This 262-year-old Texas city is slowly reemerging from under the elevated freeways which all but buried it two decades ago.
Brackenridge Park, the field where one of the last battles against insensitive freeways was lost, can never be reclaimed. The mess of coiling ramps, concrete pillars and berms blights the cityscape like scabies. But San Antonio is slowly beginning to show its face again as old buildings are restored and plazas are refurbished.
Marring the skyline are a few new and distressingly mediocre hotel-chain high-rises and parking garages. But on the whole, San Antonio seems out to prove that a city can get back on its feet on the strength of its own character, as it were -- without mirror glass towers or concrete acrobatics.
The San Antonio character is anything but "quaint." Its architecture is as eclectic as its people are pluralistic.
What really made San Antonio esthetically lovable and culturally important was not so much the Alamo and Davy Crockett as the New Deal and the WPA. As a work project, they created the delightful Paseo del Rio, as charming a river walk as any this side of Venice. The engineers were going to cover the river with concrete, turning it into an underground sewer.
Much to its credit, modern San Antonio is as proud of the Mexican presence as it is of its Spanish past. But it does not wear that pride on its architectural sleeves, thank heaven, as we still do heareabouts with "Colonial" style motels and gas stations. The Alamo is not aped the way Easterners insultingly continue to parody the Williamsburg Governor's Palace.
In San Antonio, Mexican kitsch is confined to the souvenir shops. The buildings are expressive of the people who built them at various times, and not of their pretensions.
One of the most exciting -- and prominent -- works of architecture in town is a massively Teutonian beer brewery, circa 1900, done up with turrets and battlements, the way Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria might have done it, had he been a St. Louis beer brewer.
The nine factory and warehouse buildings of the Lone Star Brewery complex -- a heap of castle close to the river walk -- were vacant and abused for several decades.
Some years ago, a group of University of Texas architecture students, as a study project, drew up a proposal to convert it into a museum.
The San Antonio Museum Association, led by the energetic Nancy B. Negley, took up the idea con brio. The Cambridge Seven, the Cambridge, Mass., architectural and design firm which gave the world the Boston and Baltimore aquariums, worked out the conversion. The museum is scheduled to open next March.
To begin with, this showplace is likely to be more exciting than the art, folk art and history is will show (although as time goes on, a major museum building like this will surely also turn into a major museum.) The Seven, with architect Peter Chermayeff in charge, have added just enough new elements to the old building -- a glass-enclosed bridge, open elevators, skylights and such -- to turn the ornate castle into convincing new architecture for a serious new purpose. But they have not robbed the dear old structure of its dignity, as so many "post-modernists" do in their frenetic effort to produce a new style.
On the contrary, what gives the old brewery its new sense of elation are its vast spaces, its cast-iron columns and framework -- the buildings's brawny body, rather than its High Victorian frills.
There was a bit of a hassle as to whether or not Peter Chermayeff should paint the factory's blind windows a primary blue, of the kind Le Corbusier liked for his buildings. My first reaction was "Eewooee, gross!" as a young lady of my acquaintance likes to put it. On reflection, I think Chermayeff is right boldly to reclaim the building for our time.
Another attractive project, soon to get underway, is a bold link between the plaza in front of the Alamo and the Paseo del Rio. It is an ingeniously designed urban park, not unlike landscape architect Lawrence Halprin's famous waterfall in Portland, Ore., a sort of aquatic garden. It will help elevate the Alamo from a sideshow to a star attraction in the San Antonio cityscape.
There are plans to expand the crafts center in the old Ursuline convent. A nice old church is being recycled into professional offices. A seedy hotel and its adjoining buildings will soon emerge as a handsome new square.
All this is keeping the city too busy to give much thought to two great opportunities. The first is a downtown cluster of grand old vaudeville and movie palaces that cry out for restoration and new attractions.
The other is the 92-acre site of the 1968 HemisFair, which is largely delinquent. Only a few of the old world's fair buildings, notably the convention center, are still successfully in use. The rest of the site is begging for constructive use. The city should probably build attractive townhouses on it, now that even Texans are inclined to save gas and live in town.
People, in fact, are already moving back into San Antonio. Its black and Hispanic neighborhoods are reasserting themselves. And much of all this is at once sparked and controlled by an alert and assertive Fine Arts Commission, chaired by landscape architect Larry DeMaggio. It seems to infect both the neighborhood people and business community with its enthusiasm for culture and well-cultivated urban design.