A decade ago, the old SAHA administration building at Labor Street and Refugio was boarded up and empty. But the neighborhood wanted to turn it into something useful — a neighborhood arts center.
This wasn’t just casual talk. It was real.
We had a plan; we had tenants; we had funding. SAHA was on board. We even had an architect.
Then it all fell apart in the space of just a few days.
And today it remains boarded up and empty.
The minimalist art deco administration building is a classic of its period, designed by a significant San Antonio architect, Nathan Straus Nayfach, according to UTSA architectural historian Shelly Roff. Nayfach, according to Shelly, was the designer of the Alameda Theater and was a prominent advocate for public housing.
But once it was abandoned by SAHA, the building became an eyesore, known primarily for a group of men who hung out on the front steps drinking from bottles and cans in paper bags.
Lots of people, I’m sure, had talked about doing something useful with that building over the years, but an unusual confluence of events in late 2012 sparked an effort to turn that talk into something concrete.
First, two neighborhood non-profits were looking for space.
Conjunto Heritage Taller is a truly local non-profit, dedicated to preserving traditional conjunto music. It offers low-cost classes in the accordion and bajo sexto, and its students regularly perform for community events.
Back in 2012, the Taller was about to lose its space in a converted house on South Presa. Co-founder Rudy Lopez was desperately searching for new space that his fledgling group could afford.
Gemini Ink is another local non-profit, offering classes in writing to the San Antonio community. Back in 2012, the organization was headquartered on South Presa, in space that is now the back end of Maverick. Their lease was up for renewal soon, and director Sheila Black was hoping to find something affordable in the neighborhood.
Then the second lucky break: Both Sheila and Rudy attended the weekly Lavaca and Friends happy hour at Liberty Bar, and one Thursday evening they started talking about their common problem with leases. Rudy thought that both their problems could be solved by taking over the SAHA administration building. That sounded like a good idea to Sheila, so, with two people now on board, Rudy decided to push a bit further, talking up the idea with other happy hour attendees.
Rudy managed to assemble a team that included himself and Sheila, plus me (at the time, vice-president of the neighborhood association), and Shelly Roff, a UTSA architectural historian.
Shelly quickly did two critical things for the team.
First, as an architectural historian, she made a case for the historic value of the building.
Second, she connected the team to Bill Dupont, an architectural preservationist with UTSA, who gave us some guidance on what it takes to rescue a structure like the administration building.
So the team went further.
SAHA gave the group a copy of the then-most-recent architectural drawings for the space, and the team met to begin blue-sky talks about how it could be used.
The team had lots of ideas — offices for arts organizations; an office for the neighborhood association, space for one-on-one music classes; classroom space for larger groups, such as Gemini Ink classes; a large space for community events like neighborhood association meetings; after-school art programs for kids; a coffee bar in the lobby; tables outside for drinking coffee and talking.
Members of the team also considered practicalities. Sheila and Rudy identified possible sources of grant money. Shelly identified resources within the UTSA architecture department.
Eventually, we had a rough plan.
What we didn't know was how our plan would be received by SAHA. We didn't know whether there might be some sort of restrictions on how the space could be used. We didn't know if there might already be other plans.
Presenting to SAHA
Here are the slides we presented to SAHA, pitching a Lavaca Community Arts Center.
At the time, the neighborhood had a good working relationship with SAHA, so the team was able to get an audience with some senior people relatively quickly.
We put together a slide show that outlined the plan. In our presentation, we talked about the participating non-profits, our ideas for usage, and some specific sources for potential funding.
The presentation went well, and SAHA bought into it, assigning an in-house architect to work with us.
With SAHA’s cooperation, the entire team — including preservationist Bill Dupont — was able to do an inspection of the building. Not unexpectedly, the place was a mess inside. However, the possibilities of the space were apparent -- it had large meeting spaces, small offices, even a kitchen -- and Bill Dupont told us that the building ‘had good bones’, making it a good candidate for renovation and re-purposing.
The plan at that point was fairly simple: SAHA said it would fund the renovation, if we limited it to basics, like making it safe and livable, and avoided any expensive enhancements. Under those circumstances, SAHA would also keep the rents low. Over time, we could talk about more investment and more improvements.
More inspections followed, Rudy remembers, including with engineers assigned by SAHA.
The plan was rolling.
The Taller was ready to move. Gemini Ink had decided not to renew its then-current lease. Both organizations had draft SAHA lease agreements to review.
And then financial disaster hit.
It was all kind of complicated, but basically Congress had given itself a drop-dead date to come up with a trillion dollar deficit reduction package (give or take a few hundred billion) and then failed to meet its own deadline. As a result, automatic across-the-board cuts were triggered, set to begin in January of 2013.
SAHA didn’t know exactly how those cuts would affect it, but it knew that it no longer had discretionary funds to give Lavaca an arts center.
Our project was dead.
Things got worse
Things only got worse when Lourdes Castro Ramírez, the president and CEO of SAHA, who had approved the plan, got invited to Washington to join HUD under former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.
Over the years since then, various plans for the space have come and gone.
At one point, SAHA told us that new apartments were contemplated immediately behind the building (where Labor Street Park is now located), and that the developer wanted to use the space as the leasing office and apartment community area. More recently, we’ve heard that the building is slated for teardown.
Gemini and the Taller landed on their feet
On the bright side, Gemini Ink and Conjunto Heritage Taller did find new space.
Gemini Ink, unfortunately, left the neighborhood and is now located downtown on Navarro Street, near the main library.
Things worked out better with the Taller. After snatching away the administration building, SAHA offered the Taller space on the ground floor of the Victoria Plaza building, kitty-corner from the administration building. When that building was closed recently for remodeling, the Taller found new space at 1443 South St. Mary's, in the Mennonite Church building.
And the SAHA administration building is still boarded up.