O'Neil Ford, the consulting architect for La Villita’s restoration, recounted his first impression of the area in a 1976 interview: "When I first saw it, it was like 1926, and it was just the worst slum you ever saw. You wouldn't believe there'd be a slum in the middle of town like that--there were 26 families living in there and they had as many wrecked cars as you ever saw in your life, just piles of them."
But San Antonio Mayor Maury Maverick, a former United States Congressman with close ties to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had a vision for La Villita. He saw its possibilities as a restored village that would be "a symbol and monument to those simple people who had made possible the great city which had grown up around it." Maverick, strongly committed to the concept of Pan-American unity, authored the La Villita ordinance that was adopted by the City Council on October 12, 1939, dedicating the project to "the promotion of peace, friendship and justice between the United States of America and all other nations in the Western Hemisphere."
The ordinance stipulated that: "La Villita shall not and must not be a restoration and reconstruction of the dead past, and a ghost village for the mincing walk and dusty ways of scholars, but likewise for the average living citizen. Even a jitterbug has the same constitutional right of life and liberty as the scholar who is crammed with knowledge and will not disgorge it. Moreover, there are more jitter¬bugs than scholars."
The streets, houses and plazas of La Villita were all renamed to commemorate Pan-American heroes like Mexican president Benito Juarez and Simón Bolivar, the South American patriot and liberator.
National Youth Administration and city funds totaling $110,000 paid for a labor force of 110 unemployed youths, who worked for $15 a week to transform the village. Dedicated in May 1941, La ViIIita became a center for community events and home to artists and art galleries. Maury Maverick proudly showed the area to visiting dignitaries ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to H.G. Wells. Until his death, Maverick referred to himself as the "Mayor of La Villita."
The City of San Antonio's La Villita Historic District, established in 1969, was entered in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. O'Neil Ford's 50-year involvement with La Villita continued in 1981 when his firm, Ford, Powell and Carson, in association with Saldana, Williams and Schubert, designed and supervised renovation of the entire area.
La Villita is managed by the City of San Antonio's Center City Development & Operations Department, and its shops and boutiques continue the arts and crafts tradition envisioned by Maury Maverick in the 1930s. The atmosphere that O'Neil Ford sought to create "of cool shady places, of profuse banks of blossoming native trees and shrubs" has been achieved.
Source: Old Villita. American Guide Series. Compiled and written by the Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Texas. City of San Antonio, 1939.
For a visual history of La Villita, visit the San Antonio Conservation Society's Exhibit at Building 15, open five days a week from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.