Bihl Haus Arts, a community-based non-profit 501(c)3 organization, is the only professional nonprofit contemporary art gallery on the premises of an affordable senior housing community in the United States.
The story of Bihl Haus Arts is the story of rebirth. It begins in 1920 when George David Bihl built a low-hipped, two-story home on a parcel of land “way out of town” on Fredericksburg Road, today a major artery in the city. The structure is the last remaining original Hill Country-style German stone residence “inside the loop” in San Antonio. According to Mr. Bihl’s daughter, Aileen Bihl Locklar, who was about five years old when her father built the home, the stones originally came from the barricade built by the Amrican military around The Alamo. She remembers her father, who came from a family of stone masons, carting the stones home and cutting them to fit the structure.
The Bihl house passed through several owners and uses in the ensuing years, including a dental office, a plumbing shop, and an antiques store. The last was an auto auction that shut down in response to neighborhood activism, leaving the Bihl house empty and prey to the elements and vandalism for a decade.
During the period of abandonment numerous attempts to raze the structure were deflected by a small group of concerned, historically minded citizens, some of whom had memories of the Bihl house in its prime. “No one will ever build in your neighborhood!” developers cried after trying to force one appalling proposal after another on the property.
In 2003 Brian Potashnik, owner of Southwest Housing, Inc., of Dallas, approached neighborhood associations in the Deco District area with a proposal to build a retirement community on a near-vacant 12-acre parcel of property in the 2800 block of Fredericksburg Rd. In what should be a text-book lesson in cooperative inner-city development, Southwest Housing began by asking for neighborhood input and approval. After numerous meetings, neighborhood residents led by Eric F. Lane got solidly behind the project. But, what to do with the dilapidated, crumbling Bihl house that dominated the northeast corner of the property?
Dr. Kellen Kee McIntyre proposed that the Bihl house be redesigned as a multi-use community arts space to meet the needs of both residents of the proposed Primrose at Monticello Park Senior Apartments, an affordable housing community, and the surrounding neighborhoods. At the time there were no other community arts facilities in the area. Southwest Housing rose to the challenge to preserve the historical structure. Mr. Potashnik asked that a plan be developed for the use of the building. In response, Dr. McIntyre formed The Bihl Haus Arts Advisory Committee, co-chaired by artist Rita Maria Contreras and made up of community members. Ron Boling, then Director of the UTSA Art Gallery, served as a technical advisor. The Committee began meeting in summer 2004, and over a four-month period developed a plan, which was presented to Southwest Housing on October 4, 2004. In response, Southwest Housing essentially gifted the long-term use of the building to Dr. McIntyre and the neighborhood. The acceptance of that plan by Southwest Housing marked the formal foundation of ‘Bihl House Arts,’ which soon became Bihl Haus Arts, Inc.
Reconstruction of the building began almost immediately. By the time the building phase was completed in May 2005, Southwest Housing, in a $250,000 renovation project, had met virtually every recommendation made by the design committee. Long before construction was completed, Dr. McIntyre, Ms. Contreras, and other key area figures such as poet Trinidad Sanchez, Jr., led discussions with more than 20 practicing professional artists resident in the immediate neighborhoods, including Rolando Briseño, Angel Rodríguez-Díaz, and Richard Arredondo. The first event at Bihl Haus Arts, an open house and round table discussion for area artists and Primrose residents, was held on June 10, 2005. Since that time, Bihl Haus Arts has produced non-stop, diverse, and critically acclaimed cultural programming.
In 2006, the project was awarded the coveted San Antonio Conservation Society Award for restoration and innovative reuse. “Although the house is historically significant in its own right, the project is particularly to be commended in that it represents a successful cooperative effort among private, business, and city interests,” wrote Mariana C. Jones, the past president of the Society. What had been an eyesore for many years, the target of vandals and a haven to petty crime, has become a vital community arts center. It is also a motivating force in community efforts to revitalize the Deco District business corridor on Fredericksburg Road—the On and Off Fredericksburg Road Studio Tour, organized by Bihl Haus Arts, is a prime example—along a section of the historic Old Spanish Trail auto highway.
Today, the structure superbly retains the distinguishing exterior qualities of the original construction: stone lintels with arched moldings, delicate foliated cartouches, and rosette details above the façade lower-level openings. The old ‘Alamo’ stones were cleaned, stabilized, and re-grouted in a period style. The two-story interior, which is ADA accessible, boasts 110-year-old wide-plank floors, flexible modern gallery lighting, and a 20-foot high ceiling supported by enormous wooden trussed beams.
The inaugural exhibition, which opened on September 15, 2005, featured the works of 16 of the more than 60 practicing professional visual artists living within this geographically defined area, and drew an estimated audience of more than 500! Not long after that first exhibition, BHA expanded its target area to South Teas. It now hosts regular art exhibitions (75 as of its 9th anniversary in September 2014), frequent poetry readings and other literary events, scholarly lectures, musical and dance performances, and art workshops for Primrose seniors and area residents. BHA sees this as central to its mission: To employ the arts to help integrate Primrose senior residents, often transplantees, into the immediate neighborhood and to build bridges between diverse cultures and across generations.
The gallery is staffed by the Bihl Haus Arts Docents, led by Head Docent Patricia Harris Cody. The Docents, a majority of whom reside in the Primrose at Monticello Park Senior Apartments, help with mailings, staff the gallery and greet visitors and answer their questions. Most events are free and open to the public. The gallery is open Fridays and Saturdays, from 1 to 4 pm, and for opening receptions and other public programming, and is available free of charge to neighborhood groups for meetings and other events. Bihl Haus Arts received non-profit status in 2007. (Updated December 2014)