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.
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).
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.
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 family.
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.
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.