The 1915 Beacon Hill Elementary School building sits vacant on the grounds of Beacon Hill Academy. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Beacon Hill Academy parents cheered after City Council voted to ease the way toward demolition for a historic Beacon Hill Academy building that has sat vacant for about two decades. More than 400 students and teachers watching the Council meeting on livestream on Beacon Hill’s campus also celebrated the council’s decision.

The 1915 building, designed by noted architect Leo M.J. Dielmann, has cracks in its brick exterior, boarded-up windows, and water damage. Beacon Hill parents and school staff have expressed concerns about the safety of the dilapidated building, which is near where children play. School and San Antonio Independent School District officials also sought additional space on campus.

Speaking before the vote, Beacon Hill Principal Laryn Nelson told council members the most recent discussions about demolition came after a gifted and talented class revisited the matter for a class project in April 2017.

“Just think of the lesson that you are going to teach [the students] today and what your vote will show them,” Nelson said. “They are counting on you to remember them, to be able to honor those 18 students who started this quest back in 2017. I want to tell them that their voice matters.”

The City Council decision marked the end of a long tug-of-war over the building and whether it should be preserved. SAISD wanted the building torn down, saying it could not afford the $5 million to $6 million to renovate it. When SAISD first explored demolition, City officials told the district it wasn’t possible. Last November, the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) voted 5-3 to designate the building as a historic landmark, making it harder to demolish.

In the months following the HDRC meeting, SAISD met with members of the Office of Historic Preservation to reach an agreement that would let SAISD move forward with the demolition.

In exchange, SAISD will implement a new cultural heritage curriculum intended to instill in students the value of historic preservation. The school district also will be required to submit drawings of the building, a 3D model, photographs, and a salvage plan for the structure’s materials to the City and begin the process to consider designating other qualifying district buildings as landmarks.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), an architect whose district includes the Beacon Hill site, had pressed the district to repurpose and renovate the facility rather than raze it, but he voted to approve the demolition plan, making the Council’s decision unanimous.

“We’ve tried exhaustively to find a way, to find opportunities to repurpose this structure, but we know this is a difficult course of action,” Treviño said. “We understand the needs of our school district primarily centered around kids. … [We understand] these kids deserve this opportunity to learn something quite special, and I think we are doing that.”

At one point, Councilman Manny Palaez (D8) spoke angrily to parents and SAISD officials who have organized around the Beacon Hill issue.

“It … disappoints me that SAISD allowed this building to fall into terrible, terrible conditions over 30 years,” Palaez said. “And now they are coming back and saying ‘Hey, you know what, it is in really bad condition.’ You should have taken care of it … but you didn’t.”

Palaez went on to say he would vote in favor of the demolition, but only because Treviño had asked him to do so. He called the way SAISD and its families presented their case to demolish the building – at one time bringing a child to the podium during testimony – “distasteful” and “tacky.”

Before voting to approve the agreement, some council members expressed concerns that the City should not be engaged in crafting curriculum for school districts. Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) called the curriculum part of the agreement it “a bit of a stretch.” She went on to say she doesn’t support “forcing curriculum on overburdened teachers and school districts.”

“We’re forcing a school district into [a memorandum of agreement] to do this curriculum, otherwise we’re going to classify this as a historical landmark. I just don’t agree with this. That is not the government’s place,” Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said before motioning to remove the agreement from consideration.

Ultimately, council voted to deny the historic designation for the building and approve the agreement between the City and SAISD.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.