Explore San Antonio

History & Culture

THE COLONIAL ERA

The roots of La Villita Historic Arts Village go back to the 18th century. Its first residents likely were squatters with no legal title to the land. South of Mission San Antonio de Valero (later known as the Alamo), along the banks of the San Antonio River, the area was part of the mission's lower farmlands, or Labores de Abajo. The proximity of the military at the Presidio San Antonio de Béjar offered protection from Indian raids and allowed people to build their houses, raise their crops and graze their animals in peace. In 1809 La Villita, the Villa de San Fernando, the Presidio San Antonio de Béjar and the surrounding missions formed the town that would become San Antonio.

Independence

During the Texas war for independence from Mexico, La Villita became the site of revolutionary activity. On November 2, 1835, La Villita resident Samuel A. Maverick, who later became one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence, wrote "nothing done today, but a little firing at long distances and without effect, at the picket guards of the Mexicans in the edge of La Villita." Tradition maintains that General Martín Perfecto de Cos, a brother-in-law of Mexico's President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, surrendered to the Texan commander, General Edward Burleson, after the five-day Siege of Bexar in December 1835 at the Villita Street building today called the [Cos House]

An Uneasy Peace

Peace did not bring stability to San Antonio. The threat of Mexican invasion and Indian raids continued. One traveler noted: "A few American families that resided here have all abandoned the place in consequence of war difficulties. There being only 20 or 30 young Americans there who are continually moving out and back as the chances of invasion ebb and flow."

The 3,488 residents of San Antonio in 1850 were a multicultural lot, but Mexicans, Americans and Germans dominated the scene. Noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, during his 1857 visit to San Antonio, remarked that "the triple nationalities break out into the most amusing display." Living side by side with the three dominant groups were slaves and people of Irish, French and English ancestry.

Growth and Commerce

By the late 1870s La Villita was thriving. The neighborhood was home to stonecutters, watchmakers, telegraph operators, cabinetmakers and lawyers. Boardinghouse and saloon keepers, dressmakers, doctors and shoemakers all plied their trades in the area. San Antonio's population grew from 12,200 in 1870 to 20,500 a decade later, and increasing numbers of both renters and owner-occupants made their homes in the La Villita neighborhood.

Vision and Restoration

O'Neil Ford, the consulting architect for La Villita’s restoration, recounted his first impression of the area in a 1976 interview: "When I first saw it, it was like 1926, and it was just the worst slum you ever saw. You wouldn't believe there'd be a slum in the middle of town like that--there were 26 families living in there and they had as many wrecked cars as you ever saw in your life, just piles of them."

But San Antonio Mayor Maury Maverick, a former United States Congressman with close ties to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had a vision for La Villita. He saw its possibilities as a restored village that would be "a symbol and monument to those simple people who had made possible the great city which had grown up around it." Maverick, strongly committed to the concept of Pan-American unity, authored the La Villita ordinance that was adopted by the City Council on October 12, 1939, dedicating the project to "the promotion of peace, friendship and justice between the United States of America and all other nations in the Western Hemisphere."

The ordinance stipulated that: "La Villita shall not and must not be a restoration and reconstruction of the dead past, and a ghost village for the mincing walk and dusty ways of scholars, but likewise for the average living citizen. Even a jitterbug has the same constitutional right of life and liberty as the scholar who is crammed with knowledge and will not disgorge it. Moreover, there are more jitter¬bugs than scholars."

The streets, houses and plazas of La Villita were all renamed to commemorate Pan-American heroes like Mexican president Benito Juarez and Simón Bolivar, the South American patriot and liberator.

National Youth Administration and city funds totaling $110,000 paid for a labor force of 110 unemployed youths, who worked for $15 a week to transform the village. Dedicated in May 1941, La ViIIita became a center for community events and home to artists and art galleries. Maury Maverick proudly showed the area to visiting dignitaries ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to H.G. Wells. Until his death, Maverick referred to himself as the "Mayor of La Villita."

The City of San Antonio's La Villita Historic District, established in 1969, was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. O'Neil Ford's 50-year involvement with La Villita continued in 1981 when his firm, Ford, Powell and Carson, in association with Saldana, Williams and Schubert, designed and supervised renovation of the entire area.

La Villita is managed by the City of San Antonio's Department for Culture & Creative Development, and its shops and boutiques continue the arts and crafts tradition envisioned by Maury Maverick in the 1930s. The atmosphere that O'Neil Ford sought to create "of cool shady places, of profuse banks of blossoming native trees and shrubs" has been achieved.


Source: Old Villita. American Guide Series. Compiled and written by the Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Texas. City of San Antonio, 1939.

For a visual history of La Villita, visit the San Antonio Conservation Society's Exhibit at Bolivar Hall, second floor above the La Villita Café, open five days a week from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Background Color:
 
Background Pattern:
Reset