Building on a Strong Foundation

IMG_4017When Tony Gradney first saw the house at 821 N. Pine, he knew that it was special. Built in 1911, the 2 ½ story, Classical Revival house in Dignowity Hill immediately appealed to the Houston transplant. It was love at first sight, but the then-owner wasn’t willing to let the house go without a hefty price tag.

Tony and his wife Mary Anguiano (left) operate their bar service and catering business on the near east side. While they work in downtown San Antonio, they love the Texas Hill Country and had even begun construction on a custom home on the fringes of town. A twist of fate soon brought their hill country construction project to a halt. In 2013, the house at 821 N. Pine suffered a substantial fire which gutted the interior, and Tony suddenly found himself with an opportunity to acquire the property. Nearly a total loss, the decision to take on the rehabilitation of the historic home was met with some trepidation. It was Tony’s friend Charles Williams who encouraged him to take the plunge. “It was always my dream – Tony’s able to do what I always wanted to do,” says Mr. Williams, a long-time business owner and advocate for east side revitalization. Mary had her own reservations which were quickly diminished. She recalls, “My friends would ask are you sure about this?” The couple’s love for the neighborhood ultimately made up their minds to forge ahead.

I met Tony and Mary for a tour of their work in progress. The fire had done significant structural damage and the roof had been completely rebuilt. Anything that wasn’t touched by fire was water damaged from the night of the fire. All of the original wood flooring had to be removed and well as many of the interior finishes. Mary explained, “Much of the interior will be new, but we want to keep everything within the era of the original home.” That includes salvaging many of the original doors and windows. In a recent request to the Historic Design review Commission HDRC, Tony also received approval to install new windows for much of the house where there originals were lost. We looked at a small, formal room near the front of the house. “Our neighbor knew the previous owners and said that this used to be a music room. We’ve already purchased a piano to put back in here!” says Mary. The couple has also been busy clearing out the hoard of collected items left by a previous owner. “The rear building was filled from floor to ceiling with all sorts of junk,” says Mary. They were still able to find a few period furniture pieces that could be repaired and put back into the home.

For Tony and Mary, it has truly been a labor of love. “We were building a custom home in the hill country. Even though we were designing it, it still felt very cookie-cutter. This house is truly one of a kind. It will be our own.” With its mature pecan trees and striking views of the downtown skyline, it’s easy to see what makes this house special. It sits like a IMG_4013keystone in the middle of the block, and you can feel every bit of its 100-year history. “We fell in love with the house first, but then we fell in love with the neighborhood.” Growing up in the suburbs, Tony says he never experienced the warmth of a neighborhood like he has in Dignowity Hill. “Here, the neighbors keep an eye on things for you. The woman next door has had us over for dinner. It has walkability, and that historic feel.”

Tony and Mary are fully committed to the revitalization of the neighborhood, and have rehabilitated a handful of properties on the east side. “I was disappointed to see the houses that were demolished. Just look at this house – it can be done,” says Mary. We met with Charles Williams who is doing some carpentry work on Tony and Mary’s new office building and another fixer-upper. A local civil rights leader and influential figure, Mr. Williams has made his own contributions to the revitalization of the east side. In 2009, he opened the Landmark Café on Montana Street. Now working with Tony and Mary, Mr. Williams is helping to bring another historic building on Cactus Street back to life (see discussion of door color below). “Fighting change can hurt the community. We need people that are willing to invest in the neighborhood to see a positive change. People need to start something themselves and not wait for someone else to do it,” says Mr. Williams. Tony agreed, “Every project we’ve done sparks a change. Your neighbors will see your investment and care and follow the example you give.” While change seems to be inevitable, historic preservation helps neighborhoods like Dignowity Hill find a balance. Ultimately, we believe preservation is about managing change and providing the foundation for the best possible future.
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Tony and Mary expect to complete their project this fall just in time for the pecan trees to lose their leaves and reveal the view to the Tower of the Americas.
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