Wednesday, July 30, 2014

SAN ANTONIO: IN SEARCH OF HISTORY

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.

When I had a break, I often stood on my balcony overlooking the riverwalk. Here is one of the photos I took from my balcony. No matter the time of day, a constant array of boats—literally jam-packed with people—pulled through the narrow water toward a variety of noisy restaurants and shops. And next door was a huge shopping mall, with still more noise. Ugh. This wasn’t the San Antonio I remembered. Where were the whispers of the past that always beckon to me in a historic place? And then it happened.

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.

The next morning, I did just that. I walked to Alamo Plaza, intent on seeing the Alamo again. In fact, I took lots of photos and was going to write about it today. But another Sweetheart who also attended the same conference has already posted about it. And that’s fine. I am glad she enjoyed it. To be honest, my visit to the Alamo this trip was strangely upsetting, and I still haven’t gotten over it.

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

The Menger Hotel was built by William A. Menger in 1859. Mr. Menger arrived in Texas from Germany in 1847. His future wife, Mary Guenther came in 1846 with her first husband. Six weeks after their arrival, however, Mary’s husband died. Alone in a new country, she opened a boarding house at the corner of Commerce and St. Mary’s Street. And one of her boarders was William Menger.

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.

Victorian Lobby

Situated outside the Colonial Room Restaurant, the beautiful three-story Victorian Lobby is the original lobby of the hotel. Oval in design, Mr. Giles transformed the lobby's iron columns into eight Corinthian columns, and added a skylight of leaded glass.

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.

Throughout the Victorian Lobby are also a collection of beautiful antiques (furniture and paintings) purchased by William Menger in the 1860s.

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.

Among the celebrities who have dined there are: Presidents Grant and McKinley, General Robert E. Lee, and even French actress Sarah Bernhardt.

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.

True to its design and traditions, even on a hot Texas summer day in the 21st century, entering the Menger Bar feels like going back in time. It is a very masculine looking tap room. On the day I took these photos, it was still early and empty. Still, (especially if you have an imagination like mine) you can almost hear the murmuring of male voices from long ago and smell the hint of ghostly cigars.

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.

Just outside The Menger Bar, the hotel features an impressive mini-museum display showcasing information about the Rough Riders as well as artifacts.

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!

The Garden

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.

An interesting character that loved to walk about The Menger's garden was none other than English writer, Oscar Wilde.

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.

I could go on and on about the wonderful things you might see at The Menger Hotel, and the interesting and beautiful history that this hotel preserves. It truly is one of my favorite historic hotels, one that not only embraces its past but keeps its history alive by sharing that history. The staff is wonderful. The accommodations are excellent. And the food is absolutely delicious.

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.

Thank you for visiting today. I hope you enjoyed my post and the photographs. And if you are ever in San Antonio, stay at The Menger Hotel. Then, you can also watch the sunrise over the Alamo or walk outside and see it beneath a quiet, starry Texas sky. And when you do, please say a prayer for those who fought and died there. Remember, it's hallowed ground. Thanks. ~ AKB

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.

16 comments:

  1. Ashley--were tourists taking Selfies at the Alamo, and maybe even inside?
    I read an article this week about a young woman who had taken silly goofy Selfies at Auschwitz, and it went viral. She received many notes of condemnation, but she was not deterred. She saw nothing wrong with that.
    When Jim and I toured Auschwitz, I had to leave because I was bawling my eyes out. No photos inside, the guide said emphatically, yet every time she turned her back, one man took photo after photo. My husband confronted him--Oh, Lord, I wish he hadn't--but the man yelled at him in front of our crowd that he was not Jewish and did not have to be respectful to a bunch of dead Jews. This was a grown man!
    Our population is failing to pay respect in proper places. But it's not just recent. In the 80s, I acted as a sponsor to our choir from San Marcos Academy, a military boarding school, co-ed,for Middle School and High School students. Lt. Col. Rogers, the commandant, came to us straight from the Pentagon, and he arranged a wonderful trip for our 40 members choir to tour Washington D.C. The boys could not wear cowboy boots or hats, and when we visited national monuments and toured any site, they wore their military uniforms and the girls wore their school uniforms. They were admonished to always be respectful. And they were--and often were the only ones.
    At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, our kids, boys and girls, stood very still and reverent, while adults all around laughed and talked and took photos--while we watched the guards do their rounds. Clearly, the sign says to remain silent.
    When we filed past JFKs gravesite with the eternal flame, again, our kids obeyed our rules...but many other visitors were just having a high old time.
    I'm glad you did find a respite on your own for peace and quiet.
    I always love your posts. Thanks.

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  2. I lived in Texas for a little over a year. My husband and I visited every place we could get to in the time we had. San Antonio was one of my favorite places to visit. I felt as you did, that the Alamo was a sacred place where lives were lost for the sake of Texas. What a thrill it was to see Bowie's famous two-edged knife. There it lay in that glass case and I connected emotionally with that place and time. But that took place back in 1970. I'm certain things have changed. I'm dismayed to hear that people have become so irreverent of such an important historical place now.
    I enjoyed your fantastic pictures of the Menger Hotel. The stained glass sky light is fantastic and the history of the hotel was so amazing and interesting. Thank you so much for this wonderful blog, Ashley.

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  3. Wow, Celia. I am appalled at what happened on your visit to Auschwitz. What is wrong with people? Why did he even go there if he had no compassion or understanding of what transpired there? And if he didn't know beforehand, one would think what he learned would have generated some measure of sympathy.

    What I encountered at the Alamo was loud, disrespectful and (at times) vulgar language and behavior. There were people taken photos (selfies) where they were making rude gestures and behaving like everything was a joke. I actually have no problem with selfies, as long as people are respectful and photography is allowed. Some people may be traveling alone, or want to take a photo together with a friend to remember the visit.

    I don't know if it is the fact they didn't "get" what happened during that 13-day siege in 1836, but there was certainly enough information there to educate them. It was like a loud circus, and the noise generating from across the street reminded me of a fair midway. Sad. If we don't show our children by example how to behave and appreciate the history of this country -- or any country -- we have learned nothing. We are all part of history, and I feel should learn from it and preserve the legacy and especially respect the sacrifices others made for our freedom. Okay, end of rant. But you understand. Thank you.

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  4. Great post, Ashley. I would have loved to be with you as you experienced the historical relevance of such amazing places. Sad how society has changed.

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  5. Thank you for your comment, Sarah. The first time I visited the Alamo was in the early 70s, and you just knew you had entered a sacred place. A place of remembrance. But over the years I have gone many times back to the Alamo with my children, and just never saw behavior like this. My youngest son was with me, and he was appalled, too. People don't realize the magnitude of love and pride we have in Texas. School children are taught the "Honor the Texas flag" pledge and recite it after they say the Pledge of Allegiance. So visiting the cradle of liberty for Texas is not a joke.

    It did make me very happy to visit The Menger again, to dine in The Colonial Room, sit in the garden and reflect, and appreciate the care and history the hotel retains. I highly recommend - the next time you are in San Antonio - that you stay or visit The Menger Hotel. I know I won't ever stay anywhere else in the future. :)

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  6. Hi Amber - Oh, I wish you had been with me. And yes, it is sad the lack of manners and respect many people have today. The big video game out now is called 'The Last Of Us', so popular that it is being made into a film. What people don't realize is life isn't a game. And if we don't start showing respect and compassion for who we are as individuals and as a united people, what will become of us and our legacy for the future? Okay, enough preaching. Get me started on something, and, well, you know... ((hugs))

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  7. Ashley, lovely post. I haven't yet stayed at the Menger, but my youngest daughter always stays there when she goes to San Antonio. Valuing history is important for any age person from toddler to elderly.

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    1. Thank you, Carolyn. You need to go with your daughter some time. You would love, it.

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  8. Wonderful post, Ashley. Love your photos and the history. I've been to San Antonio and the Alamo several times. It never ceases to move me. I agree, some of the surroundings are very inappropriate. I guess I was lucky, though, for I never encountered the kind of disrespect you did in the shrine itself. So sad that people have to behave like that.

    A couple years ago I wrote a blog about the Menger Hotel, for a different site, I think. It's a gorgeous, history-laden place. Did you know it's supposed to be haunted by several different ghosts? One is Teddy Roosevelt, who has reportedly been seen in the Menger Bar where he recruited those Rough Riders. Another is a maid who died in the hotel, killed by her husband, if I recall correctly.

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    1. Actually, Lyn, I encountered a ghost there with my boys several years ago. I asked to stay in the original part of the hotel because I heard it was haunted. We went on a ghost hunt looking for cold spots. Later that night we were watching tv in my room. One son was asleep in the other room of our suite. So it was me, and my other 2 sons. We were talking about how much we liked the hotel, but wished a ghost would visit. Suddenly the volume on the tv went up, up, up. No one was near the tv and the remote was on the table beside me. We started laughing and said thank you. And the volume went back down. We were stunned, but it was very cool. Haha

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  9. Great post, Ashley. I love The Menger...it's haunted! I think you hit the nail, things are different when you are beset with a massive conference, and summertime full of tourists. (I personalty get very overwhelmed at RWA nationals.) I wonder if first-timers to SA for RWA felt the same as you did. I went by myself after a publisher retreat in Bandera, and SA has become one of those special places in my heart. Maybe it's best I signed up too late for RWA this year and didn't get to go.

    The fact that people don't recognize the Alamo as a sacred place is such a frightening snapshot of our culture. Sheesh.

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    1. Hi Tanya - Yep, it is haunted, but in a good way, I think. Big conferences can always be a bit overwhelming moreso for First Timers. I found it really ridiculous to have it at two hotels, and make people have to cross busy streets at all hours. Some attendees are handicapped or have mobility issues. And these Marriotts were a bad venue. Lots of guest room problems, meeting room problens and confusion. I had to move to another room, and that room had problems, too. Outlets that didn't work. Internet problems and electronic incompatability. Bad beds. Food was blah and overpriced. Everything was overpriced for the mediocre quality of the hotel. An electrician for the hotel said they were remodeling in September. The hotel was very 80s. RWA must have a special contract with Marriotts, but they should re-evaluate. Any time I have attended a conference at a Marriott, ithe hotel "sucked". LOL. Never again. I will say the staff was very nice, and you could tell were embarassed by certain conditions of the hotel.

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  10. Ashley--me again. We've traveled quite a lot for years..I've found that when people are together in some kind of group, they tend to be rowdier. At the Alamo, you may have encountered a high school group on a school trip/holiday. That's what it sounds like. If not, and if they were adults, then more shame on them.
    Even in Washington D.C. at memorials,etc. people were talking and laughing when they shouldn't.
    But at the Vietnam memorial? I couldn't believe the silence, and excuse me...but dead silence. The memorial itself brings on a quietness--very odd, but the farther you walk down that slope along the wall, the quieter it becomes. People were very reverent there. I'm still trying to figure out why Vietnam, but not most of the other memorials.
    At one memorial dedicated to WWII nurses, I boldly pulled two children off it--they climbed on it and played tag. Many adults around, but no one stopped them. With my school teacher voice, I did, though. It does come in handy at times!

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    1. Climbing over monuments? Glad you used your teacher voice. The problem I saw at the Alamo were families with young parents, and 20 something kids. No school trips. Just people on vacation, rowdy, vulgar, and disrespectful. And parents who behaved worse than their children. Sad, but true.

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  11. I loved your tour through the hotel and your photos are great. Glad I had the time to read through your accounting of this beautiful place. Isn't it amazing that it has stayed in business for all of these years. Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Paisley. Sorry the post was so long, but I am glad you enjoyed it. :)

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