“It needs some serious work inside, so just keep an open mind and go with me on this one,” my wife told me when we were searching for a new home, and an unusual option caught her eye. She said she had always wanted to live in an old fire station and fix it up. Little did I know that proposition would lead to us becoming happy residents of a hidden gem of a central San Antonio neighborhood that I had never even heard of before.
I had moved to San Antonio from Denver in 2009 in order to be closer to my family and was working for a large web hosting company in Windcrest. I met and fell in love with Sonia, a charming artist and college professor, and we became parents in 2013. Less than a year after the birth of our son, we were looking to get out of our rental located near Central Catholic High School. We loved being downtown, but were missing any kind of a neighborhood feel.
While searching for another rental, Sonia spied a unique looking property for sale in the neighborhood we mostly knew as being next to Chris Madrid’s. We learned that the house had fallen out of contract that very day and, suspecting that it wouldn’t be around very long, we made an offer immediately.
After the hasty decision to make an offer on the house, thinking of my son’s safety, I went back the next day to scope out the neighborhood and see what the people and car traffic was like. I stopped the first couple I saw walking their dogs up the street and asked them what I should know about the neighborhood. Jonathan and Cameron, a married couple of architects who lived around the corner, gave me a qualified but positive review of the area, describing the close knit community that counterbalanced some of the rougher elements in the neighborhood. Nowadays, I can count on seeing one or both of them in the evening with their dogs and catching up on each other’s news.
We purchased the original Fire Station 17 to be our family home. I jumped at the chance to buy my first house, and was intrigued by the cultural cachet of owning a piece of San Antonio history. Any doubts I had about living in an industrial space vanished after seeing the building. It doesn’t really look like a fire station at all. From the street it just looks like a neat one-story Spanish-style bungalow with a very long garage. After researching the names on the fire station dedication plaque from 1925, I learned that Spanish Colonial Revival style was a hallmark of the noteworthy architect of record.
Harvey Partridge Smith was locally renowned as the restoration architect for the Spanish Governor’s Palace in 1928. He was appointed in 1933 to oversee the major restoration of Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo. Our fire station in Beacon Hill must have been among his first public works project in San Antonio that led to these higher profile commissions.
On the day we moved in we found that we already had friends in the neighborhood. I had noticed a familiar truck that belonged to a previous neighbor of mine when I used to live in Tobin Hill. Through an amazing coincidence, our old friends Tim and Peter had moved into a house three doors away. They’re always on the short list for our infrequent parties, and we help each other out with gardening when needed.
Beacon Hill is a roughly triangular neighborhood running from Interstate 10 to San Pedro Boulevard, bounded by Hildebrand Avenue to the north and Fredericksburg Road to the south. Early advertisements from 1909 monikered it as “the Queen Suburb” with a signature feature of massive cement entrance posts at the intersections of all neighborhood streets with Blanco Road.
By the mid-2010s many of the large old Colonials and Italianate houses had been chopped up into multi-unit dwellings, and the Beacon Hill cement posts were crumbling ruins covered in graffiti. The streets and sidewalks were characterized by disrepair. The wind blew a daily litter of torn up scratch lotto tickets and empty tallboys into our unfenced yard. Stray animals, tagging, and evidence of urban campers permeated the alleys. Property crime and resulting police activity was common.
Still, Beacon Hill looked like a diamond in the rough. The neighborhood streets are tree lined with spacious yards and ample space between houses. Restaurants like the Blanco Cafe could be reached by a short walk past antique furnishing stores like Karolina’s and the Junction. My favorite part is the prolific public art in the Midtown business district with several murals and the obelisk-shaped sculpture called The Beacon at the roundabout at Blanco and Fulton.
We discovered an active community spirit embodied in the Beacon Hill Area Neighborhood Association (BHANA) that holds monthly meetings and publishes a newsletter. This group champions the preservation and improvement of the neighborhood homes and businesses. They have helped rally critical support for efforts including the development of a neighborhood linear park and the designation of a railroad quiet zone for the line running between us and Alta Vista. BHANA also maintains a lovely community garden and organizes neighborhood events like a holiday party, movie nights, and trash cleanup days.
BHANA had been fighting the good fight for a number of years, leading to the establishment of Beacon Hill as a Neighborhood Conservation District in 2005. The NCD seeks to preserve the traditional site development patterns for the neighborhood. For example, this combats the redevelopment of single family homes into a triplex shoehorned in right up to the property line. Different from the constraints of a historic preservation district, the NCD speaks to a sense of balance between practical utility and preserving the unique identity of this neighborhood.
In 2017 I was offered a career opportunity that would move our family to Seattle. Reluctant to let go of our historic gem of a fire station, we decided to make our house a rental property while we were gone. We expected that the area would continue to develop and improve, and that we might someday return to a cleaner and nicer neighborhood. Through an active Beacon Hill Facebook group, we constantly checked in on our old neighborhood with more than a touch of homesickness. We saw the addition of wheelchair accessible ramps at street corners, the road improvements on Grant Avenue, and the resurgence of Chris Madrid’s after a fire threatened to shutter it.
Missing the warm weather, excellent food, affordable cost of living, and friendly personalities of San Antonio, we made the decision to move back home at the beginning of 2020. We were happy to discover new favorites like the incomparable SoHill Cafe and their sister restaurant Julia’s Bistro. We were happier still that our old neighborhood favorites like Rolando’s Super Tacos and Fina’s Kitchen were alive and well. The streets seem cleaner, and the neighborhood feels like it is moving in the right direction.
It’s not everyone who can say that they were able to make their spouse’s dream come true, but I can after taking a chance on a decommissioned fire station to be our family home. For her the thrill was in converting an industrial building rich with history into a livable and joyful space for our family. For all of us, the joy is daily living in a vibrant neighborhood full of friendly faces, and affordably close to all the best that San Antonio has to offer.