By Sarah Bauml
In 1928, several business leaders in San Antonio proposed draining, filling, and cementing over the San Antonio River’s Great Bend (Crown 55).The proposal resulted from the tragic 1921 flood that killed 50 people and caused property losses in the millions. To the businessmen, draining and filling the river with concrete seemed like the cheapest and easiest plan to address the serious civic challenge. Returning to San Antonio from New Orleans at that time, architect Robert H. H. Hugman saw the plan as a huge mistake (Crown 55). Hugman had lived in New Orleans the previous three years and the city’s conservation movement impressed him with its effort to enhance the old world charm, beauty, and local color of the French Quarter, the historic Vieux Carre (Zunker 2). Hugman’s timely return to San Antonio led to an idea and investment that would bring benefits to San Antonio for years to come.
Hugman began developing plans based on descriptions of old cities in Spain: “a narrow, winding street barred to vehicular traffic, yet holding the best shops, clubs, banks and cafes; prosperous, yet alluring, with its shadowed doorways and quaint atmosphere” (Crown 55, 56). Envisioning an entrance located near the centrally-located Houston Street bridge, Hugman desired the entrance as a passage cut through the red brick Book Building at the southwest corner of the bridge (Crown 56). To the rear, a “typical old Spanish patio” would provide a view of the river from above (Crown 56). On both sides of the street he pictured the “Shops of Aragon,” named for the province in Spain, and built of old stone and brick, and including retail, cafés, apartments, cabarets, and dance clubs (Zunker 3). Hugman planned to have an outdoor café located at the turn of the channel that went into what was called the “Great Bend” (Fisher 56). The area in the Great Bend he planned to call “Romula”, after an ancient Roman city, would house shops of unique architecture, that would appear similar to those of “Aragon” (Crown 56). Hugman wished for all the walkways to be cobblestone streets; they would be like those in Spain (Crown 56), lit with old-fashioned street lamps (San Antonio). The San Antonio River would also contain “a sunken garden of loveliness” which would be located where the channel divided into two streams (Crown 56). Hugman also wanted gondolas, modeled after those of Venice, to take visitors up and down the river (Zunker 3). Hugman’s idea for the River Walk was unique in that the plan combined the names and traditions of New Orleans, Aragon, and Italy.
In 1929, Hugman shared his ideas with Mrs. Lane Taylor, President of the San Antonio Conservation Society who persuaded city officials to meet to discuss beautification plans for the river (Zunker 2). On Friday, June 28, 1929, Robert Hugman met with Mayor Chambers, two city commissioners, a group of property owners, and other civic leaders and began his presentation saying that San Antonio had doubled its population in the past decade, transforming it from “a sleepy southern town to a future metropolis” (Zunker 3). Then, Hugman stated his major theme: “The historic tradition and natural beauty (of the river) must be sacredly preserved if we would build the right foundation for steady growth and future interest” (Zunker 3). After presenting the details of the plan, Hugman concluded by stating his idea was “not mere idealism” and asked for the room to “reflect a moment on its commercial aspect” (Zunker 5). The presentation resulted in the majority of the people hearing his plan pledging support (Crown 57).
Such support turned out to be temporary, when two weeks later, Hugman’s proposal was sidelined by plans for “a long-sought goal of progressive San Antonians—a comprehensive city plan” (Crown 57). Hugman learned that the River Walk would have to wait until the completion of flood control projects (Saving 194). In the meantime, the City Plan Committee hired Harland Bartholomew and Associates of St. Louis, who concluded that to follow through with Hugman’s plan would set all other city projects back six months (Crown 58). Further bleak news came with the stock market crash October 29, 1929 and the collapse of financing for the River Walk (Saving 194). Undaunted, Hugman continued to present his ideas during the Depression to the Conservation Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution and other groups in order to keep the River Walk proposal alive (Saving 194).
Hugman promoted his design through 1936, while Bartholomew and Associates developed its own plan, which stipulated that commercial activity stay at street level, with only landscaping enhancements on the riverbanks below (Crown 59). Bartholomew wanted Spanish-style shops like Hugman, but “these were not to disrupt the pastoral nature of the riverbanks” (Crown 60).
Then the crowds at the third Fiesta river parade in the spring of 1936 so impressed Plaza Hotel manager Jack White that he grew convinced that San Antonians had not lost their enthusiasm for the river (Crown 62). Believing that “Other cities can have beautiful parks, great zoos, magnificent stadiums and other attractions, but we know of no other city that has a beauty spot such as…the river, ” White organized riverside property owners (Crown 63). Their new San Antonio River Beautification Committee hired Robert Hugman and contracted with an engineer for surveys and drawings of the proposal (Crown 62). The committee came up with a plan for a $400,000 budget, then raised the money by the end of the year (Crown 63). On Friday, March 24, 1939, ten years after his initial meeting with Mayor Chambers, almost three hundred San Antonians assembled to watch the groundbreaking for the River Walk on the river level, near the Market Street bridge (Saving 195). Holding a golden shovel that day, Jack White declared, “Let us begin now to make San Antonio once again the first city in the state” (Saving 195).
Fisher, Lewis F. Crown Jewel of Texas: The Story of San Antonio’s River. San Antonio: Maverick Publishing Company, 1997.
Fisher, Lewis F. River Walk: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River (San Antonio: Maverick Publishing Company, 2006).
Fisher, Lewis F. Saving San Antonio: The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1996.
San Antonio River Walk. San Antonio River Walk History. 2006. 27 Nov 2006.
The Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. River Walk History. 26 Feb 1997. 25 Nov 2006.
Zunker, Vernon. A Dream Come True: Robert Hugman and San Antonio’s River Walk. San Antonio, Texas, 1983