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Architects pick 300 most truly San Antonio of San Antonio houses

San Antonio Express News logo San Antonio Express News 6/6/2019 By Richard A. Marini, Staff writer

If you live outside Loop 410, you don’t live in a San Antonio House.

Not that your house isn’t located in San Antonio. Just that it doesn’t fit the definition of a home built in the San Antonio architectural style.

And what, exactly, is the San Antonio architectural style? That’s the question a raft of architects, scholars and others have been working to answer since last year when they began developing what they’re calling the San Antonio House Registry, an online database of residential homes that exemplify a type of building and design that acknowledges and reacts to San Antonio’s climate, a type that reflects the city’s cultures and available building materials.

The group hopes the archive will serve as a research resource and source of inspiration for architects, historians, homeowners — even real estate agents looking to better market these special homes.

“There’s a lot of good but generic architecture going up in cities like Houston and Austin,” Don McDonald said. “These cities are beginning to feel the same.”

McDonald runs his own architectural firm in Monte Vista and is working on the project, which is a volunteer effort, although the group has received a grant from the San Antonio Conservation Society. He said he hopes the registry will draw the attention of architects, builders and homeowners to the local architectural vocabulary, encouraging them to build more in these styles that makes the city unique.

“A lot of people coming to town will build what they’re going to typically build unless there’s someone driving the narrative,” he said. “And that’s what we’re hoping to do.”

Similar resources for San Antonio’s architectural gems already exist in books, academic journals and magazines. In 2007 the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects published a thick tome spotlighting hundreds of buildings throughout the region with photos and write-ups of each building’s history and style. And there are plenty of other books that highlight homes in specific historic neighborhoods such as King William and Monte Vista.

But because this registry is online, it can be more easily searched and updated and it will be publicly available on demand.

“Someone who wants to learn more about an interesting house can simply type in the address and get the history, see photos, find out why it’s architecturally significant,” said McDonald. “A real estate agent might use the database to help sell a home and homeowners will use it to find out what makes their home special, inside and out.”

David Wood knew nothing about the registry, although he was aware the 1927 Tudor Cottage at 112 E. Lullwood he has shared with his wife Elizabeth Frerking for about a year and a half is historic. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Being on the registry, Wood said, “reinforces my conviction that we’ve got to keep things as sacrosanct as possible to honor the memory of the people who lived in the house, loved it and saw a historical significance in it.”

There’s no checklist of specific features that make up a San Antonio House Registry house. Instead, the group decided a house must pass two tests to be included in the registry.

First, it must meet at least two of three general criteria. The house has to have been built using local materials, such as limestone or regional brick. It must have been designed by an architect, no longer living, who produced work integral to the city’s identity. And it must contain work by local craftsmen that’s of such merit it can stand on its own.

And second, the house must also meet the more subjective test of looking “like a house that could exist only in San Antonio,” according to the registry website, sahouseregistry.com.

So far, they’ve identified 300 homes that qualify for the registry. Each entry includes a photo and description of the house, the year it was built, the architect (if known) and the address. There’s even a map to make it easier for looky-loos to find them.

The oldest homes on the list are the Alamo Dormitory and the Alamo House, both circa 1718. The newest is Isaac Maxwell’s 1985 Schoenbaum House at 400 Torcido Drive in Alamo Heights.

Well-known homes on the list include the Lambermont (1894) on East Grayson Street, the Steves Homestead (1874) and Guenther House (1859) in King William, the O. Henry House (1855) and the Spanish Governor’s Palace (1749) downtown and several cottages and larger homes that survived the leveling of the Lavaca neighborhood to build in Hemisfair.

All the homes are located within Loop 410, but that could change as more homes and other buildings are added to the list. For now, most are located either downtown or in one of several historic neighborhoods, including King William, Monte Vista, Alamo Heights, Government Hill and Olmos Park.

Some of the city’s most well-known architects are represented on the list, including Atlee B. Ayres, O’Neil Ford and John Kampmann, and architectural styles range from Colonial Vernacular to Italianate to Beaux Arts to Mission.

The effort will eventually encompass all forms of architecture, even commercial buildings. But the group’s initial focus is on residential properties.

McDonald said the San Antonio architectural style traces its beginnings from the humble jacal that predates the arrival of Europeans, who also adopted the style. Later, Spanish and German settlers brought to the area their own architectural styles, which eventually merged.

“So you had this seemingly contradictory mix of exuberant Spanish influences overlaid with stoic German neo classicalism that was adapted to the local climate,” McDonald said.

For example, he explained, early Spanish Mediterranean architecture often featured severe geometry with a flat roof and unadorned facade. Soon, however, settlers realized that the local climate was too wet and too hot, so they’d add sheds or the big porches that are so common today for shade.

Early San Antonio homes were also built with local materials, including limestone, caliche and clay in part because it was readily available and also because, until the railroads arrived in 1877, there wasn’t a ready supply of timber with which to build. That’s also why so many of these older homes still stand, as those materials last longer.

Building with stone and other heavy materials also imposed its own limitations that become part of the architectural style, according to architect Monica Savino, who called herself a “preservationist and history buff.”

“Most early rock buildings are simple in form,” she explained. “If they’re more than one room, they extend outward instead of upward and rarely did they have a second floor.”

That began to change and multistory buildings were constructed once lumber became more readily available and wealth increased among local businesspeople. At the same time, however, more regional, even national construction trends became fashionable and fewer buildings were constructed in this traditional style.

Richard A. Marini is a features writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | rmarini@express-news.net | Twitter: @RichardMarini

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