Before Olmos Park and Alamo Heights, there was Dignowity Hill

An African American community at its heart, vestiges of its affluent past remain

SAN ANTONIO – Gone are many of the elegant 19th century houses that graced much of Dignowity Hill where many of the city’s early leaders in business and industry raised their families. Still, there are vestiges of its affluent past in the mansions that took their place, many known by their familiar names such as Friedrich and Elmendorf.

Dr. Anthony Michael Dignowity and his wife Amanda had already set the bar in the 1850s with the home that the Czech physician had built at its highest point.

“It was situated on a hill overlooking the downtown center of the city,” said Dr. Charles Gentry, a historic preservation specialist with the City of San Antonio.

Dr. Anthony Michael Dignowity and his wife Amanda lived in a home that became known as Harmony House. This photo is circa 1890. (UTSA Special Collections)

They had a view, but none of the low-lying, flood-prone areas that plagued much of the city at the time.

Being he was active in politics and civic affairs, Dignowity’s home became a gathering place known as Harmony House. But since he also was an abolitionist, Gentry said Dignowity was forced to leave town during the Civil War.

“Reportedly, he was going to be hanged one night, but someone tipped off his son,” Gentry said. But when he returned in 1869, Gentry said Dignowity had to fight to get his land back that had been confiscated by the Confederate Army.

Anthony and Amanda Dignowity. (UTSA Special Collections)

After getting most of his property back, Gentry said Dignowity sold a large portion for $12,000 to the U.S. government, the land where Fort Sam Houston now stands.

Eventually after their deaths, the home fell into disrepair and was demolished decades later, but Gentry said the house built by Dignowity’s son in 1874 across the street from his parents is “one of the oldest remaining homes in the neighborhood.”

Harmony House fell into disrepair after the deaths of Dr. Anthony Michael Dignowity and his wife Amanda. (UTSA Special Collections)

The land where Harmony House once stood is now Dignowity Park.

As San Antonio grew, Gentry said the allure of San Antonio’s first affluent neighborhood began to wane with the development of Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Monte Vista.

“The neighborhood underwent a major transformation in the 1920s,” Gentry said

He said it became “a prominent middle-class neighborhood for many of our Black citizens who helped build up the East Side.”

African Americans were drawn to this part of the neighborhood in the late 19th century before segregation ramped up in the early 20th century.

Up until then, Gentry said Dignowity Hill was a diverse community that included African Americans, Latinos and immigrants.

He said they were drawn by the industry, commerce and job opportunities in the area as well as the opportunity to own a home.

“That’s really how the neighborhood originally developed,” Gentry said.

The Elmendorf House, built in 1884 for Emil Elmendorf, was designed by the prominent architect Alfred Giles. The Elmendorf family owned a successful hardware business on the site where City Hall now stands. Its newest owner is renovating the home at 509 Burleson. (UTSA Special Collections)

Dignowity Hill was deemed a historic district in 1983, yet Gentry said it is one of the most overlooked.

“When people think of historic residential districts in San Antonio, they typically think of King William or Monte Vista, not the East Side,” Gentry said.

He said as a result, the “significant demolitions” that have occurred over time “are a threat to the quality and integrity of the district.”

Gentry said at the time, a comprehensive, building-by-building inventory was not completed until 1995 in a survey done by city staff.

However, the city’s Office of Historic Preservation in 2015 compared information from the 1995 survey to current vacant properties.

Gentry said, “While each demolition may have seemed reasonable when it occurred, the cumulative effect is an erosion of the overall fabric of the neighborhood.”

He said that’s why OHP staff conducts critical analyses of residential historic districts “not only to help us understand the significance of the demolition rate in the San Antonio community but also to help residents preserve the character of historic districts like Dignowity Hill.”

The John Hildebrand Residence is seen at 1209 Hays St. This photo is circa 1907. (UTSA Special Collections)
The Emil Wiedenfeld family home is seen at 223 Nolan St. This photo is circa 1902. (UTSA Special Collections)
A city bus is seen on Nolan Street at the intersection with North Olive Street. (UTSA Special Collections)

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About the Authors

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

Sal Salazar is a photojournalist at KSAT 12. Before coming to KSAT in 1998, he worked at the Fox affiliate in San Antonio. Sal started off his career back in 1995 for the ABC Affiliate in Lubbock and has covered many high-profile news events since. In his free time, he enjoys spending time at home, gaming and loves traveling with his wife.

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