After a multi-year effort led by the Texas Historical Commission and other stakeholders, the preserved San Antonio properties of Tejano political leader, activist, and historian José Antonio Navarro (1795-1871) have finally been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.
On Jan. 11, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell declared the Casa Navarro State Historic Site in downtown San Antonio and 23 other historic sites across the nation as recipients of the special designation, bestowed upon landmarks that illustrate or interpret United States heritage in an exceptional way.
The prestigious honor, which has been given to more than 2,500 historic places in the U.S., will bring more national attention to Casa Navarro, which consists of Navarro's home built in the 1850s, a free-standing kitchen building built in the 1830s, and a two-story mercantile and office building also built in the 1850s.
A rancher, merchant and staunch advocate of Tejano rights, Navarro is perhaps most well known as one of two native-born Texans to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence. He also was one of the founders of the Texas Republic.
"As custodians of this historic property, we are gratified for this national designation," stated Mark Wolfe, Texas Historical Commission executive director, in a news release. "Navarro's story of patriotism, liberty, and equality for his people is one that can inspire not only Texans, but people across the nation."
The small cluster of buildings – now surrounded by an urban landscape – is known as one of the best-preserved historic properties in the state and still sits in its original location at 228 S. Laredo St., a rarity among historic buildings which are often relocated. Despite many structures in the area being razed in the 1960s during urban renewal, Casa Navarro remained unscathed, making it important to city and state history, said Jerry Geyer, a board member of the Friends of Casa Navarro, a group dedicated to preserving and promoting Navarro's legacy.
Extensive preservation efforts led by the San Antonio Conservation Society also have left the site in excellent condition, Geyer said, maintaining a large amount of its authenticity. The conservation society purchased the site in 1960, restored the structures, and eventually deeded the property to the State of Texas in 1975.
The limestone, caliche-adobe structures – which have been coated in plaster and white wash to protect them from erosion – now exist as an interactive, kid-friendly museum that gives a glimpse into how Texas was during Navarro's time and details the life of Navarro and his and other Tejanos' roles in Texas history.
According to Sylvia Navarro Tillotson, Navarro's great-great-great granddaughter, an important detail that many are unaware of is that Navarro helped write the Constitution of Texas.
In that endeavor, he "was instrumental in making sure that everyone had equal status and that the word 'white' (regarding voting rights) was struck from the record," she told he Rivard Report.
Tillotson, who was born and raised in San Antonio but now lives in Dallas full time, is President Emerita of the Friends of Casa Navarro and was an instrumental advocate for the site's designation as a National Historic Landmark and for Navarro's history. She is one of more than 500 Navarro descendants, many of which live in San Antonio.
"There's such a long list of things that he contributed to (over history)," Tillotson said, "and we’ve worked diligently on trying to promote some of the other important things that Navarro did during his time."
Navarro was one of the most influential political figures in 19th-century Texas and a fierce proponent of Texas independence from Mexico. Later in his career, he became an outspoken advocate for other Tejanos and their culture, urging them to uphold their heritage and political influence.
He looked up to his uncle, José Francisco Ruiz, who was the other Texas-native who signed the state's constitution with Navarro, and worked tirelessly to ensure that the contributions of Tejanos in Texas' independence were recognized. Navarro, who lived on his ranch in South Texas for most of his life, spent his final years at Casa Navarro, said Emiliano "Nano" Calderon, a Casa Navarro site educator.
But Casa Navarro's significance extends even beyond Navarro, Calderon said, since it is one of the only remaining original structures in the area once known as Laredito, or Little Laredo, which was San Antonio's historically Mexican Westside.
For that reason, Calderon sees the site as a unique piece of local history that deserves more attention from both locals and visitors than it currently gets.
"(Casa Navarro is) kind of overshadowed by the Alamo and the Missions. (It's) also very small and on a corner of downtown that just doesn't have the kind of foot traffic," Calderon said, though he and his team are enhancing site programming and their own outreach efforts to bring more visitors to the unique monument.
The National Historic Landmark designation isn't the only honor Casa Navarro has received over the years. The site was declared a Texas State Historic Landmark in 1962 and then listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Last year, on the anniversary of Navarro's 220th birthday, a cenotaph was implemented in his honor in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. Each recognition, Tillotson said, helps spread the truth about Navarro's contributions to San Antonio, Texas, and his Latino community.
"Since working the past 11 years on all the projects related to Navarro," she said, "it is most gratifying to realize that more knowledge, understanding, and clarity of Navarro’s historic importance in Texas has been brought to the attention of family, the public and generations to come."