Jill Vexler was 8 years old when architect Allison Peery lifted her onto a drafting table for a blueprint tour of her future home, pointing out where she should look for the doors and windows as it was being built.
“My happiest times were walking through the construction site,” Vexler said of the wooded 1.5-acre lot where her parents resided for years in a home that they cherished and that she inherited when they died.
In 2019, when Vexler was ready to sell, she found a buyer who seemed to appreciate the home as a prime example of how mid-century modern design was uniquely interpreted in Texas. This past summer, the Olmos Park house instead came to represent a real friction between historic preservation and modern economics, and the distance smaller municipalities have yet to go in mitigating the loss of San Antonio-area homes with a distinct architectural style.
As the dozens of San Antonio homes designed by renowned architect O’Neil Ford and followers such as Peery age, some have been preserved at considerable cost, while others have fallen into disrepair and still others have been razed to make new use of their large lots dotted with mature trees.
Architects like Peery and Ford, who inspired him, put a lot of thought into what made sense for the landscapes in San Antonio and South Texas in terms of scale, and utilizing building materials and craftsmanship from the area, said Kathryn O’Rourke, professor of art history at Trinity University and editor of O’Neil Ford on Architecture.
“I think that part of what is sad to lose, frankly, in these cases, is the sense of restraint, the sense of respect for materials, the sense of respect for labor, sense of respect for the artists who might have contributed works that were in the buildings,” she said.
“They’re very much part of the history of San Antonio and an important part of the history of modern architecture in Texas, but it’s still only beginning to be told.”
Though the state of Texas has some standards for historic preservation, with San Antonio especially leading the charge statewide, historic structures in small municipalities like Olmos Park, where there’s no historic or design review process, remain at risk, O’Rourke said.
Craftsmanship and artistry
Designed by Peery in 1956, a colleague of Ford and partner Boone Powell, the house was a haven for Harold and Esther Vexler’s family and a destination for students of architecture.
“This house was visited constantly, especially at the beginning by University of Texas architecture students who would come down to sketch and draw [and] spend hours and hours and hours … and be in awe of the beam in the living room,” Jill Vexler said. “I mean, it was a real treasure of this period.”
The home, situated in a bucolic bend of Park Hill Road in the affluent municipality of Olmos Park, included the craftsmanship and artistry of Lynn Ford and Esther Vexler’s close friend Martha Mood.
Today, the home is among hundreds across the city listed on the website, San Antonio House Registry, created by architect Don McDonald in 2018 in order to raise awareness about the value of architecturally significant homes in the area.
Before Vexler’s parents died — Harold at age 100 in 2015 and Esther at 98 the following year — she promised she would do everything possible to take care of the home.
Residing in New York City, Vexler decided it was best to sell the house and, according to deed records, in May 2019 she closed on a sale to a partnership group known as Parque Colina, led by developer Kevin Covey, managing partner at GrayStreet Partners.
When they agreed on a price for the home, which was last appraised by the county tax office at $1.4 million, she told him, “You’re not going to tear it down [and he said], ‘No, we love it.’”
In November 2020, Vexler was at her home in New York when she got a text message from her niece with a photo of a fence in front of the house and a sign listing it for sale as a teardown.
Architectural historian Isabel Howard, a former Olmos Park resident and friend of Vexler, had attended a city council meeting in June to plead for the house to be saved, an effort she was joined in by the advocacy group Mid Tex Mod and Vincent Michael, executive director of the Conservation Society of San Antonio, who sent letters to the council.
‘Foundation coming apart’
Covey said he loves mid-century modern homes and had always wanted to remodel and make one his home. He called his experience with the Vexler house “a long, sad story.”
When he purchased the home, “my wife and I were really excited about restoring it, and we spent a lot of time and money on plans to remodel it.”
When they learned it was infested with black mold and had extensive termite damage, he said, those were problems they would fix whatever the cost. Vexler said she was “thrilled” to know that. It was the next surprise that they couldn’t overcome.
“When we sought to get permits to remodel the house, the structural engineer wouldn’t sign off on our plans because the house’s foundation was coming apart,” he said. “We spent a few additional months trying to find a remedy to repair the foundation but it was an inherent design flaw.”
Water had pooled under the flooring and penetrated the concrete, causing erosion in the rebar, a situation that was impossible to repair, he said. Though Vexler said she knew Covey was planning to do additions to the house, she was unaware of any structural flaws.
Covey, whose firm in recent years restored the San Antonio Light Building and has plans to redevelop the former Lone Star Brewery, was also disappointed to later learn the house was not designed by O’Neil Ford himself, but a colleague.
So after removing and saving the home’s artifacts, including panels carved by Lynn Ford and doors fabricated by Isaac Maxwell, he sought the demolition.
O’Rourke said giving up a mid-century modern home like Vexler’s is a loss.
“There’s a kind of subtlety about these buildings,” she said. “They don’t immediately strike you as grand; they don’t strike you as, ‘Look at how rich and powerful this person is who lives here …’”
Skill and patience — and money
Architect John Grable owns a Ford-designed home in Alamo Heights. Renovating and restoring it took about a year and amounted to $1 million in costs.
Having restored many other such homes in San Antonio during his 50 years in architecture, Grable said the task has become more costly in recent years, leading him to focus more on new-build designs.
The expansive clay soil that affects foundations in some parts of town, such as Terrell Hills, can make a renovation challenging, but labor and materials are also hard to come by.
“Economics plays a big part right now, and in fact, it’s getting harder to just add on to any project,” Grable said. “Also, the craftsmen that you need — those with skill and patience — they’re either overloaded or they don’t exist anymore.”
Thus, taking on a project like returning a mid-century home to its full architectural glory isn’t for everyone. What some home buyers might view as a teardown, others see as a gem worthy of refurbishment.
For example, a 1949 house located on Mandalay Avenue in Olmos Park is being promoted by a Phyllis Browning Company agent as a half-acre lot “to build a custom dream home.” In an alternate listing, the same property is touted as an O’Neil Ford home “ready for the next owner to update.”
Unlike the nearby Monte Vista neighborhood, the City of Olmos Park doesn’t contain designated historic districts, with ordinances designed to protect the character of historically significant homes and neighborhoods.
And unlike the cities of Alamo Heights and Castle Hills, Olmos Park lacks an architectural review board or processes established to allow for public discussion and advise its council members when issues of demolition come up.
Olmos Park Mayor Ronald Hornberger told the San Antonio Report he did not want to talk about the issue involving the Vexler house. “It’s something that’s active before council so I have no comment,” Hornberger said before abruptly ending the call.
Councilwoman Deanna Rickabaugh, who read Vexler’s letter to the council on her behalf, said she’s sure some homes in the area have been lost to demolition over the years, some due to neglect.
“Some have been replaced with newer, [finer] homes,” she said. But establishing an architectural review board or processes in Olmos Park have “not been popular ideas in our neighborhood in the past.”
In addition, limitations set by the state legislature have stripped local powers that would impinge on personal property rights, Rickabaugh added, making changes to the way the municipality manages such issues more complicated. Setting up a process for architectural review would require the consensus of neighbors, she said.
When Olmos Park City Manager Celia DeLeon was asked if the city is looking into creating a review process, she said, “Not at this time, no.”
Rapid growth and rising property values also work against the desire to save old buildings, said Rick Lewis, assistant professor in practice architecture – historic preservation at UTSA. “The $3 million house that is going to be built after the little house goes away is more tax dollars for their coffers, so there’s really no reason to step up,” Lewis said.
Still, the kinds of homes that most often do get saved from the wrecking ball, he said, are those that belonged to a major figure in history — even more so than those that represent a movement in architecture — because of the groundswell of support that typically forms in the community.
In San Antonio, Esther Vexler is best remembered as the “mother of yoga,” for introducing the practice of yoga to San Antonio in the 1960s, and for the Esther Vexler Yoga School she opened with Emilie Rogers in 2007.
Preserving a legacy
Ford died in 1982 having designed dozens of San Antonio homes and landmarks such as Trinity University, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places due in part to the campus having the largest concentration of his mid-century modern architecture in the world.
During that time, he founded the architecture firm Ford Powell Carson, now FPC, which has its offices in the restored Light Building. Ford taught and inspired numerous architects through the years and is the only individual ever designated a National Historic Landmark.
His daughter Wandita Ford Turner recalled her mother and Esther Vexler were “great friends,” and visiting the Vexler home when she was young. Turner was disappointed when she learned it had been demolished, like several other Ford-designed homes she’s heard about.
It brought up childhood memories of seeing her family’s long faces at the breakfast table whenever they heard about any historic property being razed.
But like them, she plans to keep trying to save what she can, she said, and to “preserve Daddy’s legacy and also his contribution to San Antonio which was significant.”