Behind concave glass display windows that once showcased the height of men’s fashion on San Antonio’s Houston Street is a vision clearly taking shape. What began with the building’s first developer, a forward-thinking woman in 1918, has been passed on to the current owner, who sees its potential to become a jewel in San Antonio’s emerging Tech District.

With only a New Braunfels architectural firm hired by local developer David Adelman currently occupying the space, the Burns Building is undergoing a transformation that preserves its unique history as one the country’s first “daylight stores,” while becoming 45,000 sq. ft. of place-changing, collaborative office space.

“Some people would tell you it’s an obsolete building. Actually, if done right, it’s far from obsolete,” said Adelman, who purchased the building at 401 E. Houston St. in January. “In fact, it’s in super high demand. But you do have to blend the complications of modern code requirements – fire, life, safety – with the modern needs of office tenants. We think that with this building, we can solve all of those problems and have something that is highly marketable.”

Situated between Broadway and Jefferson streets, the five-story building is located in the heart of a Tech District bounded by the Rand Building to the west, the Weston Centre to the north, and the World Trade Building to the east with considerable development by GrayStreet in between.

AREA Real Estate staff convenes in a temporary workspace for architects in the Burns Building.
AREA Real Estate staff convenes in a temporary workspace for architects in the Burns Building. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The historic building sat empty for two years after Bromley Communications moved to the former AT&T Headquarters (today known as the IBC Centre) in 2015. Adelman, principal of AREA Real Estate, purchased it from a New York partnership that had been marketing the building as a single-tenant lease space.

“That’s a pretty tall order,” Adelman said. “So we saw it as an opportunity to develop it as a multi-tenant office environment with single-floored tenants with a couple of smaller spaces in the basement and mezzanine.”

Demolition on Bromley’s “rabbit warren of cubicles,” Adelman said, is underway, with the first floor being cleared for a new reception area, a restaurant fronting Houston Street, and a coffee shop at the rear of the building.

“You can get a much higher density in this open environment, but it’s not for everyone,” he said. “The target user is any business in which collaboration is a big component of what they do.”

Adelman expects the building to be move-in ready for its first tenants in nine months, and has already garnered interest from a national cyber-security firm.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Burns Building is named for Hugh Burns, who purchased the property in 1913 just prior to his death. He had planned to participate in the local building boom of his day by erecting a “splendid office building.” His widow, Mary Clifford Burns, and their son Thomas, instead spent $125,000 to create a home for the new Washer Brothers store that soon joined Frost Brothers, The Vogue, and other retail clothing merchants, who also resided on Houston Street.

Within three years of its completion in 1918, stairs to the basement and another elevator were added to the building, according to the National Register application. Architect Ralph Cameron was working on those modifications in 1921 while also designing residential spaces in San Antonio’s new and stylish suburb, Monte Vista. Washer occupied the space until a succession of other retailers  such as D.L. Pincus, Kress, and J.C. Penney’s moved in. In 1950, a fifth floor was added.

401 East Houston Street
The Burns Building at 401 East Houston Street Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Last year, the building was under contract to hotel developers, who planned to add two more floors. But when they learned that would prevent them from taking advantage of the historic tax credits program, Adelman said he stepped in and made a quick purchase for an undisclosed price. The Bexar Appraisal District assessed the Burns Building at $4 million in 2016.

Nearby, Adelman is also working to develop the Maverick Highrise apartment-building, set to open next month, as well as the Acequia Lofts at Hemisfair. He looks forward to the day when he can live downtown himself and take advantage of what he calls “the third space.”

From the top of the Burns Building, where he envisions a rainwater-filtering green roof, a visitor can easily view all the “third space” options a downtowner could enjoy – from the luxurious pool deck and cool lobby bar at the St. Anthony Hotel to show marquees at the Majestic Theatre and Tobin Center. Alamo Plaza and Travis Park are only a few blocks away. These amenities, he said, more than make up for the lack of adjacent parking or reliance on public transportation.

“One of the great urban planners told me that the definition of ‘urban’ is a place where chance meetings are possible,” Adelman said. “If you simply walk down Houston Street, it would be unlikely not to see somebody you know, and you might actually have a chance [at] interaction. That … would never happen if you were relegated to an office building surrounded by a giant parking lot.”

As for the unique window display cases that once lured shoppers into the Burns Building, Adelman says they will stay and he intends to find a new use for them.

“I want to surround myself with enough creative people so this place makes music, not noise,” he said.

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...