The Historic Ursuline Site

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The Ursuline Campus of the Southwest School of Art, on the National Register of Historic Places, is located on the northern edge of downtown San Antonio.

On this historic site a convent and school for girls was established in 1851, when seven Catholic nuns of the Ursuline Order arrived in San Antonio. The complex expanded throughout the 1800s under the architectural direction of Francois Giraud, who also became a mayor of San Antonio.

In 1965, the Sisters moved the academy because the historic buildings had fallen into serious disrepair, and the San Antonio Conservation Society purchased a portion of the property.

In 1971, the Conservation Society offered to lease it to a fledgling art school serving the San Antonio community. Over the next ten years, with the help of many benefactors, the art school purchased the property and restored the buildings and grounds, a process which continues today.

Among the historic highlights are the elegant architecture of the two-story buildings constructed of local limestone, the beautiful chapel with some of the original stained glass windows, and the surrounding gardens and courtyards.

Historic Overview

In 1847 Pope Pius IX created a diocese for the state of Texas. Bishop Jean-Marie Odin, having served in Texas since 1842, set about the task of revitalizing the Catholic Church. One of his primary goals was education. The history of the old Ursuline Convent and Academy began when Bishop Odin asked the French Catholic Ursuline order to establish a convent and school for girls in the growing town of San Antonio. Odin purchased a 10-acre parcel of land that had been owned by Erasmo Seguin from Ludovic Colquhoun of New Orleans for the sum of $1000.

Bishop Odin was fortunate enough to find Francois Giraud, a French-trained architect living in San Antonio, and entered into a contract with the young man to design a school on the site. With the assistance of Jules Poinsard, another French architect doing construction work in San Antonio during the late 1840s, Giraud began construction on the First Academy Building in 1848 using pisé de terre, a rammed earth process of compressing rock, straw and native clay by hand. Letters [in the Alamo Library] from Francois Giraud to Bishop Odin reveal that the lack of money and supplies was a great barrier to the progress of the building. Nevertheless, by 1851 the First Academy Building of the Ursuline Convent and Academy was completed except for installation of windows and the completion of the wall on the north side.

In September of 1851, four sisters from the Ursuline’s Mother Convent in New Orleans and three from the convent in Galveston, Texas, headed for San Antonio by stagecoach with Father Claude Dubuis, pastor of San Antonio’s San Fernando parish. Upon their arrival the nuns and Father Dubuis found a building with nothing more than walls and a leaky roof. However, on November 3, 1851, the resourceful priest and nuns opened their school. Father Dubuis proudly announced the opening of the Ursuline Academy “for the education of young ladies of refinement.”

The First Academy Addition and a small Chapel were constructed in the 1850s, and Bishop Dubuis laid the cornerstone of the Dormitory Building on September 14, 1866, exactly 15 years after his arrival with the first Ursulines. In 1868, the cornerstone of the large Chapel was laid. It too was designed and built by Francois Giraud in Gothic style using native limestone. The Priest’s House was completed later in the 1880s.

The Ursulines remained a cloistered group until 1900, when the order was reorganized at a Papal Conference. By this time, there were 300 students, of whom 40 were boarders. In 1910, Second Academy Building was added as the final building of the original Ursuline complex. It included the Angel Arches and the Angel’s Hall.  These structures are no longer standing.

In 1965, after more than 115 years on the San Antonio River, the Ursulines moved the Academy to northwest San Antonio. With the nuns’ departure, the abandoned property began to crumble and fall into disrepair. Developers appeared, proposing hotel-apartment projects, parking lots and high-rise office buildings. These new plans alarmed the San Antonio Conservation Society, and in order to save these historic buildings, the society purchased a portion of the property from the Ursulines in 1965. That same year, the Southwest School of Art  (known then as the Southwest Craft Center) was established and set up shop in La Villita, where it was located until moving to the old Ursuline Convent in 1971 at the invitation of the San Antonio Conservation Society.

By 1974, the art school had purchased the Dormitory Building and the Conservation Society holdings, and had received the Cook House, (now part of a private dining club, Club Giraud) as a gift. The final purchase in 1980 of the parking lot and River buildings made it possible at last to reunite the original parcels of the old Ursuline Convent and Academy.

Architecture of the Dormitory Building

At the very heart of the Southwest School of Art & Craft’s historic Ursuline Campus lies an extraordinary two-story structure dating to 1851 that served as the first classroom and dormitory building for the Ursuline Academy, San Antonio’s first school for girls.

In describing the building for the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1969, John C. Garner, then Director of the Bexar County Architectural Survey, wrote ”It is the largest known building in Texas constructed of ‘rammed earth’ or pisé de terre, and one of the few known true pisé buildings in the state, and possibly in the United States.”

John Garner also wrote, in his extended 1969 report for the Historic American Buildings Survey:  “This building is unique in Texas because of the nature of its construction.  The walls are composed of caliche, a calcium carbonate natural formation that abounds in the central and west Texas area, and although buildings of this type were more numerous in the mid-nineteenth century, this is the only known example of such large size that remains.  It appears the Spaniards and the Indians were familiar with the cement-like quality of caliche and used it somewhat in the constructions.  The principle of the technique, however, is better known by its French name, pisé de terre, and it was widely used by the French in the New World, throughout the Mississippi Valley and in Canada.  The French nomenclature is relevant to San Antonio where it was simply known as ‘pisé work.’”

Giraud’s choice of material might also have resulted from ongoing anti-Catholic prejudice.  Writing in 1852 about the building’s construction, Sister Augustine Joseph stated that the Catholic Church “ was refused permission to draw stones from the Government quarry, it was said, thro’ prejudiced motives.”  Clay used in pisé de terre construction was readily available from the creek and river bottoms in and around the city and, though less durable, was much cheaper than quarried stone.  There was also a skilled practitioner of the pisé technique in San Antonio, another Frenchman, Jules Poinsard.

Giraud was apparently pleased with Poinsard’s work and, in early March 1849, reported to Bishop Jean Odin that “the masonry is already coming along and is of a superior quality.  The clay could not be better.”  The project was completed quickly and, by mid-March the walls and roof were erected and door and window frames were installed.  Still a good deal remained to be done, including construction of a staircase, completion of the fireplaces, and the installation and painting of doors, windows and flooring.  Of greater importance, the clay building required plastering to protect it from periodic rains, and the site needed to be fenced to keep out intruders and ranging livestock.  Progress was slow, and it was not until February 23, 1851 that Giraud was able to report that the convent was nearing completion.  “There only remains the finishing of the fence on the north side to complete the cloister wall.”

Further Readings

The School by the River – Ursuline Academy to Southwest School of Art & Craft, 1851-2001, Maria Watxon Pfeiffer. Maverick Publishing Company, 2001. 199 pages, fully illustrated. Includes bibliographical references and full index.

The Southwest School of Art & Craft is indeed a magnificent tribute to a 150-year legacy that began inauspiciously among weeds and debris on a moonlit night in 1851. When observers reflect on the past, they can see the rise of sturdy buildings along the San Antonio River, witness the evolution of the city’s first school for girls, share the challenges faced by the strongest of San Antonio’s preservationists, and admire years of unselfish commitment on the part of countless volunteers who labored to elevate the role of art and craft in our community.

Stones, Bells, Lighted Candles, Emily Edwards. Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library, 1981. 72 pages.Personal memories of a young student at the Old Ursuline Academy at the turn of the 20th century. Emily Edwards, artist, art historian, teacher, and cofounder of the San Antonio Conservation Society, is the woman most often credited for preventing the San Antonio River from being paved over. Friend of Diego Rivera, and a leader of the famed Hull House in Chicago,  her description of school days is a charming look at the historic site 100 years ago.

Awards for Preservation of the Historic Site

The Society of American Travel Writers selected San Antonio’s Southwest School of Art to receive a Phoenix Award, recognizing organizations which conserve, preserve and enhance historic sites. Today, the school’s historic campus, housing ceramics, weaving, painting and youth studios, is complemented by a second, state-of-the-art campus that includes a 3500 square foot exhibition space and studios for metalworking, photography, printmaking, paper and book arts and digital imaging.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation presented the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio its prestigious National Preservation Honor Award. The presentation noted how the school’s “vision and determination have preserved an historic treasure in one of America’s most historic cities.”

“The Southwest School of Art is an inspiring example of adaptive use and good stewardship,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “What was once a vacant campus surrounded by parking lots has been transformed into a dynamic education center that has catalyzed the redevelopment of a once-blighted section of downtown San Antonio.”

Preservation Texas awarded the school its prestigious Clara Driscoll Award at the “Treasures of Texas” Award Ceremony during the 2007 Texas Historical Commission’s annual Historic Preservation conference.

The Clara Driscoll Award annually recognizes the Texas historic site that has exhibited long-term dedication to the preservation of a community or property. The award to the Southwest School recognizes its decades of dedicated stewardship of its historic 1850s Ursuline Convent and Academy site.

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