Alfred Giles, an Englishman in San Antonio - Journal of San Antonio

An Englishman in San Antonio

When Richard Harding Davis visited San Antonio in 1891, he said there were a number of ranches in the area owned by Englishmen. He was impressed by the ranch near Comfort owned by the well-known architect Alfred Giles—a ranch, he said, “which marks the exception in the rule of failures of our English cousins.” He said:

It covers about thirteen thousand acres, and a very fine breed of polled Angus cattle are bred on it. Indeed, the tendency all over Texas at present is to cultivate certain well-known breeds, and not, as formerly, to be content with the famous long-horned steer and the Texas pony. Mr. Giles’s ranch, the Hillingdon, looks in the summer, when the imported Scotch cattle are grazing over it, like a bit of the Lake country. Walnut, cherry, ash, and oak grow on this ranch, and the maidenhair fern is everywhere, and the flowers are boundless in profusion and variety. [West From Car Window, 135].

Livestock from Hillingdon Ranch won many prizes at the San Antonio Fair and Great International Exposition held annually for thirty years, beginning in 1888. In 1904, some of the Giles Aberdeen Angus cattle won fifteen blue ribbons. He was one of the founders of the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Association and a member of the Texas Cattle Raisers Association [Alfred Giles, Mary C. H. Jutson].

Although architect Giles spent a great deal of time in San Antonio and other cities, he continued to live at his ranch near Comfort. At various times he rode to Comfort on horseback or by carriage. From Comfort he’d take the Guadalupe Stage Line to Boerne, where the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad would take him to San Antonio. Often, he’d take two homing pigeons with him. He’d release one to reassure his wife of his safe arrival and to carry to her a message of city news. He used the second carrier pigeon to announce his plans for return.

Giles, who became one of the most admired and successful architects in Texas, had been educated in England and got his start in Texas by working for three years for the San Antonio contractor John H. Kampmann. He launched his own firm in 1876. In 1881, he married Annie Laurie James, daughter of the Surveyor of Bexar County, the English-born John James. Before he died in 1920, Giles designed more than 90 buildings in Texas and Mexico, many of which survived over 100 years. There were hospitals, schools and residences. There were courthouses or jails in San Antonio, Kerrville, Bandera, Fredricksburg, Seguin, Floresville, Marfa, El Paso, Junction, and Boerne. There were banks and stores in Texas and Mexico.

Among the Giles the important local buildings are the Mother House and Convent at Incarnate Word College in San Antonio; Daniel Sullivan’s Stable and Coach House at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens; the 1909 addition to the Menger Hotel; the Steves Homestead in the King William district; and, at Fort

Sam Houston, the Infantry Post Barracks, Officers’ Quarters, Staff Post; and Commanding General’s Quarters. For 37 years, the most spectacular Giles building, the towering Municipal Market House at El Mercado, added a gay pavilion look to the enchanting San Antonio skyline with its turreted City Hall and Court House and the domed sacristy of the cathedral. Built in 1900, the Market House had two high—ceilinged floors, 278 feet long and 72 feet, wide, topped by a large decorative cupola and spire. The building was designed to serve not only as a market house for fresh farm products, but its second floor auditorium could seat 5,000 people. It offered space for conventions and social functions and use as an armory where “volunteer or militia bodies might drill or when uniformed ranks of secret societies might likewise drill.” [Alfred Giles, Mary C. H. Jutson]

--Frank W. Jennings, 1992