A Sojourn to Texas with Frederick Law Olmstead – Part III
Posted on November 5, 2015
Excerpts from Journey through Texas, or a Saddle-trip on the Southwestern Frontier
Old San Antonio
The brothers continue their way across the bridge and down the narrow Commerce Street into the principal town of San Antonio-“We have no city, except perhaps, New Orleans, that can vie, in point of the picturesque interest that attaches odd and antiquated foreignness, with San Antonio. The Sauntering Mexicans prevail on the pavements, but the Germans and the sallow Yankees furnish their proportion. The signs are German by all odds, and perhaps the houses, trim built with pink window-blinds. The American houses stand back with galleries and jalousies and a garden picket fence. The Mexican buildings are stronger than seen before… they are all low adobe or stone, washed blue and yellow.
Around the Plaza are American hotels, and new glass-fronted store, alternating with sturdy battlemented Spanish walls, and confronted by the dirty, grim, old stuccoed cathedral, whose cracked bell was clinking vespers.”
They then made their way beyond the city to its environs, places like the Spanish missions, “odd ruins- weird remains out of the silent past…of various magnificence.”; beer gardens and the river and springs in which the locals bathed, where, “plump women displayed their luxurious buoyancy.” Drawn by the unusual natural beauty of the place, they were enthralled.
Springs that,“may be classed as of the first water among the gems of the natural world. The whole river gushes up one sparkling burst from the earth. It has all the beautiful accompaniments of a smaller spring, moss, pebbles, seclusion, sparkling sunbeams, and a dense overhanging luxuriant foliage. The effect is overpowering. It is beyond your possible conceptions of a spring. You cannot believe your eyes, and almost shrink from sudden metamorphosis by invaded nymphdom. Few cities have such a luxury.”
I now live in San Antonio just a few hundred yards from the “mysterious source” of the San Antonio River. I often travel to see my sister who lives in nearby New Braunfels, by way of I-35, where you can catch a glimpse of the Cibolo between car dealerships. Every fall, tourists flock to the town for Wurstfest, yet very little German can be heard now, since they stopped teaching the children the language after WWII. My nephew’s best friend lived across the street on the Kendall Ranch where the Olmstead brothers once overnighted. The ranch was recently sold to make way for a large hospital to serve the growing suburb of San Antonio.
Much of San Antonio’s “antiquated foreignness” is now also gone. In 1921 a large flood devastated the city, destroying many buildings. The City Engineer determined to drain and fill the river with concrete. Fortunately, the Conservation Society (one of the earliest of its kind) was formed and they hired architect Robert Hugman, who developed a scheme divert the river and leave a section to be developed into a “Riverwalk”.
In the 30’s Architect, Harvey P. Smith wrote the Romance of San Antonio, illustrating the city’s need to restore the five 18th C. Spanish missions and other historic structures, and in 1931, he helped to return “The Hole-in-the-Wall Bar”, to it’s former stature as the Spanish Governor’s Palace.
However soon, the turn of the century brought the modernization and widening of streets that sheared entire facades off of buildings, and in the early sixties an entire neighborhood, the Italian Quarter, was razed for the 1964 Hemisfair, a symbol of the future. Architect O’Neil Ford only managed to save a small section of the Spanish Village called La Villita along the Riverwalk.
Due to San Antonio’s slow economic growth, the city in the 1960’s still had more buildings of “historic and vintage character” than any other city in Texas or the Southwest; but by the late sixties, in less than a decade, more than two-thirds would be destroyed in what was enthusiastically called “urban renewal.” Even buildings, such as the Finke Cigar Factory and the Spanish Casa Riva, one of the few remaining Spanish Colonial structures; both, considered significant and landmarked, would meet the bulldozers of anxious developers in the middle of the night.
Now, San Antonio is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S.. What little remains of it’s unique historic character continues to draw tourists, now a $13 billion dollar industry. Yet, there remains those developers who wish to continue it’s “renewal”. Recently announced, a new glass tower will mark the first major high-rise development in San Antonio in decades; the new tower is said to, “usher the City into the 21st Century”- a glass tower, like any other glass tower, in any other city.