Where hitching posts likely once surrounded a little adobe house, today cars in an asphalt parking lot leave the home barely noticeable to passersby in a historic district of downtown San Antonio.
That could change if a downtown developer wins approval to move the 200-year-old De la Garza House – without relinquishing its historic status – in order to purchase and develop the surrounding properties.
Developer Weston Urban already owns the Arana Building in the 600 block of Dolorosa Street and is negotiating with the City to purchase the old Continental Hotel at 322 W. Commerce St., which used to house the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.
In the same city block is the 19th-century De la Garza House, which faces South Laredo Street.
“We look at it as an opportunity to develop the full block in a way that is complementary and creative to what the university is doing across the street,” said Randy Smith, president of Weston Urban, referring to the University of Texas at San Antonio School of Data Science and National Security Collaboration Center that’s under construction.
Proposed development plans are vague, but renderings indicate a transformed Continental Hotel building as well as landscaped plazas surrounding the historic home. Smith said the Continental and Arana buildings could be used for small office space on the upper floors and retail on the ground levels.
The surface lot component of that city block is where he envisions a multifamily housing development, he said.
To do that, the developer is seeking to move the De la Garza House about 30 feet south, closer to the two-room O. Henry House museum. The American writer’s home was moved in 1998 from the Lone Star Brewery site to the corner of South Laredo and Dolorosa streets.
“What we’re trying to avoid here is the house from the movie, Up,” in which a modest home is swallowed by larger-scale properties on all sides, Smith said. “Move it south, on the same lot, same orientation, so that, in our opinion, it can regain the context of its setting, and we can do right by the full puzzle of that entire block.”
But the De la Garza House is considered by the National Register of Historic Place as a key element of the Main/Military Plaza Historic District, along with the Spanish Governor’s Palace, San Fernando Cathedral, the Bexar County Courthouse, and other structures in the area.
Moving the home could bring an end to its contributing status and the historic tax credits that go along with it.
That is unless the Texas Historical Commission and the National Park Service agree that a move doesn’t disrupt its historical context.
“My client [Weston Urban] really wants to restore this building, and happy to do it, honor the heritage of it,” said architect Ann McGlone. “If you looked at the [maps] … there were a lot of houses around here back in the 1800s, and this one just was buried and forgotten – and we’re lucky that it [was].”
The adobe house is the last remaining residence of its era. Built sometime in the early 19th century, the structure is believed to have served as the De la Garza family home, and was later used as army headquarters, a brothel, and County office space.
The house was owned by Melchior De la Garza until 1849, according to a 1975 document from the Conservation Society of San Antonio.
The De la Garza family played an important part in the founding of San Fernando de Béxar and their loyalty to Texas as a province of Spain inspired the state Legislature in 1876 to name Garza County for the family, according to Frederick Chabot in his book, With the Makers of San Antonio. Another historian, Thomas Lloyd Miller, wrote that three De la Garza men were killed in the Siege of Béxar and two others served in the Texas Republic Army.
McGlone said that in preliminary meetings with staff from the National Register, it was determined the house had “little to no integrity of setting.” And as long as the house remains within the same block, in the same orientation and setback, there would be no impact to the building’s contributing status to the district.
However, because a formal review process, which includes gathering public input on the proposed move, is required, the City submitted a request to the Historic Design and Review Commission for that input in time for the State Board of Review deadline of April 1. On March 17 commissioners voted in favor of submitting a written statement allowing the house to retain its historic status if moved.
That decision is important for the developer’s purchase negotiations with the City. “It is a component of the development plan and something that we need to have resolved clearly before we can close,” Smith said.
“Our goal really is to do what we’ve been doing downtown for the better part of last decade, which is to celebrate these historic buildings in a way that makes sense,” Smith said. The house has already lost the historic context of setting, he added, recalling the first time he walked over to the site and found teenagers smoking on the back porch.
At the March 17 HDRC meeting, several commissioners said they wanted to know more about the developer’s plans and requested that proposals for the relocation and treatment of the site be submitted for approval.
“A relocation request I certainly think would need extended conversation,” said Commissioner Curtis Fish.
Commissioner Gabriel Velasquez spoke at length about the importance of the historic house, saying sometimes the “little things” are worth fighting for.
“I believe that it’s projects like these that really touch the issue of equity and intent,” he said. “It’s not a shock to me that there’s a rationale from people who want to get their projects done, but this little house is a mountain of history.”
Smith said Weston Urban believes the plan is appropriate and one that the developer will pursue.
“We believe in it and we’re proud of our track record with these historic buildings downtown,” he said. “I always want to look for areas of alignment, and where we would be unequivocally aligned … about the De la Garza House is that we want it to be better celebrated.”