REMEMBER THE ALAMO, RIVERWALK, AND THE HEMISFAIR, SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS: THEN AND NOW

A couple of weeks ago, I was away from the library to present an academic paper at the Southwestern Social Sciences Association Conference held in San Antonio, Texas. This was my first visit to the city, and so far, my only associations of San Antonio had to do with the historic ruins of the Alamo, and a friend who had visited the city and raved about the beautiful river walk. Certainly every American historian (and probably most Americans) remembers the former from the famous films and the “Remember the Alamo” battle-cry of 1836, when Texans declared their independence from Mexico.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

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I was also somewhat familiar with San Antonio’s river walk as I often teach courses at Florida International University on the New Deal, and because the museum’s rare book and special collections library where I serve as chief librarian holds a booklet compiled by the Workers of the Writers’ Program and intended to celebrate the completion of the River Beautification Project in San Antonio.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

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Illustrated with photographic reproductions of the river walk project, Along the San Antonio River was published in 1941 by the City of San Antonio as one of the American Guide Series, preserving community histories and promoting domestic tourism at the tail-end of the Great Depression. Often these guide books include several automobile tours, or, as in the case of the San Antonio guide, a map to guide visitors along the river walk.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

In 1921, torrential downpours transformed the slow-moving stream that flows through San Antonio into a raging river that destroyed millions of dollars in property in the downtown business district. Afterwards, San Antonians adopted a flood prevention plan which included the installation of flood gates and locks to prevent future problems with flooding.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

The brainchild of the civil engineer Edwin P. Arneson (1888-1938)and architect R. H. H. Hugman (1902-1980), plans for river beautification came next. Their plans, championed by the City of San Antonio’s River Beautification Board came to fruition during the depression years under the administration of the Democratic Mayor, Maury Maverick (1895-1954). Thanks to $355,000 provided by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration (WPA), hundreds of destitute men were put back to work. Between 1939 and 1941, the WPA workers were engaging in dredging the river bed and building walkways, bridges, and other infrastructure along the banks of the San Antonio River to transform what had become an “eye-sore” into a beautiful and immensely popular recreational park.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

I found it fascinating to compare the American guide photographs of the newly completed river beautification project to my own views of the area taken with my camera during my visit.

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The artwork in the guide suggests that tourists could expect to enjoy gondola-like rides down the river.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

Today, motorized barges accommodate “boatloads” of visitors in a slightly less intimate ride through the canal-like river.

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As no visit to San Antonio would have been complete without a barge-ride, my wife and I waited in line and got a ticket. Our guide was very informative, pointing out the landmarks and the city’s commitment to historic preservation; I was surprised, however, that not a word was mentioned of President Roosevelt, Mayor Maverick, the New Deal, or the W.P.A. that made the river walk a reality! In fact, hunting for such acknowledgement, I found only one small brass plaque and one banner recognizing Roosevelt and his New Deal administration’s impact on the river beautification project.

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San Antonians have always been passionate about historic preservation, and the river beautification project realized by the WPA included plans for preserving and restoring La Villita (the “Little Village”).

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the old buildings of La Villita had since fallen into disrepair and the neglected area had become a slum area. In 1939, as development began on the San Antonio River Walk development under Mayor Maverick, plans were made to rescue the surviving section and to transform it into a Historic Arts Village, where artisans and teens working for the National Youth Administration (NYA) found employment in metal work and ceramic craft production.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

The new riverside entry into La Villita included a stunning outdoor theatre complete with a concession building and projection room above.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

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The outdoor theatre was named in honor of the engineer behind the original river beautification plan, Edwin Arneson.

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The seats of the theatre face the opposite bank of the river, where a small stage now stands.

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A photograph from the San Antonio guide book in 1941 shows Latin-American dancers performing on the stage in Juarez Plaza at La Villita on Pan American Day, in front of a bronze statue of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753-1811), the Jesuit-educated priest and one of the leaders of the Mexican War of Independence. The statue was a gift from the President of Mexico, Manuel Ávila Camacho (1897-1955) presented to Mayor Maverick.

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THE MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR. COLLECTION, THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU

Although the statue of Hidalgo no longer graces the stage in Juarez Plaza, I did run into it at another venue in the city—the old fair grounds of Hemisfair Park, site of the World’s Fair held in San Antonio in 1968, and the subject of a second blog post installment coming soon.

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~ by "The Chief" on April 30, 2014.

One Response to “REMEMBER THE ALAMO, RIVERWALK, AND THE HEMISFAIR, SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS: THEN AND NOW”

  1. Que buen proyecto el de embellecer el Rio San Antonio, en texas. Durante el periodo de Roosevelt , Una experiencia cultural que converge en el Rio amanzado o Rio San Antonio, el Santo que encuentra lo perdido, en la memoria de los tiempos.
    Felicitaciones por este blog.

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