In a Mahncke Park office building perhaps more suited to suits, there’s a small space carved out of a corner on the fourth floor where a drafting table tops an executive desk and boxes of colored pencils are set within reach.
Thick art books on the works of Monet, Degas and Van Gogh, a branded white hardhat and a panoramic black-and-white photo of City Hall line the shelves behind.
At the desk, sleeves rolled to his elbows, sits a man whose distinguished career spans five decades in the field of architecture and follows the trajectory of San Antonio’s preservation movement.
Humberto Saldaña is widely known for his work restoring some of San Antonio’s most historic buildings and landmarks, including the Crockett block of buildings on Alamo Plaza and the Chandler building, the Staacke and Stevens buildings and La Villita.
A 1992 restoration of City Hall that began with carefully measuring and replacing the deteriorated limestone on the building’s facade, a two-year project, is an example of Saldaña’s skill, attention to detail and profound dedication to his craft.
Saldaña also has lent his expertise to modern-day buildings. The Cadena-Reeves Justice Center and UTSA’s downtown campus are just two of his many projects, which also include new branch libraries and residential developments.
But it was his years of work saving the built environment of San Antonio’s past that recently earned him a Texas Preservation Hero award from the Conservation Society of San Antonio.
A career unfolds in San Antonio
Saldaña grew up one of seven children in Monterrey, Mexico, and moved to San Antonio at age 16 with his family. He learned to speak English during one spring semester at Brackenridge High School followed by a year at San Antonio College.
A 1975 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Saldaña worked in Monterrey briefly before returning to the United States. He became an American citizen and was immediately drafted into the Army, where he spent two years building bomb shelters in the mountains of South Korea.
Saldaña then began his career in San Antonio, working with noted architect O’Neil Ford, who appreciated the young architect’s talent for drawing and hired him to help design a new post office in Johnson City.
“Ford was an incredible person, very down-to-earth,” Saldaña said. “He taught us how to use materials and [about] architecture that’s timeless. Functionality, he was good at that.”
After more than three years with Ford Powell Carson, Saldaña opened his own firm. His first job was to restore the 1890s-era Staacke and Stevens buildings on 309 E. Commerce St.
The buildings, long ago covered with a modern facade, had been slated for demolition to make space for a parking lot for the Nix Hospital until Saldaña and the Conservation Society intervened.
La Villita and beyond
Saldaña also worked on several other projects until he again joined forces with Ford to restore and develop La Villita in the early 1980s.
“He went to meetings and convinced the city to redo everything, so we ended up doing all the walls and all the buildings and we did a master plan for La Villita,” Saldaña said.
He recalls traveling to San Luis Potosí in Mexico to select new stone pavers that were carted back by train for the streets of the little village.
Other restoration projects Saldaña spearheaded include the Alamo Plaza structures, the Crockett and Woolworth buildings, which at one time had been threatened with demolition but will house the planned new Alamo Museum. The American Institute of Architecture recognized Saldaña’s work on the Crockett building with an award for excellence in design and restoration.
In all, Saldaña and his firm have worked on at least 33 major historic restoration and sensitive alteration projects in San Antonio.
One of his most recent was the Nauwald Building, a complex that was about to be razed before Saldaña convinced a bank to lend him the money to restore it. When it was complete, Saldaña & Associates had offices there — and Saldaña his private painting studio — before downsizing and relocating to the smaller space on Broadway Street in 2018.
“The Nauwald Building Complex on S. Flores is another example of Humberto Saldaña’s vision for adaptive reuse of underutilized historic assets,” wrote Mary Nethery in her recent nomination of the architect for the Preservation Hero award.
“He was always coming up with creative solutions to avoid demolishing a historic property,” Nethery said, and working with the architect for 15 years “was sort of like getting a graduate degree in preservation.”
But she was most in awe of his talent for drawing so beautifully, she said.
Changes in the industry
Market conditions in the field of architecture have evolved dramatically since Saldaña began work in the 1970s. Those forces have impacted the kinds of projects the firm takes on and have led Saldaña, like many small-to-medium firms, to scale back the size of his office.
For starters, a greater number of projects are being overseen by contracting companies, rather than architects, in a design-build approach to construction intended to save time and money.
“In the old days, [the city] used to have a project and they would invite all the architects to submit their qualifications and select whoever’s going to be doing the job,” Saldaña said. “Now the city is hiring contractors first.”
In addition, many more large architecture groups have set up office in San Antonio, able to draw upon a deep bench of talent and resources, and making it harder for small, local firms to compete for work.
James Lewis, a licensed architect and professor in practice at UTSA’s College of Engineering and Integrated Design, said industry changes have affected many locally owned firms across the country.
“There was a time when smaller-practice practitioners across the country would do hospitals and large school expansions and governmental complexes, and they would have a small capacity of employees, but they were locals and that counted a lot,” Lewis said.
Such clients now seek out large firms that provide specialized services across a region, he said. “That’s just the reality of the market.”
While there remains what he calls a “tradition of independence” in architecture, ups and downs in the economy also tend to hurt the smaller firms first as non-institutional clients lose confidence in spending and investment. More recently, the coronavirus pandemic dealt another blow.
There have been other major changes in the field, as well, due to advances in technology. As a licensed architect with more than 40 years working and teaching, Lewis said he gets nostalgic about hand-drawn designs.
“I wish I could go back to that,” he said. “But it’s an extremely rare thing” in architecture these days.
‘Architects don’t retire’
While Saldaña’s work is in pencil, his time away from the office is spent with oil and charcoal, and music in the background. Saldaña paints daily and has a storeroom piled with canvases — artwork that he has never shown publicly.
“I paint on three or four frames at one time,” he said. “It kind of takes you away from architecture.” But he has no plans to step away from the practice.
“Architects don’t retire, we die right here on the desk,” he said, laughing.
On Saldaña’s drawing board currently is a restoration and renovation of the San Antonio Housing Authority’s Lincoln Heights Courts, a 1940s-era development on the West Side.
The architect sees in that project an opportunity to not only restore significant structures and improve living conditions but to incorporate Alazán Creek, which runs through the development, making the creekbed safer for children to play and transforming it into an amenity for everyone.
“I like this type of project where you can help the community,” he said.