Historic site where brothel once stood to receive archaeological research, public exhibit and permanent marker
The site of 503 Urban Loop — where a brothel and later orphanage once stood — was once again up for historic designation at The City of San Antonio’s Historic Design Review Commission. Except this time, there’s no building on the property. It burned down in February of this year.
Prior to that, the Conservation Society of San Antonio along with the Westside Preservation Alliance drew attention to the structure when it was up for demolition. It was built in the 1880s and later operated as a brothel just outside of the city’s red-light district.
Fannie Porter served as its madam, and she was believed to hide Wild West outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the building. Years later it was sold and became Carmelite Sisters Day Nursery. Its final operation was Father Flanagan’s Boys Town, before becoming vacant.
An investment company managed by Douglas Miller of the Bill Miller Bar-B-Q chain bought the property with plans to demolish the structure and build a residential high-rise.
Enter local history advocates, who asked the city’s Office of Historic Preservation for a finding of historical significance. A 30-year-old clerical error determined the property was not officially designated like once thought, but that could change.
A request to find historic significance was approved by HDRC last September, but a city council vote was needed for rezoning approval. That vote was delayed several times.
Then the vacant building caught fire and burned down in the middle of the night.
“Due to the extent of the damage, the fire will have to officially be ruled undetermined / suspicious origins,” a statement from the San Antonio Fire Department said.
The remaining structure was soon demolished.
At the HDRC meeting on Wednesday city staff did not recommend a finding of historic significance, but instead offered the following options to be accepted by the commission:
- Archaeological investigation and report
- Recovery and donation of remaining materials and newly discovered artifacts to the archaeological collection of a local archive
- Funding for research, publication and permanent exhibit at the Museo del Westside regarding San Antonio’s sporting district and carmelite sisters as well as other areas identified as deserving of additional investigation
- Permanent onsite interpretation visible from public ROW resulting from a nomination to History Here local markers program
Vincent Michael is the executive director of the Conservation Society of San Antonio, and said he agreed with the proposed suggestions, specifically the onsite interpretation.
“We have almost no remnants of this extremely important part of San Antonio history,” he said at the meeting.
James McKnight is a lawyer who spoke on behalf of the property owners. He opposed designation back when there still was a structure, but now agreed with parts of the city’s proposals.
“We’re okay with telling that story; we didn’t feel like it needed to be told architecturally (before),” he said.
McKnight said the property owner would accept proposals 1, 2 and 4. The funding in proposal 3 would have to come from the property owner.
HDRC Commissioner Monica Savino amended proposal 2 to add that the local archive must offer “public accessibility and use.”
All four proposals were approved — including the amendment to proposal no. 2 — unanimously.