Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

Checking In: San Antonio’s Historic Hotels Provides a Vintage Portrait of Alamo City Lodging


  • Arcadia Publishing
As one of the oldest and most-visited cities in Texas, San Antonio boasts a wealth of historic hotels with great stories to tell.

Many with roots in the Alamo City grew up hearing accounts of hauntings in downtown’s grande dames. We were also exposed to sound bites about Teddy Roosevelt recruiting Rough Riders in the Menger Hotel bar in 1898, the Palacio del Rio’s LEGO-like erection just in time for HemisFair ’68 and the 1,451-ton Fairmount Hotel’s Guinness World Record-setting relocation in 1985.

While far from an exhaustive account of its subject, local history enthusiast David L. Peché’s new book San Antonio’s Historic Hotels conjures a multifaceted portrait of old-school lodging in the Alamo City. Rather than offering a traditional timeline, the 128-page volume lets photographs and captions lead the narrative. The longest passage in the book is a foreword penned by former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, who offers a brief historical overview peppered with popular sentiments about the city — a place “frozen in time” — and an amusing quote from late poet and author Sidney Lanier: “If peculiarities were quills, San Antonio would be a rare porcupine indeed.”

From there onward, San Antonio’s Historic Hotels essentially functions as a picture book.

This organic, scrapbook-like approach may irk readers expecting a more linear and complete storyline. And the visually minded will undoubtedly notice the complete absence of color — particularly when viewing flat black-and-white reproductions of hand-colored vintage postcards, retro brochures and souvenir matchbooks. These idiosyncrasies keep with the modus operandi of South Carolina-based Arcadia Publishing, especially its Images of America series.

San Antonio trivia buffs will also find a few things missing. There is next to nothing about the alleged hauntings that continue to bring intrigue to nearly all of the city’s oldest hotels. And there’s nary a mention of Delta blues legend Robert Johnson’s storied recording sessions at the Gunter Hotel in 1936.

Shortcomings aside, San Antonio’s Historic Hotels finds strength in carefully sourced archival materials. Preserved ephemera reveals shifting currents in graphic design; street scenes capture classic cars, clothing and signage; panoramas depict the evolution of our skyline; reprinted menus reveal what people eating for dinner in the early 1900s; and old print ads show hotel rates as low as $1.50 per night.

Hovering around three sentences per image, the photo captions are brimming with historical anecdotes. Informed by archival research, newspaper articles and correspondence, these little slices of Alamo City life might spark imaginations more readily than the images they caption. We’re told of early 20th-century floods that were announced to the public via sirens and steam whistles; a tunnel connecting the Gunter and the St. Anthony rumored to be used for illicit activities during Prohibition; a string of robberies in 1917; the disappearance of Fiesta during WWII; and the San Antonio-centric origin of the term “maverick.” And we’re also reminded that the Crockett was originally built as a fraternal lodge for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows; that the Gunter once housed radio station KTSA and hosted the first and only meeting of H.G. Wells and Orson Welles; and that Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco stayed at the St. Anthony when they visited San Antonio during HemisFair ’68.

The way the book is divided into chapters may also raise an eyebrow. While the Menger, the St. Anthony, the Crockett and the Gunter are all given space to breathe, all the other included hotels — among them, the Fairmount, which opened in 1906, and the Emily Morgan, which opened in 1984 in the ’20s-era Medical Arts Building — are combined into four choppy but still enlightening chapters: Hemisfair and the Riverwalk, Buildings and Hotels Restored, Lost But Not Forgotten and Now and Then.

When asked about this distribution, Peché explained that he prioritized hotels by age and importance as well as the number and quality of available images. He also pointed out that Arcadia’s format for Images of America is limited to eight chapters and 128 total pages.

Sprinkled throughout are excellent photographic time capsules. In one especially cinematic frame, a solitary car driving on Alamo Street passes the Villita Hotel and its street-level Frisky A Go Go Club, which the San Antonio Light characterized in 1967 as a spot where the “swinging go-go girls who would steam up the glasses of customers.”

It’s in frozen moments like this that Peché’s book reaches its potential to make readers daydream about San Antonio’s many past lives.

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.