San Antonio College has backed out of talks with the Archdiocese of San Antonio to purchase the century-old Hughes House.

Neighbors and conservationists hope the decision means the stately home at 312 W. Courtland Place won’t be demolished. 

In a letter dated Jan. 7, SAC President Robert Vela told area residents that the college “intends no involvement” in the demolition of the 110-year-old house adjacent to the campus north of downtown. 

SAC participated in discussions with archdiocese representatives about purchasing the property, but turned it down “some time ago,” said spokesman Ken Slavin, who had declined to confirm rumors in November that the college was an interested buyer.

The community college’s leaders concluded it would be too costly to improve and maintain such a structure, wrote Vela. 

And, in light of “the sentiment of some community members against any demolition,” the college would not consider redeveloping the property. “SAC values its good relations with the community,” he said.

The college never made a formal offer to buy the house, Slavin said. “They didn’t feel that buying that property, and that the kind of renovations and things that would need to be done, would be beneficial to the college,” he said. “They felt that resources needed to go elsewhere.”

The vacant home had previously served as the Catholic Student Center. 

In September, the archdiocese, which purchased the home in 1965, submitted a demolition request to the Office of Historic Preservation. 

While the Hughes House is not situated within either the nearby Tobin Hill or Monte Vista historic districts, such a request would ordinarily undergo rigorous review before demolition is approved. 

But state law prohibits municipalities from designating any structure as a historic landmark over the objection of a religious entity, such as the archdiocese. In the case of the Hughes House, a demolition would free the potential buyers to redevelop the property in any way they wish.

The residents of Tobin Hill and Monte Vista have joined with the Conservation Society of San Antonio to push for halting the demolition, and in December, filed a request for review of the home’s historic significance. 

Built in 1912 by Kentucky native Russell Meriweather Hughes, the 10-room, Prairie-style house was designed by architect Mason Maury for the Hughes family. 

Hughes’ daughter Russell became famous worldwide for her talent in ethnic dance, touring as “La Meri,” before returning to San Antonio in 1984. 

Vincent Michael, executive director of the Conservation Society, said “there’s still a concern that the archdiocese would demolish it.” 

For now, the case is on hold. The archdiocese has not withdrawn its request for a demolition permit but has asked for the city to postpone the review of historic significance. It will not be heard in January, according to a city spokeswoman.

Jordan McMorrough, the archdiocese spokesman, said in an email that the property is being reappraised and the archdiocese is actively seeking a buyer. “There are no immediate plans for demolition,” he stated. “However, the archdiocese will be exploring all future options.”

Money from a sale of the Hughes House is slated for funding campus ministry initiatives. Interested buyers should contact the archdiocese’s pastoral center at (210) 734-2620. 

Michael hopes that with SAC’s announcement, another buyer who is interested in restoring the house can be found. 

The house is appraised at $189,110, according to the latest tax records. But other historic homes in the area are valued at more than $1 million, including the $1.6-million Koehler House, a landmarked property across the street from the Hughes House that SAC recently listed for sale.

Realtor Lynn Knapik, who also serves on the Tobin Hill Community Association board, said she may have a buyer for the Hughes House. But the archdiocese has not responded to their inquiries. 

“We’re still kind of up in the air on it,” Knapik said. “They [the archdiocese] won’t, as far as I know, let anybody in to see the house, so you have to see it before you know what you could do with it.”

But Knapik feels it would be in the owner’s best interest financially to sell rather than raze the two-story brick house. 

“I’ve kind of figured before that if they were just talking to SAC, and it needed to be torn down, that they were going to make nothing on it by the time [the archdiocese paid for] the demolition and all,” she said. “I kind of wanted to help save them from a PR fiasco also, having that building torn down.”

Ricki Kushner, a Tobin Hill Community Association board member who filed the request for historic significance, said she’s relieved to know the demolition is on hold. “But we’re still on tenterhooks,” she said.

Kushner hopes to tour the house soon with city staff and members of the Historic Design and Review Commission. A Dec. 7 visit was canceled when a representative from the archdiocese, as the owner of the home, failed to show up, she said.

A Tobin Hill resident since 2001, Kushner loves old houses and thinks the Hughes House is very important. “And I would just like to be in on whatever communication [the archdiocese] might have,” she said.

Shari Biediger

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