August 2, 2010
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San Antonio: Exploring Living History Lessons; A City Offering a Cavalcade of Culture, Character, and Charm
With more twists and turns than the River Walk—and more faces than the façade of the Alamo—San Antonio proudly wears its culture on its sleeve. From modern museums and old world missions to walking tours and architectural wonders, this city is bursting with cultural history, character, and charm.
That culture is apparent in plazas inspired by Spanish colonial concepts and in buildings that chart the course of the city’s history, from plastered chapel to gingerbread Victorian to towering skyscraper. And it’s obvious in the celebrations that take place in those squares and spaces: the “Little Village” that is La Villita provides a home for events as diverse as Fiesta’s Nights in Old San Antonio and the fall International Accordion Festival.
HemisFair Park, the scene of the 1968 World’s Fair, hosts the Institute of Texan Cultures’ June Folklife Festival, as well as numerous Mexican Cultural Institute programs. And the streets themselves come alive in early spring with Luminaria, a new celebration of all the arts. At almost any time and place, the city offers something for everyone.
The genesis of it all is a modest settlement founded in 1718 alongside a spring in what is now San Pedro Park, the second oldest park in the nation. Later moving south, the city took shape with simple structures, but also soon began building in stone—both around squares in the new city center and south along the San Antonio River—with a string of missions whose fields were irrigated by a system of channeled acequias. Today’s Mission Trail links four of the missions—San José, Concepción, San Juan, and Espada—with its nearby aqueduct. The fifth is the Alamo itself—much modified but firmly fixed in the minds of camera-toting history buffs as the scene of a battle that helped secure Texas’ independence from Mexico.
But there’s more than missions to be seen of this formative period. The 19th-century façade of San Fernando Cathedral is finally getting the framework it deserves in the form of a newly renovated Main Plaza, originally Plaza de las Islas in honor of the 16 families from the Canary Islands who arrived in 1731. But walk behind the building and you’ll see the 1738 apse of the original structure.
Just a block farther west is the Spanish Governor’s Palace dating from 1749. Though the title “palace” was always an exaggeration, the building breathes with both the spirit of the times and echoes of the fandangos once held there.
In San Antonio, it pays to keep eyes, ears, and nose open.
Museums & Galleries
History comes alive in context, but there’s nothing like a museum for the big picture. Catch a truly cinematic glimpse into San Antonio and the rest of Texas at the Institute of Texan Cultures on the eastern edge of HemisFair Park. Within this distinctive structure, the fascinating stories of all the ethnic groups that make up Texas come to life, from African-Americans and Slavs to Mexicans, Syrians, and Lebanese.
For a more focused view, check out The Texas Ranger Museum. It has relocated adjacent to the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum, itself worth a look, and documents the history and lore of the fabled institution. Ranger memorabilia formerly shared space with the Texas Pioneer Museum on Broadway, which has expanded to include exhibits of notable Texans. Fittingly, next door at the Witte Museum, reconstructed log cabins from pioneer times can be seen outdoors, and special shows on local history are frequently staged inside. Don’t miss the fanciful tree house structure that contains kid-friendly exhibits with a science bent.
Many of the city’s other museums, some housed in structures that are historic in their own right, also play into San Antonio’s cultural continuum. The San Antonio Museum of Art converted a 19th-century brewery into a showcase for Latin American art across the centuries and an extensive Asian Art Wing, along with Greek and Roman collections and American art from colonial times to the present.
The Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, with its focus on 20th-century works, evolved from a 1927 Spanish-Mediterranean-style villa and has recently completed an extensive contemporary addition for traveling exhibitions.
Another contemporary structure, located at the foot of Market Square just west of downtown, houses the Smithsonian-affiliated Museo Alameda. Its shows are dedicated to presenting the Latino in America.
Further proving that San Antonio can turn any facility to artistic ends, there is the Southwest School of Art & Craft in a convent built in 1851 for the Ursuline Academy of French nuns. In addition to creating classrooms, a gift shop, restaurant, and gallery space from the historic compound, the school has converted a former tire store nearby into exhibition space.
To complete the catalog of conversions, a complex of industrial buildings south of downtown is now home to the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center. With the center as a catalyst, adjacent galleries such as the UTSA Satellite Space, San Angel Folk Art, and the Joan Grona Gallery now thrive. The complex also houses the Blue Star Brewing Company.
The urge to recycle and respect the past—while building for the way we live, work, and play—continues at a massive project at the old Pearl Brewery. Its developers have already renovated much of the historic complex and have succeeded in attracting a branch of the Culinary Institute of America. Plans for more restaurants and shops, a seasonal farmers’ market, and housing are also on the horizon.
The Pearl complex will be the northern terminus of extensive improvements now being made to extend the River Walk and, by means of locks, provide for river barge traffic north, all allowing visitors and locals alike to experience San Antonio in new ways.
Back in the city center, the river continues to be our guide through history, and nowhere is that history more apparent than in La Villita. Simply ascend the steps of the Arneson River Theatre from the River Walk and step through the arch leading to the Little Village. The site was once home to Spanish soldiers assigned to the Alamo, became a permanent settlement in the early 19th century, and was first restored in 1940.
Farther south along the river’s banks you will find Sauerkraut Bend, once the term for that stretch of the river lining the King William Historic District, home to many German families who helped define the city in the mid 19th century.
Pioneer Flour Mills, on the opposite bank, is one such institution, and its Guenther House Museum & Restaurant is a perfect place to refuel for more self-guided immersions in special places. Bus tours in the neighborhood have been discouraged by residents, but oak-shaded strolls along King William’s streets are the best ways to appreciate the stately architecture (a visit to the Steves Homestead Museum will give you an inside look), and side trips to flanking Southtown, a thriving area of restaurants and galleries, will provide colorful contrasts.
As tempting as it may be to keep to the river, you’ll also want to hit the streets for additional discoveries: the “enchilada red” public library, for example. Located next to the Southwest School of Art & Craft (housed in the 150-year-old Ursuline Academy), the building boasts bold forms and colors that speak to the city’s contemporary connection to Mexico and further reinforce the diversity of San Antonio’s culture, both built and felt.
The Alamo is by far the most famous of San Antonio’s historic missions, but it isn’t the only one. The Mission San José Church—seen here—dates back to the 18th century.