Remembering Emily Thuss, a Force of Historic Preservation in San Antonio

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A contemplative Emily Thuss.

Courtesy / Tommy Adams

A contemplative Emily Thuss.

How appropriate that on Monday, Dec. 5, the day Emily Thuss died, homeowners from the Beacon Hill neighborhood celebrated a triumph in the very area of work she always championed.

On that afternoon, members of the Beacon Hill Area Neighborhood Association went before the City’s Board of Adjustment to fight a variance that the developer of a new Stripes gas station had requested to allow two signs measuring five times larger than permitted by the Beacon Hill Commercial Neighborhood Conservation District (NCD) rules. City staff had recommended the variance be granted.

After homeowners pointed out the illegality of violating NCD rules as well as the lack of respect for neighbors caused by light pollution, the Board unanimously reversed the staff’s recommendation and denied Stripes its extra-large signs.

“Hearing that makes me a little teary-eyed,” Tommy Adams, Thuss’ partner of 20 years, told the Rivard Report. “She was quite an advocate but very quiet about it. She never claimed all her victories, but she set historic preservation rolling from the get-go.”

Tommy Adams and Emily Thuss in New Orleans.

Courtesy / Tommy Adams

Tommy Adams and Emily Thuss in New Orleans.

A memorial service and celebration of Thuss’ life is scheduled at Christ Episcopal Church, located at 510 Belknap Pl., on Friday, Jan. 6, at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio, The Monte Vista Historical Association, or Morningside Ministries.

As one of three daughters of a philanthropic family of ranchers and lawyers, Thuss grew up accustomed to public service. Her father, Leroy G. Denman Jr., who died just last year, served as trustee of numerous charitable foundations; her uncle, Gilbert M. Denman, was instrumental in the success of local institutions including Trinity UniversitySan Antonio SymphonySan Antonio Museum of Art, and San Antonio Botanical Garden.

Thuss was involved in numerous organizations and causes that advanced human dignity and living standards in San Antonio, but her chief passion was historic preservation of San Antonio’s architectural heritage, local culture, and history, which Beacon Hill and many other neighborhood associations and City offices now advance as a matter of course.

It was the razing of her family home on West French Place and Main Avenue by an apartment developer that most famously compelled her to act in the early 1970s.

“When our home was torn down, we knew it wouldn’t be the last,” said Thuss’ sister, Molly Branton. The Denman home was built in the 1880s, and was on a lot large enough for the girls to keep horses. Their own children were the fifth generation of family born in Monte Vista.

So, Thuss and her husband, the late Dr. Charles John Thuss Jr., invited Branton and 10 other concerned Monte Vistans to their home to discuss how they could protect the neighborhood’s Georgian, Queen Anne, Moorish, and Victorian era homes and bungalows from the inevitability of development.

The meeting led to the creation of the Monte Vista Historical Association in 1973, and the group also discussed the need for further protection in the form of historical designation.

When both Denman sisters were new mothers, they got to work planting seeds for the next step in preserving their 100-block neighborhood.

“Our mother had given us English prams,” Branton remembered. “We walked around Monte Vista pushing our babies and ringing doorbells. No one was too frightened by two young women with infants in prams, so we got 2,000 signatures and presented them to the Historic Review Board.”

After this effort, the City of San Antonio named Monte Vista a Historic District in 1975; in 1998 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Thuss didn’t stop there. She laid the groundwork to protect other San Antonio neighborhoods by serving on the City’s Zoning Commission and chairing the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, the Community Leadership Institute, and the San Antonio Housing Trust, which helps disadvantaged people find housing.

Seeing the need for affordable building materials for authentic architectural restoration, Thuss helped found the popular Habitat for Humanity ReStore – the second in the nation – after co-chairing the building of Habitat’s first local home, built entirely by women.

The ReStore sells materials either donated or salvaged from buildings scheduled for demolition. King William resident and Thuss’ friend Ruth Wells explained that a percentage of sales go toward Habitat’s home construction program, and the rest is used to pay staff.

“It is a truly amazing concept in charitable work,” Wells wrote in an email to the Rivard Report. “I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say some, or all, of the houses in King William and Lavaca have items from the ReStore in them, be it a window sash, paint, or molding.

“That’s the genius of Emily right there. She looked at a problem and figured out a workable solution that everybody could win from, and then she backed it up and supported it.”

Another civic leader and friend, Deborah Kaercher, was given Thuss’ number when she was referred as a good organizer for the woman-built Habitat house back in the early 90s. Thrilled with the success of the project, Thuss teamed with Tom Reedy to create the ReStore.

“She worked tirelessly on the effort and was thrilled with its success in the community,” Kaercher said. “When she wasn’t in her office, she could be found moving incoming merchandise into the perfect place on the showroom floor.”

Thuss continued her civic leadership even after a profound tragedy changed her life. On Thanksgiving Day, 1983, her husband and their second son, Carter, were killed in a plane crash. Thuss was a highly regarded pathologist who flew his own plane to rural counties to see patients, often taking one of his sons with him. Their surviving sons are Charles John Thuss, III, who with his wife Octavia, who have their three sons of their own; Wendel Denman Thuss, his wife Natalie and their four children; and Andrew Leroy Thuss.

Continuing the family’s desire to promote health, Kaercher and Thuss also created an organization to give women in South Texas family health information. The Women and Family Health Information Network was adopted by the UT Health Science Center in 2005, Kaercher said, and is now known as Healthy Texas.

It was at the ReStore 20 years ago when Thuss’ future love interest, Tommy Adams, first laid eyes on her.

“She was on top of a forklift when we met,” he said with a laugh.

For the next 20 years, the couple spent as much time at his Medina Lake house watching birds and sunsets as they did in the city. Thuss had grown up riding horses on her family’s Powderhorn Ranch in South Texas, so she had always felt a deep connection with nature.

Emily Thuss rowing a boat on Medina Lake.

Courtesy / Tommy Adams

Emily Thuss rowing a boat on Medina Lake.

“She wasn’t a tomboy, but very much an outdoor girl,” Adams said. “Her most recent home before moving to the Chandler Center – ironically located next door to the apartments built when her family home was demolished – had a yard that was like the Botanical Garden.”

A few years into their relationship, Adams, who is a preservation specialist for Rubiola Construction, showed Thuss photos that his son, Monte Adams, had taken of local artisans and craftsmen plying traditional building trades. The images sparked Thuss’ motivation to put together an “ad hoc committee,” aptly called the Building Arts Group, to organize an ambitious project that took nearly 15 years of off-and-on work.

Thuss, Adams, his son Monte, and Barbara Hendricks, produced a 486-page book and online site capturing the stories of 10 woodworkers, metal workers, restoration artists, glass artisans, and other specialists, titled The Building Arts of South Texas: Stories of Endangered Building Arts & The Craftsmen Who Keep Them Alive in 2015. In November 2016, the Texas Society of Architects selected the work for its prestigious Award for Excellence.

Photographer Monte Adams, Emily Thuss, and Tommy Adams, three of the four members of the Building Arts Group.

Courtesy / Tommy Adams

Photographer Monte Adams, Emily Thuss, and Tommy Adams, three of the four members of the Building Arts Group.

Advancing the architectural integrity that Thuss and new waves of historic home owners treasure, the book captures “some moments in time that may never come again,” and “shows what is possible with human hands and minds” in “an era of work designed on computer and generated by a 3D printer,” as described by J.R. Huebinger, president of Alamo Hardwoods, in a letter of support to the Texas Society of Architects.

Kaercher said Thuss was a devoted mother and grandmother who also took her friendships “very seriously.”

“When she retired to spend more time enjoying her life, gardening, and grandchildren, she encouraged me to take my next solo steps on a new project,” Kaercher wrote in an email. “Having her blessing was important, but working without her by my side just wasn’t the same.

“She was the sister I never had, the mentor I needed, and the role model every young woman should experience at least once. Emily Thuss will remain a strong force in my heart for the duration of my mortal life.”

3 thoughts on “Remembering Emily Thuss, a Force of Historic Preservation in San Antonio

  1. Thank you for this moving tribute for a real San Antonio hero. And thanks to Emily, always – her shining spirt had such a wide reach.

  2. I knew Emily only briefly, but she always sported a smile as she was always working hard at following through and accomplishing her many lofty projects. One of the last things she was responsible for was the fantastic book “The Building Arts of South Texas” a book showcasing ten artisans living in San Antonio that have greatly influenced the restoration of historic architecture in Texas.

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