It all begins with the river. The meandering, cottonwood-shaded, unhurried river that takes 15 miles to traverse about six miles of San Antonio downtown real estate. Payaya Indians settled along its banks for thousands of years and Spanish explorers and missionaries were pulled to its waters when they began arriving in the 1690s and named the place after Saint Anthony of Padova in Italy.
The settlement became a natural military center and in 1718 the first of five Spanish missions was established around the San Antonio River. It was called Mission San Antonio de Valero and would later be remembered as the Alamo, a nickname gleaned from the surrounding cottonwoods that it would acquire after the mission system was abandoned in the 1790s. The missions were consolidated into San Antonio de Bexar, the capital of Texas Province, in 1793.
The Mexicans and Spanish tussled over this land until the Mexicans secured independence from Spain in 1821. The new Mexican government at first encouraged American settlement but it wasn’t long before these new arrivals to the province of Texas were agitating for their own independence, especially after newly elected Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna rescinded the Mexican Constitution in 1833. Kentuckian Benjamin Milam led a contingent of Texans to capture San Antonio in December of 1835 but leader of the Texas Rebellion, Sam Houston, didn’t believe the capital could be held and called for the rebel forces to flee San Antonio.
The volunteers, with such now legendary names as James Bowie and Davy Crockett, under the leadership of 26-year old William Barrett Travis thought otherwise. Somewhere between 182 and 257 Anglo and Hispanic Texans fortified the Alamo mission and made a stand against some 1,500 Mexican invaders who arrived under Santa Anna on February 23. After a twelve-day siege the Mexicans stormed the mission on March 6, 1836 and all the defenders were killed or captured and executed.
In the aftermath of the Battle of the Alamo its defenders were martyred, Texas gained its independence the following month and became part of the United States a decade later, the mission was preserved in the center of the city which became the largest in the state for the rest of the century, San Antonio got a nickname and Texas got its best-known and most-visited tourist attraction. And that is where our walking tour will begin...
300 Alamo Plaza south of Houston Street
The Spanish established a Roman Catholic mission in town in 1718, populated by church emissaries and their Indian converts. The compound was sited here in 1724 with a chapel and several support buildings inside a defensive wall. It was called San Antonio de Valero in honor of Saint Anthony de Padua and the Duke of Valero, the Spanish viceroy. San Antonio de Valero operated until 1793 when Spanish officials disbanded its five San Antonio missions. In the early 1800s Mexican soldiers moved in and the mission picked up the name “Alamo” from the Spanish word for the cottonwoods growing in abundance along the riverbanks. With the onset of the Texas Revolution the Alamo was surrendered to Texan forces in December of 1835. The Mexicans returned in force on February 23, 1836 under the leadership of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and laid siege to the 150 or so soldiers inside the mission. The stand-off lasted thirteen days until the Mexicans stormed the Alamo. Every Texas defender was killed in the attack which resulted in between 400 and 600 Mexican casualties. The Mexicans held the Alamo but six weeks later after the defeat of Santa Anna at San Jacinto the revolution was over. After the United States annexed Texas in 1845 the old mission once again assumed military use until 1876. The Alamo then reverted back to the church but was acquired by the State of Texas in 1883 and placed in the stewardship of the city of San Antonio. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas organized in 1892 with the specified purpose of preserving the Alamo. The organization was named permanent custodian by the Texas legislature in 1905 and has overseen the most historic site in the state ever since.
FACING THE ALAMO, TURN RIGHT AND WALK SOUTH ON ALAMO PLAZA.
204 Alamo Plaza
William Menger was 20 years old when he arrived in San Antonio from Germany in 1847. He found a room in a boarding house run by a widow named Mary Guenther. Soon the two were married and the couple moved their hotel to this location where Menger also opened his Western Brewery, connected to the guest house by an underground tunnel. Both were rapidly successful enterprises and in 1857 local architect John M. Fries was retained to spruce up the hotel, the first of several expansions. Menger died at the age of 44 in 1871 but his family carried on the business. The Menger Hotel became the most famous in the Southwest and the brewery the largest in Texas. The Menger was where visiting power brokers and celebrities signed the guest register in San Antonio, feasting on meals of wild game and mango ice cream from the Colonial Dining Room. The brewery disappeared in 1915 but the hotel carries on to this day. It is said to be the most haunted hotel in Texas, frequented by 32 different spirits including Captain Richard King, founder of the famous King Ranch in South Texas. King died in the Menger in 1885.
northeast corner of Alamo and Commerce streets
Julius Joske opened his first store in San Antonio in 1867. After running the emporium until 1873 he sold out and returned to his native Germany. He was soon back in Texas running a new store with his sons. In 1887 Joske’s opened a grand Victorian store on this location which would one day boast the largest rooftop electric sign in Texas featuring a cowboy lassoing a steer. Over the years the store became the flagship for Joske’s chain of department stores and received periodic expansions. By the 1950s there were five levels and over 550,000 square feet of selling space. Joske’s of Texas billed itself as the “the biggest store in the biggest state.” In fact it was the largest department store in America west of the Mississippi River. The current Art Deco appearance dates to a 1939 makeover. The Joske’s nameplate disappeared in 1987 during a burst of department store consolidation and the property is now owned by the Rivercenter shopping complex.
TURN LEFT ON COMMERCE STREET.
St. Joseph Catholic Church
623 East Commerce Street
The cornerstone for this Gothic Revival church was laid in 1868 and the first services here took place in 1871. The steeple came along in 1898. The parish, the fourth in the town, was mostly German and stained glass from the Emil Frei Art Glass Factory in Munich was imported in 1902. In the 1940s Joske’s department store was looking to expand and offered to buy the St. Joseph land but the congregation refused to move. So Joske’s built around the church on three sides. Even a quarter century after the demise of the retailer the church is sometimes still referred to around town as “St. Joske’s.”
RETURN TO ALAMO STREET AND TURN LEFT, CONTINUING SOUTH.
east side of Alamo Street at Nueva Street
To acknowledge the 250th anniversary of the founding of San Antonio the city staged HemisFair ‘68 that was the official 1968 World’s Fair. More than six million visitors attended the celebration that spread across 92 acres and attracted exhibits from over 30 countries. The signature structure of the fair was the Tower of the Americas that stood 622 feet tall (750 with its antenna). Designed by Texas architect O’Neill Ford, the tower, that features a revolving restaurant at its top, remains the tallest structure in town. In 1988 fifteen of the remaining acres were landscaped into an urban park.
WHEN YOU ARE FINISHED EXPLORING HEMISFAIR PARK CROSS ALAMO STREET TO NUEVA STREET.
The Fairmount Hotel
401 South Alamo Street at southwest corner of Nueva Street
This brick hotel was constructed in 1906 during the flush of prosperity in San Antonio in the new years of the century. By the 1970s however the building was vacant, dilapidated and facing a date with the wrecking ball. At the time it was located at the corner of Bowie and Commerce streets. The historic hotel had never been renovated and the San Antonio Conservation Society fought to save that slice of turn-of-the 20th century Texas. The solution was to move the entire hotel to this location in 1985. It would cost over a million dollars and take several days to move the 3.2 million pounds of brick and mortar, including a crossing of the Market Street Bridge, the several blocks to this location. The Fairmount Hotel was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest structure ever moved on wheels. It has since been restored to its original elegance.
northwest corner of Alamo and Nueva streets
La Villita lays claim to being the first neighborhood in San Antonio. Indians settled here and Spanish solders stationed at the Mission San Antonio de Valero constructed brush huts in the settlement in the 1700s. Adobe and stone structures began replacing the huts after an 1819 flood and more than two dozen of the historic structures remain, ranging from single-room homes to expansive haciendas. Today the four-block area has been transformed into an art community.
WHEN YOU ARE FINISHED EXPLORING LA VILLITA RETURN TO NUEVA STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
St. John’s Lutheran Church
502 East Nueva Street at southwest corner of Presa Street
German Lutherans, fifteen members strong, started this congregation in 1857; it would grow to some 3,000 members and become the largest Lutheran church in Texas. This is the third meetinghouse to serve the congregation on this corner; the Gothic-flavored building dates to 1932. It does not, however, still display the rooster weather vane on its steeple that earned St. John’s the nickname of the “rooster church.”
Louis Gresser House
225 South Presa Street at northwest corner of Nueva Street
It was once believed that legendary captain of the Texas Rangers and veteran of the Mexican-American and Indian wars, Jack Hays, lived in this house. It lost some of its historical luster when an archeological analysis determined that it was constructed too late for Hays to have resided here. Still, the single-story structure is a fine example of an 1870s San Antonio house; each of the four rooms sports its own entrance to the porch. The stout, bearded Louis Gresser purchased the property in 1861 for $1,000 and eventually constructed several buildings here. The San Antonio Conservation Society, which acquired its first historic property in 1926, bought this house in 1976.
TURN RIGHT ON NAVARRO STREET.
Navarro Hotel/O’Brien Hotel
116 Navarro Street
This three-story guest house began life in 1915. Its latest incarnation began in 2003 as a 39-room boutique hotel, refurbished to a 1920s appearance.
TURN AND WALK OVER TO THE DIAGONALLY-CUTTING ST. MARY’S STREET. TURN RIGHT.
Smith-Young Tower/Tower Life Building
310 St. Mary’s Street at northeast corner of Villita Street
Atlee Ayres was born in Ohio in 1873 but was living with his family in San Antonio by the time he was 15 years old. He went up to New York City and Columbia University to study architecture but returned to San Antonio, and for a brief time, Mexico, to practice. He rapidly became a go-to designer around town and was named state architect of Texas in 1915. Ayres teamed with his son Robert in 1924 and won the commission for this tower in 1927; the main money man was developer Jim Smith. The Ayres delivered a 31-story, 403-foot eight-sided skyscraper that would rule the San Antonio skyline for almost 60 years. They tapped the Gothic Revival style, executed in tan brick and terra cotta, and even included gargoyles. The grand opening was on June 1, 1929 - just months before the greatest financial collapse in American history. Smith’s financial troubles would lead to his suicide and there were stories that he leaped to his death from the roof of his landmark tower. In fact he was staying away from San Antonio to dodge lawsuits and shot himself in a Dallas apartment. Ownership has passed through several hands and the building has carried the Tower Life Insurance nameplate since 1960.
Plaza Hotel/Granadas Apartments
301 South St. Mary’s Street at northwest corner of Villita Street
This chunk of downtown San Antonio was known as Bowen’s Island for a homestead John Bowen, the town’s first United States postmaster, constructed in 1866. At the time an irrigation ditch connected to the San Antonio River formed a loop around the property. Developer brothers Jim and Albert Smith bought the land in 1923 and set out to populate it with skyscrapers. The Plaza was completed in 1927 and was the town’s tallest hotel. It was followed by the Smith-Young Tower across the street but the onset of the Great Depression scuttled further development plans. Both buildings were designed by Atlee and Robert Ayres. Here they created a 12-story Beaux Arts confection highlighted by stone quoins wrapped around light brown bricks, a prominent toothed cornice and an ornate arched corner doorway.
San Antonio River at St. Mary’s Bridge
Since the 1500s the San Antonio River has been both a blessing and a bane of the town’s residents. After another in a long line of lethal floods claimed 50 lives in 1921 city fathers got serious about flood control. Their plan involved a diversion dam and paving over the river in downtown to create a storm sewer. The Olmos Dam became a reality but the San Antonio Conservation Society got the storm sewer idea shelved. Local architect Robert Hugman submitted a master plan for a commercially-tinged set of walkways that would become the San Antonio River Beautification Project when voters passed a bond issue for its creation in 1938. Residents were wary of the nascent River Walk - they feared being trapped in fast-rising flood waters. The project, however, was awarded critical federal Works Progress Administration monies in 1939 that spawned the creation of five miles of walkways and over 20 bridges. The River Walk got its first test during 1946 flooding which was contained by the dam and its bypass channel. That year the River Walk’s first restaurant, the Casa Rio, opened. Today the park links over 2000 acres of public land and is considered the number one tourist attraction in Texas. The bridge here at St. Mary’s Street predates the River Walk, having been constructed in 1915; it boasts classically-inspired carved railings and obelisk lampposts in the center.
San Antonio Drug Company
432 West Market Street at southeast corner of St. Mary’s Street
Frederick Kalteyer left his native Germany for the Gulf Coast in the 1830s. He is rumored to have started Texas’s first soda water business during a stint in Galveston and upon arriving in San Antonio in 1857 he opened the Eagle Drug Store on Military Plaza. His son George was sent to Germany to study chemistry and pharmacy and he joined the family business when he was 20 years old in 1869. Two years later George was appointed Texas state chemist and was instrumental in starting the first portland cement company west of the Mississippi River. Alamo Cement Company cement would be used in building such Texas landmarks as the State Capitol and the Driskill Hotel in Austin in the 1880s. Meanwhile the retail and wholesale drug business was flourishing as well, which George Kalteyer organized into the San Antonio Drug Company in 1892. Go-to San Antonio architect Atlee Ayres designed this burly seven-story building for the company in 1919 using Neoclassical ornamentation and large, orderly Chicago-style windows.
Alamo National Bank
105 South St. Mary’s Street at northwest corner of Market Street
Daniel Burnham of Chicago was one of the pioneers of steel-framed skyscrapers and after his death in 1912 his architectural firm became Graham, Anderson, Probst & White who would become one of America’s premier builders of tall towers. This 24-story office building from 1929 was one of their designs, infused with Art Deco detailing. The client was Alamo National Bank that had organized back in 1891. The building now does duty as an historic hotel but you can still see the bank’s original vault inside.
TURN LEFT ON MARKET STREET.
Bexar County Courthouse
Main Plaza at south side of Market Street
Virginia native James Riely Gordon made a career out of designing courthouses across the United States. During his architectural career he drew up the plans for 72 courthouses, including a dozen in Texas during the 1890s. In 1891 Gordon won a county-wide design competition for the new Bexar County Courthouse. He delivered a trademark Romanesque Revival design which, after several construction delays, was executed in native granite and red sandstone in 1896. The fountain out front is called Lady Liberty and was christened with the building in 1896. It disappeared in 1927 when an addition enclosed the courtyard but was brought back eight decades later in 2008. Today the Bexar County Courthouse is one of 80 in Texas constructed before the 19th century. Across the narrow roadway to the east (your left) is a red brick Romanesque-flavored building that served as the San Antonio police department from 1927 until 1962.
WALK INTO THE MAIN PLAZA ON THE NORTH SIDE OF MARKET STREET.
San Fernando Cathedral
west side of Main Plaza between Market and Commerce streets
In the original 1730 plan for San Fernando de Bexar this was designed as the civic center of the community with a church at its head and streets radiating in the pattern of a cross to contain government buildings, shops and houses. That church was steadily constructed between 1738 and 1750 and named for a 13th century Castilian ruler named Ferdinand III. The church saw action during the Battle of the Alamo when Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna signaled his intention to lay siege to the mission by hanging a flag of “no quarter” from the tower. Three walls of the house of worship were used as the foundation of the Gothic Revival makeover the sanctuary received in the 1860s. That enables the congregation to lay claim to worshipping in the oldest cathedral in the United States.
WALK AROUND THE CATHEDRAL TO MILITARY PLAZA.
1 Military Plaza between Market and Commerce Streets
This was the parade ground for Spanish soldiers guarding the mission San Antonio de Valero in the 1720s. It remained an open space through most of the 1800s where festivals were staged, chili queens were crowned and unfortunate miscreants were hanged. The plaza was filled in 1889 when construction began on a grand Victorian City Hall. St. Louis architect Otto Kramer gave his Italian Renaissance building ornate corner towers and an onion dome clocktower which were all removed in favor of a fourth floor in 1927. The price tag when the government home was completed in 1891 was $200,000; it still serves as San Antonio City Hall. The grounds are studded with memorials including a boulder that marks the Zero Milestone of the Old Spanish Trail. It was a 1920s highway that carried motorists 3,000 miles through eight states and 67 counties connecting the original Spanish missions from St. Augustine, Florida to San Diego, California.
Spanish Governor’s Palace
west side of Military Plaza behind City Hall
Despite the name, no Spanish governors lived on these grounds, sculpted in the mid-1700s. Instead it was the residence of the captain of the presidio guards who could look over his troops drilling on the plaza from his headquarters here. The current Spanish Colonial appearance is an interpretation by local architect Harvey P. Smith in 1929 for the City, which owns the property; it maintains the one-story stucco building and courtyard as a museum. Exuding Spanish colonial aristocracy, the rambling Governor’s Palace stands as a National Historic Landmark.
WALK OVER TO COMMERCE STREET ON THE NORHT SIDE OF THE PLAZA AND TURN RIGHT, HEADING BACK TO MAIN PLAZA.
Frost National Bank/Municipal Plaza Building
114 West Commerce Street at southwest corner of Main Street on Main Plaza
Alabama native Thomas Claiborne Frost came to Texas in 1855 when he was 22 years old to teach at Austin College in Huntsville. It seems he did just about everything except teach. He was admitted to the Texas Bar in 1856 but became a Texas Ranger before setting up a practice. He was a delegate to the Texas Secession Convention in 1861 and then became an officer in the Confederate Army. After the Civil War he ran a freight business in San Antonio and then set up a mercantile business on this site in 1868, eventually going into the wool trade as well. Since Frost had one of the strongest safes in San Antonio he was often entrusted his customer’s money which led him to become a banker. The Frost Bank picked up a national charter in 1899, four years before T.C. Frost died in 1903 at the age of 70. This 12-story headquarters was erected in 1922. Architects Maurice Sanguinet and Carl Staats, who designed nearly every tall building in Fort Worth, provided the Colonial Revival design for the skyscraper with coin-themed medallions between floors. The bank moved on to bigger digs in 1973.
104 North St. Mary’s Street at northeast corner of Commerce Street
The Aztec was designed by Mendel Meyer andPhillip W. Holler who built Hollywood’s two most famous theaters - Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre and Chinese Theatre. Meyer and Holler gave the Aztec an appropriately Mayan theme and outfitted the temple-like lobby with a three-ton chandelier that was bragged on as the largest in Texas. In the auditorium the Aztec could seat 3,000 theater-goers. The final cost when the curtain went up for the first time on June 4, 1926 was almost $2 million, an unheard of sum for a small city performance house. The Aztec showed motion pictures and featured stage shows in the beginning before transforming into a movie palace. Like nearly all of America’s downtown theaters the Aztec struggled in the 1960s and 1970s with competition from television and suburban multiplexes. The great auditorium was chopped into thirds but the theater could not be saved and shuttered in 1989. The Aztec was revived as a live performance house in 2009 but is currently dark again.
L. Frank Saddlery Company
231 East Commerce Street
The L. Frank Saddlery Company was started in 1870 on Main Plaza. The founder died in 1889 and control of the business was assumed by Jacob David Straus who had entered the firm as a salesman five years earlier. The company earned its niche in history when Colonel Theodore Roosevelt outfitted his Rough Riders regiment at L. Frank Saddlery in 1898 on the way to the Spanish-American War in Cuba. The business arrived here in 1901. This facade is a replica of the one that collapsed during a renovation in 2002. The Straus-Frank Company survived the coming of the horseless carriage and is still in business selling tires and car parts instead of saddles and harnesses, but not here.
San Antonio Loan and Trust/First National Bank
235/239 East Commerce Street
George Washington Brackenridge was born in Indiana in 1832. He was trained as a surveyor and engineer but wound up peddling wares in Texas when he was 18 years old. Business was so brisk his family moved from Indiana to Texana and started a mercantile house. Brackenridge made his real fortune during the Civil War when he skirted the Confederate ban on selling cotton to New York City merchants. Meanwhile his three brothers fought for the Confederacy. When the war ended the 34-year year old Brackenridge showed up with his money in San Antonio and opened the First National Bank of San Antonio; he later started the San Antonio Loan and Trust next door. Brackenridge is said to have had a hand in the Moorish design of the buildings that were constructed of rough hewn limestone blocks. Beginning in 1879 Brackenridge ran the San Antonio Water Works Company that supplied fresh water to the town. Among his greatest legacies is Brackenridge Park, for which he donated the initial 199 acres in 1899. He died in 1920, a few weeks shy of his 89th birthday.
Staacke Brothers Building
309 East Commerce Street
James Riely Gordon was among the busiest of Victorian architects in Texas in the 1890s. In addition to his prolific courthouse work Gordon also took on other projects, including this three-story commercial building in 1894. The clients were three Staacke brothers, August, Rudolph and Herman, who bought the slice of carriage trade business from the mercantile empire of their father August F. Staacke. Gordon used red sandstone and Texas pink granite to fashion the vehicle showroom with oversized arched windows in a Renaissance Revival style.
315 East Commerce Street
James Riely Gordon’s work on the Staacke Building nicely complemented the work he had done for John J. Stevens three years earlier. Stevens was a San Antonio native born to Irish immigrants in 1852. After leaving school at the age of 12 Stevens worked in a string of government-related jobs until successfully entering private business. Gordon gave Stevens’ investment property a vaguely Richardsonian Romanesque feel with prominent arches, polished columnettes and checkerboard stonework. The style was based on the work of Henry Hobson Richardson of Boston, America’s most influential architect in the post-Civil War era.
Alamo National Bank/Commerce Building
316 East Commerce Street at southwest corner of Presa Street
Many of the buildings on the south side of Commerce Street were sacrificed when the street was widened to a roomy 65 feet in a three-year project beginning in 1912. The Alamo National Bank, a 1902 Renaissance Revival creation of Atlee Ayres, avoided a similar fate by being raised and moved back on rollers. Moving buildings and houses was not an uncommon practice in the 1800s in the days before complicated plumbing and wiring systems. The move of the Alamo National Bank building was accomplished by hand using a crew of 40 men, 1,600 rollers and 1,800 screwjacks. The then five-story building was moved 16 feet and seven inches, a feat that earned it recognition in the syndicated cartoon strip, Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The bank itself moved in 1929 and left the building behind.
Riverside Building/Clifford Building
431 East Commerce Street
This 1891 landmark is more handiwork form James Riely Gordon. In a bold stroke Gordon oriented the curved prowl of his Romanesque-inspired creation towards the river and not the street. River Walk designer Robert Hugman kept an office here and today it carries the name of attorney Charles H. Clifford who signed the first lease to move in after a 1970s restoration.
TURN LEFT ON LOSOYA STREET. TURN LEFT ON CROCKETT STREET.
San Antonio Casino Club
102 West Crockett Street at southeast corner of Presa Street
Twenty German transplants got together to form San Antonio’s first social club and theater in 1854. When the club was chartered the membership consisted of 106 - all men and all German. the club promoted German culture and social traditions in its Market Street clubhouse until 1923. After the building was sold the Casino Club entwined with the San Antonio Club and moved into this slender riverside building in 1927. Look up to see the multi-hued cap on the tiered roof.
TURN RIGHT ON PRESA STREET. TURN LEFT ON COLLEGE STREET.
Nix Professional Building
408 Navarro Street at southeast corner of College Street
They don’t make hospitals like this anymore. The Nix Professional Building was conceived by James M. Nix as the first hospital in the country to contain patient beds, the doctors’ offices and a parking garage all in one building. When it was completed in 1931 the 23-story tower was the largest and tallest hospital in America. Prominent Texas architect Henry T. Phelps cleverly designed the Art Deco tower so that its great bulk is obscured. The light tan masonry is liberally adorned with white terra cotta decoration. Many thousands of San Antonio natives, including Carol Burnett and Oliver North, entered the world here.
St. Mary’s Church
202 North St. Mary’s Street at southeast corner of College Street
Land was purchased here by the Bishop of Galveston in 1852 to erect a church for the non-Spanish speaking Catholics of San Antonio, the second church for the parish. The 1921 Flood damaged the church beyond repair and spawned the present Romanesque-styled church that emanated from the pen of architect F.B. Gaenslen in 1924.
TURN RIGHT ON ST. MARY’S STREET AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO HOUSTON STREET.
northwest corner of North St. Mary’s and East Houston streets
The Eli Hertzberg Jewelry Company installed this clock in front of its store on Commerce Street in 1878. In 1910 when the family business located here the clock came with it. The building is gone and Hertzberg’s Jewelers was sold to Zales Corporation in 1964 but the clock is still keeping time, maintained by the San Antonio Conservation Society. Crafted by the venerable watch and clock concern of E. Howard & Company in Boston, the cast iron timepiece is hand wound and relies on a series of weights to keep time. It is regarded around town as the official timepiece of San Antonio.
Brady Building/Empire Theatre
204 East Houston Street at southeast corner of St. Mary’s Street
In the 19th century a town’s opera house was used for everything from live plays to lectures to school graduations; opera was seldom on the bill. The Turner Verein Association built San Antonio’s opera house here in 1879. Developer Thomas Brady purchased the venue in 1890. In 1913 he hired the architectural firm of Mauran, Russell & Crow of St. Louis to build the largest and most opulent theater in town. Their European palazzo-styled structure would house vaudeville troupes, live theater and the new entertainment craze - silent motion pictures. A flood filled the Empire with nine feet of San Antonio River water in 1921 and rather than restore the extravagant interior the owners just slapped white paint on the walls. Battered and bruised by time, suburban flight and color television the Empire staggered to an end in 1978. The City of San Antonio bought the property and the Empire re-emerged in 1998 after a painstaking restoration.
205 East Houston Street at northeast corner of St. Mary’s Street
This location has sported a guest house since 1837 when the Frontier Hotel stood here. After paying $500 the Vance brothers tore the structure down in 1851 and constructed a two-story, ten-bay building to house Army troops; after 1872 it was converted into the Vance Hotel. In 1909 architect John Mauran, who carved out a career designing brawny downtown St. Louis high-rises, came to San Antonio and created the largest building the town had ever seen for recently deceased moneyman Jot Gunter. Gunter, a North Carolina native, was a lawyer and land dealer who brought his business dealings to San Antonio in 1901 when he was 56 years old. The steel-framed Gunter Hotel featured eight stories and was skinned in buff brick; inside were 301 guest rooms. A ninth floor was tacked on in 1917 and three more came along in 1926. Unlike many of its fellow downtown hotels the Gunter has not been converted to residential use and operates into its second century.
TURN RIGHT ON HOUSTON STREET AND WALK EAST.
224 East Houston Street
Architect John Eberson started building atmospheric theaters, designed to transport patrons on exotic journeys of the mind, in 1922. He would create more than 100 such movie palaces, including the Majestic in the Spanish Mediterranean style in 1929. When it opened on June 14, 1929 the Majestic was the largest theater in Texas and the second largest in the United States. Advertisements trumpeted “an acre of cool, comfortable seats” to fill the 2,311-seat auditorium. The first fully air conditioned movie house in San Antonio sold more than one million tickets in its first year. Like the neighboring Empire Theatre the Majestic was closed in the 1980s but dodged the bulldozers long enough to absorb a $9 million makeover into a state-of-the-arts live performance arts venue.
Orpheum Theatre/Frost Brothers Building
217 East Houston Street
This building began life as the Orpheum Theatre in 1912 and was quickly re-named the Princess Theatre. The Princess went dark in 1929 and the building received a classically flavored makeover into a retail store the following year. Over the decades the most remembered tenant was Frost Brothers, a high fashion retail emporium that operated until the late 1980s. Jonas Martin Frost, William Cohen Frost and Harry Hertzberg launched the business in 1917.
Central Trust Company Building
603 Navarro Street at northwest corner of East Houston Street
The Central Trust Company organized in 1910 and was crashed by the onset of the Great Depression in 1931. In between the company was prosperous enough to build San Antonio’s “million dollar bank” in 1919. Fort Worth’s leading architects, Maurice Sanguinet and Carl Staats, teamed with local architect Charles T. Boelhauwe to craft a 12-story Neoclassical tower in green granite and terra cotta that was the town’s tallest building when it opened. Even after the demise of Central Trust the high-rise has trundled on as financial offices.
315 East Houston Street
Samuel Henry Kress looked on his stores as public works of art and he retained a staff of architects to achieve that end. He took as much pride in the appearance of those stores as the nickels and dimes that piled up in his coffers. There would eventually be 264 Kress five-and-dime stores throughout the United States and many of them adopted the Art Deco style in the 1920s and 1930s. The lead designer for Kress was Brooklyn native Edward F. Sibbert, who did the San Antonio store in 1939. The six-story building is skinned in terra-cotta once decorated in Sibbert’s favored golds, greens and reds.
318 East Houston Street
Albert Friedrich was 17 years old and working in the Southern Hotel on Main Plaza in 1881 when he decided to strike out on his own. He opened the Buckhorn Saloon across the street from the Southern, appealing to the cowboy crowd. His clientele was often short of money so Friedrich began to accept horns and antlers as payment for a shot of whiskey. Soon every inch of wall and ceiling space was covered with horns. During Prohibition admissions to the Buckhorn Hall of Horns kept Friedrich’s business afloat as it relocated in 1922 to Houston and South Flores streets. In the 1950s the Lone Star Brewery bought the original Buckhorn bar and horn collection to use as its sampling room. In 1996 a granddaughter of Albert Friedrich rescued the collection from its corporate shackles and opened the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum and moved it to this refurbished 1912 building.
606 North Presa Street at southeast corner of East Houston Street
The Maverick family in San Antonio traces its history all the way back to the Texas Revolution and lawyer Samuel Augustus Maverick who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and helped draft the Texas constitution. Later, as a land baron, his name came to embody the “go his own way” spirit when his unbranded cattle were known among ranchers as “mavericks.” The original “maverick” was not snubbing his nose at convention, however. Sam Maverick just didn’t care that much about ranching to brand his steers. His son George constructed the Maverick Hotel here in 1878, a grand French Second Empire confection that was pulled downto facilitate an expansion of Presa Street. In 1922 the Maverick family erected this nine-story office building. Architect Lou Harrington, who came out of the prolific Fort Worth shop of Sanguinet, Staats and Hedrick, provided the clean, crisp design executed in brick and cut stone. The building was vacant after 1981 but was awakened to serve as residential space in 1996.
G. Bedell Moore Building
northeast corner of East Houston and Broadway streets
G. Bedell Moore was born in New Jersey in 1840. After attending Dickinson Seminary he went into the lumber business in Pennsylvania when Keystone State forests were the most productive in the world. In 1877 on a trip to Texas Moore saw endless yellow-pine forests and soon he was in Orange, Texas running the state’s first large-scale lumbering operation. After selling his interests to a partner Moore moved to San Antonio and became a major player in the real estate market. In 1904 Moore gave celebrated San Antonio architect Atlee B. Ayres one of his first commissions. Ayres and partner Charles A. Coughlin shaped their Beaux Arts building to the triangular footprint of the lot, making extensive use of terra cotta, a novel construction material for San Antonio at the time. The top floor, that once hosted a popular rooftop garden, is a 1909 addition.
west side of Alamo Plaza between East Houston and Crockett streets
Walk down any American downtown street in the 1870s and 1880s and the blocks would be lined with three-story commercial buildings formed in the Italianate style with narrow arched windows, ornate window hoods and bracketed cornices. San Antonio was no different as this block of structures financed by William and Albert Maverick attest. Not that you would know it a century later when the buildings were covered up with modernized alterations. All that was stripped away in a restoration of the buildings that revealed such elements as cast iron piers. Cast iron enjoyed a brief spurt of popularity as a building material for its ease of molding, quick construction and low cost. Look for a foundry stamp on the columns for authenticity.
512 East Houston Street at northwest corner of Alamo Plaza
This eight-story office building was erected in 1909 on what once was the western wall of the Alamo mission. It is another contribution to the San Antonio skyline from Fort Worth architects Maurice Sanguinet and Carl Staats. The money men were members of the Maverick family - this is where patriarch Samuel Maverick homesteaded in 1850. During construction of the Gibbs Building cannons were uncovered from Texas Revolution days. Wrapped in a Beaux Arts package, the building has been redeveloped as a luxury hotel.
United States Post Office and Courthouse
615 East Houston Street at northeast corner of Alamo Plaza
Backed up by sackfuls of federal Depression-relief money in the 1930s Philadelphia architect Paul Philippe Cret sprinkled several similar buildings to this one around Texas. All boasted monumental classically inspired Beaux Arts architecture. He was assisted on the project by local architect Ralph Haywood Cameron to bring all federal agencies operating in San Antonio under one roof. Architects weren’t the only profession propped up by government money in the Depression; artists were also employed to paint historically relevant murals in the nation’s post offices. New Mexican artist Howard Cook executed one of the best for the San Antonio federal building, a sprawling 16-panel fresco mural that tells the story of the town’s importance to Texas. The post office has moved on but the courtrooms remain.
Medical Arts Building/Emily Morgan Hotel
705 East Houston Street at northeast corner of Avenue E
Joseph M. Nix was an Alabama native who arrived in San Antonio in 1894. He began his Texas business life running a furniture store but was soon spending his time cutting real estate deals. He built theaters and hotels and developed this 13-story tower in 1924 as the town’s first doctors’ building - an opening act for the Nix Professional Building hospital he would build several years later. Architect Ralph Cameron tapped the Gothic Revival style and to remind onlookers of the skyscraper’s intent he inflicted the terra cotta gargoyles with assorted physical maladies. In 1976 the doctor offices were transformed into business office space and in 1984 the interior was reconfigured again for duty as a hotel.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT ALAMO PLAZA.