On a northeast corner in the historic Monte Vista neighborhood where a private school and popular restaurant draw people from across the city, a century-old home sagged under the weight of abandonment.

Peeling paint, a failing foundation, broken windows and overgrown brush concealed what in 1930 was called one of San Antonio’s finest.

But a recent restoration of the three-story, wood-shingled house framed with massive white columns and verandas has given the Kelso House a new life.

Reincarnated as the Kelso House Learning Lab, it serves as a real-world workshop for the Living Heritage Trades Academy, under the supervision of local master craftsman Victor Salas.

It’s also being used in other City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation programs including the Rehabber Club, the volunteer effort REHABARAMA, and Students Together Achieving Revitalization, and undergoing a complete makeover its first owners might appreciate.

Designed in 1906 by the noted architect Atlee B. Ayres for Judge Winchester Kelso, the house at West Craig Place and North Main Avenue changed hands a dozen times over the years before eventually becoming a neighborhood eyesore.

Today, it is the property of the Power of Preservation Foundation through a donation in 2018 from restaurateurs Cappy and Suzy Lawton of the neighboring La Fonda on Main. 

The gift came with a requirement that the house would get an exterior overhaul by October 2021. That work is now complete, revealing a grand and stately house restored for a cause. 

Judge Winchester Kelso, born in DeWitt County in 1858, had the house at 107 W. Craig Pl. built in 1906, according to documents provided by the Power of Preservation. 

Kelso served in the Texas Volunteer Guard and was appointed judge for the 28th District, the youngest in the state presiding over what was at the time the largest judicial district in the country. 

After the Kelso family moved to San Antonio around 1900, the judge’s wife, May Joyce Kelso, served as president of the Battle of Flowers Association. They had a daughter, Erna, and a son, Winchester Kelso Jr., who served in both world wars.

Their house was referred to as “one of the finest of San Antonio homes,” in the New Encyclopedia of Texas published in 1930. 

Restoration of the Kelso House included stabilizing the foundation under the porch, repairing busted windows, and applying a fresh coat of paint in white and “granite peak” blue rather than the original brown. The house also got a brand-new roof for the first time in its history, completing a total exterior makeover. 

“When we started working on it, it was so overgrown in the front that we never could really get a good photo,” said Shanon Shea Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation and a foundation board member. 

  • A historic photograph of the Kelso House at 107 W Craig Place following the original construction.
  • The Kelso House at 107 W Craig Place prior to exterior renovation.
  • The Kelso House at 107 W Craig Place was built in 1906 in the Monte Vista Historic District.

With the outside nearly picture-perfect, the interior restoration work that’s now underway is fulfilling the present-day mission of the house.

While the foundation repair required the skill and tools of professional contractors — in this case, Guido Construction — the windows, stairway, and a charming alcove have been repaired by apprentice craftsmen. 

“The skills associated with carpentry are in a lot of demand,” said Paula Stallcup, foundation chairwoman. “So we hope that helps promote the industry, and that kind of work, [which] is really needed not only for historic preservation but just day-to-day contracts.”

In addition, the foundation is working with architecture firm Lake Flato to have the house certified as a Zero Carbon project by the International Living Futures Institute. 

The house would be the first San Antonio residential building to be certified, a designation that would go a long way toward helping educate owners of historic homes about window replacement and energy efficiency, Miller said.

“Sometimes, from a preservation perspective, individual homeowners will want to replace their windows and that’s often controversial,” she said. “We’re really trying to utilize this as an opportunity to demonstrate that historic houses actually can be carbon neutral.”

Work on the house should be completed in about a year, with the second floor finished out as office space, Stallcup said. At that point, the academy will move on to another learning lab and the group could sell the house or lease the space. 

The staircase at the Kelso House includes an ornate reading nook that was restored by the Living Heritage Trade Academy.
The staircase at the Kelso House includes an ornate reading nook that was restored by the Living Heritage Trades Academy. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Ultimately the vision is not just to be the landlord of this house, but to utilize the [sale proceeds] to move on to the next learning lab,” Miller said. 

While the foundation also owns the Nogalitos Cottage, a former gas station in use as a learning lab, it hopes to next focus its rehabilitation efforts on an affordable housing project. 

Funds for restoration projects and training programs come from money raised during the Power of Preservation’s annual gala event, PROM. In 2019, the nonprofit raised over $111,000 to support its mission. In-kind donations help them close the cost gaps. 

For restoration of the Kelso House, Guido Construction donated a significant portion of the cost to restore the porch on the house. But the total cost of the restoration, to include the roof, foundation and interior of the house, has already reached more than $300,000, Miller said. 

“We try to do as much as we possibly can as a training opportunity and so, obviously, in some ways, that increases costs in some areas and decreases costs in others,” she said.

The training opportunities the house provides extend to the financial aspects as well. To offset some costs, the group is seeking approval from the Texas Historical Commission to obtain state historic tax credits that the nonprofit could then sell to other entities that need the credits.

“We really wanted this to be a demonstration project in every way possible,” Miller said. 

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Shari Biediger

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