Preserving a Rich Architectural Heritage
San Antonio was one of the first cities west of Mississippi to make a concerted effort to preserve its historic buildings, beginning back in 1924 with the foundation of the San Antonio Conservation Society. Not only has this guaranteed that the city’s architectural riches are left intact for future generations, but the preservation of these structures has added considerably to San Antonio’s appeal as a tourist destination.
In a particularly clever move, many of the graceful older buildings have been converted, or are in the process of being converted into visitor-friendly attractions and hotels, while others are entering a second life housing new businesses and attractive condominiums.
Frankly, I hadn’t come to San Antonio expecting such architectural largesse, but the city’s varied mosaic of older buildings alongside interesting new ones quickly seized my attention. Here just are a few of the many architectural sights that caught my eye while visiting San Antonio.
Spanish Colonial Treasures
San Antonio is best known for its cache of wonderful Spanish Colonial buildings, especially the Spanish Governor’s Palace and the five missions that comprise the Mission Trail. The imposing San Fernando Cathedral, which underwent considerable expansion in 1868, as well as the historic district known as La Villita, dating from the earliest settlements of the city, are other remnants of the days when the Spanish rather than the U.S. flag was flown.
It goes without saying that Spanish Colonial Revival buildings are also extremely popular in San Antonio as throughout the Southwest, and many of the city’s hotels and upscale residences boast tile roofs, adobe walls, and lovely arched courtyards.
The 1880s-1920s Building Boom
The second half of the nineteenth century brought waves of immigrants and newcomers to San Antonio, ushering in an era of boom-town growth and prosperity. These immigrants bought with them the building traditions of their homelands, including German decorative woodwork and Italian stonecutting techniques.
Just as importantly, the leading citizens of this period had grandiose designs and expectations for the city, resulting in the sort of architectural smorgasbord that many prominent American cities display, with a profusion of Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance Revival, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Late Gothic Revival, and other fashionable styles. San Antonio’s City Hall, for example, is a fine example of a French Second Empire Building, while the striking Bexar County Courthouse, constructed of vivid Pecos red sandstone, was inspired by the Romanesque Revival.
During the 1920s, the city went on a skyscraper-erecting binge, perhaps as part of the successful campaign to wrestle away from Dallas the distinction of being Texas’ largest city, an honor that Big D was soon to reclaim. The 13-story Medical Arts Building (which is now the Emily Morgan Hotel), The 30-story Tower Life Building, the 24-story Nix Professional Building, and the 21-story Milam Building were all erected during the 1920’s. These structures were not just tall, they were profusely ornamented, with stone gargoyles, decorative tiling, art deco motifs, and terra cotta flourishes on the outside and opulent marble, brass, and bronze surfaces on the interior.
Many of these buildings can be enjoyed by simply strolling along San Antonio’s famed River Walk. As you walk along, look up, for the Tower Life Building, the Bexar County Courthouse, and the Nix Professional Building among others suddenly seems to spring up from behind the trees, a reminder that you are, after all, right in the heart of downtown San Antonio.
The renovation of San Antonio’s historic theaters has been central to the emergence of a vibrant theater and arts district. The Majestic Theater, built in 1929, was once the largest theater in Texas and the first in the state to be completely air conditioned. No ordinary movie palace, the Majestic boasted a vaulted ceiling onto which twinkling stars and drifting clouds were projected by a then state-of-the-art projection machine. A splendid melding of Spanish Baroque and Mediterranean architectural styles, the Majestic fell on onto hard times and eventually closed its doors in 1974. However, soon after that the theater was donated to a foundation which raised $4.5 million dollars for its restoration and reopening in 1989.
Nearby another historic theater, the Empire, followed a similar trajectory, and was reopened in 1998. The older and smaller Empire, which opened in 1913 and became a prominent theater on the vaudeville circuit, was modeled after a European palazzo, albeit with such modern (for the time) touches as electrical lighting and fans.
But perhaps the most unusual of San Antonio’s historic theaters is the Aztec, which reopened in April of 2006 after an ambitious restoration and expansion. The Aztec was one of the few Mayan Revival style theaters in the country. It featured an ornate interior with colorful murals depicting Mesoamerican themes, elaborate relief carvings, huge columns, and an immense two-ton chandelier. The Aztec now houses an entertainment complex with an iWERKS (similar to IMAX) screen, a special effects show, and shops and restaurants. The new complex is striving to become an "anchor" for the west end of the River Walk.
Façade of the Texas Theater
Finally, the historic Alameda Theater, the largest Spanish-language movie palace ever built in the U.S., has been restored and is part of a larger project intended to showcase Latino cultures. Along with the soon-to-open Museo Americano, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, the 2,400-seat Alameda provides a unique venue for Latino performing arts.
It may be hard for visitors to today’s San Antonio to imagine, but one of the city’s most beloved features, the River Walk, was a project that was nearly paved over – literally. The river was an unruly one, and after a particularly bad flood in 1921 which killed fifty people and destroyed a number of businesses downtown, a proposal was made to put the river safely underground beneath a carapace of cement.
Fortunately, an alternate plan emerged to tame the river by means of floodgates, while at the same time developing the areas along the bank as an entertainment area with cafes, shops, hotels, and restaurants. The project got a real boost during in1968, when HemisFair brought an infusion of cash and visitors to the area. I visited San Antonio that year with my mother, and while I retain virtually no memory of HemisFair itself, I can still vividly recall the colorful café awnings and picturesque vendors along River Walk.
Coming back to the area again this past fall, I found River Walk even more alluring than I’d remembered, for not only have the trees and gardens matured, especially in some of the serene park-like stretches, but new hotels and other ventures have emerged. In fact, some fear that the River Walk may have become too successful for its own good, as large chain restaurants and glitzy tourist attractions have become more prominent. Hopefully wiser heads will once again prevail and measures will be taken to preserve the unique character of the river.
While you can’t spend a day in San Antonio without absorbing at least a little of its history, you also can’t help but notice that the city is as obsessed with the future as it is with the past. This is Texas, after all, so the local movers and shakers think on a grand scale.
One such vision for the future is the conversion of the former Pearl Brewery into an ambitious combined residential and educational complex. The old brewery now houses both the Center for Foods of the Americas and the Aveda Institute beauty school, but future plans call for hundreds of condominium units as well as retail and office space surrounded by a lush public gardens, plazas, and public pathways along the San Antonio river.
Projects such as these, which find new uses for old structures, are truly what San Antonio does best.