The limestone King House stands as its surroundings on the Bright Shawl property were demolished making way for a five story multi-family complex.
The limestone King House stands after most of the Junior League of San Antonio's Bright Shawl events center was demolished to make way for a five story multifamily complex. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Where for decades prominent couples celebrated their nuptials, local charities hosted fundraising galas, professionals met, and ladies lunched, there is now a pile of lumber,  rubble, and dirt as workers remove an iconic event center in downtown San Antonio.

Demolition on the Bright Shawl at 819 Augusta St., owned by the Junior League of San Antonio, began in late October after the women’s charitable organization sold to a Dallas developer earlier in the month. Now all that remains is a blank canvas and the 1880s limestone structure that served as the cornerstone of the event center.

In its place will be a five-story, multifamily housing complex with a six-story parking garage, and, according to the organization president, a Junior League with greater capacity to focus on its original mission to train women who work to improve the community.

Once a fundraising project for the Junior League, the Bright Shawl opened at the Augusta Street location in 1929. The former home of Claudius King and family was purchased through a fundraising event held on opening night of the Majestic Theatre.

Starting in the 1930s, the Junior League held its style shows and served club members as the group expanded the former home into a building that included the Ivy Room and Gallery. Junior Leaguers staffed the tearoom as waitresses while a small team of cooks and a manager tended to daily operations.

Cynthia O’Connor worked as a waitress there during her provisional member year in 1985. She recalls wearing a “lovely” floor-length, blue pinafore that was the uniform for her three-hour shifts once a week. Besides the camaraderie, O’Connor learned new skills, she said, including how to make an Old-Fashioned, for which she relied on a recipe book when a customer ordered the cocktail one day.

“Mostly, it was fun, and at that point in time our major fundraiser was the Bright Shawl and was what supported our mission, and that was important,” said O’Connor, who went on to volunteer at the juvenile detention center teaching life skills and to start the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center docent program.

Another expansion of the Bright Shawl in the mid-1970s merged the modern and historic features of the structure, and the King home was designated a historic landmark during that time. Then in 1976, the entire restoration was named an official Bicentennial project. By the 1980s, the Bright Shawl was providing the Junior League with more than $900,000 in annual revenue.

Membership in the women’s organization totaled 2,000, plus a tearoom membership of 3,000. Today, the Junior League itself numbers just over 1,000, said Joy McGaugh, current Junior League of San Antonio president and a member since 2012.

Memberships in the Bright Shawl tearoom itself ended in the 1990s, and the space last served as an event and meeting center in 2016 when True Flavors Catering held a contract to provide food service there.

That’s when the board of the Junior League enlisted the help of Bacon Lee & Associates to conduct a feasibility study, McGaugh said. The study found that due to the $3.5 million in repairs and upgrades needed at the facility, and that it could no longer be run by volunteers as in the past, the Bright Shawl could not serve its purpose as a revenue-generating asset.

She said the board then decided to put the property on the market, and in August 2017, it signed a contract for a “seven-figure price” McGaugh wouldn’t disclose to a buyer she would not name due to terms of the contract. Funds from the sale will be invested to provide income for the organization, she said.

County tax records show the property value was assessed this year at $2.6 million. The Junior League’s 2016-17 financial statements reflect assets held for sale (the building and land surrounding the Bright Shawl) had a net book value of $1.16 million. A deed search shows the buyer as Dallas-based developer Stillwater Capital.

Last year, Stillwater gained approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission to build an apartment complex on the property. Stillwater is the developer on the 107-unit Alcove at Alamo Heights and numerous other such projects in Dallas and Austin.

Demolition of the expanded Bright Shawl is nearly complete.
Demolition of the former Junior League property continues near the King House. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Representatives at Stillwater did not return calls seeking comment.

McGaugh said the developer intended to incorporate the King House into the new development but couldn’t meet the historic requirements. So it will be relocated to Junior League-owned property across the street, on Augusta, with its future undecided for now.

She feels sad to see the Bright Shawl gone, she said, especially knowing she would be one of the last of the organization’s presidents to have held a board meeting in the King House.

“But home is where our members are,” she said. “Wherever we’re working, packing up food boxes together like we’re doing this Saturday, this organization is about relationships, not a building. We want to do what’s best for the health and longevity of the organization.”

The historic Nisbet Home, which faces Brooklyn Avenue, also currently remains on the site. Donated to the Junior League and moved to the property in the 1980s, the home that once served as the Junior League administrative offices will be moved to a San Antonio neighborhood where it will fit in with other homes of its age and style.

Now with its temporary offices and three paid staff located at One International Centre on the North Side, the Junior League is looking toward the future.

Though the group has 80 sustainer emeritus members – those who are 80 and older – Junior Leaguers perhaps no longer fit the stereotype of housewives in pearls and heels, McGaugh said. The average age of provisional members is 32 and 90 percent of Junior Leaguers work outside the home, as doctors, lawyers, teachers, military service members, and more.

In fact, three years ago, the board voted to end the sponsorship requirement in order to open its rolls to service members and their spouses who were new to San Antonio. “Especially because we are Military City USA, we wanted to be as inclusive as possible,” McGaugh added.

To join, a woman must be at least 23 years old and reside in Bexar County or a contiguous county. Annual dues are $243. What Junior Leaguers have in common today, McGaugh added, is “a love of community and a heart for service.”

Junior League President Joy McGaugh.
Junior League President Joy McGaugh. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Earlier this year, the board voted to end its annual Olé Marketplace shopping extravaganza event, a 24-year holiday tradition anticipated by vendors and shoppers alike every fall. McGaugh said that with the cost of the rented venue going up, the fundraiser no longer met the group’s policy on expense-to-income ratios.

As the Junior League enters its 95th year, it’s still known for mobilizing women in community service at places like the Boys & Girls Club, Clarity Child Guidance Center, Goodwill, SA Works, University Hospital, among others.

“Our real mission doesn’t involve running a restaurant business,” McGaugh said of selling the Bright Shawl and refocusing on its leadership development and community service initiatives. “This allows us to turn the Bright Shawl back into an income-producing asset.”

O’Connor, who served as Junior League president in 1995, said the Junior League is different now, and the city is, too. “I think to everything there is a season,” she said. “Times have changed. And the Bright Shawl and Junior League are evolving along with it.”

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Shari Biediger

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