Residents will get the chance this week to weigh in on park designs surrounding San Antonio’s most notable archaeological discovery in recent years – a find that many local Black historians are hoping to see fully preserved and marked.
Early last year, construction for the San Pedro Creek Culture Park led to the uncovering of several partly overlapping structural foundations dating to the mid-1800s near the southwest corner of West Houston and Camaron streets, identified as the historical foundations for the St. James African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Klemcke/Menger Soapworks, Alamo Ice Co., and Alamo Ice and Brewery. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has determined the two older sites, the Klemcke/Menger Soapworks and St. James foundations, are eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The two newer foundations reflect Alamo Ice’s expansion to include the brewing of lager beer.
San Antonians will be able to weigh in on the preservation and park design surrounding these foundations during two virtual meetings Feb. 4 and Feb. 16 and during a public comment period running through March 8.
The San Pedro Creek project is a joint effort by Bexar County, the San Antonio River Authority, and the City of San Antonio. The four-phase project is restoring natural creek habitat and creating green space focused on historic preservation, flood control, water quality, and ecosystem recovery.
Eight park design options will be presented during the two virtual public meetings. The designs differ in the extent of their preservation goals. Some options would have a negative impact on flood control, pitting one goal of the overall project against another. Others would ensure that the 100-year floodplain is contained in the creek channel.
“A Study” would keep the entirety of all four foundations and return the creek channel to its original 20th century configuration, meaning heavy concrete already in place for flood control benefits would be demolished. Its negative impact on flood control goals would be the highest of all eight designs. This option is priced at about $3.8 million.
With two options, “B Studies” would maintain the plaza design and 15% of the current AME church footprint as limited to the street level. The remaining portion would feature either a low stone masonry wall for viewing, an $890,000 option, or be encapsulated as a protected exhibit, with a $1,28 million price tag. It has a significant amount of space for public gatherings and maintains the project’s flood control goals.
“C Studies,” with three options, would retain and preserve as much of the church and soap factory foundations as possible and either 75% or 100% of the church’s stone walls at adjacent excavated grade levels. There would be a smaller space for public gatherings, and the designs’ impact on the project’s flood control goals would range from minimal to significant. The cost of the “C Studies” options range from $2.2 million to $2.3 million.
The seventh option, the “D Study,” would remove approximately 75% of the church’s historic stone walls. In this option, the church’s footprint would be below street level but above the plaza level. The perimeter of the removed foundations would be marked at the plaza level and paseo levels with stone inlay or pavers. This option would ensure the 100-year floodplain is contained in the channel. It is priced at $1.19 million.
The last option, “E Study,” would remove approximately 82% of the church’s stone walls. The perimeter of the removed foundations would be marked at the plaza level and paseo levels with stone inlay or pavers. It would contain the 100-year floodplain in the channel and is priced at $1.22 million.
More details about all eight options are available online.
As one of the oldest historically Black churches in Texas with a thriving congregation to this day, the church site is an extremely rare find, said landscape architect and historian Everett Fly.
“The [City’s] Office of Historic Preservation has indicated that there’s nothing else like this in downtown left, that has an authentic relationship to Afro-American history and culture in San Antonio,” Fly said. “I think [the project leaders] need to think real hard about how they can preserve that entire foundation.”
Founded in 1875, the church was started shortly after the Civil War and emancipation, a huge feat for these impoverished Black San Antonians, Fly said. In a time most Black Americans could barely make enough money to survive, this community raised enough funds to create a church, he explained.
“For years, there have been myths circulated and discussed that the only Black history in San Antonio is east of the [San Antonio] river, and that myth is absolutely not correct,” Fly said.
“The presence of the St. James site … indicates that after the Civil War, there were actually two concentrations of African American communities … in San Antonio. One was on the East Side, yes, but the other was on the West Side.”
He pointed to information kept by the old Alamo Icehouse and Brewery indicating it had Black workers making beer and delivering it.
“The Office of Historic Preservation has researched this independently, and they have verified that this is there’s no other American archaeological site like this left in downtown San Antonio,” Fly said. “I just think that San Antonio needs to make sure that sites and places like this … they’re all of these are part of our collective history, and we can’t just erase them.”
Carey Latimore, associate professor of history at Trinity University, said the church foundation’s discovery represents a chance for San Antonio to “do the right thing” by preserving and showcasing the church site.
“I hope that the public comments are positive and want to tell that story,” Latimore said.
Fly and Latimore, along with representatives from the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, said they hope the foundation to St. James will be preserved in its entirety, a task that may be difficult for project designers.
Archaeologists with engineering and consulting firm Raba Kistner have been tasked with overseeing the archeological and cultural discovery work associated with the restoration.
The first virtual public input meeting will be held from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4. Residents may comment by calling (872) 240-3311 and entering access code 768-127-765.
The second meeting will be from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16. The dial-in option for that meeting is (646) 749-3122 with access code 154-347-917. For more information about the project, visit the San Pedro Creek Culture Park project website here.
Public comments also may be submitted via email to DLL-CESWF-SPCIPComments@usace.army.mil or by regular mail to CESWF-PEE-C, ATTN: Ms. Leslie Crippen, P.O. Box 17300, Fort Worth TX 76102-0300.