By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
I haven’t been to San Antonio in years, but each time I return the feeling of stepping back into the past pulls like a tether to my heart. Maybe it’s a Texan thing. But if you read my posts (or my books), you know that I love history and often wish I could time travel to the past. I thrive on research, like a detective on a fascinating case. I seek out historic sites wherever I am, and (whenever possible) try to stay at historic hotels. It may sound funny, but I always ask about ghosts. And I always listen for echoes of the past that might still linger.
This year, however, it seemed as if San Antonio's history wasn’t speaking to me. Then again, maybe I was too busy to hear it. First off, I was attending a huge writers’ conference with a busy schedule of workshops that had me walking all day and into the evening, back and forth between two modern, high-rise Marriott Hotels. All around me there was noisy traffic, lots of writers, lots of tourists, triple-digit temps, and a level of humidity that I haven’t encountered in a long time. For anyone with asthma or respiratory problems, it can be exhausting to just breathe.
I was walking back to my hotel very late one night (wearing a Regency period gown no less). There was no one else around except a patrol car in the distance. I pushed the button for pedestrians at the crosswalk. As I waited for the ‘walk’ signal to flash, this loud voice suddenly said, “wait, wait, wait…” No, it wasn’t a ghost. It was an automated male voice connected to the light, making sure pedestrians didn’t step into the street until the right moment. But for me, it said more than when to walk.
Truth is, sometimes you just have to hit the pause control. Stop whatever you are doing and breathe. Take a moment to embrace where you are, and its history.
San Antonio is a beautiful city with lots to offer. But for me (as a Texan) to stand outside the Alamo and see people behaving badly, not getting how important (even sacred) the site is to Texas, was disheartening. I understand that people want to have fun on vacation and ‘see the sights’. However, the Alamo is not a tourist attraction – not to me. It is a historical site, a battlefield where lives were lost, and is preserved as a monument to their memory. I cannot express adequately what it felt like to look across the street from the Alamo and see over-the-top, excessively loud, tourist traps like Ripley's Believe It or Not hawking their collection of oddities, a wax museum, mirrored fun house, and electronic arcades blaring across the street. The carnival-type atmosphere was just too much.
I needed quiet, a place that not only remembered the past, but respected its legacy. Fortunately, that place sits rather protectively on my side of the street, right next to the Alamo. So, today, I am going to talk about one of my favorite places to visit (and stay) when in San Antonio.
The Menger Hotel
William and Mary were married in 1851 and together operated the boarding house. They relocated to Alamo Plaza in 1855. William also established a brewery, which became a great success. Because of their entrepreneurial efforts, The Menger Hotel was founded in 1859 and remains 155 years later as fine and respectable an establishment as it was when William and Mary opened its doors.
Constructed as a two-story, 50-room hotel, The Menger became so popular that a three-story addition was quickly built directly behind it. Today, the original two-story limestone building can be seen at the southwest corner (or right) side of the hotel. Its classical design was created by John Fries, the highly respected architect who repaired the shattered ruins of the Alamo in 1850.
In the above photo, you can see the glazed, iron canopy supported on iron columns that forms a balcony for the second floor. The railings are original and date back to 1869. In 1909, architect Alfred Giles was contracted to handle the hotel's remodeling project. At that time, the awnings (pictured) replaced shutters that had provided shade over windows facing the west. Mr. Giles is also credited with creating the more neoclassical look to the hotel that remains today, including the beautiful Victorian Lobby.
The lobby’s once cast iron columns are now enclosed in plaster, and styled in such a way to appear marble. Additional columns were also added to better complement the design. Each column is ornamented with garlands, festoons, and modillions that have been painted to resemble stone. The wrought iron in this lobby is original to the hotel.
Just off this lobby, is the hotel’s famed Colonial Room Restaurant. An immediate addition to the original hotel, it was remodeled in 1912 by architect Atlee B. Ayres. At that time, the cast iron columns that once graced the restaurant were enclosed by wooden ones, and feature beautifully detailed millwork and carvings.
An interesting fact is that the Colonial Room Restaurant (pictured below) has been in continuous operation since it first opened.
Many of the restaurant’s original chefs came from Europe. As a result, by the late 1860s, the hotel had already garnered a reputation for its culinary excellence.
I highly recommend the Shrimp and Crab Martini appetizer, as well as the Filet with Bernaise Sauce, served with a perfectly baked potato wrapped in puff pastry. And you cannot dine there without having the famous mango ice cream, so exceptional it has been on the menu for over a hundred years.
The Menger Bar (pictured below) is one of my favorite spots in the hotel. After William A. Menger died in March 1871, the family eventually sold the hotel in 1881 to Major J.H. Kampmann. In 1887, the Major decided a “new tap room should be built within the hotel as a replica of the House of Lords Pub in London". Clearly that pub made quite an impression on the Major. He even sent his architect to London to personally study the pub in order that its design could be perfectly copied. At an extravagant cost of $60,000, a paneled cherrywood ceiling and cherrywood booths were installed, as well as beveled mirrors and decorated glass cabinets from France.
I should point out that The Menger Bar still serves mint juleps in silver tumblers during hot weather, and hot rum toddies during the winter. Isn't that worth a visit?
And it was in this bar that Teddy Roosevelt recruited many of his Rough Riders. Roosevelt first visited The Menger Hotel in 1892 while on a hunting trip. He returned in 1898 with Colonel Leonard Wood to organize the first US Volunteer Cavalry to fight in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
Walking toward the Main Lobby, I also enjoyed seeing the bank of polished wooden phone booths. Remember when you could phone someone in private and didn't have to listen to other people's conversations while they yell into a cell phone? Even the house phone situated on a hall table is an antique corded phone -- which I love. Yes, a real phone!
Whether you are seated in the Main Lobby of the hotel or dining in the Colonial Room Restaurant, you will have a beautiful view of the hotel’s courtyard-style tropical garden. In the 17th century, Franciscan fathers dug five irrigation ditches in San Antonio. One of these ditches ran through the Menger garden and connected the Alamo to Mission San Jose.
Today, beautiful palm, mango, and banana trees stand tall amidst a lush array of greenery in The Menger garden. For someone who wanted to get away from crowds of people and the carnival atmosphere across the street, walking about this garden and admiring the flora and fauna was truly an oasis.
While traveling through the United States on a lecture tour in 1882, Wilde stayed at the hotel. Well, don't you know gossip ensued about how he strolled about with a spiked lemonade in one hand and a long, foreign cigarette in the other. Imagine seeing him walking toward you wearing slippers with silver buckles, scarlet stockings, knee-length trousers, and a lace-frilled black velvet coat. Apparently, he talked about Decorative Art in his lectures, but his attire sounds more appropriate for a Shakespearean performance. But I digress...
In addition to a lovely fountain and various historical plaques in the garden, there is a marker for the Chisholm Trail. The marker commemorates the history of the cattle drives and Texas ranchers who frequented The Menger Hotel. Between 6 and 10 million cattle and a million mustangs were driven along this trail that began south of San Antonio and ended in Wichita, Kansas.
On a personal note, I think it is so important to preserve history. To educate children and visitors to our cities or countries about the past and the significance of a specific place. We all lead such hurried lives, and it seems at times the noise level escalates the busier our lives become.
You may not have a voice telling you to ‘wait’ at a crosswalk, but sometimes we all need to remind ourselves to stop, or just press the pause control on your life for a few moments. Breathe. Put down the iPhone and talk to someone in person. Look up, not down all the time. Encourage your children to turn off the video game and go outside for a while. Write a letter instead of texting. Embrace your life, your history, and the people around you. Go to the library and read about the origin of your town. Visit your local historical society or museum. Share history, whether it is a family recipe or who made the quilt that has been passed down from generations.
Ashley Kath-Bilsky is a best-selling, award-winning author of Historical Romance with Mystery, Suspense and/or Paranormal elements. She also writes Gothic Historical Young Adult and New Adult fiction. To learn more about Ashley and her work, please visit her website at: www.ashleykathbisky.com.