The twenty-seven restored buildings in the National Historic District of La Villita chronicle settlement over a period of two hundred years. From private homes to churches to commercial buildings, this area is rich in the history of San Antonio. The area was restored beginning in 1939.
La Villita Tourist Information Center
418 Villita Street
San Antonio, TX 78205
ph.: (210) 207-8619
La Villita is a charming area that mirrors the history of San Antonio in a large group of historic structures dating from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The area was first settled by the Coahuiltecan Indians. European settlement began in the middle of the eighteenth century, primarily because the area was adjacent to the Mission San Antonio de Valero (later known as the Alamo), which was founded in 1718. There was another Spanish settlement on the west side of the river, and four missions to the south. Because this area was at the northern end of the Spanish domain in the New World, the settlers were often in danger of attack from hostile Indian tribes, although relations with the Coahuiltecans were peaceful. The settlements experienced frequent cholera epidemics as well.
By the late eighteenth century, the area now known as La Villita was hardly the showplace it later became. The residents lived in a primitive collection of ramshackle structures. A visitor, Fray Juan Augustin Morfi, described it thus in 1778: “The town consists of fifty houses of stone and mud and seventy-nine of wood, all poorly built . . . so that the whole resembles more a poor village than a villa. . . . ”
Other observers at the time described the settlers as nothing more than “squatters.” Many of the poor Spanish settlers had intermarried with the native peoples who worked at the mission. So by the late eighteenth century, the polyglot style of this area had already begun.
The mission was secularized in 1793, and the land it had controlled was distributed to the Native American and European settlers. The mission then became a military stronghold, and the soldiers stationed there lived in the La Villita area.
When Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain began in 1810, the San Antonio area was a hotbed of revolutionary fever. It was the policy of the Spanish to confiscate the homes and property of those engaging in independence activity. Under this policy, a number of homes in the La Villita area owned by soldiers and civilians were taken by the government. The Spanish then issued land grants to others more sympathetic to the government, and the confiscated property was given away. The oldest extant land grants issued under this policy date to 1818. Some other confiscated homes served as quarters for Spanish soldiers, who occupied them rent-free.
The forces of nature proved far more influential on the development of La Villita than did the local politics. A flood on July 5, 1819, wiped out virtually everything on the west bank of the river. La Villita, on the east side, was virtually untouched, as it was on higher ground. Within days of this disaster, residents of the devastated area began to petition the government for land grants on the previously undesirable east side of the river. The structures erected by those wealthier families form the majority of the restored structures still standing today in La Villita.
Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, but in a few years there came a movement for Texan independence from Mexico. Being adjacent to the Alamo, the La Villita area was the scene of numerous battles in 1835 and 1836. After the Mexican defeat at the Storming of Bexar in December, 1835, the surrender was signed by General Martín Perfecto de Cós in a home in La Villita. This house, now known as the Cós House, still stands.
Many of the earlier, more primitive structures in the area were damaged during the Texas Revolution, and even after Texas won its independence, La Villita was under threat of Mexican invasion. This danger passed only after Texas joined the United States in 1846.
The mid-nineteenth century saw much of the area change hands from the original Spanish and Native American owners, to non-Hispanics. The architecture of the area reflected this change. The older homes made of adobe or mesquite wood and clay were replaced by limestone structures with a Victorian flavor. These new owners also brought with them construction and decorative styles from such homelands as Germany and France, making La Villita the interesting and diverse collection of architecture it is today. African Americans also were an important element in this mixture of peoples.
By the early twentieth century, La Villita was still primarily residential. By the 1930’s, the area had become more industrial and commercial, with a scattering of rooming houses. Many old adobe houses were demolished to make way for new structures. By 1939, a utility company, the Public Service Company and Water Board, owned much of the area and had allowed it to deteriorate badly.
Louis Lipscomb, San Antonio police and fire commissioner under Mayor Maury Maverick, described what he saw in 1939 as follows: “The area around La Villita was one of the worst slum districts in San Antonio . . . it was a hangout for winos, all sorts of vice, and a terrible looking, dirty neighborhood.” The mayor, upon urging from Lipscomb, visited the area and decided to try to gain control of it for the city. He traded some city land to the Public Service Company and the city took over La Villita.
Maverick then contacted a friend in Washington, D.C., who ran the National Youth Administration (NYA), a federal New Deal work program. After some preliminary cleaning and the demolition of some twentieth century commercial structures, the NYA began restoration of the first seven houses on October 9, 1939.
The Carnegie Corporation soon granted the city fifteen thousand dollars for a library, museum, and community center building. This building was named Bolívar Hall, after the early nineteenth century South American independence leader Simón Bolívar. This, along with a few other new structures, was dedicated in May, 1941.
After World War II, other buildings were acquired and restored, and the La Villita area was expanded. The area became a city historic district on October 2, 1969, and later was named a national one.
Among the historic structures of La Villita, the Cós House is one of the oldest; it predates 1835. Other buildings of particular interest include the Florian House, built in 1855 with an addition in the late nineteenth century (thereby illustrating the contrast between antebellum and Victorian design), and the Esquida-Downs-Dietrich House, an adobe structure that was found intact inside the cinder-block walls of a candy company’s warehouse in the late 1960’s. These and the other buildings of La Villita form a monument to the history of San Antonio and the various cultures that contributed to it. Many of the buildings house arts and crafts shops. Interpretive markers, placed by the La Villita Tenants Association and the San Antonio Conservation Society, guide visitors through walking tours of the area.
There is little in book form on La Villita. A variety of literature, however, is available by contacting the La Villita Tourist Information Center.
Federal Writer’s Project, Texas. Old Villita. San Antonio, Tex.: City of San Antonio, 1939.