Toyia Pointer, for two decades the loving caretaker of several cities’ most precious histories, has spent her entire career setting off on treasure hunts through suburban memories and memorabilia.
Just this month, Pointer’s passion for preservation brought her to Mesquite’s Opal Lawrence Historical Park, where her office in a turn-of-the-century arts-and-crafts home provides a view of more old-time gems on the surrounding former farmland.
Pointer, the brand-new city historic preservation manager and executive director of the nonprofit Historic Mesquite Inc., can’t wait to see what secrets the site’s upcoming restorations — including an 1840s-era log cabin and 1909 clapboard church — will reveal.
But what lights her up more than the most masterful of restorations is the way she’s seen those revived pieces of history strengthen community connections.
Historic spaces spark visitors to begin talking about their own family stories, Pointer says. “Visitors come in and recognize that their own history and material things are significant. Hearing that can be really touching and moving and inspiring.”
Pointer saw it happen regularly during her history-oriented work in Frisco and Carrollton — and she’s experienced it in just her first weeks in Mesquite.
Unfortunately, too few people are aware that Mesquite even has a historical park. “That’s one of my main goals, to better get the word out about these treasures,” she told me as we toured more than a half dozen buildings on a historical site featuring some of my favorite things — open prairie, country antiques and old-school architecture
Pointer, who moved to Texas after graduating from the University of Oklahoma, attributes her professional success to local suburbs’ understanding of the importance of their history and seeing it as the way to blend longtime residents and newcomers.
At its best, work such as Pointer’s provides context on how and why a suburb — oftentimes planted long ago as a rail stop — developed as it did and allows all residents to feel a part of their city’s roots.
As I gawked at the magnificent interior of the Mesquite historic park’s restored 1886 barn, with its dozens of single floor-to-loft-to-vaulted-roof timbers — each representing a single tree — Pointer talked reverentially about the properties with which she’s been entrusted.
The buildings in this park are over a century old and “they need to be here in another 100 years,” she said. That happens only if Pointer makes the right restoration and preservation decisions as well as determining what uses of the site will ensure their historic integrity.
Pointer is also mindful that while she only works in the various suburbs, “this is their community, this is their roots. This is a higher-stakes thing for them. It’s really important to cultivate and honor those heritages.”
Formerly a suburban dweller herself, these days the 45-year-old lives in a 1930s duplex in Oak Lawn, where she’s partial to the mix of historic and modern as well as the neighborhood’s walkability.
Her new work home in Mesquite reminds her of the multi-acre park setting of her first historic caretaking job, as director of Carrollton’s A.W. Perry Homestead Museum.
“It was the perfect place for me to learn to be a museum curator and administrator because I was often the only employee,” she told me. “They literally handed me a key and said, ‘Get over there and get started.’”
The first floor hallway inside the Lawrence House in the Opal Lawrence Historical Park in Mesquite. Members of the Lawrence family -- including three daughters who spent their entire lives on this farming homestead -- lived there from 1874 to 1995.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)
The music room inside the Lawrence Home was part of a large addition to the house in the 1880s. Toyia Pointer says that historic spaces like this one spark visitors to begin talking about their own family stories.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)
The kitchen inside the Lawrence House is part of the original three rooms built in 1874 and one of the areas that all Mesquite third-graders tour each year.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)
A second-floor bedroom inside the Lawrence house. The parents' bedroom was on the first floor, the girls slept on the second, and the boys on the third.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)
A painted ceiling in the music room inside the Lawrence House was among the discoveries that restorers made when multiple layers of wallpaper were removed.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)
A portrait of the Lawrence family is displayed on the dining room mantle inside the oldest part of the home.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)
Toyia Pointer, city historic preservation manager and executive director of the nonprofit Historic Mesquite, hopes to find ways to get more North Texans to the Lawrence House, which is among what she calls the "hidden gems" of the Opal Lawrence Historical Park.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)
For the 17 years that Pointer was on the job in Carrollton, a day’s work could mean repairing loose doorknobs and managing wildlife alongside handling long-range budgeting.
Pointer eventually knew she needed a change of scene, so she joined the city of Frisco as its Heritage Museum director. “Contrary to popular belief,” she laughed, “Frisco was not founded with the opening of Stonebriar mall.”
The Heritage Center and Museum pays homage to the city’s deep railroad ties — the name Frisco was originally picked to honor the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway that ran through it. For Pointer, the job meant the chance to work with more formal museum displays and traveling exhibits.
She wasn’t looking to leave Frisco. But when Pointer learned about the planned retirement of Charlene Orr, who led Mesquite’s municipal-nonprofit historic hybrid for 24 years, she couldn’t resist giving the Dallas County suburb a shot.
Orr told me that her trepidation about leaving eased considerably when she learned of Pointer’s interest. “It’s kind of like your baby when you’ve been here so long,” Orr said. “When Toyia came along, it was like, ‘yay,’ because she understands both preservation and how cities work.”
A short walk from Pointer’s office in the Noah Range Farmhouse is the rambling centerpiece of the historic park, the Lawrence House, originally a three-room dwelling begun in 1874 that grew to 19 rooms by 1900.
Among the Lawrence family members were sisters Opal, Onyx and Garnet, all of whom lived in the house their entire lives. After the final sister passed away in 1995, Opal Lawrence’s estate turned the home over to the city, which purchased 11 surrounding acres to create the park.
Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the house’s painstaking restoration included a conservator’s discovery, while removing layers of old wallpaper, of the original paint and large ceiling medallions.
This is the second year that Mesquite ISD third-graders will visit the historic park to tour parts of the Lawrence home along with several more recently restored buildings, including the barn, root cellar, smokehouse and washhouse.
Pointer also will oversee this spring’s planned completion of the Webb-Crownover log cabin — being restored and reconstructed timber by timber — and continuing work on the New Hope Church, which she and her board would like to see open in two to three years.
An afternoon was hardly time enough for me to investigate the historical attractions at the Opal Lawrence Historical Park. The next trip I’ll also have to check out another site in Pointer’s new portfolio, Mesquite’s Florence Ranch Homestead, which dates to the early 1870s.
Who says the suburbs don’t have a strong sense of history? Only snobby cityfolk.
Even before she interviewed in Mesquite, Pointer knew the new director could count on deep support from both the city and the nonprofit’s board of directors. “That board always has a plan to get stuff accomplished and a track record of meeting fundraising goals,” she said.
What has surprised Pointer in her first few weeks on the job is that, despite being one of North Texas’ oldest and most-established suburbs, Mesquite still has a small-town hometown quality to it.
She also confesses to being somewhat fixated on one local landmark that’s only about half a century old: Mesquite is home to one of the original Whataburger locations with the distinctive A-frame design.
“Whataburger is always in the news,” she laughed. “And just a short drive from Dallas, you’ll find Whataburger history here.”
If this fast-food icon of Texana helps draw more North Texans and their families and friends to Mesquite, Pointer is all for it — although she’s eager for them to visit the Opal Lawrence Historical Park, just a couple of blocks away.
After all, as she pointed out, history is not confined to what happened a century or more ago. “It’s the community center, where the new people and the old-timers come together to build greater pride and create connections,” Pointer said.
“Where we are today is a part of our heritage too.”