Sunday, March 21, 2021

Phil Collins - Rock Star, Alamo Collector Extraordinaire

   When Rock Star Phil Collins was growing up in London, he was fascinated with Davy Crockett and the Shrine of Texas Liberty.  Watching the 1950s Disney series featuring Fess Parker as Davy Crocket kick started his love of the Alamo. "I've had a love affair with this place since I was about 5 years old.”

   In 1973 when his band Genesis was touring the US, Collins scheduled a day off to visit San Antonio. "I was just spellbound when I first saw it in person," he recalled. "Having lived all my life, to see it in books and movies and the pictures in magazines, it was really quite extraordinary."

  His then wife bought him his first artifact in the 90s. Since then his collection grew to over 200 items and was worth millions. It included Davy Crocket’s rifle and Jim Bowie’s knife.   "Some people would buy Ferraris, some people would buy houses, I bought old bits of metal and old bits of paper," Collins said. "It's at my home, in my basement in Switzerland. I look at it every day, but no one else was enjoying it."

   On June 20, 2014  Phil Collins announced that he was donating his collection to the State of Texas for display at the Alamo. He pledged that he would keep buying artifacts and after a month or so enjoying them he’d would donate the also.

The Alamo Website - Phil Collins Collection

Monday, March 1, 2021

Katherine Stinson and The Stinson Flying School

A Woman’s Place is in the Sky

The Amazing True Tale of an Aviation Pioneer

   The early days of aviation were a most exciting time. The few who dared to enter a flying machine were among the era's most popular celebrities. Most of the pilots in the early days were men. Few believed that the skies were a place for women. Katherine Stinson thought differently.

   As a young woman, Katherine was looking for a way to raise money for a trip to Europe. She had heard that pilots could earn $1,000 a day, an unheard-of amount in 1910. After receiving the skeptical approval of her parents, the nineteen-year-old set out to learn to fly. It took two years before she had the opportunity to soar through the skies. Finding a flight instructor was a feat in itself because there were only 200 licensed pilots in the world in 1912, and only three were women.

   Stinson sought the help of Max Lillie of Chicago. Lillie was not overenthusiastic about taking on a female student, who was barely five feet tall and just over 100 pounds. Stinson proved to the famous aviator that she possessed many qualities, other than sex and strength, that would assist her as a pilot. After a mere four hours of lessons, she soloed. She acquired her license on July 12, 1912, from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, becoming the fourth woman pilot in America.

   Soon after, onlookers flocked to fairs and open fields to see the "flying schoolgirl." In 1913 Katherine Stinson opened the Stinson Aviation Company in Hot Springs, Arkansas, along with her mother.  A short time later, the family was convinced by Max Lillie to move to San Antonio. Lillie found the mild winters and the terrain perfect for year-round flying. He had convinced the army to let him use the Fort Sam Houston parade ground as a landing strip. The army was determined to discover if flying could have military applications. The sight of Katherine Stinson flying over the city, performing stunts including loop to loops, became a familiar sight. Stinson taught herself the difficult and dangerous stunt and was the first woman to perform it. It soon became part of her flying repertoire.

   In the early days, she traveled from show to show by train, reassembling her plane at each stop. She often was teased by the other pilots when it came to her meticulous habits regarding her aircraft.

   Her reputation as a pilot grew as she continued to tour. In Los Angeles she spelled out the word CAL with fireworks, becoming the first pilot to skywrite at night. In London she amazed the English by flying around the House of Parliament and St. Paul's Cathedral. She toured Canada at a time when most people of that nation had never seen a flying machine. In 1916 she traveled to Japan and China, where she was overwhelmed by the adoration of her fans. Twenty-five thousand fans turned out in Tokyo to watch her fly. Fan clubs sprang up all over Japan. She made thirty-two appearances in China, including a private show for Chinese leaders. Her fame had spread worldwide.

   When World War I broke out, the U.S. Army, recognizing the significance of air power, asked for pilots to volunteer for service. Katherine Stinson offered her talents to the army but was turned down because she was a woman. The aviatrix had to be satisfied with raising money for the Red Cross as her contribution to the war effort.

   Since military flying was out, Stinson decided to concentrate her efforts on other flying accomplishments. On December 17, 1917, Katherine left San Diego for an attempt to break a world record in distance flying. Leaving at 7:31 A.M., in a special plane designed to fly at the breakneck speed of 85 miles per hour and hold enough fuel to be able to travel 700 miles, she set out for San Francisco. At 4:41 P.M. she landed in San Francisco with two gallons of fuel left. Her trip of 610 miles set a new world record. She had covered more miles and had been airborne longer than any man or woman pilot ever. With her place in aviation history secure, she again applied to the army for a position as a reconnaissance pilot but was again turned down. She finally gained her acceptance into the military by volunteering as an ambulance driver. Stinson served in London and France during the war and paid dearly for her efforts.

   As the war drew to a close, she contracted tuberculosis. The treatment was a warm climate and rest. Her flying days were over. She retired to a more passive life in New Mexico. Katherine Stinson married former World War I airman Miguel Otero Jr. in 1928 and lived until 1977, when she died at age eighty-six in Santa Fe.

  San Antonio’s Stinson Municipal Airport and Stinson Middle School in are both named in her honor. 

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Woman Who Was Buried in Her Car

    Perhaps no story from 1970s San Antonio captured the city's attention more than the burial of Beverly Hills Socialite Sandra West. After passing in 1977 due to a drug overdose, she was buried in her family plot in San Antonio's Masonic Cemetery in the city's vast complex of eastside cemeteries.  The usual circumstance surrounding the funeral, West wanted to be buried in her car. 

West was buried in her favorite lace neglige in a reclining position in the 1964 powder blue Ferrari 330 America. The entire vehicle was sealed in a box then covered with cement to prevent vandals from attempting to steal the car.  

   Over 300 onlookers came the day of the actual burial, with noted local funeral director Porter Loring saying "his is the most unusual funeral I've ever handled. It's been a tough battle trying to keep this as unsensational as possible." Oddly, only a small tombstone marks the spot of the gravesite. 

The San Antonio Express News story from 1977

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Johnny Cash's Symbol on Endearing Love, On Display for 50 Years on the Riverwalk

This bench sat for 50 year on the San Antonio Riverwalk. Unbeknownst
to the city, it featured an hand carved note to Johnny Cash's first love. 

   A recent documentary, My Darling Vivian has shed light on the life of Vivian Liberto, the San Antonio native who was Johnny Cash's first wife.

   They met in 1951 at a San Antonio skating rink when she was 17 and Cash was 19, when he was stationed at Brooks Air Force Base before being shipped to Germany. Cash spent three years overseas, writing almost every day to Liberto and the two were married upon his return to the city in 1954.

   The were married for 13 years and had 4 daughters.  Sadly, the story of their love has largely been forgotten and often written out of the narrative of Cash's very public life. In the Hollywood biopic Walk the Line, an unfair portrayal of Vivian Liberto gave the public the perception that she was unsupportive and an unloving wife.

   I myself had long had a different perception of Vivian Liberto, based on a story told to me by legendary San Antonio disc jockey Bruce Hathaway. It was a story that was only verified after the city of San Antonio decided to publicly display an iconic piece of Cash memorabilia that had been sitting unprotected on the Riverwalk for over 50 years and later stored away for 9 years

The Story:

  Before leaving in 1951 for a 3 year assignment in Germany, Cash and Liberto were walking along San Antonio's Riverwalk when he pulled out a pocket knife and carved Johnny Loves Vivian on a cedar park bench.

The well worn carving 7 deacades after it's creation

   Cash would often refer to the bench in his letters home, asking if she had visited their spot while he was absent. They even visited the bench upon his return to San Antonio and before they married at St. Ann's Catholic Church.

   In 2004, Liberto returned to the city and with the help of Lincoln St. George, the city's River Operations Superintendent, she found the bench near St. Mary's Street and the La Mansion hotel.  She offered to buy it from the city, but they refused, citing they it had been designed by the Riverwalk's famed architect Robert Hugman.  Liberto even offered to pay to replace the bench with a replica but that offer was also turned down.  

   A year later, Vivian Liberto passed away.  By then, the city had removed the bench and placed it in storage, where it sat for the next 9 years.  

The bench,  in storage

   It wasn't until 2013 that the city finally donated it to the Witte Museum and I was finally able to verify the story. 

   Today, the bench, and the well worn carving are on display for all to see. 

The Bench today, on display at San Antonio's With Museum



Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Giant Iguanas, Record Setting Boots and Six Dancing Frogs - The Art of Bob 'Daddy-O' Wade


Bob "Daddy-O" Wade said it all started for him with one gigantic iguana.  If you go by the entrance of the Fort Worth Zoo, you'll see the current resting place of the Iguana. But it more infamously sat atop the Lone Star Cafe in New York City during the 70s and 80s. (aka  The Unofficial Texas Embassy)

The Lone Star Cafe, the Unofficial Texas Embassy - The Most Famous Iguana Perch

   Before its New Your City days, the Iguana lived near Niagara Falls. The lizard was created for display one summer in the 70s for Art Park, a music and art venue near Niagara Falls. After the summer, Wade had to find a new home for the Iguana. Through friends, he contacted the Lone Star Cafe who purchased the Iguana for their roof.

   Some New York neighbors felt the Iguana was an eyesore, an oversized code busting advertisement. A court battle designated the Iguana as art, but nonetheless, the owners of the Lone Star Cafe lowers the sculpture below the roofs parapet, so it wouldn't be seen from the street, thus quelling neighborhood dissent.

   In 1983, Mayor Ed Koch led an effort to have the Iguana redisplayed (after tiring of wrongly directed complaints that he banned the lizard)  The rededication of the Iguana was attended by Ed Koch and Texas Governor Mark White, (who just happened to be in New York City on state business that week).

The Iguana being lowered by helicopter at the Fort Worth Zoo

   When the Lone Star Cafe closed in 1989, the iguana went though series of hands, including an east coast horse ranch and a pier in Tribeca. It was finally purchased by patrons in Fort Worth, where it sat in a barn for 11 years. Eventually it found a home atop the Fort Worth Zoo, where it was delivered by helicopter.  (check out the trailer for an upcoming documentary on the Iguana)


   The notoriety of the giant Iguana begat the World's Largest Cowboy Boots, perhaps San Antonio's most iconic site, following the Alamo and the Riverwalk.

The boots were created in 1979 for the Washington Project for the Arts. The large scale work of public art was constructed and displayed just a few blocks from the White House for over a year on 12th and Avenue G. After the exhibit was over, the Rouse Corporation offered to buy the boots to place outside North Star Mall.

The Boots being constructed for the first time in downtown Washington DC

Bob "Daddy-O" Wade across the street from his boots

   The transportation of the giant boots was an adventure in itself. The boots got stuck in an overpass before leaving the Washington DC. The trucks transporting the oversized footwear had to take back roads all the way to Texas to avoid police, using CB radios to alert the drivers to possible trouble, as the artist was not transporting them in a proper manner. 
The boots being reassembled in San Antonio
   In the early days at the mall, KTSA radio became the talk of the town when they built a broadcast booth atop the boot.  For a short time, a homeless man had made a home inside the boot. Today the World’s Largest Pair of Boots has become one of San Antonio’s most recognizable sites. 

   The Iguana begat the Boots, the Boots begat the Frogs.  The six frogs were originally located in Dallas on lower Greenville Ave atop a club called Tango were Bob Wade's next iconic commission. The club was opened by Shannon Wynne, the son of Angus Wynne, the developer of Six Flags.

   The club was originally to be named Six Frogs over Tango. Like the Iguana, Dallas neighbors complained about the frogs. Eventually, the frogs were removed and took a circular tour of Texas. For a while they rested above a gas station south of Dallas called Carl's Corner.

The Frogs atop the Chuy's in Nashville
   Today, 3 are in Nashville atop a Chuy's restaurant and 3 are back on Greenville Ave atop the Taco Cabana which sits at the same address as Tango. 

   Bob Daddy-O Wade,  who lives a larger than life existence, passed away on December 23, 2019 at his home in Austin.  

   On a personal note:  These stories come from an afternoon I spent interviewing Bob when I was finishing my book San Antonio Uncovered.  Of all the interviews I did for the book, that was by far my favorite. He was so generous of his time and his stories were as wonderfully outrageous as his art.  He was a true Texas treasure. 

The Frogs at Taco Cabana

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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About San Antonio's Ghost Crossing

UPDATE:  In October of 2018. Union Pacific Railroad upgraded the tracks and eliminated the grading that allowed your car to roll over the tracks.  The Ghost Crossing Phenomena was eliminated.  The following post was first published in 2013 and frequently updated.

For years, San Antonio teenagers have headed to the south side to experience the "Ghost Crossing." Local legend states that a school bus stalled on the tracks and was hit by a train at this crossing. Today if you leave your car in neutral, the ghost of those school children will push you across the tracks to safely.

Where: The crossing is on Shane Road where it intersects with the Southern Pacific Rail Line. Take Presa south off SE Military Drive. Turn right on Southton Road, travel under Loop 410 and right again on Shane Road. Continue to the train tracks.

What to do next: Turn off your engine. Put your car in neutral. Your car will mysteriously start to roll from a dead stop over the tracks.

Scary Scooby Doo Stuff:  After your car is pushed over the tracks, take some baby powder and dust the back of your car. You will find finger prints of the ghosts that pushed your car across the tracks.

Reality Check: Chances are pretty high that those fingerprints are yours, from the last time you got into your car's truck, unless of course, you wipe your trunk of fingerprints every time you access your hatchback.

More Scary Stuff: The subdivision nearby has streets named after the children who died at the tracks.

Reality Check: The streets are named after children. However, Bobbie Allen, Cindy Sue, Laura Lee, Nancy Carroll and Richey Otis are actually the names of the developer's grandchildren.

Even More Scary Stuff: If you listen closely, you can hear the cries of the ghost children in the distance.

Reality Check: There is a nearby farm, which has peacocks. The haunting noise you hear is actually the cries of the peacocks.

History of the Ghost Crossing: There is no record of a bus accident at the rail crossing. The story of the Ghost Crossing goes back many years. At one time, there was a version that a horse drawn cart was caught on the tracks.
There was a school bus that was caught on tracks in Salt Lake City in 1938. Twenty six children lost their lives in the accident, and the story was front page news across the nation.  Today it is law that school buses must stop at rail crossings and look for trains before crossing the tracks.

Reality Check: The Ghost Crossing - A Scientific Explanation: The Ghost Crossing is an optical illusion. The road is actually at a slight decline which causes your car to roll over the track. However, the horizon gives the impression that the car is actually being pushed uphill.

Similar Legends: Gravity Road in New Jersey is quite similar to the Ghost Crossing. Notice how close that legend parallels the San Antonio tale

The Ghost Crossing has received interest from a number of Television shows. Here is an excellent clip from one national broadcast which debunks the local legend.


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11 Scary San Antonio Ghost Stories

Every town has tales of spirits that inhabit the area, and San Antonio, Texas is no exception. Here are eleven of the city’s most popular poltergeists.
ONE: The Ghost Crossing
Perhaps the most popular tale, the ghost crossing has enticed thousands of San Antonians to trek out to an obscure southeast railroad crossing to participate in an eerie phenomenon. The ghost crossing is on Shane Road, where it intersects with the Southern Pacific rail line. According to the legend, a school bus full of kids stalled on the tracks and was hit by a train. Today if a motorist stops before the tracks and places the car in neutral, the ghosts of those children will push the vehicle over the tracks. To visit the crossing, take Presa south off SE Military Drive. Turn right on Southton Road, then right again on Shane. Turn off your engine and give it a try. If you’re brave, visit the crossing at night. You will be amazed when your car mysteriously moves across the tracks. Is it an optical illusion? Are you really moving downhill? Or is your car being pushed across by ghosts? Part of this ghostly tale is that the nearby subdivision has streets named for the children who perished in the supposed accident. Actually they are simply the names of the neighborhood developer’s grandchildren.
TWO: The Ghostly Nuns
The basement of Santa Rosa Hospital is said to be the haunting grounds for these spectral beings. The ghosts are believed to be the spirits of five nuns who died on October 30, 1912, after trying to rescue children from a burning orphanage. The
wooden building of the St. John’s Orphan Asylum, which went up in flames that night, was located across from the hospital at the corner of Houston and San Saba Streets.
THREE: The Menger Ghost
Said to haunt the old portion of the Menger Hotel, Sallie White was a hotel chambermaid who was murdered by her husband. This poltergeist is rather stubborn, appearing only when she pleases.
FOUR: The Alamo Ghosts
Many guests who have stayed at the Menger Hotel in rooms that overlook the Alamo have said that they have spotted the ghosts of the Alamo defenders. Legend states that General Andrade of the Mexican army planned to destroy the Alamo after the Battle of San Jacinto. But when he ordered his troops to do so, the ghosts of Travis, Bowie, and the others appeared with flaming swords, screaming, “Do not touch these walls!” On Nacogdoches near Loop 1604 sits a stone tower atop a hill. It is said that this tower is also haunted by ghosts from the Alamo days. Lights are often seen at the tower at night, and many believe that the tower was a lookout post for the Alamo and that the lights belong to the spirits of the sentry.
FIVE: The Dancing Diablo
The site for this terrible tale is the El Camaroncito Nite Club, located at 411 W. Old Highway 90. It’s said that in the 1970s a debonair patron was dancing with many different women one evening, and at some point, one lady looked down and noticed that the dapper dancer had the feet of a chicken. This is of course the sign of the devil, so the woman screamed, and El Diablo ran from the club. El Camaroncito Nite Club is now closed, but the chicken-footed dancer has been reported at other establishments throughout the years.
SIX: The Ghosts of Milam Square
Few people realize that the public park between Santa Rosa Hospital and El Mercado was once a cemetery for the Canary Islanders. It is said that if you pass through the square with evil thoughts, you will be visited by spirits.
SEVEN: The Converse Wolfman
Set many years ago in the area of Skull Creek near FM 1518, the legend tells of a thirteen-year-old boy, who spent most of his time reading. The father thought the boy was too much of a bookworm, so he bought him a rifle, thinking that by forcing
the child to go hunting, he could reform him. After his first day out with the gun, the boy came home and told his parents of a wolfman-type creature in the woods. The father, not believing the boy, told him to go out and not to return until he had killed something. When the young hunter did not come home, a search party was organized. At the creek, the boy was found dead, and the wolfman was feasting on his body. The wolfman supposedly returns to the creek during full moons, and when he does, the water in the creek turns blood red.
EIGHT: The Donkey Lady
Also called La Llorona, the donkey lady was a beautiful poor girl who fell in love with a rich aristocrat. Because they were of different classes, they were forbidden to marry. The young lady thus became the man’s mistress and bore him several children. Some versions say she drowned the children because she was poor and could not afford to keep them. Others say she drowned them because she was evil.
Regardless, because of her awful actions, she was condemned for eternity to be a ghost with a donkey’s head on her beautiful body. La Llorona has been reported on Applewhite Road near Zarzamora and at the intersection of Blanco and Lockhill-
Selma. She also has been spotted by teenagers who go to Espada Park to neck. The legend is often told by superstitious parents to warn their children of the ghost that haunts youngsters who play near forbidden waters.
NINE: The Navarro House Ghost
This downtown landmark is the former home of José Antonio Navarro, signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. Believers in the paranormal have heard footsteps and spotted furniture that has been moved under mysterious circumstances. Some say the ghost is the home’s namesake; others say it is a slain prostitute, a murdered bartender, or a Confederate deserter.
TEN: The Seven-foot Chinese Woman
This large Asian ghost haunts an old cemetery near Stinson Field. One version of the tale claims the seven-foot-tall local woman killed herself because her Chinese contemporaries ridiculed her for being so tall. Some say she died in a fire. The
same area is said to be haunted by a bearded lady as well.
ELEVEN: Midget Mansion
This legend was fueled by the overactive imaginations of teenagers who attended Marshall and Clark high schools. For years, students went after dark to an old abandoned home situated between Datapoint Drive and Medical Drive near the Medical Center to tell the story of a mansion run by evil midgets.

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Every landmark, legend and myth of San Antonio is here - from the ugliest statue to the histories of the railroad stations. It's a smorgasbord of overlooked and under-appreciated jewels from all over the city. The obligatory shrines and sites are here too - every one of them. Throughout the book's pages Mark employs the rarest type of humor - humor with genuine affection.
Mark corrects the old saw that said San Antonio is "a small town wanting to be a big city." It is, as he says, "A big town that desperately wants to be a small town." With this book as your guide, it's almost as though San Antonio gets its wish."

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Was Ozzy Osbourne Arrested For Peeing on the Alamo?

   This is one of the top questions asked of the curators of the Alamo: Was Rock Star Ozzy Osbourne arrested for peeing on the Alamo?  Like any story, there are some facts that are mixed with myth and hype to create a wonderful tale.

   The facts:  On February 19, 1982, prior to a concert in San Antonio, Ozzy Osbourne stopped to urinate on his way back to his hotel room after some extensive partying. Unfortunately, for Ozzy, he stopped to pee in Alamo Plaza on the Cenotaph. The Cenotaph is a monument erected in 1939 to honor those who died in the Battle of the Alamo.

Where Ozzy Osbourne Actually Peed. The Alamo Cenotaph

    Not that urinating on a War Memorial is much better than the Alamo itself.  It just makes for a different headline. Even his son Jack admits as much in this podcast interview on the subject

   The Rock Star was arrested for Public Intoxication and released on a $40 bond in time to play his show. However, he was banned from ever performing in San Antonio again. The incident unleashed the incorrect story that Ozzy had been arrested for peeing on the actually Alamo, the shrine of Texas Liberty.

   Over the years, the legend has grown despite the fact that 10 years after the event, Ozzy made a $10,000 donation to the caretakers of the Alamo (the Daughter of the Texas Republic) and made an official apology.  The ban was lifted after the apology and he was allowed to play two show at the Freeman Coliseum

"We all have done things in our lives that we regret. I am deeply honored that the people of San Antonio have found it in their hearts to have me back. I hope that this donation will show that I have grown up.”     Ozzy Osbourne  1992

   In 2015,  Ozzy revisited the Alamo for a show on the History Channel and apologized once again for his transgression.


Friday, May 25, 2018

Gutzon Borglum and Mount Rushmore - The San Antonio Connection

One of the most intriguing artists to pass through San Antonio was noted sculptor Gutzon Borglum. Borglum came to the city in 1925 to create a memorial for the Trail Drivers Museum. He immediately won the respect of the people of Texas, who treated him as the ultimate celebrity when he toured the state with a model of his creation. Borglum stayed in the city for many years, working out of a studio in Brackenridge Park. The studio, a former water works facility, was modified by the artist and was the site of some of his most famous creations. It was here that Borglum created his famous statue of Woodrow Wilson for the Polish government.
Borglum was a man of many contradictions. He was an avowed anti-Semite, and often spoke about the "Jewish Problem." Often he preached against the so-called Jewish Establishment and their control of the banking industry. However, many of his patrons, financial backers, and close friends were Jewish. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, like many of his contemporaries, accepted the self-proclaimed anti-Semite as a valued friend who was uncompromising in his beliefs. When Hitler began carrying out a plan to exterminate Jewish citizens, Borglum, the man of many contradictions, became an outspoken opponent of the Führer. When Hitler invaded Poland, one of his first acts was to destroy Borglum's statue of Woodrow Wilson.
The artist took an active role in the politics of the day. He allowed Czechoslovakian rebels to train on his Connecticut estate during World War I. He investigated the aircraft industry for corruption during the First World War. He was an advisor to presidents and chiefs of state. He became a powerful member of the Ku Klux Klan in a time when the racist organization was trying to mainstream their cause.

When Borglum arrived in San Antonio, he had just been fired by the group who had commissioned him to create a monument in Stone Mountain, Georgia, honoring Confederate heroes. He left Georgia a fugitive for destroying a vital model of the uncompleted sculpture. In San Antonio, he quickly set up shop at Brackenridge Park in his Mill Race Studio. After the creation of the Trail Drivers monument, he left for South Dakota to create his most famous work, a giant carving of four ex-presidents on Mount Rushmore. It was in his Brackenridge Park studio that Borglum designed his greatest work of art. 
Borglum left a large legacy. His art is displayed in the White House, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark, Chicago, and San Antonio. He designed the flame in the Statue of Liberty's torch. He was the head of the Texas Beautification Plan and proposed ideas, such as a Corpus Christi waterfront, that were years ahead of their time.    As for San Antonio, his contributions to the city are mostly forgotten. Throughout the carving of Mount Rushmore, he wintered in San Antonio while working on his other commissions. He left for California in the 1930s after losing out on the Alamo Cenotaph commission.

His studio was turned over to the San Antonio Art League, who used it for young artists for many years. Some of his greatest pieces were created there. After many years, the building was abandoned. It sat in quiet ruins for many years, adjacent to the Brackenridge Golf Course parking lot.  It was renovated a few years ago and is now available for for events. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Seven Ways HemisFair Changed San Antonio Forever

“Until Hemisfair, we were a good city, a quiet city, with not much vision or thrust for the future”
 William Sinkin   First President of HemisFair ’68

    50 years ago, in 1968, San Antonio hosted the World’s Fair, dubbed HemisFair 68. The site of the fair is now HemisFair Park in downtown on the corner of Alamo St, Market St and Cesar Chavez Blvd, marked by the Convention Center and the Tower of the Americas, both constructed for the event.
   While the city has discussed numerous proposals for the site over the past 50 years, one thing cannot be denied, HemisFair forever changed the path of the city. 

Post Card from Opening day of the Fair

1. It moved San Antonio into the ranks of America’s top cities.

   In 1920, San Antonio was the largest city in Texas. But after the depression, the city hit a prolonged period of stagnant growth. In the 1950s, while the rest of the nation was basking in the glow of post war growth, San Antonio slowly settled behind Dallas and Houston in population. Worse yet, a walk thru downtown San Antonio in the early 1960s, looked much like 1930s San Antonio. 
   The idea behind HemisFair was to kick start the city’s growth and propel the city out of its economic slumber. 
   Perhaps the most telling story of the city’s malaise is told by Red McCombs, who served on the fair’s executive committee. He was in charge of getting major companies to sponsor and build pavilions for the fair. They needed twenty to have the fair certified but could only sign 3. According to McCombs, the biggest problem was that “major corporations in 1966 thought of San Antonio as being something maybe like Laredo or maybe like Abilene.”
   With personal appeals from President Lyndon Johnson, HemisFair was able to secure enough corporate partners to have the fair certified.
   Today, San Antonio has over a 1.4 million people and is the 7th largest city in the US and the second largest in Texas.  

Post Card showing the RiverWalk extension into HemisFair and the then named HemisFair Theatre.  Renamed the Lila Cockerel Theatre, it still stands today as part of the Convention Center 

2. It saved the River Walk.

    In 1960, the River Walk was quite different that it is today. The beautiful Venice like attraction that architect Robert Hugman envisioned during the 1930s was built by the WPA, but it became anything but an attraction. Most buildings used the River Walk as an alley, storing trash. Casa Rio was the only restaurant on the river and most thought the owner was crazy to open there. The River Walk was so rough that the military had made it off limits to military personal.
Part of the HemisFair plan was to extend the River Walk into the fairground, stopping in front of the Lila Cockrell theatre and what is now Convention Center. That extension along with over 6 million Hemisfair visitors helped remake the image of the River Walk.
Today, the River Walk is the second most popular tourist destination in Texas.

Post Card from the Fair

3. It made San Antonio into a tourist destination.

   From the start of the Depression until the mid-1960s not a single new hotel was built in San Antonio. When San Antonio was awarded the fair, it set off a slew of hotel construction, including the Hilton Palacio Del Rio and the conversion of St. Mary’s College old downtown campus into La Mansion.  Millions streamed into the city to experience that fair and discovered San Antonio for the first time, making into a tourist destination for the first time. 
   Today, San Antonio host 7 million visitors annually and has the state’s top tourist attraction, the Alamo. 

Post Card depicting the The USA Pavilion for HemisFair. Today it is the Judge John Wood Courthouse 

4. It gave the city a convention center.

   When designing the fair, Congressman Henry B. Gonzales made sure that federal urban renewal funds used for the fair included permanent buildings that could be used after HemisFair closed. The HemisFair Exhibit Hall became San Antonio’s first Convention Center. Attached to the Exhibit Hall was the HemisFair Arena, which later attracted San Antonio’s first major league team, the Spurs. 
   The Convention Center has been expanded many times and the Arena has been replaced by more meeting space, but the HemisFair Theatre remains, now named the Lila Cockrell Theatre, after the city’s first female mayor. If you look above the west facade of the theatre, you can see on original HemisFair mural, “Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas by Mexican artist Juan O’Gourman.
   Today, the Convention Center is one of the 15 largest in the US, hosting 300 events a year with over 750,000 annual delegates. 

Post Card depicting the Tower of the Americas

5. It transformed our skyline.

   By far, the most recognizable structure in the city’s skyline is the Tower of the Americas. Designed by O’Neil Ford, the tower was the centerpiece of the fair. The tophouse was actually built on the ground and raised on the shaft.  The raising of the top house to its final resting stop became a bit of a civic event.
    The observation deck and the revolving restaurant are still popular San Antonio attractions. Sadly, after the tower was opened and became the city’s tallest structure, the observation deck atop the 1929 Tower Life Building closed to the public. 
 Today, at 750 Feet, the Tower of the Americas is still the largest structure in San Antonio. It is 145 feet taller than Seattle’s Space Needle and 187 Feet taller than Dallas’ Reunion Tower.  

Post Card depicting the nation of Mexico's Pavilion for Hemisfair. The pavilion is used today as  Universidad Nacional Autonoma De Mexico - San Antonio Campus and the Mexican Cultural Institute

6. It changed the political landscape.

  The city’s political landscape in the 1960’s was mainly run by white businessmen. But the undertaking of a World’s Fair took efforts from the entire community and opened the doors of political opportunity.
   1968 was a tumultuous year in the US for race relations. In San Antonio, city leaders knew it would be disastrous to invite people from all over the world, of a myriad of ethnicities, to the city only to have them denied entrance to restaurants and hotels. They made sure San Antonio became an open city. It was one of the few places in the US to escape the violence of 1968.
   “Until HemisFair came along, Jessica and I didn’t know a single Latino in San Antonio. HemisFair changed all that”

Henry E. Catto Jr.   San Antonian and Former Ambassador to Great Britain

Post Card depicting one of the original buildings in the neighborhood where HemisFair was built. Originally it was the Schultze Store. For the Fair it was used as the Humble Oil Pavilion. The building still stands today on the West Entrance to the park

7. It wiped a Polish neighborhood off the map.

   HemisFair ’68 was built on a 92 acre site that was home to one of San Antonio’s oldest neighborhoods. The demolition over 100 buildings including St. Michaels Church, the United State’s third oldest Polish Catholic church, was not without controversy. The San Antonio Conservation Society submitted a proposal to save 129 historic structures, some dating back to the 1800s, and have them incorporated into the fair. In the end, only 24 structures were saved, many which are still in the park.

    Today, there is a proposal to once again redevelop the HemisFair site to include apartments and town homes, recreating the downtown neighborhood. 

    Visit the old neighborhood here in this photo montage 

St. Michaels Catholic Church - one of just many buildings torn down for Hemisfair

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