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San Antonio Conservation Society Executive Director Vince Michael told the Rivard Report on Wednesday that he was shocked when workers and equipment arrived at the G.J. Sutton building on 321 Center St. earlier this week to begin demolition. He said the society was given no advance notice of the demolition and that community members alerted him to the Sutton building’s fate.
“It is unusual not to have some advanced knowledge on this happening,” he said.
“We want to know what we can do to help” Michael continued, “but the governor signed the bill – like an inmate on death row, he could be the only one to save them at this point.”
Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 2944 in June, which authorized the sale of the state-owned property to a private developer. Office of Historic Preservation spokeswoman Ximena Copa-Wiggins said because the state owns the property, it is not obliged to follow municipal law – including observing historical landmark status, or filing for permits to demolish a structure. She added that the building, which according to an imprint on the facade, dates back to 1912, was never officially designated a local landmark by the Office of Historic Preservation.
“Designated or not, this is state property,” she said. “They are not bound by municipal laws.”
The state acquired the building in 1975 and used it to house several of its local employees, but the building was shuttered in 2013 because the foundation was crumbling, and the confines had become infested with bats.
The Texas Facilities Commission found in 2018 that much of the historic value of the building, which was named for Garlington Jerome Sutton, the first black official from San Antonio elected to the Texas House of Representatives, had been compromised by previous alterations. Salvaging the building would have taken an additional $20 million, so the facilities commission began looking for proposals to demolish the complex in February.
State Sen. Pete Flores (R-Pleasanton) said that preservation would have been too expensive, but he thought keeping the G.J. Sutton name was important to preserve the former state representative’s legacy, an insistence by State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio), who introduced the bill to sell the property. Gervin-Hawkins noted the state was paying $30,000 a month for property management and security for the dilapidated space.
“My understanding was that the costs were too prohibitive to renovate the building and the fiscal note was too high,” Flores said. “But we did manage to get that legislation passed and … no matter who buys it, the law requires that it still keeps the name of Rep. Sutton.”
Conservation Society President Patty Zaiontz said that’s not enough to keep the cultural significance of the space.
“You can slap the G.J. Sutton name on a new building, but will it really be the same and will it really represent the culture and history of a man that meant so much to the East Side neighborhood?” she asked.
Preservation architect Everett Fly agreed and said Sutton’s legacy stems from his political and civic work in state government. Having his name on a state building gave context to his legacy, but putting it on a different building might cheapen its significance.
“There have been so many African American leaders in San Antonio that their names have just been put on something,” Fly said. “It’s a hollow recognition that doesn’t really have anything to do with the authentic action or event or whatever. I just think it’s important for people to be aware of that and conscious when we start making plans and following through with implementation, where you have these historic names of people associated.”
La Juana Lawson, president and board chair of the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum (SAAACAM), said she appreciated the requirement of keeping Sutton’s name on any future development, but seeing that original building – occupying a grand 112,000 square feet – spoke volumes to his and his family’s accomplishments. The Sutton family lived at 430 N. Cherry Street in a small single-family home, where SAAACAM keeps its offices.
“This is their humble beginning, and look at this beautiful complex that was named after one of their sons,” Lawson said.
Lawson noted that Sutton, who was one of 15 children, had siblings that also had great accomplishments, including brother Oliver, who served as a New York Supreme Court Justice, and another brother, Percy, who became an airman, lawyer, civil rights activist, and rescued the Apollo Theater in Harlem from bankruptcy.
Lawson said that SAAACAM and the community would continue to share the history of the G.J. Sutton complex and the Sutton family, but a physical structure helps people understand history in a concrete way. The SAAACAM board is drafting a letter to request permission to enter the building before it’s demolished to document and digitize the structure for future generations.
“I think when we lose these types of structures, it does take away from our ability to tell a complete story,” she said. “However, it does not keep us from telling the story.”
Emily Donaldson contributed to this report.