Downtown site of brothel, orphanage not landmark, panel says – San Antonio Express-News

A request for historic landmark designation for the downtown site of a brothel said to have been visited by gunslingers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has gone up in smoke.

After a fire destroyed the structure at 503 Urban Loop — which later was a childcare facility serving the working poor in the “Laredito” neighborhood — the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission voted Wednesday not to deem it historically significant.

But they recommended the owner, a company linked to Douglas W. Miller II of the Bill Miller Bar-B-Q family, conduct an archaeological investigation, donate any artifacts to a local public archive and nominate it to a historic markers program.

The HDRC’s decision ended a saga that began more than a year ago, when preservation groups pushed back on plans to raze the structure. Since the fire in February, those groups have been working with the owner on next steps, said Vincent Michael, executive director of the Conservation Society of San Antonio.

The archaeological study is important because the property could contain artifacts connected with its important history, he told commissioners.

James McKnight, an attorney representing Miller’s company, said in an interview the structure’s strongest historical ties “were physical, and unfortunately that’s gone.” He added that Miller is “pleased it’s not designated” historic and is pursuing a development with a mix of uses.

The property previously included a Spanish Eclectic-style structure built as a brothel in 1883 for Aurelia W. Dashiell, according to city staff’s research. The surrounding neighborhood was the city’s red light prostitution district in the late 1800s.

Famous madam Fannie Porter worked at the brothel from around 1897 to 1901 and is believed to have hosted Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch gang, including Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, who was known as the Sundance Kid.

“No other remaining site in San Antonio is associated with these persons,” city staff said. “This building served as a rare, visible reminder that vice and entertainment played a significant role in the area.”

In 1914, the Carmelite Sisters opened an orphanage and day care there to serve the working poor, immigrants and Mexican families. They made additions to the structure between 1931 and 1963. It was in “Laredito,” a primarily Mexican American working class neighborhood that had been decimated by urban renewal and highways by 1965, according to city staff.

The Carmelite Sisters sold the property in 1990 to Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Home of San Antonio, also known as Boys Town, which used it as a youth shelter until 2017.

Charles John of HSI Design Group submitted a request in January 2020 to evaluate the structure’s historic significance and city staff determined it was eligible for designation.

DPMiller Investments LLC bought it in April 2020.

The following spring, Jonathan Card of Card and Company Architects submitted an application to demolish the structure to make way for an 8-story building with about 200 apartments and retail.

City staff went through records and could not find a historic designation ordinance for the property.

In July 2021, the Conservation Society, Westside Preservation Alliance and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center together submitted a request to review its historic significance. A property must meet at least three of 16 criteria under city code to be considered eligible for designation as a historic landmark.

In September 2021, city staff agreed with the preservationists that the Urban Loop structure met five criteria because of its links to Laredito, the city’s red light district, the Catholic Church’s work with immigrants and low-income residents, Porter and the Wild Bunch.

McKnight said many of the structure’s defining features had been lost over time and city staff had not established that its characteristics were significant enough to merit historic designation.

The HDRC voted unanimously to support designation, setting up a more complicated process for redevelopment of the site.

But the structure was destroyed by a fire in February. Due to the extent of the damage, the cause of the blaze was ruled undetermined, a San Antonio Fire Department spokesperson said.

On Wednesday, city staff said that because of the fire they did not recommend a finding of historic significance and instead suggested four “mitigation actions.” Commissioners opted not to take one of those suggestions, which was funding for research and an exhibit about the city’s red light district and the Carmelite Sisters at Museo del Westside.

McKnight said Miller is still deciding what type of development to pursue.

“It’s a great site,” he said.

madison.iszler@express-news.net

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