San Antonio had grown to 20,000 people when the four Plaza de Armas buildings were constructed in 1880, giving the Steves Lumber Co. and other mercantile interests a central downtown location a decade ahead of construction of the new City Hall completed in 1891.
That same year, 1891, proved to be a destructive one on the Plaza. Horse drawn wagons and bucket brigades were no match for the fire that broke out in the Fashion Theater’s prop room, destroying or badly damaging the facades of all four buildings located alongside what is known today as the Spanish Governor’s Palace.
The buildings were quickly rebuilt and put to use as warehouses, a wagon accessory shop, a feed store, among other tenants. The San Antonio Conservation Society protected the buildings when they might have been demolished nearly a century later and by the 1980s they had become City of San Antonio annex offices for a staff that had outgrown its historic quarters.
Those offices in those years were not attractive places to work. They are now.
Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Manager Sheryl Sculley formally marked the renovation of what is now a single Plaza de Armas building, with the stout limestone walls of the original four structures now serving as connective walkways through one long building. The site’s history, of course, extends back to the early 1700s and the original establishment of San Antonio, and even earlier as indigenous grounds between the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek.
“Standing inside this beautiful, restored building, it’s hard to remember what it once looked like,” said Mayor Taylor. “I remember submitting my employment application here, and after I was hired to work for the City, eating a few tacos in the basement restaurant.”
Taylor, a planner by profession, was on the City staff first as an intern and then after finishing graduate school.
“Both the Department for Culture and Creative Development and the Government and Public Affairs Department are now under one roof in a space that reflects both technology and creativity,” she said during Tuesday’s ceremony. “Plaza de Armas has undergone a drastic transformation to become a welcoming space where people will be inspired to create.”
Sculley remembered first touring the building after arriving as the newly hired city manager in 2005. The need to renovate the dilapidated offices was immediately evident, she recalled Tuesday, and finally that has been done.
“I am elated with the outcome,” she said, scanning the light-filled room and surrounding art installations.
A few doors down, at the southern edge of the building, Sculley noted, was Chuck Hernandez’s new farm to table restaurant, O’liva, which has created something of a downtown sensation even before its planned grand opening.
“I came for dinner Monday and for lunch today,” Sculley said. She’s not alone. Many who work downtown have found themselves returning repeatedly to the venue for its fresh, healthy food fare in a historically renovated setting that was made possible in part with City funding.
Felix Padrón, director of the City’s Department for Culture & Creative Development, noted that Tuesday’s event was being staged in what has become a public art gallery, the work of his department’s Public Art San Antonio (PASA) division. It’s official name now is the Culture Commons Storefront Gallery & Exhibit Hall. Its X MARKS THE ART exhibitions currently feature RESYMBOL, a public art project that “explores the creative use and placement of artist-designed symbols within the City’s downtown environment.”
Featured local artists include Ricky Armendariz, Waddy Armstrong, Elizabeth Carrington, Paula Cox, Michael Menchaca, Ethel Shipton, Robert Tatum and Louis Vega Treviño. Some were on hand Tuesday, and the exhibition continues through Sept. 18. The gallery is free and open to the public Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
“The City envisions this space as one where we can experiment, where we can engage local artists, and showcase and push those artists,” Padrón said.
Mike Frisbie, the director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements Department, served as Tuesday’s emcee. He thanked the long list of private sector collaborators who did the actual restoration work.
The design-build contractor was Byrne Construction Services with Ford, Powell & Carson Architects. UNICOM Government, Inc. and BeckTV designed the production equipment integration of the community television production studios that also are housed there.
Frisbie said Public, Education and Government Access revenues funded the majority of the project.
Allison Chambers, designer and preservation specialist with Ford, Powell and Carson, provided the Rivard Report with historical background of the building and talked about the history the teams found peeling back the layers of time to expose the original structure.
“That block was called the Fest Block, after a man who owned several properties there,” she said. “After the 1891 fires at the Fashion Theater destroyed the facades, all four buildings had to be rebuilt. When we were doing our work, we found the long leaf pine joists that had the Steves Lumber Co. name printed on them. Some of the joists we uncovered were charred from that fire, still there.”
Chambers said the length of the current building is 10 feet shorter than it was in the 19th century.
“They chopped off 10 feet when they widened Dolorosa Street in the 1920s,” she said.
Many people express unfamiliarity with Plaza de Armas when the conversation turns to dining at O’liva. It’s bound to become more familiar now as early ground in the city’s 300-year-old history that has been meticulously restored and brought back to life to serve as home, office and public gallery to art, culture, food and media.
*Top Image: Mayor Ivy Taylor, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and Capital Improvements Management Services Director Mike Frisbie prepare to cut the ribbon. Photo by Scott Ball.