The owner of the downtown Robert E. Lee apartments is asking the City for permission to remove segments of the historic neon signs that top the building, shortening them from “Hotel Robt. E. Lee” to “Hotel Robt.”
The request adds a new dimension to debates about how the City handles commemorations of the Confederacy and of Lee, the top Confederate general who before the Civil War was briefly stationed in San Antonio as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.
Two decisions were made in the last three weeks regarding Confederate monuments and designations situated in public places. On Sept. 1, City workers removed the 117-year-old Confederate monument from Travis Park following a 10-1 City Council vote on the matter and weeks of protests both for and against its removal. A few days earlier, the North East Independent School District board of trustees voted to rename Robert E. Lee High School.
Now City staff are recommending that the Historic Design and Review Commission (HDRC) allow changes to the signs on the privately owned building. The historic 10-story former hotel and its signs are a prominent downtown feature and face the construction site of the new Frost Bank Tower, which will become one of the most visible downtown buildings once it is completed in 2019. The commission will consider the item during its meeting on Oct. 4, according to San Antonio Conservation Society President Susan Beavin.
The Conservation Society believes the signs should not be altered due to their historic significance. Now home to 72 apartment units, the building was originally constructed as a hotel in 1922. The neon signs were added in 1938.
The building has both national and local historic designations. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and received a preservation award from the Conservation Society in 1998.
“Our position is you have a historic sign on a historic building, and so the sign should stay the way it is,” Beavin said.
The Texas Historical Commission issued tax credits in the 1990s for the renovation and repurposing of the building, Beavin said. One of the conditions for receiving the tax credits was that the signs be repaired and displayed on the top of the building.
The building is located in District 1, represented by Councilman Roberto Treviño. He believes the request may be capturing some of the sentiments of residents living and working downtown.
“I think it’s something that is part of a movement to move away from that era of Civil War memorialization and tributes,” Treviño said. “I’m not against [moving] it.”
It is unclear whether the attempt to change the building’s signage means there is a larger push to rename the building. The property is held by RELEE Partners, a company formed by JHM Group executives. JHM Group Vice President Todd McClutchy, who filed the modification request with the HDRC, did not respond to the Rivard Report‘s request for comment.
Meanwhile, the Texas Tribune reported on Tuesday that House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) called for the removal of the “Children of the Confederacy Creed” from the State Capitol. In part, the plaque reads that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.” Straus said he does not believe that the plaque is historically accurate.