Take exit 430A from Interstate 35 in Dallas, then drive north on Oak Lawn Avenue, and you will eventually come to the Ashley Priddy Memorial Fountain, a burbling, five-tiered, stone-and-tile sentry that signals your arrival in Highland Park. As you cross Armstrong Parkway—named for John S. Armstrong, the meatpacking titan who purchased Highland Park’s original 420 acres in 1907—Oak Lawn becomes Preston Road. You’ll notice that the street signs are now blue. A bit up the street, past the $24 million home of real estate scion Harlan Crow and—tap the brakes—the 4400 Preston residence of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, is Highland Park Village, the most gorgeous strip mall you’ve ever seen. Art deco buildings house Ralph Lauren and Jimmy Choo, and at the Starbucks on the corner, you might just catch a glimpse of the newly single Troy Aikman. His six-year-old Spanish-tiled home on Highland Drive is for sale, by the way, priced at $24 million.
Welcome to the honeypot of Dallas real estate, MLS Area 25, known to the layperson as Highland Park and its sister neighborhood, University Park. Laid out by the same urban planner who carved the avenues of Beverly Hills, these twin incorporated cities attract billionaire bankers like Gerald J. Ford, art collectors like Deedie and Rusty Rose, and philanthropists like Nancy Cain Marcus. Here, the winding, tree-canopied roads—patrolled by SUV-driving cops with the zeal of Stasi agents—boast names like Versailles Avenue and, respectfully, Beverly Drive. In one select enclave named Volk Estates, the lots are typically one acre, larger than anywhere else in the area, and go for some of the highest per-square-foot prices in the state. The schools are always exemplary and lacrosse-obsessed, regardless of budget cuts in the Legislature. During the holidays, the mansions feature jaw-dropping light shows, best seen from a horse-drawn carriage you can book at Highland Park Village.
In the world of Texas real estate, nothing quite compares to the Park Cities. There are other A-list neighborhoods, of course: River Oaks, in Houston; Pemberton Heights, in Austin; Alamo Heights, in San Antonio. But the concentration of billionaires in Dallas (according to this year’s Forbes 400 list, the city is home to the second-highest number of them in the country, after New York), coupled with the density of the Park Cities (close to four thousand homes per square mile), makes this an unparalleled nexus of power and wealth. Despite a slumping economy and a moribund housing market, Highland Park and University Park still enjoy some of the highest home prices in the United States. In MLS Area 25 the price per square foot in August 2011 averaged $341, with the average home priced at $1.2 million. (A square foot in River Oaks goes for roughly the same price, whereas one in Beverly Hills goes for nearly double.)
One morning this past August I find myself staring up at one of these high-dollar exemplars of the American dream, a stately English Tudor on Bordeaux Avenue. I happen to know from real estate chatter—which, in the gossipy world of Dallas, is practically a contact sport—that this is the new residence of one Jerry Jones Jr. The never-lived-in house, bought in June, is reported to have six bedrooms, eight full bathrooms, and four half bathrooms—plenty of space for lots more Dallas Cowboys progeny. I also know that the 14,000-square-foot, four-story castle (four-story is, evidently, the new three-story) is twice the square footage of Jones’s previous home, a few blocks away, though speculation was that the real trigger for him was the nine-car underground garage (the other new thing: going subterranean). And the price? Originally listed at $13 million, the half-acre estate was blue-lighted to $8,975,000.
The realtor who listed this particular home was Erin Mathews, a blond-bobbed, model-thin 62-year-old who belongs to an elite circle of Dallas agents who sell properties to the city’s most moneyed, bold-faced names. Mathews, who has worked in the Park Cities for nineteen years, is well acquainted with these private drives and hedge-lined roads. I know this because she’s my tour guide.
“There are no secrets in real estate,” she bemoans loudly, as we cruise by the house in her diamond-white Mercedes. It’s been a month since Jones moved in, and Mathews is still annoyed by all the online buzz about the sale, though she does acknowledge the (literal) desire to keep up with the Joneses. “Everybody in Dallas wants to know where they stand in the universe.”
Mathews gently presses the S-Class accelerator. Her lengthy, Jazzercised legs end in glittery Christian Louboutin pumps. Her BlackBerry nags. It’s the seventh marimba chime in fifteen minutes. “My clients love to text,” she tells me. “And they want an answer immediately.”
From the car, Mathews points out the home of billionaire Sam Wyly and a limestone Italianate she sold last month. We pause for a trio of power-walking moms in flawless makeup and sports bras crossing the street with their strollers. Driving in the Park Cities is like entering a space-time continuum where wrinkles or double-dip recessions don’t happen. (Or droughts: on this 108-degree day, as flashing signs along the interstate read “Conserve Water,” sprinklers continue to douse the fairways of the Dallas Country Club.) A morning here might include a stop at Hermès, nonfat latte in one hand and a Wall Street Journal in the other, the financial Armageddon headlines ignored. S&P downgrade? What’s that?
Entrée to this paradise requires a certain credit limit. But it also requires the help of its gatekeepers, a cadre that includes legendary realtor Ebby Halliday, who celebrated her one hundredth birthday this year; her golden boy, Dave Perry-Miller, who is said to have sold the most expensive spec home in Dallas, listed at $12.5 million; society agent Doris Jacobs, whose slogan is “The Name to Know”; Allie Beth Allman, who sold George W. Bush his home; and, of course, Mathews herself, who works in partnership with her former competitor David Nichols.
In the self-conscious circles of the Park Cities, Mathews’s personal style stands out: the statuesque agent, whose preference for Ralph Lauren