After moving to San Antonio from Louisville, Ky., in the hope that the local climate would be better for his health, the manufacturer R.M. Hughes built a home at 312 W. Courtland Place to live in with his wife and two daughters.
When the home was finished in 1913, it sat in a tony area of Tobin Hill where some of San Antonio’s most prominent citizens lived. The three-story mansion of Otto Koehler, president of Pearl Brewing Company, was across the street. San Pedro Springs Park and its streetcar line were two blocks away.
Today, the Hughes home basically sits on the campus of San Antonio College. After purchasing it in 1965, the Archdiocese of San Antonio operated it for decades as a Catholic Student Center for the college before shutting it down in recent years. Many of the stately homes that stood beside it have been replaced with parking lots. One exception is the Koehler house across the street; Alamo Colleges has owned the property since 1973, and recently decided to sell it.
With its triple-arched entryway and terra cotta roof as bright as a sunset, the Hughes home is one of the few remnants of the neighborhood’s turn-of-the-century heyday–but because of an exception carved out in state law, it could soon be torn down.
On Sept. 23, the archdiocese submitted an application to the city to demolish the 108-year-old Hughes home, telling District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo and others that it had received an offer to purchase the 0.2-acre property, without disclosing the name of the interested buyer. It’s unclear what plans the potential buyer has for the property.
Since then, Bravo and the Tobin Hill Community Association, as well as the Conservation Society of San Antonio and Shanon Shea Miller, director of the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, have scrambled to find a way to save the home–a rare example in San Antonio of Prairie architecture, a style known for its broad eaves reminiscent of the flat lines of the American plains, most famously employed in Chicago by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Yet there is little they can do, because the home was never declared a historic landmark, and it is outside the boundaries of the historic districts for Tobin Hill and Monte Vista.
In normal circumstances, someone could seek to prevent its demolition by asking the city to declare it a landmark or include it in a historic district. But a state law passed in 2019 and updated this year requires municipalities to get the consent of religious organizations, such as the archdiocese, before putting their properties under historic protection.
Councilman Bravo and Miller of OHP had a virtual meeting earlier this month with two executives from the archdiocese to urge them to preserve the building.
Lasting about 20 minutes, the meeting was not productive, Bravo said.
“It wasn’t a ‘What would Jesus do?’ kind of meeting,” Bravo recalled. “They were not open to any suggestions, they didn’t make eye contact during the meeting. They had already made up their minds and they were not open to what the community might want.”
The officials signaled that they might consider other offers for the home, Miller said. “I think that they are open to other options, but I don’t think they’re actively exploring other options,” she said.
Neither Bravo nor Miller have communicated with the archdiocese since that meeting, they said.
Jordan McMorrough, a spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to comment.
Most of the land in the blocks around the Hughes home is owned by the Alamo Colleges District, of which San Antonio College is a part. Ken Slavin, a spokesman for San Antonio College, did not respond to a question sent via email whether the college had shown interest in the home.
On Oct. 22, the Tobin Hill Community Association filed a request for the city to review the property’s historic significance. As a result, the demolition process is on hold until the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission, or HDRC, can consider the case at an upcoming hearing, currently scheduled for Dec. 15.
Yet the HDRC has no say over what happens to the home. Normally, it would have the power of issuing a finding of historic significance, sending the case to City Council to then decide whether to protect the home. But under the new state law, the commission’s finding can’t go before council without the consent of the archdiocese, Miller said.
It’s unusual for the city to get a request for demolition on a property that is so historically and architecturally unique and has been so well-maintained, she said.
The builder, R.M. Hughes—owner of the R.M. Hughes & Co. vinegar and cider manufacturing company—hired the prominent Prairie architect Mason Maury, of his hometown of Louisville, to design the home, according to a report completed last month by local historical firm AHP Digital.
“It’s not very often that we get a property like this, that people look at and go, ‘What? I don’t understand’,” Miller said. “It’s just kind of disheartening. You see things like this that are historically and architecturally significant to the community, culturally significant, and then you put that on top of the concerns for the climate, just the waste that is associated with demolishing a building like that.”
Hughes’ younger daughter, Russell Hughes, grew up to become a famous dancer after studying Spanish and Mexican dancing at the home, according to AHP’s report. Known as “the undisputed queen of ethnic dance,” she toured Europe, Asia and Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s under the name “La Meri.”
“It was not long before 312 W. Courtland Pl. was a hotbed of soirees,” the report notes. “Music and dancing performances were mainstays in the Hughes House.”
She and her sister, Lilian, began leasing the home after the death of their mother, Lily, in 1927. They went on to sell it in 1942.
Russell Holmes died in San Antonion in 1988 at the age of 89. Her obituary in the New York Times described her as a “dance ethnologist,” noting that she had studied and performed in Europe, South and Central America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, the Philippines, China, Japan and other countries. In 1940, she co-founded a dance school known as the School of Natya in New York City, and she went on to write six volumes of poetry and five books on dance.
Those who are fighting the home’s demolition say they hold out hope that the archdiocese might change its mind after taking stock of the community opposition.
Residents of Tobin Hill have been posting about the case on social media sites such as Nextdoor. Vincent Michael, executive director of the Conservation Society, wrote a blog post about the case, saying of the home: “It’s pretty. It’s intact. It is a solidly built, eminently adaptable house.”
“I think that once the spiritual leaders understand where the community is at, there could be a change in heart,” Bravo said. “I don’t think the buyer understands what a black eye they’re going to start with with the community, to pay the church to knock that house down.”
Ricki Kushner, chair of the historic preservation committee at the Tobin Hill Community Association, said she has left her name and phone number with the archdiocese but has received no response. She is working on bringing the matter to the attention of members of the Tier One Neighborhood Coalition, a coalition of neighborhoods across San Antonio.
“We are really concerned about this. It is a magnificent house. It is architecturally one-of-a-kind,” Kushner said. “We just really hate for the heritage of our neighborhood to go away.”
The home is only a block away from the western border of Tobin Hill, which spans about a square mile of land north of downtown. A recent surge of development has transformed the neighborhood, especially on its western edge around San Antonio College and its eastern edge where it encompasses most of the Pearl.
The Tobin Hill Historic District covers only the neighborhood’s inner core, roughly from McCullough Avenue to North St. Mary’s Street, between Evergreen Street to the south and Courtland to the north.
“The city has decided that they will just let development happen, much denser development,” Kushner said. “What it’s done is, especially on the west side, it has done away with an awful lot of the better, more substantial houses that were in the Tobin Hill neighborhood. There are a few of them left, but not very many.”
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter
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