First-time visitors to the Bihl Haus Gallery might think it’s an odd location for a public art space.
But that oddity is part of its charm, because Bihl Haus is a prime example of the sort of urban revitalization envisioned by the City’s new vacant building ordinance.
The Bihl Haus Gallery shares its address, 2803 Fredericksburg Rd., with a gated complex called The Primrose at Monticello Park Senior Apartments. Visitors to one of Bihl Haus Arts’ popular gallery show openings must follow a small sign, pick their way through the gates and past the swimming pool to a two-story limestone building surrounded by large public art installations, both functional and abstract. Think of The McNay Art Museum shrunk to the size of a postage stamp, and you’ve got the idea.
The Gallery building was once the George David Bihl House, built by this cattleman and real estate developer as his private residence on a parcel of land “way out of town” on the road to Fredericksburg, circa 1915. The San Antonio Conservation Society considers it to be the last remaining original Hill Country-style German stone residence on Fredericksburg Road inside Loop 410.
Recycled Alamo Stones
Aileen Bihl Locklar, George Bihl’s 92-year-old daughter, recalled in a telephone interview with Eric Lane in February 2002 that she was about five years old when her father built their home. He came from a family of stone masons, and she remembered him carting stones home from the demolished downtown St. Mary’s Church and cutting them to fit the new structure. She was told that the recycled blocks originally came from the barricade built by the American military to surround the Alamo.
After the Bihl family sold it, several owners ran various businesses in the building, including a dental office, a plumbing shop, and an antiques store. By 1993, the property had become an auto auction that greatly disturbed the surrounding residential owners and was eventually shut down in response to neighborhood activism.
Vacant, crumbling, and open to the elements for another decade, Bihl’s home was virtually the only structure remaining in a 40-acre plot and became a target for vandalism. Its location along an important commercial corridor to downtown also lured developers who proposed various schemes that included razing the structure. These proposals were discouraged by a small group of concerned, historically minded neighbors, some of whom had memories of the Bihl house in its prime.
In 2003, Southwest Housing, Inc. of Dallas proposed to build a retirement community on the 12-acre parcel in the 2800 block of Fredericksburg Road. In what is a textbook case of cooperative inner-city development, Brian Potashnik, owner of Southwest Housing, began by asking Deco District area neighborhood associations for input and approval. After numerous meetings, neighborhood residents, led by Eric F. Lane, gave their blessing to this latest redevelopment idea, for the Primrose at Monticello Park, an affordable senior citizen apartment complex.
But what would happen with the graffiti-covered, roofless, crumbling Bihl house eyesore on the property?
Like the other developers, Southwest Housing’s planners wanted to demolish it, but reconsidered upon learning how much the Monticello Park Historic District and its neighborhood associations treasured the historic building.
A New Home for the Arts
One neighbor, Dr. Kellen Kee McIntyre, proposed that the Bihl house be redesigned as a multi-use community arts space to meet the needs of both resident seniors and the surrounding neighborhoods, because no such facility existed in the area at that time. Southwest Housing liked the idea and challenged her to come up with a plan.
The history page at Bihl Haus Arts’ website relates that Dr. McIntyre responded by forming the Bihl Haus Arts Advisory Committee, co-chaired by artist Rita Maria Contreras and made up of community members. Ron Boling, then Director of the UTSA Art Gallery, served as a technical advisor. For four months beginning in summer 2004, the committee developed a plan that was presented to Southwest Housing on October 4. Acceptance of that plan by Southwest Housing essentially gifted the long-term use of the building to Dr. McIntyre and the neighborhood, and marked the formal founding of Bihl Haus Arts, which incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) a few months later.
While reconstruction of the building with a $250,000 budget was in progress, McIntyre, Contreras, and other key area figures such as the late poet Trinidad Sanchez, Jr., led discussions with more than 20 practicing professional artists who lived in the immediate neighborhoods, including Rolando Briseño, Angel Rodríguez-Díaz, and Richard Arredondo.
The building phase was completed in May 2005, and the first Bihl Haus Arts event, an open house and round table discussion for area artists and Primrose residents, was held on June 10, 2005.
Southwest Housing met virtually every recommendation made by the design committee. With some exceptions, the two-story limestone structure was faithfully restored. The original cherry flooring was too deteriorated to save and was replaced with 100-year-old pine boards brought in from another place. The second floor was eliminated because an ADA-required elevator could not be figured into the budget. The front porch was not reconstructed, but its elimination allowed the beautiful decorative carved lintels on the front face to be revealed.
Preservation Builds Value in the Neighborhood
In 2005, Bihl Haus was nominated for and won the 2006 San Antonio Conservation Society’s annual Historic Preservation Award for restoration and innovative reuse.
“Although the house is historically significant in its own right, the project is particularly to be commended in that it represents a successful cooperative effort among private, business, and city interests,” wrote Mariana C. Jones, the past president of the society.
Then-District 7 City Councilman Julian Castro was quoted in the Neighbors West/Northwest section of the San Antonio Express-News on November 9, 2005: “It’s a terrific example of community collaboration and will be a welcome addition that is not simply going to help revitalize the neighborhood, but enliven it as well.”
Clearly the Bihl Haus collaborative model has informed the crafting and enactment of Mayor Castro’s vacant building ordinance.
Since occupying the building, Bihl Haus Arts, Inc. has produced non-stop, diverse, and critically acclaimed cultural programming that has turned a derelict structure into a vital community arts center. For an example one has only to view the Gallery’s current exhibit, “Only from the Heart…” wood sculptures by Haitian-born Texas artist Marika Bordes. The exhibit will continue through Saturday, July 12, 2014. Gallery hours are Fridays and Saturdays, 1-4 pm, or by appointment at 210-383-9723.
The “activities for Primrose’s senior residents” component of the original idea has grown exponentially as well. From an initial offering of two art classes in 2007, Bihl Haus Arts developed its GO! Arts Program of free classes for low-income elders, predominantly Hispanic senior women. GO! Arts was added to four senior residences and community centers in other Council Districts, and will expand again in 2014 to between one and five new sites. Currently, up to five classes per week are taught by local professional artist-teachers at each site, including painting and drawing, ceramics, printmaking, collage journal, creative writing; mixed media, crafts, acting, and yoga.
GO! Arts provides encouragement to personally create in a classroom environment where seniors discover a sense of belonging and renewal, and has been proven to be effective. Health and well-being outcomes of the GO! Arts program were formally assessed by a UTHSCS/UTSA research project, ongoing since 2008. Overwhelmingly positive impacts from the model of free, community-based, professionally taught classes were documented, including reduction of isolation effects and mental health challenges. Study results were published in 2012 in the peer-reviewed, international academic journal Arts & Health.
GO! Arts also won the 2013 Programs of Excellence Award in the Expressive & Creative Arts category, awarded by the National Council on Aging’s National Institute of Senior Centers. NISC honored GO! Arts for offering an innovative, creative and replicable program for seniors.
Clearly, new legislation about vacant buildings must be followed by active involvement of affected residents to drive any area’s successful revitalization. But let’s remember the transformational work with Alamo building materials that a stone mason started and a neighborhood-proud nonprofit, in association with a whole host of artists and concerned community leaders, are continuing to do.
*Featured/top photo: The abandoned Bihl Haus sometime around 2003, which a magnet for graffiti artists and petty crime, and was threatened with demolition until a developer worked with neighborhood activists to save it. Photo by Eric F. Lane.