Weeds push through the cracks in the sidewalk leading up to an arched entry and deep porch of an imposing brick two-story house in Tobin Hill.
From the wide front porch, daylight streams through the glass front door revealing bare rooms, dusty wood floors, and little of its 109 years of history. Soon, the house itself also could be gone.
In September, the owner of 312 W. Courtland Place requested a demolition permit from the city to pave the way for a sale of the property that sits adjacent to San Antonio College (SAC).
In most cases, such a request would go through a rigorous review process meant to prevent historically significant buildings from being torn down. But because a religious entity — in this case, the Archdiocese of San Antonio — owns the Hughes House, named for the family that built the home in 1912, that process is being circumvented, allowing the demolition to proceed despite the objection of conservationists.
A state law that went into effect two years ago prohibits any municipality from designating a structure as a historic landmark over the objection of a religious entity.
“It is owned by the Archdiocese, and we know from them that they have an offer from somebody who would like to purchase it, but they [the buyer] would like for it to be demolished first,” said Shanon Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation (OHP).
A spokesman for the archdiocese, which has owned the house since 1965, said it would not comment, and the potential buyer’s identity is unknown. The property was not listed for sale. The tax assessor’s most recent appraisal of the property put the value at $189,110.
In response to the demolition permit request, Miller’s office conducted a review of the building’s historic significance and because the house is located near two historic districts, notified the community of the pending demolition.
“It is, of course, architecturally significant and historically significant,” Miller said, adding that the house appears to be in good condition though she has not inspected it.
Kentucky native Russell Meriweather Hughes, an entrepreneur and inventor, purchased the lot and in 1912 enlisted architect Mason Maury to build the brick house for $13,000.
Hughes’ family, including wife Lily and daughters Lillian and Russell, moved into the 10-room house in 1913 after previous stints residing in homes in the King William district and on Laurel Street, according to research by Michael Patrick Carroll of AHP Digital.
The girls are said to have used the home’s basement “club rooms” for social events and dance lessons. During World War I, they invited soldiers to the house for dances and respite, and in 1918, Lily Hughes nursed both of her daughters back to health during the Spanish Flu outbreak.
As an adult, Russell Hughes found fame in the art of ethnic dance, starting with her debut at the Empire Theater in 1924 and later touring around the world as “La Meri.” She wrote poetry and several books about dance, returned to San Antonio in 1984, and died here in 1988.
In 1942, Ozell Thomson and her husband, attorney George Robert Thomson, purchased the house from the Hughes sisters and also raised two daughters there.
The archdiocese bought the property in 1965 for use as a Catholic student center at SAC. It’s unclear when the archdiocese stopped using it.
The house “contributes to the historic urban development pattern in the neighborhood where high-style homes were built for prominent citizens at the beginning of the last century,” according to an architectural study of the Hughes House by an area resident.
The now-empty house sits next to a SAC parking lot that was the site of former Mayor John Tobin’s home, demolished in the 1960s. SAC spokesman Ken Slavin said he “had no information” on the house and whether the school is the interested buyer.
Across the street from the Hughes place is the sweeping lawn of the historic 1901 Koehler House which has been part of this college since 1973 and was restored in 2014. In September, the Alamo Colleges board of trustees voted to put the Koehler Cultural Center up for sale by the end of the year.
The Conservation Society of San Antonio and some residents of Tobin Hill and nearby Monte Vista want the Hughes House to be preserved.
Ricki Kushner, a Tobin Hill Community Association board member, said there are several Prairie-style homes in the neighborhood, “but this particular one is spectacular,” she said. “It was designed by an architect for a family. And, oddly enough, it’s only had three owners.”
Kushner bought her Tobin Hill bungalow in 2001 and, fearing expansion of the college or hospital in the area could put her home in jeopardy, she sought historic landmark designation. “I realized that we were kind of in the crosshairs eventually [and] the only way to save this really spectacular house I live in … would be to ‘landmark’ it, and that’s what we did.”
She is urging her neighbors and friends who share her views about the Hughes House to contact the historic preservation office, and so far Miller said that about 20 people have emailed the office directly while hundreds of others have posted to social media sites NextDoor and Facebook.
“But there’s only so much we can do,” Miller said.
Kushner submitted to OHP a request for review of historic significance, which will likely go before the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) in December.
“Unfortunately, even if HDRC agrees that it’s historically significant and issues that finding, normally the next step would be to take it to City Council to initiate the designation process, and we can’t do that,” said Miller, citing the state law. “But we still felt it was important to allow the public the opportunity to comment, to provide feedback.”
In the meantime, Miller’s office has contacted the archdiocese to work out a compromise that would save the house from being razed. One option could be marketing the property for sale in order to find another buyer.
“They did indicate to us that they would entertain any offer,” Miller said. “But they already have one on the table.”
Vincent Michael, executive director of the Conservation Society, said in a blog post that the house is solidly built, and the archdiocese would be “leaving money on the table” if it sells to an “under-the-market buyer.” If more buyers had the opportunity to bid on the house, it could possibly fetch a higher price and one that wouldn’t come with the demolition cost.
“The demolition and disposal cost on this is going to be high,” he said. “Tile roofs are lovely, but heavy. Brick is also lovely, and you can’t push it over for $20,000. Not a cheap demolition by any stretch.”
If the home ends up being razed and the property turned into a parking lot or
A collection of Russell Hughes’ letters, photographs, scrapbooks, and other material chronicling her career as La Meri is available at the Texana genealogy desk at the San Antonio Public Library.