A Documentary Film by Camilo Silva

The San Antonio River Walk – A Short History of Preservation and Urban Renewal

Posted by on Dec 13, 2014 in Historic Preservation Blog | 0 comments

San Antonio, the city of my birth, is one of the oldest cities in the State of Texas. Founded in 1691 along the banks of what would be known as the San Antonio River, the city is famous for the Alamo, its Latin American culture and the River Walk. The history of the Alamo is well known to most but the history of the development of the River Walk is less so. It is a story of historical preservation, Great Depression Era work programs and one of the most successful urban renewal projects in the United States. Click the image to open in full size. The River Walk In the early 20th Century, the San Antonio River that runs through downtown San Antonio had little to no flood control measures. Experts at the time warned that the river posed a grave threat to the growing city but they were largely ignored. That was until September of 1921, when a flood ravaged the San Antonio River. Flood water raged through the city with over 9ft of water accumulating on Houston Street. The flood destroyed many buildings in the central business district and took over 40 lives in the process. Click the image to open in full size. Wreckage from the 1921 Flood Plans were soon drawn up for a series of flood control measures. The plans called for the construction of a dam upstream from downtown, the current Olmos Dam, and channeling the river away from the central core through a major bend in the river that ran through the downtown area. Upon the completion of this channel, the bend in the river would be paved over and the river would no longer run through the center of San Antonio. A series of storm sewers would then be constructed through the central downtown district to handle any runoff. Click the image to open in full size. Olmos Dam Work began on Olmos Dam in 1926 but the San Antonio Conservation Society, a group of local citizens and conservationists, protested the proposal to pave over the river within the city. The society argued that the river should be saved for recreational and tourist reasons. They even held a puppet show at city hall to illustrate their point. This worked and the river was saved. For several years alternative plans were considered for how to deal with the river. In 1929, local architect Robert Hugman submitted his plans for what would become the River Walk of today. He endorsed the bypass channel but instead of paving over the river, he argued that flood gates should be placed at both ends of the bend to control water levels, opening the river’s edges to commercial development. This development would be one level down from street level and allow visitors to stroll along the river without the threat of traffic or congestion. He titled this plan “The Shops of Aragon and Romula.” Mr. Hugman’s plans were initially

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scoffed at. At this time, crime was skyrocketing in the central downtown area of San Antonio and the river was seen as too dangerous for future development. Besides, the Great Depression had just begun and private funds for such a development disappeared. The prospect of a future River Walk looked grim. Mr. Hugman’s support for his plan never died though and in 1939 the federal government through the Work’s Progress Administration granted the crucial initial funds for the River Walk. This money allowed for the construction of 17,000 feet of walkways, twenty bridges and the planting of numerous trees. Arneson River Theater, one of the most unique landmarks along the river today, was also constructed at this time. With the coming of WWII, plans for further development were again put on hold but, as always, Mr. Hugman would not let go of his dream. Click the image to open in full size. Arneson River Theater In 1946, the entire system was put to a major test when another major flood threatened the city. This time though, the flood control systems worked and there was little to no damage as a result. As a result of this success, new businesses started to move into the area, including the first restaurant, Casa Rio, which is still there to this day. Click the image to open in full size. Casa Rio Over the following decades, the River Walk was slowly expanded and improved. The Tower of the Americas and HemisFair Park were constructed in connection with the city’s hosting of the 1968 World’s Fair, HemisFair ’68. The River Walk was extended to connect to these attractions. The Hilton Palacio del Rio, the first hotel located on the River Walk, was also built that same year. The River Walk was further lengthened to incorporate Alamo Plaza and Rivercenter Mall. Numerous events and parades have been held along the River Walk over the years, including the four NBA Championship victory parades held by the San Antonio Spurs basketball team. Click the image to open in full size. Over the years, the River Walk has grown, along with the city that it calls home. Plans are in place to extend the River Walk once again to connect to the historic Pearl Brewery (which is now being redeveloped into commercial and retail space). The River Walk has also served as inspiration for similar projects in other cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina and Denver, Colorado. In the end, the River Walk is a testament to a people and a city that looked to solve a problem and at the same time preserve its history and redevelop for a better and brighter future. Click the image to open in full size. The River Walk at Christmas Click the image to open in full size. Pearl Brewery Click the image to open in full size. Click the image to open in full size. Source @ http://www.historum.com/american-history/45137-san-antonio-river-walk-short-history-preservation-urban-renewal.html

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