A building in west downtown that was once a brothel in San Antonio’s red-light district before serving for decades as a nursery is now eligible to become a designated landmark, against the will of its owner who wants to tear it down to build a residential tower.
The city’s Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) voted unanimously on Wednesday to grant eligibility to the building at 503 Urban Loop, known as the Aurelia Dashiell House, part of which dates to 1883 and served as a hideout for Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch gang. The case will have to pass through the city’s Zoning Commission and HDRC once again, and be approved by City Council, before the building can become an official landmark.
The city thought the building was already a landmark until its owner—a company managed by Douglas Miller, of the Bill Miller Bar-B-Q family—asked for permission to demolish it, whereupon city staff couldn’t find records showing it had been declared one.
Miller’s company, DPMiller Investments LLC, hopes to demolish the 1883 building, and additions made between the 1930s and 1960s, to construct an eight-story residential tower with about 200 living units on the site, according to a request it submitted to the HDRC in March.
Once it became known that the building was not a landmark, the Conservation Society of San Antonio and two West Side groups, the Westside Preservation Alliance and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, asked the city to review whether it was eligible to become one.
The Dashiell House, an example of Spanish Eclectic-style architecture, is one of the few remaining buildings from Laredito, a working-class Mexican-American neighborhood that included the red-light district, known as the Sporting District, featuring gambling halls, dance halls and theaters, according to the city’s Office of Historic Preservation. The district was established in 1889 through a City Council ordinance and operated until 1941, when Dwight Eisenhower shut it down during his command of Fort Sam Houston.
The building now sits between Interstate 10 and a Holiday Inn, after the highway’s construction and urban renewal projects of the mid-20th century erased nearly all of Laredito.
“The West Side did not get preserved like the North Side did, and we have to make do, sometimes, with structures that aren’t spectacular because they are what’s left of the history,” Vincent Michael, the conservation society’s executive director, said at the Wednesday meeting.
James McKnight, an attorney for law firm Brown & Ortiz, which represented the property owner, argued that the 1883 building is concealed behind later additions and that its historic value isn’t significant enough to warrant preservation.
The fact that it is one of the few buildings left from Laredito isn’t enough, McKnight said. “There still has to be something unique or singular about that property,” McKnight said.
Commission member Scott Carpenter used a metaphor to describe his feelings toward the building: It is “the last white bengal tiger—who cares if it has fleas. It’s still the one that you have to save,” Carpenter said.
“It has been radically altered, and it is missing a great deal of its character-defining features. But that’s me as an architect, as a preservationist speaking. I am not a cultural historian,” he said. “My sense is, when I look at this, it is something that has great historical significance to the community because of those cultural associations.”
The Dashiell House functioned as a brothel until around 1913, according to the conservation society. For some of that time it was the residence of Fannie Porter, famous for her work as a madam in late 19th-century San Antonio, and who allowed Butch Cassidy and his gang to stay there.
In 1913, the Rev. J.W. Shaw, the bishop of the diocese of San Antonio, bought it and turned it over to the Carmelite Sisters to run it as an orphanage and day care center. The sisters used the building for more than 70 years before selling it in 1990 to Father Flanagan’s Boys Home of San Antonio, also known as Boys Town, which closed in 2017.
DPMiller Investments bought the building in 2020, county deed records show. The entity owns a total of five properties along the western side of Urban Loop, amounting for a total of 1.9 acres.
With the University of Texas at San Antonio launching a major expansion in the area, and the San Pedro Creek Culture Park being built along the former ditch a few blocks away, the neighborhood that was once Laredito is set to be reimagined once again.
[ Related: Developer Adelman asks to demolish old Cattleman’s Square Tavern for 122-unit apartment building | May 18, 2021 ]
Many activists and residents nearby are fearful that the new construction will price them out of the area and erase even more of its history. Over the last year, several developers have asked the city for permission to demolish historic buildings on the West Side to make way for new construction.
[ Related: Historical commission approves Whitt Printing building partial demo | June 3, 2021 ]
“The pressures from land speculators, people just trying to make their money, going to any part of town—they hit the East Side, the North Side, the South Side, and what’s left is the historic West Side,” Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza, said in an interview. “I think we were lucky we had the jails, the homeless shelters, all surrounding it so nobody wanted to venture into that area. But they’re there now.”
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