not like the old days, everybody on the front porch.”
Today, the City Parc at Fry Street apartment complex towers high over the trees, blanketing the view of the sunset from their deck. The old Flow Hospital once stood on the hill where City Parc now dominates, bordering Scripture Street. Amid its construction in 2004, the PECAN association fought for every inch of hilltop that might nudge the complex west.
In the 1950’s, the Scripture family mansion sat on the hill and kids spied around the perimeter of the home.
“We’d say to each other, ‘Go in and get on the porch!’” Jerry says, his hand outstretched toward the apartments with an erasing motion.
The University of North Texas is a newcomer as well, he says. Cars line Ponder Avenue as the edge of student parking, mostly tolerated by corner residents, as cars screech around the bends. The past held a different kind of traffic: planes swooped down over the neighborhood to land at the old airport fields, now the Willis Library.
Saringer watches the intersections.
“They always run that stop sign,” he says. “We hope there’s not a day when someone gets hurt.”
Among the neighbors, a multitude of former (and current) stray cats can be seen guarding the entryways to homes, peering through the windows, kittens keeping to the porches.
Some of the students who rented homes and took the cats in have moved, leaving them for the families and professors who have stuck around.
“We try to round them up,” says Patrice Lyke on the front steps of her house, trimming shears in hand. While some residents fight to keep the grass green and groomed, Lyke lets her passion vines grow, stretching out like a timeline of the eight-year hiatus by homeowners since their first push to set up a conservation district in 2006.
When City Parc apartments went up, the neighborhood rallied.
“Is the neighborhood going to become auxiliary housing for students, or are we going to stake a claim?” she says, repeating the past concern. “We were fighting off development, and the teetering of being a transitional neighborhood.”
Lyke says the neighborhood’s push toward becoming a district fizzled when the threat of encroachment was no longer viewed as imminent to galvanize them.
But for the Gieringers, the threat is literally at their doorstep. Looming City Parc is a constant reminder, including more recent threats, like the 2012 development of high-rise apartments on Oak and Ponder Streets, and the 2011 demolitions by Texas Women’s University of historic-area homes just outside the Bell Avenue Conservation District, an effort to “improve our local community,” read property signs.
“This is a fairly preserved area, so far,” Tim says, flipping through a thick stack of files submitted to the landmark commission. Only a few homes appear deteriorated, and a few have undergone complete renovation.
The Gieringer’s home is indicative of the 1920’s-era bungalows and English Tudor-style architecture, with its pillars and posts jettisoning out from underneath the eaves of low-pitched roofs.
It’s highly coveted residency, according to former real-estate agent and homebuilder Debbie Millican, who moved from Ponder three years ago and considers her home off Congress and Amarillo “the prettiest one.”
Millican drove through the neighborhood every week for a year and a half in search of an available house, before finally giving up. A year later in 2010, on a Sunday, she decided to drive through. She spotted a for-sale sign. It was the house, on the market for no more than 24 hours.
“I bought the house the next day,” she says, sitting in her living room, an antique barber’s chair in the corner beside other collectables. “Not a day goes by that I don’t tell myself, ‘I can’t believe it.’”
Millican says some residents are wary of getting landmark status, or becoming a conservation district, because there are conditions for homeowners, and the neighborhood must work together to meet them.
“You want everyone else to be regulated, but not yourself,” she says, admitting that she hasn’t kept up with the push toward conservation status. She adds that most homeowners won’t destroy their investment willingly.
“In reality, nobody wants to create a poor economic situation for themselves by gutting the place.”
After moving-in, Millican asked her mother, Florence O’Brien, to join her. She would live-out the remaining two years of her life as she battled cancer, playing poker on her laptop behind her bedroom window, so she could watch the days go by in the neighborhood.
“She’d see people walking by, pushing baby buggies, students on the way to school, walking by to pet the dog,” she says, her own pooch growling on the sofa. “It was the best thing that ever happened. She would see life.”
The weekend is here, ushered in by the trumpet sound and booming drums from Denton High’s stadium bordering Panhandle Street, reverberating the neighborhood like a tuning fork.
“It’s good noise,” says Christopher Voci. “It keeps us young.”
Voci lives across from the Gieringers, who persuaded him to join the landmark movement, his 1920’s home like one in which Shakespeare might have lived on the English countryside.
“We’re worried about encroachment of student housing,” says Voci, adding the increasing density of the surrounding neighborhoods can become problematic if left unchecked.
“There’s turnover in the neighborhood. It’s a big, abrupt transition to younger couples and middle-age families.”
Some of those younger families herded through the neighborhood Halloween night. Ninja turtles, spider men and princess fairies found their way to the Gieringer’s home. Morgan extended a bowl of candy underneath their portico, but quickly ran out.
“I’ve never seen this many people,” she said, and Tim rushed out to go buy more.
The Gieringers will unveil a Denton Historic Landmark in the coming weeks, when they receive the plaque in the mail.
They, like other residents in PECAN, know one thing for certain about the identity of their neighborhood.
It will always feel young, and always be remembered for its age.
“I’ve actually seen people metal detecting at the junior high school on weekends,” Tim says, although he doesn’t like the idea of people doing so without permission.
“There are some beautiful homes here and many more stories to uncover.”