17: Taming The Mighty San Antonio


Hightower It’s August in Texas. That means it’s hot – so hot that whenever you walk outside, it just makes you mad.


Summers here tend to be long and hot and dry. It’s not uncommon to go months without rain.


Of course, when it does rain, it can rain a lot. It’s not unheard of to have flooding in the middle of a drought. It’s one of the many contradictions about the place where I live. It’s a contradiction that has defined the shape of where I live.


San Antonio is known for the Alamo, of course, but it’s also known for its famous River Walk. People come from all over the world to stroll along this famous bend in the San Antonio River. The sunken pathway is lined with shops and restaurants. It is so tightly woven into the fabric of the city it seems like it’s always been here. Yet what currently exists is just the most recent version of a river that has been constantly reimagined, redesigned and reengineered for over three hundred years. Generations have sought to tame to San Antonio River and that process continues to this day.


That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the seventeenth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.


I’m Brantley Hightower.


Hightower The first thing you need to know about the San Antonio River is that it’s pretty small. As it flows through San Antonio It’s typically less than fifty feet wide. As a point of comparison, the Mississippi River is close to two thousand feet wide by the time it flows through New Orleans.


Lewis What we have here is essentially what we would call a creek or a “crick” in their vernacular.


Hightower That’s Lewis Fisher, a historian and author who has published many books about San Antonio and it’s history.


Lewis It's not really a river. It's on a human scale. It's fairly narrow. You can see across it. You can identify people on the other side of the bank… Rivers are broad. They're rushing. They power great industries that make cities prosperous, and are not really something that you really want to… spend a lot of time sitting beside.


Hightower But the San Antonio River was a good place to sit beside. It still is. And while it may not be a powerful river, its gentle flow proved to be ideal for agriculture.


The Spanish were the first Europeans to realize this. They had identified the headwaters of the river as early as 1691 and went on to build a complex irrigation system to help grow crops to support the five missions they built in the area. One of these missions, of course, would later come to be known as the Alamo.


The Spanish used a system of open canals called acequias. Both the word and the technique come from the Moors of North Africa who first figured out how to irrigate large areas with little water. The system of acequias originally built to serve the missions of San Antonio would serve the city that grew in their wake for a hundred and fifty years.


By 1880 the city’s population passed 80,000. Because it was a small river to begin with and because so many people were now using it, it would periodically run dry. And so for the first time the city built a modern water works that used wells to augment the flow of the river.


The increased population also meant that more of the surrounding landscape was covered by urban development. With the ground unable to absorb as much rainwater, runoff into the river increased. The once tame San Antonio River began flooding more and more often.


Two major floods occurred in 1913. Another deadly flood occurred a year later. In September of 1921 the remnants of a hurricane caused twenty-four hours of rainfall in San Antonio. Floodwaters destroyed thirteen of downtown’s twenty-seven bridges. Casualty estimates ranged as high as 250 – around the same number of Texans killed at the battle of the Alamo.


After the damage was cleaned up, improvements to the river were prioritized and the first real efforts were made to tame the San Antonio River.


As it makes its way south through what had become the central business district of San Antonio, the river makes a great arcing loop eastward before heading south again. This horseshoe bend slows the flow of water and so was identified as a major cause of the flooding in 1921. A new channel was cut to allow floodwaters to bypass the bend entirely.


As a completely manmade intervention, the channel had sheer concrete walls. It wasn’t particularly attractive, but frankly neither was the original bend in the river.


As early as 1887 it was suggested that the San Antonio River should be transformed into something more where it meandered through downtown. Here again is Lewis Fisher.


Lewis The idea was to turn it into a park, which in those days meant simply landscaping. The banks were channeled. It looked much like a canal, just concrete walls and plants, pretty plants that were planted here and there, palm trees and things like that. And it was very green and very pleasant, not terribly imaginative… Robert Hugman came along with an idea that gained some pretty broad support, to redo the river in a sort of a fantasy land with vague Hispanic references to San Antonio's past, and to make it a much more interesting place.


Hightower Robert Hugman was a local architect in his twenties who – unlike other, more-established designers in town – had not traveled the world. All he knew about Venice or Rome was what he had seen in books. Still, he understood that the San Antonio River represented an opportunity for the city to celebrate its heritage with a whimsical mix of landscaping and architecture.


Lewis But he came with a much less conventional approach and felt that this was a way in which San Antonio could capitalize on its Spanish heritage, much as he had seen New Orleans capitalize on its French heritage. 


So he came up with designs that were just purely imaginative, almost flights of fancy, as to how the river could be a designed as a place for people to actually come down and enjoy the park, where they would be drawn by businesses, by restaurants, by shops. They could boat and make it a place of real distinction in the center of town, and a place that people could enjoy.


Hightower Citing historic precedents in both Spain and Mexico, Hugman proposed what he called “The Shops of Aragon and Romula”. The name was completely made up but it captured the exotic feeling he was going for. He imagined tourists riding in brightly colored boats like the gondolas of Venice while a series of shops, clubs and cafes lined sidewalks along the banks of the river.


It was Hugman’s belief that the city only needed to improve the river itself. Once you had a compelling river, private owners of the buildings that backed-up to it would covert their basements into the shops, clubs and cafes that would complete his vision.


Although there was considerable interest in his proposal, there was initially no mechanism to pay for it. Ironically, that all changed during the Great Depression. Thanks to programs such as the Works Progress Administration - or WPA - federal funds became available for local improvements. With the support of a few key local businessmen, San Antonio’s congressman was charged with securing funds to pay for Hugman’s project now known simply as the River Walk.


Lewis The point man in Washington was, of course, our congressman, who was Maury Maverick, who happened to be a good friend of Franklin Roosevelt. They were both good democrats. Maverick was called a New Deal Congressman. So, he was finally visiting Roosevelt one day on the subject and Roosevelt said, and I believe it to be a true story, that he got on the phone to his Secretary of the Interior, who was Herald Ickes, and Roosevelt said to Ickes in his great accent, "Harold, give Maury the money for his damn river, so he will quit bothering me."


Hightower The greatest concentration of improvements were made along the great bend of the San Antonio River as it arced through downtown. Because of the bypass channel, the water in the bend could be drained during construction and it could then be maintained at a constant level thereafter.


The sidewalks that were built featured a variety of geometric designs in concrete and stone. A series of stairs – each one unique – would connect visitors to the street level above. All this meant a lot of hardscape was introduced into a river that had previously appeared much more natural.


Lewis And once Hugman's bridges and walls started going in, in a very white limestone, because limestone takes a while to weather, the people who had enjoyed the river as a park saw this monstrous development going on down in the river and they were horrified. 


Hightower Criticism for the project began to develop as onlookers sensed the river was becoming far too “architectural”. Despite Hugman’s assurances that reintroduced landscape would address their concerns, he was unceremoniously fired from the project in 1940.


By then, most of the work had already been done and in March of 1941 the WPA turned over the completed River Walk to the city of San Antonio. That was just in time for that year’s Fiesta. A river parade was held and thousands of people lined the newly paved banks of the San Antonio River to enjoy their city’s newest amenity.


But then, just a few months later…


Roosevelt December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy…


Hightower After the United States entered World War II. There would be no more Fiesta river parades. More critically, there would be no private development along the River Walk.


Boone Powel first visited San Antonio with his family in 1941. He was just a kid at the time but even so he remembers they were pretty much alone when they visited the newly completed River Walk.


Boone I was about six at the time and I just remember that it was a very peaceful, tranquil place… There was almost no one on the river… But the water was kind of a translucent beautiful blue green clear color it never has anymore.


Hightower Even without the shops and restaurants, the River Walk was an amazing place to explore. You would walk at the level of the river well below that of the street. It was its own world down there and in the summer it and was several degrees cooler. The scale of the river was such that you could easily see people on the opposite bank. The form of the river was such that you could never see all that far ahead. The river beckoned you to see what was around the next bend.


Over the next few decades a restaurant or two would attempt to open but they would rarely survive. But there were still people who believed the River Walk could be more. In the early 1960s the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects worked with the Chamber of Commerce to develop a plan for how to get people off the streets and onto the River Walk. Local architect and founding partner of Alamo Architects Irby Hightower explains:


Irby And the main difference between what they came up with and what Hugman had originally proposed was that Hugman had it as kind of a Spanish Colonial, seven-eighths scale city that he was going to build in front of the buildings. And they actually came back with, "Let's use the historic buildings as they are and just sort of adapt them for this purpose." And I think the reason Hugman's scheme did not work and the AIA scheme did work was more than anything else that the person leading all this was Mr. Strauss.


Hightower David Strauss was a local businessman who led an advisory commission tasked with getting owners of buildings to renovate them to address the river. He put his money where his mouth was and invested in developing properties along the River Walk. Small barges started giving rides to tourists and the amount of activity both on the river and on its banks began to increase.


Later that decade San Antonio tourism received a huge boost in the form of HemisFair. This was a world’s fair – or at least a half-world’s fair – that was hosted by the city in 1968. An extension of the River Walk was built to the fair grounds and several new hotels were constructed that opened directly onto the original River Walk. Here again is Lewis Fisher:


Lewis So all of sudden, you had people going by. Once you had people going by, you had businessmen seeing how they could make a buck by getting them to sit down and have a margarita or even a whole meal. And so, that is how the business really got going on the river and how the River Walk really became popular.


Hightower Throughout the seventies and eighties the popularity of the River Walk continued to grow. Private development was now fully embracing the river just as Hugman predicted it would. It just took thirty years longer than expected.


In the early 1970s, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects decided it was time to recognize the role that Robert Hugman had played in the development of the River Walk. Boone Powell, the kid who had visited the River Walk as a child had since become a well-respected architect himself. He was a principal at Ford, Powell & Carson, and was given the task of calling Hugman to tell him about the award.


Boone I called Hugman and told him that we wanted to honor him for his work on the river. And he was kind of flabbergasted because he had never been honored, really. And he had long suffered, and he'd built a significant resentment about his role and being fired.


Hightower The award was officially presented at a ceremony in one of the missions on the San Antonio River.


Boone And we had about 500 people. And he spoke. He cried a little bit. And the tears all welled up in his eyes. He got really emotional about it. And I felt it was a great thing. It was really wonderful to honor him and to sort of help him come out a little bit and join in what we were all celebrating, his work.


Hightower Managing flooding remained an issue as development throughout the San Antonio region continued. In 1987 work began on a three-mile long underground bypass tunnel that would basically do the same thing as the original bypass channel had done sixty years earlier. Whereas this original channel protected a few blocks of downtown, the new tunnel would protect the entirety of downtown.


Twenty-four feet in diameter, the inverted siphon tunnel would take floodwaters 140 feet underground before discharging it south of downtown. In order to keep the system from filling with debris swept downstream, a series of rotating claws keep the inlets clear.


It looks and sounds terrifying but it works.


After the turn of the 21st century, construction began on expanding the River Walk both north and south of downtown. The way Lewis Fisher sees it San Antonio now has three River Walks:


Lewis We have the Hugman River Walk, which is the traditional River Walk downtown with its kind of Spanish bridges and theatres and landscaping, and of course the downtown setting. Then beyond that, you head to the north in Museum Reach, which is a very, very modern type of area on its own… You don't have big buildings lining that banks that could be repurposed. You have new buildings that are for the most part most of it is new buildings, and it's a whole different feel to the north.


Hightower As luck would have it, Boone Powel and his firm, Ford, Powell & Carson did much of the design work for the Museum Reach.


Lewis And then, of course to the south… the banks are wider, for one thing. And so, you have more of a park-like area, a park-like feel down there without the density. But in both places, we've been very fortunate to have had a group leaders who have insisted that the Mission Reach and Museum Reach developed with the highest standards of urban design.


Hightower One of those leaders was Irby Hightower. For over a decade he served on the San Antonio River Oversight Committee and was instrumental in ensuring the southern Mission Reach would be transformed into a vast botanical garden.


Irby So in the Mission Reach, it is in so many ways, minimally designed and minimally engineered. It's not designed in terms of where everything goes. It's a system that's been loaded up with all the resources. And then you sit back and kind of wait for nature to take over. There's a tremendous amount of maintenance and care, but it is fundamentally being shaped by natural forces.


Hightower There is of course some irony that after three hundred years of trying to control the San Antonio River, the city of San Antonio is now letting part of the river go back to its native form. Yes, San Antonio has tamed its river, but the River has also tamed San Antonio. It has taught us to be patient, to be sure, but it’s also taught us to share. The River Walk that exists today wasn’t the brainchild of a single person, but a series of layered ideas and ambitions that accumulated over time.


At least that’s how Lewis Fisher understands the River Walk:


Lewis So what you had when the River Walk finally started becoming successful is you had this pastiche of ideas that had been developed over the years and you had a real mix of something that had developed very informally, but somehow worked together as a whole.


Hightower Irby Hightower doesn’t know what changes are in store for the River Walk, but he has a pretty good idea of when those changes might occur.


Irby Every 20 or 30 years, we tackle the River Walk again, so I imagine in 30 years, there'll be another oversight committee to look at what's happened to date and what needs to happen next, and to kind of plan the next evolution.

Hightower And Boone Powell, who has been a part of the River Walk longer than most, is optimistic that San Antonio and its River will continue to develop and grow together.


Boone You can't really predict it, because it's so hard to predict where architecture is going to be 100 years from now or 50 years from now. So I'm not sage enough to see the future. But I would say that I fully expect the community to take care of it and embrace it and to enrich it over the years.


Hightower Thanks today to Lewis Fisher, Boone Powell and Irby Hightower. If you will recall from an earlier episode, despite our shared last names, Irby and I are in fact not related.


Irby I’m not your Uncle. I keep hoping someone will think older brother but apparently never ever that.  


Lewis Fisher’s book, American Venice: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River, is a great read and served as the basis for much of this episode. I’ll put a link to it on the show page.


The music today was by Chris Zabriskie.


The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at Hi dot Works.


Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.