San Antonio, a Texas city steeped in rich history and cultural diversity, owes much of its enduring charm to the tireless efforts of a remarkable organization – The Conservation Society of San Antonio. For nearly a century, this pioneering non-profit has been at the forefront of preserving the architectural treasures, natural beauty, and unique traditions that define the essence of the city.
Overview of the Conservation Society of San Antonio
The Conservation Society of San Antonio is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and protection of the historical and cultural heritage of San Antonio, Texas. Founded on March 22, 1924, it is one of the oldest and most influential preservation organizations in the United States.
Situated in San Antonio in Bexar County, the Conservation Society of San Antonio is headquartered in the Anton Wulff House, a historic building that the society rescued from demolition in 1974. The Anton Wulff House was constructed between 1869 and 1870 by Anton Wulff, a German immigrant who later became San Antonio’s first Park Commissioner.
The society’s mission is to safeguard the unique architectural, cultural, and natural resources that contribute to the character and charm of San Antonio. It focuses on the conservation of historic structures, neighborhoods, and landmarks, as well as the promotion of responsible urban development and environmental stewardship.
One of the significant achievements of the Conservation Society of San Antonio is its involvement in preserving and restoring the historic King William District. This neighborhood, located south of downtown San Antonio, features numerous well-preserved Victorian and early 20th-century homes. The society played a pivotal role in advocating for its preservation, resulting in the district being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Additionally, the Conservation Society has been actively involved in the preservation of other historic sites, such as the Spanish Governor’s Palace, the Steves Homestead, and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Through its advocacy efforts, educational programs, and community engagement, the society raises awareness about the importance of preserving San Antonio’s rich heritage for future generations.
By collaborating with local government, businesses, and community members, the Conservation Society of San Antonio continues to help shape policies and practices that protect the city’s historic fabric. Its dedication to preserving San Antonio’s unique heritage contributes to the city’s identity and ensures that future generations can appreciate and learn from its rich history.
History of the San Antonio Conservation Society
Established in 1924, the Conservation Society of San Antonio is one of the pioneering community preservation organizations in the United States.
Emily Edwards and Rena Maverick Green led the organization since its inception on March 22, 1924. At that time, San Antonio was the largest city in Texas, and its rapid growth was threatening many of the historic aspects of the city. They recognized the need to protect the city’s historic treasures from the ever-expanding urban landscape.
Their journey began with a passionate fight to save the Market House from destruction due to street-widening projects. Built in 1859, it was an architectural gem showcasing the Greek Revival style. The 13 women present at the organizational meeting vowed not only to seek the preservation of the Market House but also other old buildings, documents, names, pictures, natural beauty, and anything admirably distinctive of San Antonio.
Though the Market House itself couldn’t be saved, the society’s efforts ensured that its facade found a new home at the San Pedro Playhouse, the home of San Antonio Little Theater in San Pedro Park. However, the stonework was dismantled to the point that it could not be reused, so when the Playhouse opened in 1930, the city decided to replicate the facade of the old Market House using new stone.
By then, society has already become influential in preserving the city’s cultural and natural wonders. They played instrumental roles in establishing the Witte Museum, restoring the Spanish Governor’s Palace to its former glory, and advocating for preserving the majestic trees along the San Antonio River.
There is a popular belief that society played a role in preventing the channelization of the San Antonio River after the devastating flood of September 9, 1921, which resulted in the loss of life and tremendous damage to property.
The city engineer’s recommendation at the time suggested draining and cementing over the river’s section, now known as the San Antonio River Walk. However, numerous organizations, alongside the City Federation of Women’s Clubs, successfully opposed this proposal. The Conservation Society actively participated in efforts to preserve the natural beauty of the river.
In 1925, the San Antonio Conservation Society was incorporated so it could legally hold property and start buying small individual tracts that once made up the original mission compound.
One of their defining achievements was their forward-thinking approach to preserving San José Mission in its naturally beautiful setting. The society became one of the first preservation groups in the United States to advocate the preservation of not just a landmark but also its entire natural environment. Recognizing the significance of its entire historical context, the society spearheaded efforts to incorporate the mission into the esteemed San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which was only fully realized in 1983. This groundbreaking endeavor showcased their pioneering spirit and deep commitment to protecting San Antonio’s past for future generations.
The present-day San Antonio Missions National Historical Park results from extensive efforts involving the Conservation Society and other organizations. From 1926 to 1931, the society acquired the granary at Mission San José and collaborated with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to restore it, ultimately transferring ownership to the state of Texas in 1941.
The society was also instrumental in encouraging the city and the Catholic Church to turn over the combined San José Mission properties to the state of Texas for management as a state park.
The society’s journey also involved acquiring and restoring various historic properties, such as the Jeremiah Dashiell House, the San Juan Capistrano Mission, Acequia Park, Yturri-Edmonds home, Travieso Mill, and the Ursuline Convent. Between 1952 and 1988, the society acquired other sites and structures for purposes of preservation, including:
- O. Henry House
- 1870 Anton Wulff House
- 1870 Louis Gresser House
- 1893 Staacke Building
- 1891 Stevens Building
- 1913 Rand Building
- 1878 Hertzberg Clock
- 1867 August Stuemke Barn
- 1926 Aztec Theatre
In 1988, the society spent $325,000 to relocate and reconstruct the Daniel J. Sullivan Stable and Carriage House, designed by Alfred Giles in 1896, at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. This restored house was reopened in 1995 and now serves as the entrance to the garden.
With each acquisition, they carefully breathed new life into these architectural treasures, ensuring their lasting contribution to the city’s vibrant tapestry.
Not content with merely preserving buildings, the society celebrated San Antonio’s rich cultural traditions and embraced ecological stewardship. They delighted the community with annual presentations of Mexican folk dramas and the iconic Night in Old San Antonio festival while also advocating for preserving green spaces and planting trees.
With over nine decades of remarkable accomplishments, the San Antonio Conservation Society remains a shining example of the power of community engagement and historic preservation. Under the dedicated leadership of President Susan Beavin, the society continues to build a brighter future for San Antonio, where the past is cherished, and the city’s unique identity is protected for generations to come.
From its humble beginnings with thirteen founding women, the Conservation Society has grown to include a membership of over 1,700 dedicated men and women. These volunteers remain actively engaged in the preservation of history, structures, customs, green spaces, and the rich and diverse cultural heritage of San Antonio and Texas as a whole.
Purpose of the San Antonio Conservation Society
Initially focusing on safeguarding the city’s Spanish Colonial missions, the primary goal of the Conservation Society is to preserve numerous historic attractions to educate the public about the history of San Antonio. It has played a crucial role in preserving numerous structures throughout the city, contributing to San Antonio’s status as a premier tourist destination in Texas. Notably, the society has saved various properties in La Villita and the King William Historic District, some of which it owns or previously owned.
It aims to preserve and promote the conservation of historic buildings, objects, places, and traditions integral to Texas’s history and unique character. By actively safeguarding these physical and cultural elements, the society endeavors to ensure that Texas’s history remains intact and accessible, particularly for present and future generations, providing valuable knowledge about our inherited regional values.
How the Conservation Society of San Antonio Helps the City
Besides working for their main purpose, the Conservation Society of San Antonio serves an important role in helping the city of San Antonio in various ways, such as:
They provide historical education
Every year, the society organizes free school tours for more than 3,000 fourth-grade students from San Antonio, guiding them through the historic sites that have helped save. These include notable locations such as Missions San Jose and Concepcion, the Steves Homestead, Casa Navarro, and the Spanish Governor’s Palace. Distinguished historians and conservators contribute their expertise during our Membership Meetings and Historic Preservation Month event. Also, their library serves as a valuable resource for those seeking knowledge about the rich history of San Antonio.
They provide building grants
Each fall, the Conservation Society of San Antonio gives building grants to support the preservation of historic properties throughout the region. From modest Victorian cottages to grand churches and commercial buildings, they contribute to their upkeep. Additionally, they provide grants for educational projects encompassing research, video production, publication printing, and document conservation. They also extend support to two scholarship programs for college students in collaboration with the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Texas Architectural Foundation.
They have a house museum
The Yturri-Edmunds House, located on the Mission Reach, offers a unique opportunity to experience an intact 19th-century adobe brick house situated on mission land.
They support advocacies concerning historic sites
They actively participate in meetings of the City’s Historic and Design Review Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals, Board of Adjustment, and City Council, ensuring their presence in discussions concerning historic sites and districts. They engage in legislative meetings with representatives at both state and federal levels when preservation laws are at stake. Locally, their Neighborhood Liaison Committee members attend resident association and community meetings to stay connected with the concerns and priorities of San Antonians regarding their neighborhoods.
They conduct surveys regarding heritage resources
The Society’s Historic Surveys Committee and Historic Farm and Ranch Complexes Committee collaborate to survey and inventory the heritage resources within the city, county, and surrounding areas. They work closely with the City of San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation to ensure the preservation of the most significant sites.
They hold preservation-focused events and fundraisers
Their hosting of A Night in Old San Antonio solidifies its status as one of the largest and longest-running cultural heritage events dedicated to historic preservation in the United States. This highly anticipated celebration serves as both a preservation-focused gathering and a significant fundraiser, attracting the participation of individuals and organizations from across the country.
This four-night extravaganza, held during Fiesta, attracts 80,000 visitors who celebrate San Antonio’s cultural diversity through costumes, music, food, and drinks. The proceeds from this event contribute to various initiatives within the San Antonio community, including funding for their Building Grants and Educational Grants.
History of A Night in Old San Antonio
An integral part of the society’s activities is its annual event, A Night in Old San Antonio, which has taken place during Fiesta week in April since 1948.
A Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA) is an annual event organized by the Conservation Society to generate funds for the preservation of historic sites in the city. Through partnerships with the city, the society acquires and restores historic structures while also providing restoration-rehabilitation grants to individuals and organizations. Since 2000, the festival has allowed the society to award over $2 million in grants.
The event’s origins trace back to 1936, when it was known as the Indian Harvest Festival. Initially held at the recently restored Mission San José, the celebration focused on a historical reenactment depicting the lives of the mission’s indigenous inhabitants. In 1940, the festival evolved into the River Jubilee, commemorating the beautification of the San Antonio River. In 1945, it joined forces with the city’s Fiesta San Antonio, and in 1948, it officially became known as A Night in Old San Antonio under the leadership of Mary Vance Green. The theme that year revolved around the city during the Republic of Texas era.
Initially, the event took place for a single night until 1954, when a second night was added. Two years later, a third night was incorporated, and by 1958, it had expanded to a four-night celebration. Attendance reached 100,000 by 1976; by 1985, the event generated profits exceeding $500,000. Such large crowds have necessitated the use of an armored truck to transport the event’s proceeds to the bank.
In 2012, the city of San Antonio granted a 10-year extension, with the option for an additional 10-year extension, to the Conservation Society of San Antonio (SACS) for holding their annual NIOSA in La Villita, solidifying the event’s venue location.