Alumna helps bring old Dallas to life at living history museum

When her mom told her to find a summer job after her freshman year of college, Melissa Prycer would apply for just one. But it would change her life.

“When I got to college, you don’t think about careers in history, but in hindsight, it all makes sense,” says Prycer, who received her master’s in public history from NC State in 2003.

The Texas native had always loved historical fiction and visiting museums on family trips. But the summer of 1998 cemented the career path that would lead to her current job as president and executive director of a one-of-a-kind living history museum in Dallas, Texas.
MelissaPrycerPrycer would snag a paid internship and spend that summer culling primary sources for a research project at theDallas Historical Society. One day, as she dug through boxes of historic documents, she found herself holding one signed by Sam Houston, who was instrumental in Texas gaining independence from Mexico. Simply put, Prycer was captivated.

When she returned to Hendrix College in Arkansas for her sophomore year, she switched majors from English to history and never looked back.

Now 35, Prycer heads Dallas Heritage Village, which she describes as “an immersive history landscape.” The village — a collection of historic buildings moved one by one from as far as 75 miles away — tells the story of life in north central Texas between 1840 and 1910.

Prycer compares Dallas Heritage Village to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia with a twist: Williamsburg has some re-created buildings, but all 21 at Dallas Heritage Village are original. The buildings — houses, a church, a school, a blacksmith shop and general store — were saved from the wrecking ball and reconstructed on the site of Dallas’s first city park in a once-elegant neighborhood known as The Cedars.

“My attitude about history is it is the great universal subject,” Prycer says. “Everybody can enjoy it if we can just help them figure out what they like.”

At Dallas Heritage Village, costumed guides describe life during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and three buildings are “completely hands-on.” A visitor can, for example, grab a basket at the general store and look for old-timey items on a shopping list or ring up the “purchases” on an antique cash register.

“That’s really unusual for museums like ours,” Prycer says. The approach, introduced by her predecessor, has been a hit with visitors. Heritage Village attracts about 60,000 people a year — more than half of them children from area school districts.

As the Village prepares for its 50th anniversary next year, Prycer has several reasons to expect attendance to surge. Since the 1960s, the surrounding neighborhood has been cut off from downtown Dallas by a highway built to serve fast-growing suburbs. But now, an urban renaissance is pumping new life into the area.

“We’ve been on the verge of redevelopment the entire time I’ve worked here,” says Prycer, who has steadily moved up the ranks since hiring on as program manager in 2004. She became president and executive director in March of last year. “So we have gone from being a virtual island — there was nothing anywhere near us — to in the next 18 months, we will have six partners within walking distance.”

The “partners” include a child care center, an art gallery and museum, an independent theater company, an artist’s incubator that will provide studio space and equipment, a loft-style apartment building, and a hotel. A brewery may also be in the offing.

The changes could transform the neighborhood into a cultural hub. Dallas does have a major arts district downtown, but Prycer thinks the vibe around Dallas Heritage Village may be more appealing and accessible to “people who are not sure they are into arts with a capital A.”

With redevelopment, the city is paying more attention to the neighborhood and improvements it may need, Prycer says.

“Our focus is to be at the top of the game with what we do and be ready to meet new opportunities,” she says, noting that Dallas Heritage Village will see how the changes shake out before developing a formal strategic plan.

For next year’s anniversary, though, Prycer anticipates creating a new app and souvenir book and staging an array of special events, including a big family celebration on July 4. She also expects to salute the museum founders who had the foresight and faith that the Cedars neighborhood would someday be very special.

“One of our board members says ‘Our time is finally here.’ She says this is all we ever dreamed of,” Prycer says. “This is more than we ever dreamed of.”

— Carole Tanzer Miller

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