Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

The Urban Geographer – Walk softly and carry a good master plan

In the 1920s Goth was big in San Antonio and the evidence is still with us. I don’t mean the urban tribe in black lipstick and dark nail polish that made up the 1990s Dead Can Dance fan base. The subject is Gothic Revival architecture and a particular San Antonio building that the American Institute of Architects selected recently for the 25-Year Design Award. On October 24, the AIA’s local chapter recognized the Tower Life Building as “architecture that has stood the test of time.” It is a fitting accolade for a building that still catches the eye 77 years after its 1929 debut as the Smith-Young Tower. The design is credited to Robert M. Ayres, who with his father Atlee B. Ayres created a juicy chunk of San Antonio’s best architecture.

In the present urban landscape the Tower Life maintains a unique position. There are several downtown buildings we admire, and surely some are even lovable. But the Tower Life Building is the one that many people immediately identify as downtown’s orienting reference point. In the team group photo it stands out, the one with the most interesting and impressive silhouette.

In the big picture the Tower Life plays the quiet unflappable central character. In another metaphor it’s the center pole in a large tent. Everything around it can be defined in relation to it. Several major streets appear to lead directly into it, and on these approaches this terminus noticeably heightens the sense of special arrival. On our skyline it is the figurative colossus easily recognizable on the downtown horizon. Its flattened octagonal form reminds us somewhat of a human figure, albeit one over 360 feet tall that wears a bright green pointed cap. Yes, this is one reason for its prominence and popularity. What multi-story box built after 1980 has such anthropomorphic presence, comparable proportional refinement, and three-dimensional shadow play? It’s too bad that the dopey boxes keep coming, that these banalities increasingly eclipse our sight lines to the real and the true. (In the distant future sensible people will wonder why no one preserved wonderful view corridors, I predict.)          

It’s easy to associate the Tower Life Building with the slightly older Medical Arts Building of 1926 (today’s Emily Morgan Hotel), although the main similarity is a Gothic building envelope. They are two of downtown’s most memorable structures, maybe even iconic if we consider this to mean that they inspire awe or admiration as objects of artistic devotion. Since neither one is a museum, library, performing-arts center, religious facility, or transportation hub (the usual building types that become icons), this could be considered remarkable. When they first appeared in the rapid buildup of the 1920s surely they inspired confidence and pride.

Before then the city lacked a convincing metropolitan skyline. But from 1922 to 1931 a major transformation occurred. This was a time for large projects: the old Frost Bank in Main Plaza (1922), the Medical Arts Building (1926), the Milam Building (1928), the Alamo National Bank and the Nix Hospital (both 1929), and the Southwestern Bell Telephone Building (1931). The Tower Life belongs to this group but it stands apart for the Gothic accentuation of its vertical thrust. The impact of this profile would have amazed someone not familiar with Gothic at this scale.

It was the churches that owned the Gothic style previously, and we still have several built in this vocabulary from the 1870s. In this group three downtown churches could be considered bona-fide landmarks. The earliest is the extension and façade of San Fernando Cathedral (circa 1873) by François Giraud, the architect and future mayor who also designed additions to the Ursuline Convent/Academy. Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church (1875) by Richard Upjohn and Saint Joseph’s Church (1876) by Theodore Giraud are two other successful Gothic adaptations.

The Tower Life slightly precedes New York City’s most iconic spires, the Chrysler Building (1930) and the Empire State (1931). This era in American design history is characterized by expansive inclusiveness, with designers borrowing freely from the pages of world architecture. San Antonio architects were no dummies — they tuned into European and East Coast events. The Tower Life’s principal designer, Robert M. Ayres (1898-1977) studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. His father, Atlee B. (1874-1969), studied at the Metropolitan School of Art in New York City. Ralph Cameron (1892-1970), another local talent, studied in Paris for a while. Fortunately for us they knew the value of historical precedent and open intellectual dialogue to establish professional standards and to provide creative springboards for their high-quality designs. While the question of a suitable “San Antonio architecture” continually comes up, here is ample indication that we are always better off maintaining outside connections.

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