or How I Brought My Front Yard Back to Life.

An important part of the Agnes Cotton House of 1886 rehabilitation was deciding how to address the frontage on Crockett Street. When originally built, the house was the only building on the south side of the block and its setting was very rural with a 50’ front setback. Originally used as a part-time cottage for Ms Agnes Cotton and her mother Agnes A Cotton, the concept of a “front yard” or landscape was probably not a topic of interest or concern. Most likely, the frontage was natural or somewhat wild with an array of plantings that were selectively cleared making way for carriage entry onto the site.

THE FIRST STEP:   Other than the house hidden by close growing trees and shrubs, the other notable feature was the expanse of Bermuda (Cynodon dactylon) lawn in the front yard and a concrete center walkway from the street subdividing the yard from east to west into a “high” side and a “low” side. In my estimation, two landscaping approaches would work well with the house. The first would be a formal garden symmetrically designed to coordinate with the very formal house composition. The second would be a native plant garden inspired by the once rural setting to complement the house. Either would be beautiful.

The property is located on the edges of the Blackland Prairies, South Texas Plains and the Texas Hill Country so our geographic qualities borrow some elements from all three zones. The soils are highly alkali, spotted with caliche deposits, windswept on an exposed hilltop, exposed to temperature extremes during the year, and cursed with never enough rain. This is why the Bermuda does so well. The dense cover of Bermuda grass in my front yard is common in the Historic East Side neighborhoods, and historically has been common throughout the state even though in hindsight, many of us consider the turf grass an invasive plant.

Per Larry Mitich’s “History and Taxonomy of Bermudagrass” (1989), bermuda may have arrived in the United States as early as the mid 1700’s.   Easily propagated under good conditions, the rhizomes and seeds spread quickly in the South especially on cultivated soils and fields causing significant problems with crops. By the mid 1800’s Bermuda grass was being promoted in California for ornamental use and it quickly spread to many parts of the state by the late 1800’s. And by this time it was well known that Bermuda was also a noxious and invasive weed!   Others have mentioned but without documentation that Bermudagrass and Johnson grass was used as shipping packing material and even bedding on ships carrying enslaved people during the 1800’s.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the grass in our yard had been in place since the early 1900’s when it was promoted as a landscape cover. Even though the turf grass can be viewed as part of the “cultural landscape” arriving decades after the house was built, the grass provides minimal benefit other than looking “tidy”. On our property and in our case, the Bermuda must be regularly mowed which over our large lot is no small task. Through the decades the turf has maintained the clay-like soils as a hard impenetrable mass preventing rainwater to soak into the ground. The rhizomes are only within the top 2” maybe 4”. Below this level, the soil is hardpan with smatterings of caliche and a few rocks. This combination does little to recharge or create “live” soil for other plants as evidenced by the rock hard soil, and by the small number of volunteer natives and other plants that are soon strangled by the Bermuda.

THE STRATEGY:   One possible solution to maintaining a green yard would be to rip out all of the Bermuda, till and treat the soil, and then replant for a modern Bermuda with better characteristics, plant a different lawn species completely, or plant a mix of native grasses and other plants.   I’m going with “door #3”.

THE PLAN of ATTACK:  In 2016 I started ripping out the Bermuda in places that I knew specific plantings would go. A 4’-6’ perimeter around the stone house had already been scarified, replaced with roadbed hard pack, and topped with crushed limestone in an attempt to manage the drainage and moisture levels around the house. The centuries old practice of eliminating plantings at the base of a house has also minimized the number of insects or other pests inside the home.  The next zone around the house would be native plantings and other features that can be enjoyed from inside the house. And then subsequent zones will be planted with trees and property line plantings.

THE MAJOR CAMPAIGN:   While doing some minor grading on the site and removing 1500 square feet of concrete as part of our site drainage management, we found that the far NW corner was used for vehicular entry to the site: 10’ wide swath of medium and small rocks and gravel leading from the street and stopping at the front of the west wing of the house lay deep below the contemporary grade. This is where the main house entry was until our recent relocation to the east side of the property. In this rocky entry area we found glass shards, metal hardware, tools, cut nails, and even a bottle opener. Some items like a large metal shutter hook were most likely original to the house but tossed aside when the shutters were removed and the large window screens install, ca. 1923.

In time, I took cuttings of some of my favorite plants that I thought would make the transition from Houston (hot and humid climate) to San Antonio (hot and semi-arid) and created the “test garden” which is the small staked area to the lower left corner of the sidewalk. The compost pile that we started in 2016 (before we had AC and heating, and permanent electricity), provides microbe and bacteria rich amendments for these newly excavated areas.

Even while eradicating the Bermuda using plastic sheeting, surface drainage from rains accumulated in the low NW area, flowed where the previous ribbon driveway was and into the street. That merely confirmed what I already knew that this path was the long-time entry to the property and to the house from the street. Over a hundred years of using that path for horses, carriages and then cars, the ground was permanently indented and repeatedly filled with rocks to reduce the mud. This artifact in the landscape would be “Lake Agnes”.

Lake Agnes is a semi-lined bio-retention pond. Heavy rains fill the low spot by simple gravity, but to insure that the Lake would fill more frequently and provide more on-site catchment, we connected one of the house downspouts to a below grade drain. This fills Lake Agnes more often and quicker, and once the Lake was formed, the yard came to life with regular appearances of birds, frogs, and dragonflies.

Over the months the test garden has grown in area and in breadth to become a real garden with native plants and non-invasive foreign specimens. I even carefully cultivate and cull “weeds” so that they can better be admired rather than cursed. The silver nightshade, pigweed or amaranth, silver blue stem, and American pokeweed are examples remaining in my garden.

THE ENEMY LOSING GROUND:   Trees have been added; both native shade trees and under-story plants will provide the shade that will slowly push out more Bermuda. I’ll estimate that almost half of the original front yard Bermuda is gone, and eventually I hope to remove all of it and replace it with grasses and plants that have deeper root penetration into the soil.  As the silver blue stem prairie grasses pop up in the lawn area, they’re revered and cherished.


To add complexity to this topic, when I hear the word xeriscape thrown around in Texas, the examples that come to mind are rock gardens and expanses of cacti. I would argue that what we’ve started at the house is an authentic xeriscape garden even though we have only one stand of South Texas Plains nopal and pride of Barbados. Keep in mind that xeriscape means to reduce or eliminate supplemental water. It does not mean “no water”. San Antonio gets over 30” of rainfall a year and this precipitation supports far more than rocks and cacti. If you’ve created a xeriscape rock and cactus garden that requires landscape cloth or a weed barrier to limit other growth, that’s a strong clue that this is not the xeriscape plant and feature palette to use.

BACK AT CAMP:    Where I’ve disturbed the soil and planted natives, the soil acts as a sponge minimizing surface run off. The roots of these plants are much deeper in the soil than the Bermuda grass they replaced.   As the plants grow, the shade of even the small lilies, sages, and sea oats protect the soil from extreme heat, and that’s the key – keeping the soil alive so that it serves the plants and the larger site. Where the remaining turf grass is, the soil is baked and hard, and when I dig in that location, I don’t find anything beyond 3” deep in the soil.   No roots, ants, spiders, or worms, nothing – just solid, tight clay and a few rocks. In a few years if we want to change the garden design, our plant choices will be greater than the pioneer plants we chose because we’ve cultivated a suitable and strong setting.

In the end, this is what it comes down to: I now have a thriving front yard that is improving every season. The design isn’t formal and symmetrical, but balanced and complementary to the house and its era. The yard is not dry in one area and soggy in another as before. So you know, hardpan soils are just one type of non-permeable cover. Concrete, paved flagstone, and asphalt topping function in the same way in blocking water absorption whereby increasing rapid run-off during rain events and creating heat islands during hot days. The impervious coverage causes issues of rapid run off and heat island effect on a lot-by-lot basis and those issues are multiplied when several lots or acres are redeveloped with little regard to lot coverage.

Here at the Agnes Cotton House of 1886, we’ll continue to eradicate the Bermuda, and in lieu, use prairie grasses and plants that increase soil permeability and absorption for those rains that seem less frequent. We’ll nurture the trees to provide cooling shade as our summers grow longer, and we’ll promote responsible land stewardship for a changing climate at this historic cottage on the hill.

Mitich, Larry W., 1989. History and Taxonomy of Bermudagrass, In 41st Annual California Weed Conference, pp. 181-187. Sacramento.
Natura, Heidi, 1995. Root Systems of Prairie Plants, Conservation Research Institute,



Renovations, remodels and rehabs must have a “big picture” to optimize on the opportunity. This can also be called a master plan. For some, the big picture is to quickly renovate and sell. Others look to remodel and create a family home.   Whatever your choice, just know that the built results frequently reflect the individual “big picture” by virtue of design, workmanship, materials used and fixtures chosen. Sure, no project has an endless budget, but it hurts to see projects that have taken corner-cutting and economizing to their illogical and messy ends. Historic preservation and home building take money and/or time. Rarely, neither.


The Agnes Cotton House has undergone a significant amount of work over the past 3 years and is well on its way to being finished. As you can see from these weekend photos, the project looks like it’s firmly placed in the middle of our big picture / master plan goal: it’s tidied up but it’s still difficult for some to see where this is going.

This part of the project is what I call the “soft, chewy center” – Like a candy, it’s hidden by a harder opaque shell of expectations, sometimes oozes more than you thought possible, can have you chewing harder and longer than hoped, but ultimately, a very delectable part of the treat. The curb appeal beauty of the building and the initial energetic rehab plan (firm chocolate coating) of an historic rehab project coupled with an adventurous chewy center makes for a very satisfying, albeit exhausting project. (My jaws are starting to hurt).

While interior work is taking place, the front porch work is getting wrapped up. All that remains on the front porches is a little more trim work, paint touch up and porch deck painting.   Further exterior work will continue to occur and just as slowly for the rest of the year. Plaster needs to be patched and white washed, gable vent grills need replacing, and chimneys need stabilizing.


The front and rear yards are all a big experiment too! Seriously, we know what it’ll be like once completed but gardening takes years to realize, and frankly, is never complete. The geological and botanical character of our little hill is proving to be very rich and chockfull of possibilities that we didn’t expect when we started 3 years ago. The front building set back is about 50’ so we have a very large area to create some beautiful vignettes. Right now Bermuda grass and black plastic are the predominant features but we’ll shake that up this fall. The small “test” garden seems to be doing pretty well and our true, mortal optimism is open for all to see in the very tiny trees planted in the front yard. We can’t wait for the temps to drop below 100 so we can put in an honest day’s work.



“Oh, you have the Amanda Dignowity House!” says a neighbor.

“Oh, you have the Amanda Dignowity House!” says the City of San Antonio.

“Oh, you have the Amanda Dignowity House!”, says the Conservation Society.

And consistent with my skeptical nature, my response has always been something like, oh yea — how do you know it’s the Amanda Dignowity House?

The previous owner also believed the house to be the Amanda Dignowity House.  And why not?  During the mid to late 1800’s Amanda Dignowity was known to be quite the active businesswoman on the Eastside.  As old-fashioned habits tell us, our neighborhood is her husband’s namesake. More accurately it’s their namesake or even her namesake considering the extent of her business activity.

Scattered about so many places is this often published description or something very similar: “Dignowity Hill was San Antonio’s first exclusive residential suburb. The area was settled by Dr. Anthony Michael Dignowity, a physician and Czech immigrant, who built his family home on a hill to the east of town and called it Harmony House.”

My response now degrading to cynicism says good thing Mr. Dignowity was accompanied by his multi-talented wife and didn’t have to do that settling all alone!   I digress.  But what edited histories for public consumption do is present simplified situations and often with a “lone wolf” endeavor. We forget how very dependent people were on each other in the pre-auto, pre-telephone, pre-digital media and pre-credit card, paypal and amazon days. These pioneer journeys often required entire large families to relocate while simultaneously depending upon remaining family members who often provided financial assistance. Of all of the truncated 100± word Dignowity Hill histories that are scattered about, the short blurb at has the best value in terms of brevity and accuracy.


A J + A M Dignowity, Harmony House. 1921 photo

Texas was incredible complicated during the 1800’s and the Dignowity’s like so many other families had a complicated history. What we do know is that Anthony Michael Dignowity (1810-1875) married Amanda J. McCann (1820-1907) in 1843 in Little Rock, AR. The Dignowity’s came to San Antonio in 1846 when Mr. D volunteered as a surgeon in the Regiment of Arkansas Mounted Volunteers serving in the Mexican War. When Mr. D decided to stay in SA to serve as a town physician instead of heading to the war front, it was a matter of a few months before Mrs. D and their two young children traveled by water via the Mississippi River, New Orleans and arrived in Texas through Port Lavaca and joined Mr. D in SA.

Both Mrs. + Mr. D were very skilled and knowledgeable since they both had full medical educations and both had practiced medicine in Arkansas. Both were also very enterprising business people as they started businesses and invested in land soon after arriving in San Antonio.   To give you an idea of the quantity of dealing by the couple, according the Bexar County Clerk Archives, the number of grantor deeds listed for Anthony M and A M Dignowity exceeds 260. Grantor deeds for Amanda J and A J Dignowity number close to 1100!

1848 was a big year: The Mexican War finally ends with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY. The importance is not lost on the Dignowity’s. The Dignowity’s took advantage of the Mexican War’s outcome by purchasing large parcels of land whenever they became available. Their original home was in a low lying area closer to downtown on Acequia Street.   In time, 2 large land grants were issued in Anthony’s name and by 1858 Amanda had power of attorney over all of their property dealings. In an era when women’s personal legal rights were limited, their property rights were relatively vast in that they could retain title to property acquired before the marriage and had community rights to property obtained during the marriage. However, the community property could only be managed by the male in a marriage and power of attorney was executed to allow both spouses to legally participate in the business. Ten years younger than Anthony, Amanda lived 32 years beyond the death of her husband, so her wheeling dealing years were rich and included much of the historic Eastside as well as other neighborhoods surrounding downtown San Antonio. Instead of following the Dignowity story, which in itself is exciting, let’s get back to the Crockett Street House story.

In the end, one could speculate that Amanda Dignowity had something to do with the Crockett Street House, but exactly what was the persistent question.  Eventually, I did find the Amanda Dignowity connection but it was not what I or anyone else expected.

In June 1881 Amanda Dignowity purchased the vacant lot (1120 E Crockett) as part of a larger parcel from James Jackson of New Orleans. By November 1882 she had sold approximately one acre to George W. Philips. The vacant lot was sold in February 1883 to Annie R. Smith for $750.  A reduced parcel of 1/3 acre was then sold on March 16, 1886 for $400 to Miss Agnes Cotton, a feme sole. The digital archive file that answered so many questions was a Contract and Mechanics and Builders Lien dated exactly 130 years ago today on March 25, 1886 between Miss Cotton and The Bexar Building and Loan Association. It’s in this handwritten five-page document that we learn that Miss Agnes Cotton borrowed $3400. Within this agreement, Miss Agnes Cotton refinanced the lot purchase costs, agreed “to erect, build and construct a one story Rock house on the property below described, according to the plans and specifications therefore marked Agnes Cotton’s Exhibits ‘A + B’. . . . .”, and financed the construction costs.

Miss Agnes Cotton : Bexar Building


For better or for worse, she hired a contracting company that specialized in wood carpentry,  “Cotton + Hornung” to build her stone house!  Previously in partnership with Gus Kampmann, Clem Cotton was Agnes’ brother and was relatively young at the time (20’s or 30’s) while Louis A. Hornung was the master builder and much older.

7:14:86 H+C AD copy

July, 14 1886, San Antonio Light.

What I’ve been able to learn about Miss Cotton has been only through archived publications. Luckily her professional activities were well documented and like so many social individuals during the 19th century, her comings and goings were often published in the local papers. Unlike the tradition that a proper woman would only be mentioned in the newspaper at birth, marriage and death, Miss Cotton was very well respected in town and her activities were sprinkled across decades of news notices.

So today, exactly 130 years to the day that Miss Cotton signed an agreement to borrow what was a hefty amount of money for a single woman to build her own rock house, I can begin the story of this remarkable woman. A future post will be about Agnes, but let’s just start by saying the naming of the SAISD Agnes Cotton Elementary School on Blanco Road in Beacon Hill is a minor honor for an educator that was a life-long advocate for nurturing curiosity and learning.

To set the record straight, what some call the Amanda Dignowity House, and I’ve been calling the Crockett Street House and The Rock is really the Agnes Cotton House of 1886.  Whew – that was easy!


A Twentieth Century History of Southwest Texas, Illustrated, Volume 1 (Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. The Lewis Publishing Company, 1907).
Clinton Machann and James W. Mendl, Krásná Amerika: A Study of the Texas Czechs, 1851–1939 (Austin: Eakin Press, 1983).
A Forgotten Past/A Nebulous Future, John E. Castaneda, 1979. City of San Antonio, Office of Historic Preservation.
UTSA / Institute of Texan Cultures; Digital Collection, General Photography Collection.
Estelle Hudson and Henry R. Maresh, Czech Pioneers of the Southwest (Dallas: South-West, 1934).
Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide, A Biographical Dictionary, 1839-1865, Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn
San Antonio Light, July 14, 1886



If you grew up without a front porch, you just didn’t know what you were missing until you move into a house with one!  My childhood home was a neo-eclectic, American Colonial suburban house built in 1966 with a stoop-like entry.  Barely 40″ x 40″, it was large enough to hold 3 young children for trick-or-treat or maybe two adults for a photograph – but not much more.  With 1″ deep trim inserts flanking the front door that implied “pilaster”, this was a decorated front entry and not a porch.

The myriad of reasons of why porches disappeared on houses of the 1950’s forward might include, the proliferation of an automobile culture which resulted in private homes with clear delineation of indoor and outdoor spaces; the popularity of private indoor activities such as TV watching and record spinning; and the love of air conditioning in the summertime.  Why sit on the porch when all the good gadgets were inside the house?

Our front porches in an earlier era of traditional houses did so many things – might it be called the hardest working room of the house?  Essentially, a front porch extends the private home to the public – it’s the first covered place you arrive to when you visit or return home.  Spatially it surrounds and embraces while our mind hears, “welcome.”  Porches are also a place where you can share your space with visitors without being obligated to enter the main, enclosed house, the private realm.  “The place is a mess”, “The cat is sick”, “The weather is lovely”, or “I don’t know you well enough” are all sufficient reasons to visit on the porch.

Our recently completed front porches, yes, more than one, are very functional 250 square feet of additional living space.  For a house with only 810 SF of livable area, 250 extra SF will go a long way.  Packages and muddy shoes can be left on the porch, cigar smokers can sit on the porch and it’s the perfect place for me to eat unshelled peanuts.  Porches also serve a function for the house as it protects the building face and windows from the wearing effects of sunlight and rain.

This quick bit of reading is a good introduction to the porch on American houses:

If you recall from a while back, the wood porches rebuilt in the 1990’s didn’t wear so well. The west porch roof and decking had rotted and was pulling away from the house while the east porch roof was in almost complete failure.



To make matters more critical, the east porch was still sitting on the 1950’s-60’s concrete slab which was pulling away from the house and damaging the limestone foundation.  An earlier post, Porches – Gone! from April 2014 depict the chore of removing the modern work.


Today, The Rock porches are about 95% finished with only the post caps, bottom skirting and paint remaining.


As a vehicle for architectural expression the porch form alone, without the consideration of materials and details, says plenty about the program of the house, the habits of its owners and the traditions of its place.  In our case, we recreated the porch forms that were original to the house.  Evidence in the stone informed us of the locations and sizes of all three porches while the other physical evidence, research on the general style and elevations of the house hinted at the roof type.  In this regard historically the house is correct, however, as far as actual construction is concerned, we clearly “invented” the details.  And this is not entirely bad.  The photo record we have dates only to the 1950’s and it appears that since that time the porches have been rebuilt 3 times, not including this fourth version of ours.  Each version expressed something about its time whether it was the metal scroll work supports that were sold throughout the neighborhood during the late 1950’s, the modern, 2x handrails of the 1970’s and 1980’s or the post modern red “dots” on the roof beams from the 1990’s (more about those on a later post).  In our rebuilding, we wanted to show the basic elements of what might have been original but without copying the ornate Queen Ann center canopy bracket which just might be original to the house or the classically inspired gable trims most likely from the 1920’s.


Without a record of the original house style, our aim is to let the form of the house be the primary historic record and keep the wood details to a minimum distraction.  More historic research on the circumstances around the house’s construction may allow us to one day rip off the guardrails, add doodads or other architectural elements, but for the time being, the porches’ simplicity and clarity is refreshing.
Lastly, we had a very special angel help us rebuild these essential porches – The San Antonio Conservation Society knows well the importance of porches on this house and very generously provided a grant to pay for a large portion of the work.  We can’t say enough how grateful we are to the Society for their support which ranged from the financial to technical and encouragement.  They are the preservation treasure in this town and the heroes for The Rock.





It certainly is high time that we post another update on The Rock as we now lovingly call the house on Crockett Street. For better or worse, working on The Rock has been like base jumping – an experience like no other and nearly as daring for the rookie. The rehab work is slow but is thorough. With the excellent guidance of the San Antonio Conservation Society, the City of San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation, a slew of knowledgeable people, documents from the US Department of the Interior and the Association of Preservation Technology, combined with our own 3 years of owning the house, we know we’re on the right track. Those of us who own a rock or block house know we have true gems.

When we think of the many glorious and large stone mansions in the City, the King William mansions built during the late 19th century come to mind. But a walk through KW also reveals that many smaller more modest structures of stone dot the neighborhood. And they’re all equally beautiful.


kg wm 3 kg wm 4DBL RAINBOW at Pereidakm wm 5

Dignowity Hill Historic District is similar in this regard – the neighborhood has a few grand mansions of rocks and blocks while several small, more modest structures of stone cropped up during the same time. Maybe it was a stroke of convenience and surplus materials from a larger project that enabled the smaller houses to be built of stone. Maybe it was a traditional preference from a northern transplant.

We have a copy of the original deed that described the financial deal when property was purchased and the Crockett Street House was commissioned. The deed cites “plans and specifications”, but unfortunately, we haven’t found more documents related to the house. The Rock on Crockett Street was built of stone when most houses in town during the last quarter of the 19th century, were built of wood. Sure, commercial, institutional, civic and religious buildings continued to be constructed with stone and we even see steel entering the picture. Then we consider what was happening during the late 1870’s and early 1880’s – regular railroad service arrived to San Antonio in 1878 and brought loads of lumber from points east to yards and shops (source: 1886 San Antonio City Directory).  To this day, names like Calcasieu, Steve’s, Reimann, etc. . . are still found on exposed walls and in attics throughout town.  It seems that The Rock and a few other modest stone houses sit firmly in the transition between rock and wood construction.



Stone brings qualities to a public building that can also be desirable for a house – stone creates a sense of permanence, allows a level of formal and decorative plasticity, and provides structural mass that effects thermal and acoustic properties –  and we can presume that the individuals who commissioned the rock and block houses in Dignowity Hill wanted a stone house for some of those reasons. Wood is good in that it provides economy and ease of workmanship and very good structural properties, but it has to work pretty hard to achieve the distinct architectural qualities of stone.

Folk Victorian.     One thing is certain – of the houses that were built of rocks or blocks in Dignowity Hill between the 1870’s and 1890’s, they are each unique. Although a handful of houses may have followed a folk Victorian L or T floor plan and have an asymmetrical front elevation, much of the detailing is notably different among those houses. Roofs might be lower sloped Italianate or higher pitched Gothic style. Roof connections and resulting eave details are custom for each house.   Then look at the porches. The range of stylistic expression of the column supports and the brackets is simply fascinating! And that’s just for the folk Victorians.

Mansions.   From my quick look-around, I see that Dignowity Hill has approximately three rock or block mansions. The magnificent high Victorian and Greek revival stone house known as the Elmendorf house is on Burleson Street. The landmarked structure built in 1884 was designed by Alfred Giles and sits on a raised foundation and on a hill. The result is a very successfully sited house that oozes prominence!

Another example is the “yellow house” at the corner of N Olive and Nolan Streets. Built of rocks and blocks (brick), the Neoclassical house is in visible disrepair but still very salvageable with a dedicated owner and focused effort (thank you, Google).728 nolan

On the opposite corner across the two parks at the corner of N Olive and Hays Streets is a Colonial Revival brick house. Just as stately, the house will hopefully undergo rehabilitation soon.  IMG_5699

Romantic Revivals.   Another house style, albeit rare, found in the neighborhood is the plan layout that creates a symmetrical front façade. One distinguishing feature of these houses is a very simple rectangular front volume.  Another feature or by-product of the simple front elevation is either a fully continuous front porch or several front porches covering the majority of the front of the house. I currently know of only three of such houses in the Dignowity Hill Historic District. If anyone knows of other stone houses with symmetrical front elevations please let me know so that I can include them here. The house on Olive Street is made of structural brick while Nolan Street (photo by M. Jacob) and Crockett Street are both structural limestone and caliche. All three houses are currently undergoing extensive renovations and rehabilitations to bring them up to contemporary living standards. Although an older house and folk German in style, the Dullnig-Schneider house at the bottom of Nolan Street is in this same unique category.


As with all houses, regular maintenance is necessary. We all know how to maintain wood structures so we can simply say that just a few replacement boards and a bit of paint is all we need. Wood is relatively inexpensive, easy to source and easy to load up into a Honda for your next project. Easy.  I love it.  I use wood all of the time!

Stone houses are a different animal.   But once we understand how the different structural systems interact, it’s also pretty straight forward. Our stone houses may need a lime wash treatment, lime stucco or minor crack patching every few years, but even without it, significant maintenance might occur only every 50 – 100+ years.  When completed, Nolan Street will receive a lime wash (photo by M. Jacob), Olive will receive a stain and sealer and Crockett will get lime stucco.  Wood trims and roofs need attention more frequently. JACOB HOUSE

Most of the stone houses in the neighborhood have endured an unbelievable amount of neglect, deferred maintenance and even destructive vandalism over years and even decades, but are very much repairable and can last as long as other block buildings such as our beloved Missions.  I know that our dear, sweet Rock sat empty for over 20 years and was the victim of at least 2 fires set by squatters. The wood needed replacing, but the stone was fine.

Here’s my current listing of rock and block houses in the DHHD. Firm dates are based on evidence unless noted as ca (circa) in which case the date is sourced from BCAD. There may be more structural rock or block houses in our Historic District but may be concealed with additions or stucco, so let me know of others.  DHHD Rock and Block Houses

519 Nolan, ca 1890, brick
528 Nolan, 1884, limestone + caliche
724 Nolan, ca 1895, limestone + brick
1019 Nolan, ca 1910, brick
732 N Olive, 1872, limestone + brick
903 N Olive, ca 1905, brick
609 Hays, ca 1890, limestone + caliche
509 Burleson, 1884, limestone
1120 E Crockett, 1886, limestone + caliche
413 N Pine, ca 1890, limestone

Obviously, stone is really, really durable and when locally sourced as the caliche examples are, is a very sustainable material. The Crockett Street House foundation perimeter beam is anywhere from 4’-7’ deep, 18” thick and composed of hard limestone blocks. The caliche blocks that make up the walls were most likely sourced from the San Antonio River bed in the area of what is now Brackenridge Park. Unlike the hard, dense limestone that was quarried further away in the hill country, caliche was the inexpensive rock that could be carted to the work site in a matter of hours versus days and could be groomed and installed much quicker due to its soft matrix. Likewise, as we’ve infilled one doorway, modified one window opening and repaired walls at the previous concrete porches, we’ve laid new stone pretty easily with our skilled mason, B. Espinosa and his

Again, the work is slow but thorough. Once the irregularities of excess moisture and eccentric loads are addressed, the stone is set, work continues and the repair will last decades if not centuries.


Mary and Hilario Guajardo were the previous owners of The Rock and they invested much time and resources when they completely rebuilt the south wall of the main room that was failing due to an unmaintained wood addition on the rear of the building.ESPINOSA INC

Now it’s our turn to care for other parts of the house. If we’re lucky, we’ll have this for a couple to a few decades at which time someone else will do their thing with the house, and so it goes. The house survives and along with it, its history and the history of the people who owned it and lived in it.

As simple as it may seem, once a house is gone, sadly, the history of the people almost always goes away.  And this is why we work on The Rock.  1990'S SOUTH ELEVsmall



RICHARD   Scott City, KS

copyright  RICHARD

In addition to the form and roof, original windows are the next most distinguishing features of a structure. For this reason, preservationists are in agreement that the windows are incredibly important when rehabilitating a building. Preservationists, among others – people from other countries, parks and recreation, writers and other clever types often say, “the windows are the eyes to the house”.
I suppose as metaphor, that’s not too far off, however I do think it’s a take-off of an older saying that, the eyes are the windows to the soul. So what’s keeping us from switching up a couple of words here and there? Alec Guiness’s gangster character in Ladykillers (1955) actually uses these two different phrases in one sentence when chatting up the unsuspecting Louisa Wilberforce played by award winning Katie Johnson. Prof. Marcus: I always think the windows are the eyes of a house, and didn’t someone say the eyes are the windows of the soul?

ENOKO123  Milan, IT

copyright ENOKO123

Ones eyes can be the first things we observe when meeting someone and can make a great impression. Similarly, original windows tell us about the history of the building by revealing the material from which they’re made. They tell us about the intended style through size, proportions and arrangement. From the interior, the window / eye allows the occupant to view the outside world.

I like the fact that windows so readily reveal functional facts. For example, in our semi-tropical region, tall windows are paired with tall ceilings for optimum venting during the summers. Crockett Street like many other stone houses in San Antonio have windows whose sills are at the finish floor for more venting and access to adjacent porches! Windows can also tell us about the building structure. For example since a wood structure typically has a wall depth of no more than 7” and the window jamb, trims and sashes will be pretty compact. The walls of a wood structure with stone or brick veneer can be slightly thicker, but rarely as thick as a structural rock wall.

The Crockett Street exterior walls are approximately 12”, which provides generous depth for the wood frame windows. The layering of sashes, stops, casings + trims are extensive and Mark’s been leading the charge to strip paint from these beauties. Overall, the windows are in OK shape and are large. All doors and windows have the same rough opening width at approximately 42”-48” resulting in a 36” clear opening for either. And to provide a sense of scale: the height of window clear openings on the exterior walls is approximately 9’-6”!


The 3 interior doorways and the 3 rear exterior doorways have a clear opening of 7’-0” x 3’-0” which was considered a standard proportion in a finished 1880’s cottage. In the 1990’s the previous owner repaired the pulleys, replaced glass and replaced a couple of window frames. However, the remaining window sashes and trims are still covered with paint, soot from fires and grime over original shellac finish.



We spot tested approximately 6-8 locations for lead in the paint and luckily, found only trace amounts, which is normal. Every window is being disassembled, scraped, sanded, oiled and re-puttied.


Broken panes will be re-glazed. Considering these are the original windows, they’re in incredible shape! After the prep, we’ll prime, paint, weather strip and install new hardware.



This great little house has had over 5 different doorways to the exterior which leaves me amazed to see how flexible and functional the house has been over the years as it accommodated individuals, small and large families. And here we are to impose our ideas of where doorways need to be.
We’re assuming since we still have no documentation on the original intent, that the original house most likely had 2 or 3 doorways: front, side and rear to kitchen and toilet structures. The front door might’ve been either at the very front of the house under the center canopy as a door with sidelights or it might’ve been more modest and located to one side as it we found it. This is where the lack of documentation is a determent since I would expect the front door to be in the front center. Alas, those two windows look to be in their original location.

We’ve swapped the current west facing front door to the east to better accommodate a modern entry sequence via the front walk and driveway.


In place of the two 1920’s rear doors that accessed a wood structure, we reduced the openings and installed in each respective opening new wood casement windows whose framing and mullions are compatible with the original windows.

And this is what we need to “button up” the building envelope and make it possible for us to inhabit.
And to think . . . . several decades ago, the structural failure on this house was sufficient to request a demolition. I’m so glad the previous owners knew that wasn’t the correct path for this house.

1990s rear house

But back to the design detective work and how we might find who originally provided the plans and specifications for the house – we did get some useful information when researching some of the only original woodwork in the house. One part of the original casing trim has a reference that we found with the good and helpful people at Alamo Hardwoods here in San Antonio.


We’ll save this for another day.

Historic Preservation Homeowner Fair in San Antonio


Over the past several years the City of San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation has hosted a Homeowner’s Fair which has proven to be an excellent source of information, news and encouragement for those interested in preserving or rehabilitating domestic structures. We are honored to be invited to present at this year’s fair! Mark Kusey and I will speak to the work in progress at the Crockett Street House and spill some secrets to how we stay motivated.


Tempering the imminent flow of progress and the rampant redevelopment in our cities as it relates to historic preservation or simply renovating older building stock is challenging at best, and downright futile at its worst when property taxes are set to motivate tear-downs. We’ve found that the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio community-at-large has been incredibly encouraging providing information, incentives and plain ol’ good times as we work on “the Rock”.  For the most part, this City really “gets it”.

Here are 2 recent and relevant articles from Dallas and Houston regarding historic structures:

We hope to see you this Saturday!



While we’ve had a relatively mild summer, the heat still can limit the amount of time one works outdoors. Regardless, we’ve made good progress on various bits and pieces around Crockett Street.

The rotting wood porches that we originally thought we could repair were simply demolished. The rot was so extensive that while dismantling it we discovered that no part of the east and west porches predated the 1960’s! The east porch concrete slab was most likely poured in the 1960’s during a remodel, and the main wood structure dates from the mid- to late 1960’s as proven by the wood stamps. The eaves and trims were from the late 1990’s.  We opted to demolish all of this and will rebuild it with properly sized structural members using historic photos to guide us.



Below 6” of topsoil we found another poured concrete slab that might’ve been installed to protect the foundation from rainwater.  This was probably installed during the 1920’s when there was a garage on this side of the house.


One of the most important repairs made in the late spring / early summer was the reconstruction of all of the roof cornices. For years the cornices rebuilt in the late 1990’s had failed resulting in rainwater rushing down the 12:12 roof and pouring down the exterior walls. The water damage as a result has been pretty bad but luckily, repairable.


Repaired roof and new cornices throughout!  Even the front canopy got a new eave!


We’re getting our act together indoors as well! It might not look like it, but this is proto-bathroom and proto-kitchen.


Reviewing an awkward front entry.


We’ve owned the Crockett Street House for 18 months and have been working on it since April 2013.  Although much of the heavy lifting has been done, the house is still in the ugly duckling stage.

BUT  – – there is light at the end of the tunnel!  What few rooms there are, they’re beginning to feel like places that will support our living plans quite nicely.



The city’s OHP reviews colors for historic structures and those in historic districts, but their approach is a very generous one.  Since paint is one of the most ephemeral aspects of a building (other than most of its occupants), the latitude for color is great.

Taking cues from the white of the natural lime stucco, our palette will be one of grays with what I’ll call, “determined” accents.  The yellowy green is historic per Bicknell’s Victorian Village Builder ca. 1872.  The Harrison Brothers Color Card ca 1880’s shows the  color as No. 40 as Pale Greenish Yellow – it’s pretty darn close too.

We’ll team this palette with blooming native plantings that will flourish on our hilltop.