With a city panel on Wednesday in agreement that the Hughes House in Tobin Hill is worthy of historic designation, a century-old San Antonio home could be free from future threats of demolition.
Now nearly a year since its owners made plans to raze the Prairie-style home, halted by pleas from neighbors and the Conservation Society of San Antonio, the structure could soon enter its third act as an upscale neighborhood wine and cheese bar.
The Historic and Design Review Commission voted unanimously to approve the neighborhood’s request for a finding of historic significance, making the Hughes House eligible for landmark designation — but only if the owner agrees or City Council passes a resolution.
That is the next step in assuring the Hughes House never meets a wrecking ball, and with new owners in place, the historic designation could be within reach.
To be eligible for local historic landmark designation, a property must meet three of 16 criteria set by the Unified Development Code. City staff agreed with the applicant that the house meets five of the criteria.
The majestic Hughes House, owned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio for more than five decades and most recently used as a Catholic student center, sits just outside both the Tobin Hill and Monte Vista historic districts.
The archdiocese put the property on the market in 2021 and sought a city permit to demolish the vacant house, a right it has under laws that prohibit any municipality from designating a structure as a historic landmark over the objection of a religious entity.
Soon after, Tobin Hill residents joined the Conservation Society in submitting a request for a review of the home’s historic significance.
“That slows things down and it also brings the Office of Historic Preservation in and if you’re having problems trying to get in touch with the owner or even talk with the owner at all, they might help,” said Ricki Kushner, Tobin Hill Community Association board member.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for San Antonio College (SAC) said that though leaders were in talks to purchase the property which is adjacent to the college, they never made a formal offer to the archdiocese.
The projected cost to improve and maintain the house proved too much for the community college, he said, and in a letter to the community, SAC President Robert Vela said demolishing the structure would likely upset residents in the historic district.
“SAC values its good relations with the community,” he wrote.
After another offer to buy the property fell through, Conservation Society officials alerted Andrew Weissman that the Hughes House was again available for sale.
In June, the award-winning chef and owner of Mr. Juicy on San Pedro Avenue bought the home with New York City resident May Chu. The asking price was $1 million, Weissman said, but “we paid significantly less.”
Weissman said he lives in the neighborhood and wants to restore the home for a food-and-beverage concept, but not one that requires a commercial-grade kitchen.
“I’m going to let the house speak to me to what I think it should become, but most likely it will be a really nice, elegant wine bar,” he said.
Weissman decided to buy the Hughes House with Chu after the two met and discussed the purchase over coffee. “We hit it off and she’d eaten in my restaurants before, so I took a big leap of faith,” he said.
A timeline for opening the place he plans to call The Hughes is indefinite, but Weissman estimated it will take six months to complete the renovation and also request a rezoning to allow for on-street parking. The house is zoned residential.
Earlier this year, downtown developer Weston Urban acquired from SAC the historic 1901 Koehler House, which sits on 2 acres of sweeping lawn across the street from the Hughes House. The developer has said it plans to convert the three-story structure into a hotel and restaurant.
“We’re just happy to be a part of that neighborhood and I think that it’s going to be a really vibrant little pocket,” Weissman said.
Despite the change in ownership, Kushner maintained that an official review of historic significance was necessary to prevent any future risk of demolition or alterations being made to the exterior of the house.
Under the code, only a property owner can make a request for landmark designation. In a case like that of the Hughes House, if the owner does not consent to the designation, city staff must request a resolution from City Council to take the case to a zoning commission hearing.
The Hughes House, built in 1912 by Kentucky native Russell Meriwether Hughes, is a 10-room Prairie-style home designed by architect Mason Maury. It has a basement the size of the upper floors.
Hughes’ daughter Russell became famous worldwide for her talent in ethnic dance, touring as “La Meri,” before returning to San Antonio in 1984. She and her sister owned the house until 1942; it was sold to the archdiocese in 1965.
The house “contributes to the historic urban development pattern in the neighborhood where high-style homes were built for prominent citizens at the beginning of the last century,” according to an architectural study by an area resident.
Weissman and Chu were initially apprehensive about the request for a review of historic significance, he said.
“We’re going to do everything the right way. We’re not going to tear down anything, but we didn’t want to be hampered by [the rules] because I live in [a historic district] and I know you can’t touch a pane of glass without getting it approved,” he said. “So we thought that would really kind of elongate the process.”
Weissman said some of his fears that a historic designation would delay the work were allayed by meetings with the Office of Historic Preservation.
He estimates the renovation cost for the main floor will be about $350,000.
Structures deemed historic are often eligible for local permit fee waivers and local property tax exemptions and owners may also take advantage of state and federal historic tax credits.
In voting to approve the request, Commissioner Scott Carpenter said he appreciated the work of those who put together the application for review of historic significance.
“It really does typify an era in San Antonio that’s very significant and it would be a huge loss if it ever did come up for demolition again,” he said.