In June, Brett and I set out on a new adventure: we sold his home in Wylie and bought one together in Oak Cliff. With homes going so quickly these days (the Wylie home had three offers in three days), we (or, rather, I) were determined to see as many homes as possible in the window in which we had to buy. I’m sure we saw 30 homes in 9 days (Brett thinks it’s more like 20). The last one we saw stole my heart.
The “investors” who were flipping it had clearly gotten in over their heads. They dumped A LOT of money into this house. Besides some important (and expensive) electrical and other work, they put granite counter tops in the kitchen (while restoring the original cabinetry), gutted and remodeled the bathrooms with high-end ceramic tile and dark wood, restored the original wood floors and more. What sold me was the original 1959 ironing board still in the pantry.
After a relatively painless negotiation process (the “investors” were ready to be done and close out the two mortgages they took to buy and renovate the house), we closed. We knew there were some pretty big things left to do, but we got the house at what we considered a bargain, and the appraisal backed us up on that. So, we moved in and in the first weekend realized we had a few more “to do” items on the list. At the top is dealing with, what we were sure was, a poorly insulated attic. In the sweltering Texas summer, the AC constantly runs.
Three days after moving in we went up in the attic to assess how bad the insulation was. When I say “we” I should say, Brett made the first adventure into the attic while I waited patiently in the air conditioned hallway below. He hemmed and hawed about the insulation and then said “there are some Christmas cards up here.” He then threw a stack down to me, came down out of the attic, and went to pout (or plot) in front of the television. I was immediately fascinated. I started reading some of the cards and casually said, “some guy named William Jennings Bryan, Jr. lived here.” Brett offhandedly made the comment, “huh, that would be crazy if it’s the Sonny Bryan.” Given Brett’s love of BBQ, it certainly would be.
And, as it turns out, we are living in the house that Dallas BBQ legend, Sonny Bryan lived in with his wife Joanne.
I’ve always been fascinated by history – especially local history. So, for the last month I’ve been on cloud nine and even though it’s 100 degrees outside (and even hotter in the attic) I’ve been playing Dora the Explorer. To-date I’ve found lots of cards from the mid-70’s, including one congratulating Sonny on the success of his business.
It’s been fun, but at the same time, I feel a bit voyeuristic – and not necessarily in a good way. These cards and notes weren’t intended for me. And some of them chart the ups and downs the Bryans had through the mid-70’s. One, from a niece, talks about her daughter and dealing with what I can only assume is club feet. I have a niece who was born with club feet several years ago and recognize the emotional pain a mother goes through when her daughter is about to be put in casts.
Another card wishes Joanne restored health in the new year. Some are funny. Some have only the mandatory signature and no note. Some chart the lives of the friends the Bryans collected detailing their trips to the horse races or their travels. There are notes from the locally famous and cards from people we’ve been unable to track down. And, on the last trip into the attic, I found Sonny’s military rucksack.
I’ve explored as much of the attic as I can in the sweltering Texas summer and without additional lighting and Brett up there with me to protect me from rodents. I don’t think there’s much, if anything, more up there. But, the finds and subsequent research into these people’s lives has been fascinating and have endeared this house to me.
I’ve reached out to the Dallas Historical Society who has asked that we donate the items. We’ve declined but have agreed to photocopy everything for their archives. They’ve also suggested that the items be included in an exhibition at the State Fair in 2015. Given Brett’s love of the State Fair, that seems a fitting tribute. In the meantime, I’m tracking and cataloging everything I can and doing research on the Bryans. Our neighbors – many of whom have lived here for decades – have been exceedingly helpful and kind.
I’ve learned that Sonny died while living here in 1989 at the age of 63. He passed only months after being diagnosed with cancer and subsequently selling his business to four loyal customers. Joanne sold the house in 1994 to an elderly couple (the Hunns) who lived here until their deaths (he in 2007, she in 2011). A relative of the Hunns then sold it in 2013 to the “investors”. We’re the third couple to live in the house in the 65 years since it was built. Sonny bought it for $20,000 in 1959 – the year after he opened his famous smokehouse. We bought it for a bit more. So far it’s worth every penny.
A colleague recently commented on the fact the house had been on the market for several months before we bought it. I’d attributed it sitting idle on the investors who didn’t know what they were doing. But, in my colleague’s estimation, Sonny was waiting on the right people to come along. I kind of like the idea that we have his blessing.