With its principal entrance on S. Alamo Street, La Villita provides an escape from the hulking mass of the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center across the street ( SA64). The complex is a collection of renovated historic structures as well as twentieth-century additions, which are designed to present a semblance of what late-eighteenth-and nineteenth-century San Antonio was like. Originally the site of a Coahuiltecan Indian village, La Villita was sparsely developed by Mexican and Spanish families, along with a small group of descendants from Canary Island immigrants, who had settled in San Antonio in 1731. Extensive damage to La Villita during the period of the Republic of Texas from 1836 to 1846 left little opportunity for further development and its population declined. The most primitive early houses were single-story jacales. The Spanish colonials adopted and improved this construction calling it palisado, where they filled in the spaces between the upright posts with rubble stone and mortar and covered it on both sides with plaster. A more substantial Spanish colonial type, a one-story flat-roofed stone and adobe dwelling, had one door on the main elevation that was flanked by two windows covered by iron grilles. These long, narrow houses were one room deep with dirt floors and had no interior halls; instead rear doors opened onto a long covered porch or veranda to serve as a hall and to provide protection from the heat.
The area was later settled by German immigrants, who remodeled the older houses or built larger houses of cut limestone sheathed in rough plaster with steeply pitched roofs, narrow front wooden porches, and central interior halls. The cut-limestone Villita Church, now a nondenominational chapel owned by the City of San Antonio since 1945, was constructed for a German Methodist Episcopal congregation in 1879. The Germans were later joined by French and Swiss immigrants, who introduced another type of housing having two front doors flanked by shuttered windows, similar to those found in the Alsatian settlement of Castroville, Texas.
By the end of the 1930s, La Villita had become a slum, and seemed to be doomed for clearing until the San Antonio Conservation Society intervened. The hiring of Ford as the architect for the project was fortuitous, and began a long relationship between the architect and the preservation organization. Unfortunately, Ford's later work was not as respectful to the place, as witnessed by the large Villita Assembly Hall at 401 Villita Street, whose windowless bulk is unwelcome amidst the small-scale historic buildings that comprise the rest of the compound.
Located at the southern entrance at Nueva Street is the Cirilus Gissi House, the only extant specimen of palisado construction in the city. One segment has been exposed behind a sheet of glass, enabling a view of the upright cedar posts filled with small blocks of caliche, which would have been covered by a coat of plaster. This house was relocated here from its original site in 1966. The two houses that face onto Juarez Plaza are constructed of plastered caliche masonry, with small sections exposed behind glass.