Out of the Ashes

Liz Llanas’ San Antonio home stands restored, because of a group of volunteer preservationists

San
Liz Llanas (center), with help from neighbors and local preservation groups, saved her 1,600-square-foot bungalow after it was devastated by fire.

Credit: Alicia Wagner Calzada

Early one June morning in 2008, as firefighters extinguished the blaze that had destroyed much of Liz Llanas’ home in the King William Historic District of San Antonio, Tex., a city official declared the smoldering structure in danger of collapse and called for immediate demolition.

Llanas, 55, grew up in the 1905 bungalow, which once belonged to her grandmother. She refused to sign the demolition order, convinced that she could still save her home. "I had the foundation, I had the columns, I had the porch. That was something to start with," Llanas says.

As bulldozers and dump trucks sat a block away, one of Llanas’ neighbors, an artist, sent photos of the house (and an anxious message) to Sandra Smith, director of Villa Finale, the nearby National Trust historic site. "The owner is desperate to save it," he wrote of the house.

Smith and other local preservationists responded, helping find a structural engineer to conduct an assessment. "The poor guy hops into his truck, cigarette in one hand, pen in the other, desperately trying to write a report," Smith recalls. The house was indeed salvageable, the engineer indicated in his official report (scrawled on a yellow legal pad), prompting a local councilwoman to postpone the demolition order.

In the coming days, Llanas and her family took turns sleeping in chairs on a neighbor’s lawn, just in case. Meanwhile, they started planning for restoration. Because Llanas’ insurance didn’t cover the full cost of repairs, neighbors and family held a fundraiser brunch, a barbecue, and a bake sale. Her neighbor the artist even sold some of his prints to raise money. Neighborhood Housing Services of San Antonio provided a loan and helped find a contractor.

Months later, the city officially repealed the demolition order, giving Llanas permission to move forward with a full restoration. Local contractors and craftsworkers (including one of Llanas’ neighbors) rebuilt the house using the original crown molding, baseboards, and fluted columns, and reconstructed the fanciful wood detailing on the cottage windows. The San Antonio Conservation Society, a local preservation group protecting places and customs that are part of Texas history, donated $5,000 to help rebuild the porch. Llanas and her sons, meanwhile, lived in a nearby rental house.

When she finally moved home last September, a crowd of neighbors and friends gathered to welcome Llanas. Not only had she saved her bungalow, but local council members had also passed an ordinance giving owners of historic structures 72 hours to act before emergency demolition takes place.

Watching her house go up in flames "was like watching a family member die," Llanas remembers. "It was so tragic and such a loss." But seeing her house restored, thanks to the help of neighbors and the local community—that was an unexpected gift.

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