Sally Buchanan (l, seated), June Keesee (r) and Kellis Almond (standing) look over plans for the Dullnig Building in 1979. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society.

Sara Matthews Buchanan, known to one and all as Sally, and as one of San Antonio’s seminal figures in historic preservation and conservation of the San Antonio River, died Saturday at the age of 73 after battling melanoma for five years. “She went peacefully, surrounded by family,” according to her obituary posted on the Porter-Loring Mortuaries website.

It would be hard to overstate Sally Buchanan’s leadership role in the progressive evolution of San Antonio. It was an era when women held few seats at the table of power and had to create their own positions of authority and influence by dint of volunteerism, personality, and perseverance.

Buchanan was an early advocate for the revitalization of the San Antonio River’s Museum and Mission reaches, long-contemplated improvements projects that cost $384.1 million and were completed in 2013.

Sally Buchanan. Photo courtesy of San Antonio River Authority.
Sally Buchanan. Photo courtesy of San Antonio River Authority.

She served as a director of the San Antonio River Authority board from 1999-2016, and as its president in 2013. She was a co-founder of the San Antonio River Foundation in 2003, and served as its chair from 2003-2006. The River Foundation raised $12 million in private funds to pay for the public artworks installed on the Museum Reach, the turning basin at Pearl, pedestrian paths and lighting, and native landscaping.

“Sally’s legacy will live on through projects such as the Museum Reach and Mission Reach. Through Sally’s leadership, the River Authority has developed strong collaborations with Bexar County and the City of San Antonio that will continue to protect the health of the San Antonio River for future generations,” said Suzanne Scott, River Authority general manager.

She was just as active along the downtown River Walk, where her family owned interests in various properties and businesses, including Kangaroo Court, the Original Mexican Restaurant, and the iconic, six-story Casino Club Building, built in 1927 with its colorful, wedding cake-like tower topped by a gold dome. She was a board member of the Downtown Alliance, and over the course of her career, worked as an office manager for Frost Bros. Advertising, as a longtime travel agent at McNeel Travel Agency, and as executive director of the AIA San Antonio Chapter.

Buchanan was a longtime member of the San Antonio Conservation Society, serving as its president from 1995-1997, and was a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

“I’ve known Sally as a friend and as a fellow board member, and she was always so honest in speaking her mind, a very strong woman who we all looked up to in our own lives,” said Janet Dietel, president of the Conservation Society. “She was one of the women who shaped this city’s history and its historic preservation.”

She served on the board of The Witte Museum and as a member of its collection committee.

“Sally taught all of us at the Witte about the importance of the river, over 10,000 years of human history here, and she taught me about the importance of the acequia system,” said Marise McDermott, the Witte’s CEO. “She took me in her car and drove me all over the city to show me the remnants of the acequia system. She was all about the river, thank goodness she was.”

Buchanan was also a longtime supporter of the San Antonio Symphony and the Cactus Pear Music Festival. While serving in the 1980s as the president of the Classical Broadcasting Society she initiated the merger of the Classical Broadcasting Society with San Antonio Public Radio, leading to the creation of Texas Public Radio.

“Sally put me on the board of the classical radio station and stayed with me until we put the whole thing together and created Texas Public Radio in 1988,” said Virginia Nicholas, TPR’s first board chair and the Conservation Society’s president from 2006-2007 when the organization gave birth to the city’s World Heritage initiative.

“Everybody who ever had any contact with Sally knew that she got things done better than anyone else you knew,” Nicholas said. “She just knew how to make things happen, a remarkable person who was not afraid to stand up for what she believed in. This is such a loss for San Antonio.”

Buchanan served as the chair of the River Road Neighborhood Association in the 1980s, when Mayor Henry Cisneros and City Council attempted to alter the ordinance governing the Alamo Stadium so it could be marketed for for-profit sports events, a change fiercely opposed by the River Road neighborhood, which prevailed in the dispute and ever since has been known for its robust opposition to development projects that encroach on the character of the neighborhood.

Sara Matthews Buchanan was born in San Antonio on Sept. 18, 1942, to Dr. John L. Matthews, and Sara Douglas Matthews. She graduated from St. Mary’s Hall and Mills College in Oakland, Calif., with a Bachelor of Arts in Art History. She was married to Robert T. Buchanan on October 24, 1971.

She is survived by her children, Garland Matthews Buchanan and Thomas Larkin Buchanan; her grandchildren, Eleanor Buchanan, Mary Larkin Buchanan, Virginia Buchanan, George Buchanan, and Lila Chaewon Buchanan; her siblings, Eleanor Matthews Stromberger and J. Larkin Matthews; and numerous nieces, nephews, and cousins.

“The family extends special thanks to MD Anderson Cancer Center, the START Center for Cancer Care, and AA Care Services,” her Porter-Loring obituary stated.

A memorial service is pending. The family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the San Antonio River Foundation for the Confluence Park Maintenance Fund.

This story was originally published on Aug. 1.

Top image: Sally Buchanan (left, seated), June Keesee(r), and Kellis Almond (standing) look over plans for the Dullnig Building in 1979. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.