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Fire destroys former San Antonio brothel seeking historic designation

San Antonio Firefighters on the scene at 503 Urban Loop —  a former brothel-turned-orphanage that advocates tried to save from demolition. The structure caught fire late Wednesday night.
Bri Kirkham
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio Firefighters on the scene at 503 Urban Loop — a former brothel-turned-orphanage that advocates tried to save from demolition. The structure caught fire late Wednesday night.

A vacant property that history advocates have been fighting to save caught fire late Wednesday night in San Antonio. Crews were still on scene Thursday morning, and the structure was almost completely destroyed.

503 Urban Loop — a former brothel and later orphanage — found itself at the center of local controversy last summer after its owners filed a request to demolish the building. DP Miller Investments, alongside Card and Company architects, wanted to replace the building with a residential high-rise. Douglas Miller of the Bill Miller Bar-B-Q chain manages DP Miller Investments.

The property was initially protected by its historic significance, and San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation did not recommend demolition. But after further review, staff members realized the historic paperwork incorrectly grouped the property with the nearby Immaculate Heart of Mary Complex.

“Given all of the information available, we did not feel it would be good practice to treat the property as a currently designated landmark,” OHP Directory Shanon Miller said in a statement to TPR last June.

Sometime this summer, Fannie Porter's brothel — where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out — lost its historic designation.

Advocates with the Westside Preservation Alliance and the Conservation Society of San Antonio requested a new finding of historic significance to save the structure.

The city’s Historic Design and Review Commission approved the finding of historic significance in September, but rezoning approval was still needed from city council. This vote had been delayed several times.

TPR reached out to Jonathan Card with Card and Company architects after the fire. He said he’s no longer working on the project.

The fire was reported around 11 p.m. Wednesday according to a statement from the San Antonio Fire Department. The cause is unknown, but with near-freezing temperatures, it is possible someone started a fire for warmth. Unsheltered San Antonians have previously stayed on the property, SAFD said.

Video by Adam Fleming

“Crews attempted to make an aggressive interior attack but due to rapidly deteriorating conditions, and the size / complex layout of the building, they were forced to exit the structure and fight the fire defensively from the outside,” the statement from SAFD said.

A “large” gas leak was also detected, according to Captain Gabriel Ortega, who was on scene Thursday morning.

“You can’t put that type of fire out,” Ortega said, noting an explosion was possible.

Crews waited until it was safe to turn off the leak. As of Thursday morning, the structure was still too dangerous to enter.

“Due to the extent of the damage, the fire will have to officially be ruled undetermined / suspicious origins. The building will likely be a total loss and set for demolition in the coming days,” a statement from the San Antonio Fire Department said.

Conservation Society President Kathy Rhoads said it is “profoundly sad” to lose one of the last landmarks of Laredito — a Mexican American neighborhood on San Antonio’s near West Side largely lost to urban renewal in the 1970s.

“It appears that the visual link to an important history has been destroyed. This history includes the only reminder of the City’s Red Light District as well as a century of community care under the Carmelite Sisters and Father Flanagan’s Boys Town,” Rhoads said in the statement.

“The long and significant history of this site and the people who worked there for the betterment of the Laredito community must be remembered.”

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Bri Kirkham can be reached at bri@tpr.org or on Twitter at @BriKirk