The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center is working to preserve community history while pursuing sustainability – a goal exemplified in its plans for an icehouse on the near West Side, a building that dates to the 1930s. 

Esperanza purchased Ruben’s Ice House in 2007 and has been using it for storage, but more than 10 years later, the historic building will finally see a new beginning as a community museum called Museo del Westside.

Ruben’s Ice House housed a small grocery store and, like others in San Antonio, became a culturally important community gathering spot. Men would drink beer inside while women and children gathered in a patio space in the back.

A rendering of the future Museo del Westside.

“Old structures can tell you stories if you know how to listen,” said Dwayne Bohuslav, Museo del Westside’s project designer.

Museo del Westside will eventually house artifacts and artwork reflecting the neighborhood in which it resides. It sits on a compound with three other buildings in the Rinconcito de Esperanza, which hosts events open to the community such as a Día de los Muertos celebration.

Two of the buildings on the compound, Casa de Cuentos and the Casita, used wood salvaged from St. Mary’s University when the college tore out its old baseball park bleachers, museum director Sarah Zenaida Gould said. The Mujer Artes Clay Cooperative building was made primarily out of compressed earth blocks, a building technique similar to adobe. It was the first commercially permitted structure to use that technique in over a century, Gould said.

“The women who work in this space work with clay, so it sort of made sense to make it out of adobe,” Gould said. “But also historically in the West Side, adobe houses were a thing.”

Ruben’s Ice House was constructed out of wood but will be expanded using compressed earth blocks to construct an additional gallery space, Gould said. Gould was hired in 2018 to lead the Museo del Westside planning effort and curate the space.

“It’s a very green building method, as well as a building method that allows for a lot of control over heat and humidity fluctuations, which is really important for museums,” Gould said. “You’re always trying to get control over your temperature and humidity to protect the artifacts. That’s actually going to be sort of like doubly good – both because it’s environmentally friendly and it’ll be easy to maintain.”

Project designers can feel confident in their decision to pursue compressed earth block construction after Mujer Artes’ success. The building won a Sustainability Award from the City of San Antonio in 2017. Esperanza also took home a City of San Antonio Green Building Award in 2013 and Historic Preservation Award from the San Antonio Conservation Society in 2014 for green building practices in the Casa de Cuentos and Casita restorations.

Seeing compressed earth blocks used in new construction could start others thinking about how to use that in their own projects, said Candid Rogers, an architecture lecturer at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“I think it can have a great ripple effect and bring exposure to better building practices,” Rogers said.

Project designer Bohuslav, the architecture program coordinator at San Antonio College, has worked with Esperanza for 25 years on various projects and said he appreciates the organization’s design sensibility. He said buildings have their own secret lives, and restoring them slowly allows the community enough time to understand their history and purpose.

“There’s such a collaborative spirit to all of these projects [with Esperanza],” he added.

Bohuslav not only follows the philosophy of “adaptive” design, he views “green building” as a method always used by the lower-income residents of San Antonio’s West Side. The reason he continues to work with Esperanza is that the organization wanted to build in a new way and use existing resources, he said.

“They were looking for a community that didn’t have the excess resources to build something new every 10 years,” Bohuslav said. “That idea of poverty, that idea of limited resources around the world exists, and we find a way. There’s a beauty in that, that idea that everything you have matters. We don’t have more than we need.”

Gould praised Bohuslav’s patience and desire to incorporate the community’s ideas fully into Museo del Westside. Not many designers would defer so completely to others, she said.

“We’re really lucky to find him because he was willing to go to these community meetings, listen to what the community wanted to say, what they what their visions were and then incorporate that into his design,” Gould said.

Esperanza Peace and Justice Center hopes to take its museum plans to the City’s Historic and Design Review Commission for preliminary approval in February.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.