by Frank W. Jennings
When the noted British travel writer Jan Morris visited San Antonio in 1983, she arrived during Fiesta Week and fell immediately under the spell of our enchanted city. “I was ushered into a dream,” she wrote after friends took her to “the great water parade…that meandered through that phantasmagoric gulley beneath our windows.” Later, her friends whisked her away to dine “at a club, which with its great white portico among the palm trees, seems to have been transported there from Calcutta, and as we walked across the lawn at the end of the day we saw a great gray armadillo, itself like some beast of the imagination, scuttling through the half-light into the shrubbery.”
The “Calcutta-like club” with its great white portico, is the Argyle Club at 934 Patterson Avenue, in Alamo Heights. Constructed in 1859 as headquarters for Charles Anderson’s 1400 acre horse ranch, the Southern Colonial style building has rock walls 18 inches thick, high ceilings and spacious verandas framed by tall white columns.
Originally from Kentucky, Anderson—whose brother commanded Fort Sumter at the outbreak of the Civil War—opposed Texas secession from the Union. On November 30, 1860, he stood up at an open air political meeting in Alamo Plaza in front of the Menger Hotel and delivered an impassioned speech for the Union. But his was a minority voice, and according to local legend, his friends rushed him into the Menger to escape the angry crowd. Soon after, he was detained briefly by members of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret secessionist organization, and persuaded to leave town. He moved with his family to Mexico and later sold his property to Hiram H. McLane. Anderson later went to the United States to join the Union Army, and after the war, served successively as governor of both Ohio and Kentucky.
His ranch stood unoccupied during much of the Civil War, although at one point, Confederate troops used it as a temporary arsenal. After the war, the McLane family began using more than a thousand acres of unfenced land around the property to raise fine horses. Their Circle Dot-branded mounts became famous among cavalrymen. Dividing his time between ranching and writing poetry, novels and plays, Hiram McLane and his family lived on the Argyle property for nearly thirty years. At times McLane tried to sell the ranch. For instance, his father, Col. William McLane advertised in the Express on March 2, 1866: “I will sell the prettiest and most pleasant residence in Texas, situated four miles north of San Antonio, comprising one hundred and twenty-eight acres of land with stone house sixty feet square, with eleven rooms, good cistern, stone corrals, 40 acres under fence, ten of which are rich bottom in cultivation.”
Finally, in 1890, the McLane family sold the property to the Chamberlain Investment Company of Denver, which employed R. R. Salter as the engineer to lay out a residential area for speculative purposes. W. J. S. Patterson was the president and general manager of Alamo Heights Land and Improvement Company -- and the namesake of Patterson Ave. Some also credit Patterson for the name of the Argyle, saying that the bluffs surrounding the mansion reminded him of Argyesville in Scotland.
Other sources, such as The Argyle Cook Book and Stagecoach Inns of Texas, say it was named by two Scotsmen who had bought the building, added a third floor and made it a hotel, which lasted only about two years. Shortly thereafter, the property was sold to the O’Grady family of Boerne.
The John G. O’Grady family, from Ireland, had operated a successful stage station and inn in Boerne on the old government road from San Antonio to Fort Concho, near San Angelo. The eight O’Grady children helped operate the house, but by the early 1890s, after their parents died, the heirs decided to buy the Argyle Hotel in San Antonio.
On St. Patrick’s Day, 1893, they opened under the management of Robert E. (“Mr. Bob”) and “Miss Alice” O’Grady. Miss Alice, often praised as a “culinary genius,” had learned her cooking from her mother, an accomplished cook, and for years her avocation was collecting and testing recipes from favorites of anyone whose good cooking she’d heard about, including Argyle guests. She was noted for her sauces, the mark of an inspired cook, while the variety of offerings on her menu at each meal dazzled diners. Over the years, many came to call the Argyle, “Miss O’Grady’s Inn.”
Her artistically decorated and deliciously moist wedding cakes were believed by some San Antonio brides to be the kind that no woman could be properly married without. Sometimes, according to Ella Daggett Stumpf, “these cakes journeyed to distant cities, traveling in the center of a sheet-draped Pullman berth.”
A frequent visitor to the Argyle recalled that, “Miss Alice believed that people should not eat alone, and allowed only long tables to be set in the large ground-floor dining room. In summer, the old-fashioned dinner bell called guests in from the breezy ground floor loggia, and in the winter, the huge reception hall upstairs or the informal downstairs dining room. Miss Alice’s friends greeted her in the kitchen area, where she was always to be found, tasting, seasoning, supervising.”
Her head chef, an African American named George Bannister, was a favorite among patrons for more than 30 years. (See George’s Oyster Soup recipe at the end of the article.)
With Bannister’s expertise, and Miss Alice’s inspiration, The Argyle became famous for its extraordinary cuisine, antique silver, fine china, splendid furniture and warm hospitality. Carved wooden chests and canopied beds created a colonial atmosphere that attracted many famous visitors, who came to dine or to briefly stay whenever they could. In 1924, the Argyle was the period-piece setting for the silent motion picture, “The Warrens of Virginia.”
Miss Alice and Bob O’Grady operated the Argyle for nearly a half century, until Alice became ill and died. In 1940, the O’Grady family sold the property. Bob O’Grady was elected the first mayor of Alamo Heights and served for seventeen years.
The Argyle became a rooming house for a short time before closing, and then the old mansion seemed to pale and slump into its surrounding overgrown lawns and gardens. In 1943 Miss Lucy White acquired the mansion and kept it until 1955, when it was purchased by the Southwest Foundation for Research and Education, now the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research. Harold Vagtborg writes in The Story of Southwest Research Center that “it was decided that it should be used as a private social club, with dues used to help support the Foundation. A membership association was formed, and 600 carefully selected individuals were invited to join the Argyle.” Today, it maintains the kind of haven for fine dining and warm hospitality that Miss Alice loved and that a famed British travel writer remembered as an exotic place transported from another enchanting world.
Drain 1 quart of oysters, season with salt, pepper and a bay leaf; add 1 quart white stock and cook 15 minutes. Fry 1 large onion in butter, add 1 tablespoon flour and fry till brown; add 1 quart sweet milk, pre-heated, and bits of parsley. To this add the oyster mixture and serve at once, very hot. Serves 15 to 20.
Daggett, Ella K. "Famous Contemporaries: The Argyle and the Menger," Southern Home and Garden, September 1941.
Hagner, Lillie May, Alluring San Antonio (San Antonio: Naylor, 1940).
Carter, Kathryn Turner, Stagecoach Inns of Texas (Waco: Texian Press, 1972).
O'Grady, Alice, The Argyle Cook Book (San Antonio: Naylor, 1941).
San Antonio Daily Express, February 14, 1907