The Historic and Design Review Commission voted Wednesday to recommend a rundown and vacant old brothel-turned-orphanage on San Antonio’s West Side be declared a historic landmark.
The finding, requested by the Conservation Society of San Antonio, the Westside Preservation Alliance, and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, stalls the owner’s plan to raze the 1883 structure and build a multifamily residential tower in its place.
The measure must now go before the City Council to initiate a rezoning process for landmark designation and, if approved, it will again be put before HDRC, then the city’s Zoning Commission, before getting final approval from the council.
Last year, an investment group managed by Douglas Miller of Bill Miller’s Bar-B-Q chain bought the quarter-acre property at 503 Urban Loop from the child welfare nonprofit Boys Town.
The new owner sought to remove the structure’s landmark status so it could be demolished and make way for an eight-story apartment building with 200 units, street-level retail, and a garage with 231 parking spaces.
But the building, once known as the Dashiell House, had never actually been deemed historic. A 30-year-old clerical error grouped the structure with the nearby historic Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church complex, according to documents uncovered by the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP).
A statement of significance prepared this year by OHP states that the property has the required minimum of three of the 16 eligibility criteria for landmark designation based on the National Register of Historic Places.
During the hearing, conservation advocates said they believe it meets five of the criteria, the first being that it is “a rare remnant of Laredito, the near-West Side Mexican-American community,” said Vincent Michael, executive director of the Conservation Society.
“The Conservation Society helped save Casa Navarro [State Historic Site] over 60 years ago and this is one of the only other sites left from that area,” Michael said. “Its significance includes both its original construction in 1883 as a brothel, and its use for over 100 years by the Catholic Church as an orphanage and center for abused and neglected children, first by the Carmelite Sisters, and later by Boys Town.”
He added that the structure is San Antonio’s “only link to its red-light [district] history,” and one of only a handful of historic buildings remaining in Laredito.
Graciela Sanchez, representing the Esperanza Center and the Historic Westside Residents Association, said little has been left for future generations. “Urban renewal of the 1950s and again in the 1970s demolished most of these precious buildings,” she said. “Laredito, already severely erased, is now threatened with further erasure.”
James McKnight, an attorney representing the owner, challenged each of the criteria by saying the building’s history and architecture could not be described as “significant, singular, distinctive [or] exemplary.”
“Those are the words you’re looking for when you’re talking about whether or not a building identifies those qualities for each one of the standards that have to be met,” McKnight said.
For instance, the applicants’ assertion that the structure is a rare, visible reminder of the city’s “vice” industry is debatable because the actual structure where the brothel operated is concealed by later additions made to the buildings and has been largely taken apart, McKnight said.
Eight of nine citizens whose voice mail messages were played during a public comment period disagreed and asked the commission to save the building from demolition.
Commissioners also sided with the applicants, voting unanimously to approve the request for a finding of historic significance.
“As I was researching this particular case and thinking about it, that significance of it being one of the only ones left to tell that story in that neighborhood, I think it’s important,” said Commissioner Steven Zumarán. “It’s important for us to take that seriously and think about the stories that we want to tell, and how we want to preserve [buildings], and how we want to stand the test of time.”
Commissioner Scott Carpenter lauded the project architect for his efforts to demonstrate which parts of the building are historic, and what little remains of its former character-defining features.
But, “when I look at this, it is something that has great historical significance to the community,” Carpenter said. “Unfortunately, we’re dealing with the altered remains of what is left. To kind of give it a biological example, if it’s the last white Bengal tiger, who cares if it has fleas, right? It’s still the one that you’ve got to save.”
A historic landmark designation, however, does not necessarily save the entire structure or force a restoration, said Cory Edwards, deputy historic preservation officer with OHP.
“There could be partial demolition that allows the original structure or parts of the original structure to be preserved,” he said. “Our historic design guidelines are guided by the Secretary of Interior standards for rehabilitation and not restoration and so there would never be a requirement to restore a designated property to a previous condition.”
Still, he said, the designation makes it eligible for tax incentives for qualified expenses toward restoration.
Commissioner Gabriel Velasquez in his comments recalled a previous hearing to discuss the future of the historic De La Garza House, which might have stood in the way of a proposed Weston Urban development. He urged the owner of the Urban Loop property to consider how the historic building could be repurposed.
“What pieces of this complex … can actually be peeled back in order to enable the real history of the structure to stand proud, while the developer figures out a way to do exactly what [Weston Urban] did … to use a new development that enhances the artifact?” Velasquez said.