River Walk ‘surprise’ example of San Antonio recycling stone from demolished downtown buildings

Photo of Paula Allen

I’d like to know more about this River Walk surprise, (a cornerstone fragment). River Walk Operations Superintendent Joseph Cruz advised me that the ivy growing on the River Walk’s east bank wall (north of the Travis Street bridge) suffered substantially in (December’s) hard freeze; therefore, much of the ivy was removed in January. Following the ivy’s removal, a limestone block with “A. Giles ARCHt” carved into it has been revealed. I look forward to learning information about this pleasant surprise.

— Bruce Martin

Versatile architect Alfred Giles (1853-1920) trained for his profession in his native England and came to Texas “for health reasons” at age 20 in 1873, says his entry in the Handbook of Texas. Settling in San Antonio, he first worked for builder John H. Kampmann, “from whom he acquired skill in the use of locally available building materials, especially stone.”

On ExpressNews.com: Architect Alfred Giles’ work admired by many

After establishing his own firm in 1876, Giles became a sought-after architect here and throughout Central Texas. He was known for his use of native limestone and a variety of Victorian styles. Giles received commissions for public buildings such as county courthouses as well as private residences, barracks and officers’ quarters at Fort Sam Houston, and commercial buildings.

Among those still standing in San Antonio are the Steves Homestead and Carl Wilhelm August Groos House in the King William Historic District, the motherhouse chapel of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the 1909 addition to the Menger Hotel, the Pershing House at Fort Sam and the Sullivan Carriage House at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Others have been replaced, such as Giles’ Bexar County Courthouse (completed in 1883, outgrown and succeeded by a new one in 1896) and the Municipal Market House (1899, replaced in 1938 by the Farmer’s Market building that’s still a part of Historic Market Square/El Mercado, discussed here May 4, 2013).

More on Farmer’s Market building: S.A. produce markets moved or morphed

It has been estimated that about 90 buildings from Giles’ designs were completed in Texas and Mexico, where he had an office in Monterrey. Of those, some have been modified and others lost.

“Sadly, there are many Giles buildings that have been demolished downtown,” said Beth Standifird, San Antonio Conservation Society librarian, who referred to “Alfred Giles: An English Architect in Texas and Mexico,” by Mary Carolyn Hollers George, also author of “The Architectural Legacy of Alfred Giles: Selected Restorations.”

According to George, the Groos National Bank at 143 W. Commerce St., the Meyer Halff & Bros. Co. building, located between Commerce and Market streets, and at least eight other Giles buildings in the downtown area were razed, mostly in the early 20th century.

More from Paula Allen on S.A. streets: Early roads built with wooden blocks

From the mid-1910s, many buildings were changed, moved or demolished because of street-widening projects, most notably the one that paved and widened Commerce Street from 1913 to 1915.

With automobiles and streetcars sharing the business thoroughfare with horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians, Commerce Street merchants petitioned the city for improvements to help them keep up with their Houston Street counterparts. Authorities responded with a $375,000 bond issue that also would help with similar projects for the widening or extension of other downtown streets, including Soledad Street in 1914.

The expansion of Commerce Street from Alamo Plaza to Soledad began in the spring of 1913. Many business buildings had to be drastically altered to make way for up to 60 feet of additional street space, including sidewalks. Façades were sheared off, possibly including cornerstones. The first Alamo National Bank building on the southwest corner of Commerce and Presa streets was famously hoisted onto rollers and moved back 15 feet. The Dullnig Building at 101 Alamo Plaza, built in 1883, lost 17 feet of streetfront as well as one of its octagonal towers.

Paula Allen on S.A.’s first superstore: Dullnig Building held one of city’s first mercantiles

Because the city paid for the redevelopment, salvage from associated demolition could be used for public purposes. It was thrifty to use rubble stone from buildings that had been torn down, rather than to purchase newly quarried stone2. As noted here, Dec. 13, 2011, stones in Olmos Basin Park have been said to have been taken “from some building that had been destroyed downtown” and reused to line part of the road that encircles the park.

An Aug. 16, 2017, report to the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission on the former Solo Serve store site, 114-118 Soledad Street, provided to this column by Standifird, notes that stones from the Giles courthouse — actually an extensive remodeling of the old Masonic Building — were incorporated into a retaining wall on the San Antonio River side of the since-demolished building.

“The River Park, predecessor to (Robert H.H.) Hugman’s River Walk, was being put in at the same time as Commerce Street was being widened,” said former city parks historian Maria Watson Pfeiffer. “Both projects were dedicated at the same time, at the new Commerce Street bridge in November 1914. Rubble from buildings razed or altered for the widening was used to reinforce river walls along the new park, and Travis Street is within the zone.”

More from Paula Allen: Fox Tech occupies site of S.A.'s first high school

Farther north, past the Ursuline Academy (now Southwest School of Art, 300 Augusta St.), “river walls were reinforced in 1917 with excess rubble stones from the city’s first high school, San Antonio High School (later Main Avenue and now Fox Tech High School),” said Lewis Fisher, author of “River Walk: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River,” noting that the 1882 school building — not a Giles design — was rebuilt in 1917.

No guesses were offered on which Giles building may have given up the newly revealed cornerstone fragment, nor when it was placed in the River Walk wall, but “it’s a real rarity,” said Fisher, who hasn’t seen anything comparable.

historycolumn@yahoo.com| Twitter: @sahistorycolumn| Facebook: SanAntoniohistorycolumn