Visible through large holes in the drywall and plaster, the framing in a vacant downtown structure tells only part of a long Wild West story. 

Now a standoff between preservation advocates and property investors over what was once a house of ill repute, an orphanage, and a gang’s hideout, is writing a new chapter.

Next month, the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) is set to consider an application by the Conservation Society of San Antonio and the Westside Preservation Alliance for a review of historic significance for the structure, located at 503 Urban Loop, in a bid to fend off the owner’s demolition plans. 

The Dashiell House, built for Aurelia Dashiell in 1883, operated as a brothel just two blocks south of San Antonio’s “Sporting District” — established in 1889 to “suppress and restrain bawdy houses within the limits of San Antonio,” according to research by the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) — until 1912, with prominent madam Fannie Porter residing there during part of that time. 

The notorious Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, used the house as their headquarters and a hideout. In 1901, Porter is said to have hosted a farewell party for the gang before they disbanded, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

In 1913, the Bishop of the Diocese of San Antonio acquired the Dashiell house, and a year later, the Carmelite sisters opened an orphanage and daycare center in the building. They purchased the property in 1918, demolished some outbuildings, and added on to the Dashiell House.

In 1941, then-Fort Sam Houston Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower shut down the red light district. By that time, the sisters were no longer housing orphans, but were still actively using the property as a daycare center “with a special focus on serving families of Mexican descent and recent immigrants,” according to news reports.

In 1990, the sisters sold it to Omaha-based Father Flanagan’s Boys Town, a children’s shelter, which closed in 2017. 

Last year, an investment group managed by Douglas Miller of Bill Miller’s Bar-B-Q chain bought the property with plans to demolish the structure and build an eight-story multifamily development. 

The quarter-acre property is situated in the western part of downtown San Antonio, along Interstate 35 in what was a historic Mexican American neighborhood. While the building is now located on Urban Loop, historically the building’s address was 500 South San Saba. The Dashiell House is within walking distance of an area booming with new development, including the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, the under-construction federal courthouse, the UTSA School of Data Science, plus mixed-use and residential properties.

In an application filed with OHP in May, architect Jonathan Card described his client’s plan to demolish the Dashiell House and build 200 urban apartments with ground-floor retail and a garage with 231 parking spaces. 

Documents show Card planned to request that the historic review commission remove the building’s landmark status to clear a path for demolition. 

Historic… or not?

The Dashiell house, in its current location, not only stands in the way of plans for a parking garage on the site, Card stated, the building doesn’t meet the criteria for historic designation due to the multiple alterations made over the years.

The house itself is “difficult to identify” among the updates and additions, he argued, and reconstruction “would be pure conjecture.” The only remaining features from its brothel days are a staircase and roof structure with modern metal roofing. Behind the crumbling drywall and plaster, both old and modern-day framing materials are visible.

Razing the structure is necessary because the owner could not expect a reasonable rate of return on the project based on detailed cost estimates for rehabilitation, Card wrote in the application. But OHP staff disagreed and advised against demolition because the applicant did not provide enough information to prove economic hardship. 

A rendering of the proposed parking garage at 503 Urban Loop.
A rendering shows the replacement development at 503 Urban Loop that could become housing units, a garage, and retail space. Credit: Courtesy / Card and Company Architects

Prior to the May 5 HDRC meeting, however, the application was pulled from consideration. Shortly after, OHP discovered the structure had never actually been deemed historic. Three decades before, a document grouped the property with the nearby historic Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church complex. 

But an ordinance that clearly ties the properties together has not been found, and additional historical research has not shown a clear connection between the properties, said OHP Director Shanon Miller.

A statement of significance prepared by OHP states that the property has the required minimum of three of the 16 eligibility criteria for landmark designation.

The Conservation Society of San Antonio, which had already spoken against the demolition proposal, has joined with the Westside Preservation Alliance and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center to request a review of historic significance.

“For us, one of the most significant aspects is it’s one of the few remnants of ‘Laredito,’ which was the significant Mexican American Westside neighborhood,” said Vincent Michael, executive director of the Conservation Society. “The Conservation Society has been trying to save what’s left of ‘Laredito’ since the 1950s.”

The building’s history as a brothel is equally important, given that San Antonio has preserved so little of its built history related to the Wild West, he said. But it’s also served a morally higher purpose over the years, as an orphanage and child care center. 

“I would say, it’s one generation of sinners and five generations of saints,” Michael said. 

Card and Miller declined the San Antonio Report’s request for an interview. 

If HDRC commissioners approve a finding of historic significance, the measure would then go before the City Council to initiate the designation process.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.