San Antonio’s River Walk is an icon second only to the Alamo. Yet the origins of the River Walk and the driving forces behind its creation remain unknown to most locals and visitors alike. That will change if a partnership between the Paseo del Rio Association, Power of Preservation Foundation, and the local chapter of American Institute of Architects succeeds with the installation of a tribute to the “River Walk’s Father,” the late architect Robert H.H. Hugman.
This Thursday at 5:30 p.m., the Hyatt Regency on the River Walk will host a fundraiser for the creation and installation of a bronze bust of Hugman. Once completed, the bust will be placed at the bottom of the west staircase leading down from Commerce Street between Casa Rio and the Republic of Texas restaurants. Tickets to the event are $50, which includes appetizers and drinks. Individuals and organizations that donate $1,000 or more will have their names listed on the memorial, alongside bronze plaques that tell the Hugman story.
Click here to RSVP and/or donate to the project.
Nancy Hunt, executive director of the Paseo del Rio Association, said the bust project will cost an estimated $36-38,000. The partnership has a fundraising goal of $60,000, with any unused funds going to establish an architectural scholarship in Hugman’s name. As of March 1, a total of $25,000 has been raised, and the project received approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission, Hunt said, as well as endorsements from the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Conservation Society.
“If approved by City Council (during the anticipated May 21 meeting), they could probably install the bust the day after,” Hunt said.
After a series of floods in the late 1910s and the infamous, deadly flood in 1921 that killed 50 people, the City considered plans to pave over the river bend to create a storm drain. Fortunately for San Antonio, there wasn’t enough funding to proceed with the plan.
The Olmos Dam was completed to help manage flood waters and three years later in 1929, with the support of the Conservation Society, Hugman proposed “The Shops of Romula and Aragon,” named for the cities of Old Spain, that would ultimately become the River Walk.
Due to limited funding, only the earthen-lined bypass was built. Seven years later, in 1938, the Works Progress Administration and hotel owner Jack White (of the Plaza Hotel, now Granada Homes apartments) provided the funding for the pedestrian paths and bridges were funded. Construction broke ground on March 25, 1939.
“The River Walk is really a series of courtyards,” Hunt said of Hugman’s design. “He used the natural curve of river to make it feel like you’re moving into different sections.”
The River Walk has created a tiered experience for downtown living – there are balcony levels above the street, street level, and then the river level, she said. “And when you walk down the stairs, you’re in a different space, away from all the noise on street level. It’s an oasis in the middle of downtown. That’s what (Hugman) envisioned.”
But in 1940, Hugman was fired due to “disputes over landscaping and local politics,” according to the University of Texas at Austin Architecture and Planning Library. He was replaced by local architect J. Fred Buenz, who saw the River Walk to its completion in March 1941.
Before his death in 1980, Hugman was recognized with a set of commemorative bells at the Arneson River Theatre, which was in his original plan, but was passed over when he was fired.
Four years after his death, Hugman was honored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for his achievements and the AIA declared the River Walk as “America?s Finest Example of Urban Design” in 1999.
More than 50 plaques can be found on the River Walk today in honor of Hugman’s original design, including several close to the intersection of Commerce Street and the River Walk where his bust will be installed.
“By creating this tribute to Hugman we’re working on the preservation side of our mission,” Hunt said of the Paseo del Rio’s goals to promote, protect and preserve the River Walk. “So people understand (the River Walk) didn’t just happen. Obviously Hugman was a genius way ahead of his time.”
*Featured/top image: The nearly two-mile long landscaped walkway along the San Antonio River included dozens of stairways and bridges, allowing for both flood prevention and enormously successful commercial development. Photo courtesy UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures.