San Antonio Hometown Tour: A Travel Journal

Long-time RDA member, architect, and San Antonio tour-goer Larry Lander documents his time in San Antonio for RDA’s spring hometown tour March 8 through March 11, 2012.

Thursday, March 8

It’s about two hundred miles from the Rice campus parking lot to San Antonio which is a long time for anyone to sit on a bus – even a really nice one like this, so we took a coffee break in downtown Schulenburg, halfway along our route. If you get off I-10 and can get past the Dairy Queen, the Sonic and the gas stations, you should wind your way to Schulenburg’s Main Street. It’s a page out of small town Texana history and marked by the iconic Sengelmann Dance Hall.

Sengelmann Dance Hall

But they weren’t quite ready for our group. It seems our contact at the kolache shop had quit her job a few days before and, in a fit of HR pique, somehow neglected to share the details of our arrival with the colleagues-she-left-behind. So when thirty or so of your closest friends show up with a timetable and a hankering for kolaches and hot coffee – well, it might not end so well.

Before you could say, “Uh-oh, we’re off on the wrong foot,” they rallied. We saw the old time bar and high-ceilinged restaurant downstairs, the delightful upstairs dance hall – “yes, don’t it make you want to dance!” – and Stern & Bucek’s clever renovation, but when we came downstairs, small town can-do had caused hot coffee and fresh kolaches to appear seemingly out of nowhere! Mmm-good. Disaster averted and on to San Antonio de Béxar!

La Gloria
Now it’s lunchtime and this feels good! Platters of your favorite Mexican food – OK, you have to admit it was prepared with maybe a bit more panache than Ninfa’s – along with an ice-cold long neck or two – mid-day on a Thursday, no less! Let’s call it Mexican tapas in a delightful spot along the river north of downtown. (I didn’t know the Riverwalk went way out here! How close is the wax museum and the Texas history IMAX?)

La Gloria

And we met some new participants who filled out our group: “We drove down after a few days in Austin,” “We’re in from our hacienda on Canyon Lake,” “We’re leaving for the ranch after this.” Satiated now, it’s time to get down to business!

River North and the Pearl Brewery

Stephen Fox’s outstanding San Antonio background material was augmented here by Irby Hightower – the first of a host of fabulous San Antonio experts we would meet – and Irby gave us an overview of the Master Plan that guides development of the San Antonio River. It’s no longer just the loop we all know so well downtown. (By the way, this is all new to me – when were we last in San Antonio?).

The river has always been here, but the channel has been restored, the banks are landscaped, and a string of the city’s historical and cultural landmarks now stretch both north and south from that part of San Antonio that every tourist knows. The water taxi connects you downtown and to the nearby Museum Reach and here the Pearl Brewery complex has been transformed into a delightful mixed-use development linking the historic brewery buildings with new infill and an eclectic mix of shopping and dining – La Gloria (re long necks above) is part of this. RVK’s Culinary Institute of America building provides a focus for the development and other San Antonio architects are well represented too: Ford, Powell & Carson and Lake|Flato among them. Time to walk off our lunch before we move downtown.

San Antonio Central Library

San Antonio Public Library

Stephen and David Sprinkle gave us a guided tour of Ricardo Legorreta’s public library – what San Antonians affectionately refer to as the Red Enchilada. David’s firm, Sprinkle Robey Architects, worked with Legoretta on the design of this landmark building on the north side of downtown and it’s location in the peculiar-angled street pattern of old San Antonio makes even a walk around the building a memorable experience.

The interior is even more dynamic: interlocking volumes house the library functions and are arranged vertically around the center atrium. Bold use of color, outdoor connections, control of the Texas sun, and a monumental Chihuly centerpiece all work together to create a fantastic public space.

The St. Anthony

Facing Travis Park a few blocks from the river, this would be our home away from home for the weekend. We checked in, stashed our bags, put our feet up for just the briefest of a moment and then: Off to dinner (but first, a stop at somebody’s house)!

The St. Anthony

Mrs. Steves

Wow. Stephen did his best to prepare us, but the understated front door (and the circuitous route the bus took because of that pesky water main break in Terrell Hills) did not really give us a hint of what awaited us. Chris Carson (of Ford, Powell & Carson) and Patsy Steves herself greeted us at the front door, and then we were off to explore what truly must be one of the grandest modern houses in Texas.

Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Steves worked with Chris Carson and O’Neill Ford to create this stunning house, which is at the same time both modern and completely evocative of Old Mexico. The spaces are both grand and intimate, and the art and artifacts speak to a lifetime of travels to Taxco or San Miguel or Guanajuato. A margarita in hand, and you’re a part of San Antonio high society. (Probably no real need to see anything else – I think I can just stay here for the weekend.)

Club Giraud and the Ursuline Academy

We strolled through the Academy grounds in the shadow of the library earlier in the afternoon before returning for dinner at Club Giraud. This historic complex dates back to the 1850s and has new life as the Southwest Craft Center

Club Giraud

Our dinner entertainment included Rick Casey – late of our own Houston Chronicle – and Maria Watson Pfeiffer, the city’s most renowned historic preservation expert. Over a fabulous dinner we were treated to an entertaining narrative on preservation, San Antonio style: The Power of Little Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes!

Friday, March 9
On A Mission

It’s cloudy with rain likely but that’s not enough to change our plans. This morning we’re off to the south to start our mission day at San Francisco de la Espada and the Espada Aqueduct. With the rural setting of San Francisco, it’s easy to imagine yourself back several centuries, no longer in the center of one of the biggest cities in the United States.

Our stop at San José y San Miguel de Aguayo brought the rain but a beautiful backdrop for this most intact of the San Antonio missions. While the restoration is a twentieth-century phenomenon, the feeling of this special place is no less compelling.

Our last stop was the church at Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña. Here, the church is the most original of all the missions and its richly-hued interior is a counterpoint to the wet and gray outside.

Willow Way
Wanda and O’Neil Ford made this their quirky and very unique home along the San Antonio River in 1940, and all the eccentricity and spontaneity of their family’s lives are certainly still visible here today. This evocative setting melded both their personal and professional lives, housing the extended family, Ford’s brother, Lynn’s, workshop and Ford’s architectural studio.

Willow Way

Tile Table at Willow Way

Liberty Bar lunch
OK, now it’s really raining. (I was certain that it’s dry and hot here all the time!) But not to worry: A fantastic meal at a warm and friendly communal table and even time for the obligatory group photo made this a memorable lunch.

Linda Pace Foundation

This counterpoint to the eighteenth century was the unique complex of the Linda Pace Foundation, including the gallery of world-class modern art, the loft apartments, and the quiet but powerful CHRISpark across the street. Architect Jim Poteet added his own take to Stephen Fox’s perspective and once we figured out the load capacity of the freight elevator…

King William
The clouds parted – well, not really, but the rain did stop for awhile – and historian Lewis Fisher joined our group for truly an insider’s walking tour of the historic King William District ending at River Place, a magnificent house restored as a private residence for a San Antonio philanthropist helping to preserve a significant part of the King William urban fabric. The special tour of this private home highlighted both a painstaking restoration and an incredible collection of art.

King William

The Maxwell House gave a uniquely local angle on preservation and the contributions of Judith and Isaac Maxwell with their beautiful punched-metal designs that are such a surprisingly pervasive detail of San Antonio.

The Palazzo

Gwynn Griffith’s fantastically personal conception of a Venetian palazzo provided the backdrop for our last stop of a darkening afternoon. Her complete makeover of an old brick warehouse created a spectacular setting for sip of champagne accompanied by a visual feast.

The Bar

Our last stop at the restored Esquire Tavern introduced us to Chris Hill through his renovation of the oldest establishment on the Riverwalk and the longest bar in Texas. We knew how to enjoy this!

Saturday, March 10

Campus of Trinity University

Our old RDA friend, art history professor Kathryn O’Rourke, led us around raindrops through the lush green campus of Trinity University. From its simple early buildings to more elaborate contemporary buildings – and sometimes in spite of the impact of recent additions – the campus is truly a beautiful testament to the genius of O’Neil Ford.

Light and Bright

Two modern houses closed our morning: the Walter and Patsy Light House in Alamo Heights, highlighted by a glass pavilion for living with art, and the modest but noteworthy modern house Milton Ryan designed for Rena and E.H. DuBose.

Flowers with Giles and Ambasz

The Bistro at the San Antonio Botanical Garden served as our lunch spot and it is housed in an 1896 stable that was relocated from downtown and repurposed by Irby Hightower. Before we left, we dodged raindrops to see Emilio Ambasz’ Lucile Halsell Conservatory with its superb structural expressionism.

Collections, the New and the View

Susan Toomey Frost’s exquisite stone cottage and her incredible collections culminated in her scholarly work on the San Antonio clay tile industry. Her house was a counterpoint to the grand suburban house we later toured, designed by Michael Imber, that illustrated influences from across the architectural spectrum with attention to craft and detail. Our afternoon ended with cocktails hosted at the Olmos Tower apartment of Margaret and Bill Kanyusik. Their art collection and hospitality were paired with a misty view of San Antonio and the Trinity University campus below where we started our day.

Sunday, March 11

The rain stopped and the sun came out! Suddenly, it was the most beautiful Texas spring day there ever was!

The Leon Springs House

A brilliantly clear Sunday morning at this Lake Flato house for two doctors takes full advantage of Hill Country views and native landscape. Let’s stay here all day and just enjoy this pool along with the Sunday paper.

The Leon Springs House designed by Lake Flato

A Pipe Springs Jacal

Rick and Kristin Casey’s weekend place is really just a simple screened-in porch on a spectacular bend in this creek in the Texas Hill Country. I know they’ve added some things along the way for sleeping, kids, guests, bathrooms, entertaining, and air conditioning, but the beautifully simple heart remains. OK, I’m actually just going to stay here this afternoon. And I don’t need a paper – Rick can just fill me in while I enjoy this hammock…

A Helotes Ranch

Take a historical nineteenth century ranch headquarters and add a dash of 1920s dude ranch with the vision of a twenty-first century developer and drop it down on a spectacularly quintessential Hill Country site, and this is something like what you might get. Oh, did I mention topping it off with red-checked tablecloths under century-old live oaks, a barbeque lunch with now old friends and a Bloody Mary or two to take any edge off? Now I really want to go herd some cattle with the vaqueros or dress for dinner with the Viceroy and his beautiful daughter. Do we really have to go back to H-Town?

Helotes Ranch

A Postscript

San Antonio Tourgoers

Well, we did go back but in best RDA Hometown Tour tradition, we never saw the Riverwalk, El Mercado, or even the venerable Alamo. Fantastico!

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