Why Did San Antonio's Most Famous Brothel Lose Its Historic Designation?
Behind a grid of downtown hotels sits a building now known as 503 Urban Loop.
It most recently served as Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. Before that, it was the Carmelite Sisters Day Nursery. And before that it was Madam Fannie Porter’s “female boarding house” — a brothel. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of Wild West fame hid out there.
The business changed hands between other madams, too, when sex work was legally recognized by the city. It was built in 1883 for Aurelia Dashiell and has several Spanish Eclectic additions.
That was all before the two-story structure was bought by the Miller Investment Group, which, alongside Card and Company architects, wants the former brothel and orphanage demolished and replaced with a residential high-rise. Douglas Miller of the Bill Miller Bar-B-Q chain manages the Miller Investment Group.
In early May 2021, the structure was up for discussion in a Historic Design and Review Commission (HDRC) meeting. Several San Antonio-based organizations, including the Conservation Society and the Westside Preservation Alliance (WPA), spoke out to save the building.
“Part of the historic significance of 503 Urban Loop and the surrounding blocks is that they speak of a whole fabric of sociocultural and economic activities of working class labor, including that of Mexican American and African American women sex workers — and predominantly euro American madams,” Donna Guerra, a member of the WPA, told TPR.
Luckily, for Guerra and other San Antonians who want to save the building, 503 Urban Loop was designated historic. And the city’s Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) staff did not recommend demolition to HDRC.
But sometime between that meeting in early May and now, the structure lost its historic designation.
“After further researching the available records, we determined that the designation for 503 Urban Loop is likely an error that occurred about 30 years ago,” wrote OHP Director Shanon Miller in a statement to TPR.
Documents intended to prove the property’s historic worth apparently grouped it with the nearby Immaculate Heart of Mary complex. When this was brought up to OHP staffers, an ordinance tying the two properties together couldn’t be found.
“Given all of the information available, we did not feel it would be good practice to treat the property as a currently designated landmark,” Miller said.
This changes the review process, but the HDRC would still have to approve the new construction.
Advocates for the building’s survival don’t want new construction to completely replace the former brothel and orphanage which, until this week, was known as a historic landmark.
Vincent Michael, executive director for the Conservation Society of San Antonio, said OHP has the evidence needed to prove 503 Urban Loop’s historic impact.
“It's sort of like a 30-year-old clerical error or something,” he said. “But still, they have all the information that proves it’s significant.”
And HDRC does have the ability to request a “Finding of Historic Significance,” according to Miller. Both the Westside Preservation Alliance and the Conservation Society want to see that request fulfilled.
While there are broken windows and garbage throughout the property — it appears to be structurally intact.
“You're not seeing so much the 1883 body, but it's in there and, amazingly, the application from the owners to demolish it included very detailed drawings of what were the original walls,” Michael said. “And to me, it's a classic, you know, half glass, half empty. They see it as ‘It’s almost gone.’ As someone who studies historic architecture, I see a lot of it there.”
There is no historic signage or marker outside the building today, and Michael thinks people don’t know its story.
Fannie Porter was a sex worker who eventually became a madam at the turn of the 20th Century.
“She lived in this house for four to five years,” Michael said.
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were part of the Hole in the Wall gang," he explained. "The Wild Bunch that were essentially Wild West outlaws — romanticized a little in the movies — but they famously used this (503 Urban Loop) as a hideaway, a place to gather together and before they split up. … They robbed banks, they robbed trains.”
There are other details to the structure’s history that are less known. There are more women — while less famous than Porter — who operated the same brothel. And Guerra with the Westside Preservation Alliance said that neighboring properties were socioeconomically connected to 503 Urban Loop.
Romana Ramos, for example, was a midwife at 315 Matamoros Street — Casa de Maternidad — during the same period.
“We believe that it is no coincidence that 503 Urban Loop is just around the corner from Romana Ramos,” Guerra said. “The needs of unplanned pregnancies of sex workers, and having a home for the infants and giving birth to them really starts to make sense when you look at the history of Barrio Laredito.”
315 Matamoros doesn’t exist anymore. Much of Barrio Laredito — a neighborhood west of San Pedro Creek — has disappeared following Urban Renewal actions in San Antonio during the 1970s.
Why then, has 503 Urban Loop survived for this long?
“When we think about the history of the Red-Light District, we overemphasize whiteness,” Lilia Rosas, Ph.D, said.
The professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Mexican American and Latina/o studies explained that people often want the history of sex workers to fit into a narrative of Wild West outlaws.
“If we start to demystify it in the realm of erotica, we see people who are just making a living,” Rosas said.
Similarly, Guerra said “famous people” shouldn’t be the only ones included in history; ordinary people who make a difference in their communities should be included, too.
Both Guerra and Michael said their organizations want to see the Finding of Historic Significance come to fruition.
While the current property owners said the cost to repair the entire existing structure would be too great, there was a possibility for partial demolition. Jonathan Card, the architect, declined TPR's interview requests.
Michael pointed to different opportunities that could be addressed with the additions on the original building.
“Is this 1960s chapel significant? You could make that argument. They (property owners) don't make that argument. How much land do I have to build on? If you're building a new high-rise, you can get up close to the highway and create plenty of sound barriers. I mean, that's not too hard to do. And you've got some areas to the south. It's not a small site, so I think you can do both,” he said.
If it is saved, what could happen next? The official state historian of Arizona — who has ancestral ties to Texas — has some ideas.
“Fannie Porter was a respected, respected businesswoman. It's amazing that the building is still around. Her business should have been turned into a museum,” said Marshall Trimble, who also writes for True West Magazine.
The future of 503 Urban Loop is not yet known. And its history also seems to be hazy — or at least the significance of it.
And that causes Rosas and others to wonder: “If Fannie Porter was historic before, why isn’t she now?”
David Martin Davies contributed to this story.
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