A Diverse Culture, Memorable Places
Originally published in Architecture, March 1986, pp. 44-55
There is a quotation, fondly remembered in San Antonio and variously credited to Will Rogers, O. Henry, John Gunther, or all three, that applauds the Alamo City – along with Boston, New Orleans, and San Francisco – as one of the four “unique” cities in the United States. The quotation is normally recalled by San Antonians amid proud descriptions of hardscrabble missionary roots, gallant republican heroism, feral cowboy flamboyance, genteel “European” flavor, or (Texans are not known for understatement) all of the above.
The evidence for San Antonio’s “uniqueness” among American cities is indeed abundant. Situated only 200 miles from the Mexican border and geographically closer to San Salvador than Boston, it is the only American city that genuinely negotiates between two diverse cultures. Although ranked as the nation’s 10th largest city in population, San Antonio maintains and even promotes for itself an aura of sleepiness and gentility that belies its steady growth and healthy economy. Its quaint, almost “homey” downtown displays a skyline that would have difficulty competing in bulk with American cities half its size. As historian T. R. Fehrenbach noted, “San Antonio never developed the spirit of boosterism prevalent in other American cities, nor could its diverse inhabitants share a common worship of ‘progress.’” Especially when compared physically to Houston and Dallas, it is clear that San Antonio has long maintained a dogged independence from the dominant forces of culture and urbanism in the U.S. and in Texas.
San Antonio is a city that has, from its inception, been created by sheer act of will. Its almost serendipitous location marked no major port, anchored no major trade route, claimed no major defensive position. It is not, nor has it ever been, the center of a bustling, affluent economic region. For the first century and a quarter of its life, in fact, there was not an inhabited house between San Antonio and the banks of the Rio Grande River 200 miles to the west. Even in the mid-19th century, trips east to Gulf ports like Indianola or Galveston took three to four months and were plagued by inadequate roads, high rivers, and bandits. The fact that the city survived, much less flourished, amid such isolation attests to the impressive tenacity of its inhabitants.
Some great power has fueled San Antonio over its 268-year history, not only toward survival, independence, and autonomy, but also toward the creation of a rich, diverse culture that finds expression in some truly memorable places. This power has not been wealth or political prowess, but rather something akin to what Plato referred to in The Republic as “a magnificent myth that can in itself carry conviction to a community.” San Antonio is a city built by idealists and dreamers – leaders who could project to the populace a vision around which energy could coalesce.
No element of San Antonio’s fabric expresses the poignant power of dreams better than the weathered remains of its five missions. Though small now in their context, partially ruined and unevenly maintained, they represent an extraordinarily impressive building effort on the part of a handful of Spanish friars in a rugged and alien land. Although 36 missions were founded in Texas between 1680 and 1793, less than a dozen (including all five in San Antonio) survived for any period of time. Constantly challenged by hostile Indians and the French and tested by rugged living conditions, drought, hurricanes, and plague, the missionaries’ primary dream was the conversion of pagan Indians to Christianity. But they also sought to establish civilized Spanish society in the new world. Building was deemed important in reaching both goals.
The artifacts left by these earliest settlers in Texas were not rude huts like those produced by Anglo colonists in Massachusetts or Virginia but proud, substantial enclaves. The missions generally included a church, housing for priests, Indians, and soldiers, offices, workshops, and other support facilities all surrounding a central plaza and enclosed by a fortified wall. Mission San Jose offers the best, though still incomplete, picture of the mission compound as it would originally have functioned.
The Coahuiltecan Indians, to whom the missions were primarily oriented, had no building techniques or traditions of their own. The sources for the architecture of the missions, therefore, lie basically in Spain and in the experience of the craftsmen who were included among the early missionary founders. Fortunately, the local terrain not only offered a range of fine building materials, but also contained similar materials to the traditionally used in Spain. The rich local deposits of clay and building stone were shaped into an impressive array of masonry forms – thick adobe walls, graceful stone arcades, massive rhythmic buttresses, stocky but graceful towers, and even an occasional soaring vault. In terms of massing, the buildings were dominantly Romanesque-inspired. They are composed of simple low-lying geometric forms for the most part, dominated heavy, solid walls.
In contrast to these great stretches of plaster or stone walls, the mission builders created concentrated occasions of lavish ornamentation, especially at doors and window openings. The dense, white local limestone had the very desirable characteristics of remaining fairly soft for some time after removal from the ground but hardening significantly after exposure to the elements. The stone did not split easily under the chisel and fairly deep undercutting was possible, allowing craftsmen to produce the highly variegated surfaces that so enrich the mission churches.
What is not so evident in the buildings as they remain today is the extensive colored ornamentation and decoration that originally embellished them. The early friars reported with some admiration the exotic tatooing practiced by the local Indians. Whether in deference to that local impetus or inspired by their own Moorish traditions of patterning, the missionary builders lavished on their churches exotic displays in burnt sienna, red, ochre, and cerulean blue. Zig-zags, stripes, chevrons, corkscrews, painted tile, and stone patterns as well as a few literal religious scenes reflected a kind of decadent Spanish baroque attitude toward ornamentation combined with a primitivism appropriate to this remote place.
The artifacts of the missions that remain today are a monument to hope – to the quixotic visions of their builders. By making physical reality of their dreams, the early missionaries gave hope through their buildings to subsequent settlers who found in mid-18th century San Antonio, not the indomitable land it had seemed at the beginning of the century, but a place already firmly claimed by civilized habitation.
The missionaries, along with secular Canary Island colonists founded their town in 1731 where the cathedral stands today, establishing the rich Hispanic culture that still inspires San Antonio. It was the Spanish who brought the region such ubiquitous staples as the horse, the cow, the lariat, the courtyard, the patio, and the town plaza or square. They named the region’s rivers and towns melodically – San Marcos, Gonzales, Guadalupe, Blanco, Frio. But more importantly, the Spanish established the high-spirited, romantic culture. The tenacious colonists not only conquered the rugged Texas prairie but did so with grace and style. They brought their deeply felt religion, their food, their music, their architecture, and their colorful festivals and left them for San Antonio to thrive on for generations to come. It is still the Hispanic cultural heritage that adds pungent spice the city’s distinctive flavor.
In 1846, the German scientist Ferdinand Roemer, touring Texas from 1845 to 1847, estimated the population of San Antonio be only 800. In 1850 it was 3,448. In 1860 it was 8,235. The reduction of the city’s population in the 1840s was due to return of much of its Hispanic population to Mexico after Texas won its independence in 1836. The dramatic rebirth of the city in the mid-19th century was due to a deluge of European – largely German – immigration to central Texas beginning in 1842. By the start of the Civil War some 30,000 German-speaking set tiers had come to Texas. The influence of these Europeans on the vast and rapidly developing state at large was minimal, but their impact on San Antonio and its region was profound.
Texas enjoyed a peculiar popularity in Germany and the area around the headwaters of the Rhine. A number of rich German noblemen interested in overseas colonization for economic and philanthropic reasons advertised the state widely as a mecca for freedom and opportunity. Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, for example, convinced a whole fraternity of free-thinkers in Darmstadt, known as Die Vierziger, to move to the new state he described as “a land of milk and honey, of perennial flowers, of crystal streams, rich and fruitful beyond measure, where roam myriads of deer and buffalo while the primeval forests abound in wild fowl of every kind.”
Uncommonly large proportions of the immigrants were cultured, well-educated people – even leaders in their German communities. Captain Nikolas Zink, an eccentric Bavarian engineer, for example, led a group of intellectual refugees from Germany known as “forty-eighters” – forward-thinking men who had seen heir dreams in the homeland evaporate with the failure of the Revolution of 1848. Although most of the immigrants initially settled in rural colonies, a significant proportion (generally the artisans and more educated people) were drawn to the urban life coalescing in San Antonio.
Frederick Law Olmsted, who visited central Texas in 1854 and documented his impressions in A Journey Through Texas, described the ironic mix of rudeness and refinement in the culture that emerged: “You are welcomed by a figure in blue flannel shirt and pendant beard, quoting Tacitus, having in one hand a long pipe, in the other a butcher’s knife; Madonnas upon log walls; coffee in tin cups upon Dresden saucers; barrels for seats, to hear Beethoven’s symphony on the grand piano.” Olmsted describes his entry into San Antonio where he found houses, “evidently German, of fresh square-cut blocks of creamy white limestone, mostly of a single story and humble proportions, but neat, and thoroughly roofed and finished. Some were furnished with the luxuries of little bow-windows, balconies, or galleries.” He found the San Antonio Zeitung, the city’s thriving German newspaper, to be the best news publication he had discovered in Texas.
The Germans staked their claim in San Antonio east of the river and began to build an impressive community of remarkably refined, but simple, buildings, later referred to as the “little Rhine.” As with the missionaries, it is remarkable how quickly the new settlers built substantial, and in this case quite elegant, buildings. Three products of 1857-8 are particularly impressive. The Casino Hall on Market Street, the Menger Hotel alongside the Alamo (now completely altered), and the Old Market House were all designed in a very erudite, spare classical style obviously inspired by Karl Frederick Schinkel. Sometimes mistakenly lumped into American “Greek Revival,” these buildings were built of stone, not wood, and were distinctly German. They were sufficiently up-to-date and refined in proportion and detail to stand proudly in any German town of the day.
Refused the use of the Alamo for their services, the German Catholics built St. Joseph’s Church on Commerce Street in a distinctly German style. Begun in 1868, the tower could have come straight off a Bavarian church. The stained glass was imported from Munich. Though still a frontier town, the droves of immigrants had made San Antonio the largest settlement in Texas at the time. German replaced Spanish as the sidewalk language. An extraordinarily refined culture developed with good music, good food, numerous educational opportunities, and a developing physical presence to reinforce its utopian vision.
By 1876, the population of San Antonio was 17,314 – 5,630 Germans and Alsatians; 5,475 “Americans,” English, and Irish; and 3,750 Mexicans. Ernst Altgelt planned a broad avenue in the German part of town to be lined with stately mansions for miles and miles that he named King William Street for Wilhelm I, King of Prussia and later German Emperor. The street and its surrounding district became one of the first planned residential developments in Texas.
In the anti-German hysteria that surrounded World War I, however, everything German became suspect. German publications went out of business, the language was removed from educational institutions, German composers such as Mozart and Beethoven were deleted from musical repertories, and, for a short time, the name of King William Street was even changed to Pershing.
The dream of a free-thinking German utopia failed, but the remnants of the dream provided a legacy of artistic and cultural sophistication that feeds San Antonio to this day. The Germans’ adamant retention of cultural rootedness contributed to San Antonio’s powerful respect for tradition and its stubbornness in resisting merely fashionable “progress.” The dream also contributed much beauty-sufficient, even in its early stages, to provoke Olmsted to remark that, “We have no city, except, perhaps, New Orleans, that can vie in point of picturesque interest … with San Antonio.”
There is probably no myth in all Americana that has had made more interest, potency, and longevity than that of the cowboy. And there is probably no city (apologies to Laredo, Dodge City, and EI Paso) that is more closely associated with the myth than “San Antone.” “Cowboys and Indians” were real in San Antonio. There was a breed of mid-19th century settlers in the city who were as rough and raw and daring as legend would have us believe. Largely immigrants from Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, and other Southern states, they were a tough, restless, itinerate breed who came to Texas seeking the challenge and freedom of the frontier. The myth they created was centered around the world of the strong, independent individual.
In the late 1830s Indian raids were a constant threat in San Antonio and many other frontier Texas settlements. The state’s response was the formation of the Texas Rangers – small bands of adventurous young men who had the sanction but rarely any official backing from the government. San Antonio was a prominent Ranger station, and here one of the Ranger captains, introduced a single invention that would turn the tide of Indian disputation and mark the beginning of the cowboy era.
Prior to 1839 the Rangers had not fared well against their fierce Comanche foes. Few white men, Spanish or American, could beat the Indians in mounted warfare since their muzzleloading firearms were inferior to bows and arrows in both speed and accuracy. But when Jack Hays introduced Samuel Colt’s revolving
six-shooter, all of that changed. The weapon, which became known in San Antonio as “the equalizer,” quickly established a position for itself in Texas lore and American legend. Its murderous efficiency as well as its romantic symbolism dominated development of the region for the rest of the century.
With the introduction of the six-shooter, settlers rather than Indians began to control the range. After the 1845 annexation of Texas by the United States, the U.S. Army placed a major detachment in the old Spanish barracks on Military Plaza in the center of the city and began to fortify posts in West Texas. Ranchmen in central and south Texas began to prosper.
Cowboys lived rugged and dangerous lives. Inured to the rough life of the frontier, they knew no reserve. The sudden accumulation of wealth that came to them in these good times made them great spenders. As San Antonio was the closest, biggest town around, the cowboys claimed it for their “stomping grounds.” Saloons, vaudeville theaters, and bawdy houses proliferated along and behind the Main Plaza in the old Spanish part of town.
Plaza House, the first lodging house in this district, was erected in 1847 on the north side of the Main Plaza. Ten years later the first stagecoaches, destined for San Diego, started from its front door. But, in the glory-day of the cowboy, his chosen home was the Southern Hotel, located between the two plazas, near the stockyards on South Flores Street and also near the better saloons and gambling dens that ringed the Main Plaza.
The architectural character of this district was pretty much like that depicted in the best of the John Wayne westerns. Single-story or two-story, strongly frontal buildings lined the squares with widely varying cornice heights, roof shapes, patterns, and porch conditions. The buildings were as strong willed and independent as their rowdy inhabitants. Lording over its worldly neighbors in the block between the plazas was San Fernando Cathedral, which received its present neo-Gothic character when it was extended 1868-1873. The public squares themselves were largely open and undifferentiated. For half a century, the Military Plaza housed the city’s central market, making it one of the liveliest spots in Texas.
The plazas of old cowboy “San Antone” were bathed in blood and violence in their mid-century heyday. Vigilante committees occupied themselves with lynching bees here until the priests finally chopped down all of the available trees. A contemporary guidebook notes that at mid-century, The festive cowboy held high carnival in all the public places. Murder, robbery, rape, and villany were of nightly and almost hourly occurrence.”
The cowboy was the epitome of American freedom and individualism. Uncivilized and antisocial, he nevertheless had a lonely determination that won him reverence both within America and abroad. The city his patronage built, however, was a frenetic, unstable place. Its hastily constructed buildings with lively ornament pasted on signpost facades symbolized the transient and superficial nature of the culture. The dominance of thee cowboy’s myth was destined from its birth to be shortlived.
“Only the snort of the iron horse,” declared the editor of the San Antonio Express in 1868, “can save us from our barbarianism.” It was indeed the arrival of the first train in 1877 as well as the fencing of the range with newly invented barbed wire in the same period that brought an end to the cowboy era. The freedom of the vast open range evaporated, and the great cattle drives to Kansas ceased. A convention of cattlemen in San Antonio on Dec. 12, 1884, mourned the death of an era by announcing the ruination of their national trail by railroads and land sharks.
The individualistic cowboy attitude had a long-term effect, however, on the shape of the city at the turn of the century. Wild, flamboyant buildings made their mark with little concern for convention or decorum. Architectural anarchy prevailed with James Riely Gordon’s robust Bexar County Courthouse (1896) contrasting with the classically ornamented 110 Broadway Building (1904) by Atlee B. Ayres and the exuberant mission-style railway stations of 1902 and 1907. Free and generally extreme versions of various styles were often asked to “shoot it out” within a single block, and the “anything-goes” character of downtown San Antonio as we know it today was born. At the turn of the century, the district’s chaotic character at the street level offered a stark contrast to the unity and isolation of the sleepy river that threaded through downtown a level and a half below the street. It was that sleepy river that would become the major source of civic identity for San Antonio in the 20th century.
Always the romantic naturalist, Olmsted wrote in 1854, “The San Antonio spring may be classed as the first water among the gems of the natural world. The whole river gushes up in one sparkling burst from the earth…. The effect is overpowering. It is beyond your possible conceptions of a spring. You cannot believe your eyes.” In describing the relation of the river produced by that spring to the city of San Antonio, Olmsted was less poetic perhaps but still enthusiastic: “The streets are laid out in such a way that a great number of houses have a garden extending to the bank, and so a bathing house which is in constant use. The Mexicans seem half the time about the water. Their plump women, especially, are excellent swimmers, and fond of displaying their luxurious buoyancy.” In sum he observed, “Few cities have such a luxury.”
And yet, by the 1920s, the San Antonio River had been transformed from “rich blue and pure as crystal” as Olmsted had found it to a despoiled sewer dump. Largely hidden from view, the river was lined downtown by commercial buildings, which, unlike their residential predecessors, addressed it with their backsides. Its banks were littered and unkempt. Most downtown inhabitants considered the river a nuisance.
In September 1921 a disastrous flood ravaged San Antonio, bringing water depths of nine feet on some downtown streets. In the wake of the flood, an engineering firm that was hired by the City of San Antonio recommended that certain channels of the river be concreted and that the Horseshoe Bend area, now site of the Paseo del Rio, be filled in.
The recommendations, however, met stiff opposition from a number of groups, including the newly formed San Antonio Conservation Society and the influential City Federation of Women’s Clubss. The groups lobbied to save their “lovely winding San Antonio River,” but needed an alternate plan in order to deter the city from following the recommendations of its engineers.
In June 1929 such an alternative was proposed in a meeting arranged by the Conservation Society and attended by city officials, property owners, and other civic leaders interested in the district. In that meeting a 27-year-old architecture graduate of the University of Texas, Robert H. H. Hugman, outlined a vision for the river that combined romance and nostalgia with promotional good sense and predicted the beautiful and evocative Paseo del Rio as we know it today.
Hugman wove a tale at the meeting of “a quaint old cobblestoned street rambling lazily along the river. A street with old world appeal.” He projected, “Small shops, a studio apartment, … a cafe, cabaret, and dance club would all do thriving business in this atmosphere.” On the street of his imagination he envisioned shops “built of old stone and brick of very simple architecture creating maximum charm at minimum expense.” He dreamed of a “boat ride down the river on a balmy night, fanned by a gentle breeze carrying the delightful aroma of honeysuckle and sweet olive, old fashioned street lamps casting fantastic shadows on the surface of the water, strains of soft music in the air….”
Hugman’s image was enthusiastically received but was ill-timed to coincide with the beginning of the Great Depression and the drying-up of available funds for the project. Not until 1938, after Mayor Maury Maverick had convinced his friend Franklin D. Roosevelt to contribute federal monies, was Hugman finally employed as architect of the San Antonio River beautification project.
In the years that followed, the architect began to build his dream under the auspices of the WPA. The river was drained, and the channel was cleaned and deepened. The mature cypress trees along the river were carefully preserved, and more were brought from the nearby Guadalupe River to supplement existing ones. Some 11,000 trees and shrubs were added to the banks of the river, including over 1,500 exotic banana trees. More than 8,500 feet of bank were improved affecting 21 city blocks. Over 17,000 feet of river walks and sidewalks were built as well as 31 stairways leading to the river bank from 21 bridges.
Hugman’s design work fulfilled the promise of his original vision. Paths in the district were made gentle and graceful, surfaces rich and tactile. Landscaping was lush and sheltering. The commercial and activity development that Hugman envisioned for the river did not take firm root until the mid-1960s, when a second generation of visionaries led by Cyrus Wagner produced new plans and energy for the river. Consistent with Hugman’s notions, the Wagner era proposals capitalized on the beauty and serenity of the river while adding liveliness and economic vitality.
The sum of San Antonio is not an orderly city, not a neat city, not a wholly beautiful city. What fascinates the tourist – and often the long-time resident as well – is the startling variety of the place, its intriguing contrasts. San Antonio is not one town, but a collection of towns – not the result of one dream but a collection of dreams.
The worrisome point for an admiring neighbor looking at San Antonio today is that the city might be losing its uniqueness. The building of HemisFair in 1968 posed a new opportunity for creative urban vision. But the vision was not forthcoming. The HemisFair grounds, which occupied a large and critical parcel of land adjacent to downtown, were filled out with uninspired urban design and buildings typical of the era. One might have expected such behavior from a less independent and imaginative city, but not from San Antonio.
Likewise, the recent and rampaging development of Loop 410 around the city shows signs of anonymity and placelessness that have never been a problem for the city before. Downtown, too there seems to be a fear of the romance, daring, and fantasy that have long served San Antonio so faithfully. Not since Robert and Atlee Ayres’ wonderful Tower Life Building of 1929 has a tall building been built in San Antonio that really captured the flamboyant spirit of the place. Recent insipid boxes bearing the logos of financial conglomerates and international hoteliers have diluted the city’s character without contributing additional virtues in like measure.
But perhaps a brighter future lies in store. Henry Cisneros, the city’s dynamic young mayor, is generating political, social, and economic dreams for the city comparable to those of his predecessors. A few recent environmental proposals for the city likewise have taken significant strides. The Paseo del Alamo, which linked the Paseo del Rio and Alamo Plaza in 1982, was a truly inspired bit of urban design, extending Hugman’s dream admirably. Cy Wagner’s and Greg Warwick’s proposal for the first residential tower in the river-bend area proved that a tall building in San Antonio can carry a sense of its place as well as injecting the exciting new notion of high-density housing downtown.
There is much to be admired in this tenacious, trend-bucking settlement still teetering on the frontier. In many ways, it remains, as Sidney Lanier observed of it a century ago, “with all its gay prosperity on the edge of a lonesome land … like Mardi Gras on the austere brink of Lent.” The gentle pace of life, the lilt of the Spanish tongue, sunburnt landscape foiled by lush, semitropical vegetation, proud public edifices, tree-lined residential streets, shady courtyards, secluded patios, time- and sometimes bloodstained walls, the remembering river – all of these give San Antonio a romance and even charm that is missing in many American cities less prone to myths, more solidly entrenched in reality. As San Antonio gains stature politically and economically in the late 20th century, here’s hoping she keeps her vision, her particularity.