SAN ANTONIO – More than a century before a vacant two-story mansion in the 1100 block of North Flores was damaged by fire, prominent leaders of the Mexican Revolution often gathered there.
“This is the only building we have left connected to that history,” said Vincent Michael, executive director of the San Antonio Conservation Society.
Michael and Kathy Rhoads, the society’s president, had gone to see for themselves what the fire last week had done to the rear of the already dilapidated house.
“Breaks my heart,” Rhoads said. “We call it demolition by neglect.”
Rhoads and Michael said they’re concerned the same fate could await the estimated 275 historic vacant homes and buildings in the city’s Vacant Building Inventory of over 900 properties.
Although the San Antonio Fire Department does not track historic vacant structure fires, Michael and Rhoads said at least 10 a year are damaged by fire, often accidentally set by the unsheltered who find refuge in the vacant buildings.
But Rhoads said the number is probably more like “dozens of historic structures are lost to fire in the city each year.”
“We encourage the city to be more vigilant in enforcing the vacant building ordinance that is intended to reduce not only reduce the risk of fire but also demolition by neglect,” she said.
Shannon Miller, executive director of the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, said, “Demolition is always the last resort.”
“It is not easy to get approval to demolish a historic property,” Miller said. “The intent is to protect them.”
Miller said the vacant building program is designed to help by holding quarterly owner resource events “to put those owners in touch with people that can help them take the next step for the property.”
She said another event would be happening in August.
Miller said the city also works with owners to help secure the properties as required by the city vacant building ordinance adopted in 2014.
“There’s no rule against owning a vacant building,” Miller said. “But the ordinance doesn’t allow for it to be a problem to neighboring properties.”
Rhoads said protecting vacant historic structures is vital. However, “it’s difficult legally. That’s the problem.”
She said some involve multiple heirs claiming ownership. Others can’t afford to maintain or secure the properties as required by the city, or they’re holding out for prospective buyers.
Miller said, as a result, “Each case really has to be handled on a case-by-case basis because every circumstance is a little bit different.”
The fact that San Antonio has so many vacant historic structures at risk is “scary, very scary,” Rhoads said.
“It’s our history, and San Antonio prides itself on its history.”