Hard Hat Tour: ‘The Pit’ of Historic Joske’s Building

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Centro San Antonio tour guests explore the Joske's construction site. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

Centro San Antonio tour guests explore the Joske's construction site. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

With then Mayor Henry Cisneros driving the project, the Rivercenter Mall was built around a lagoon on the river extension under the slogan, “Just Add Water.”

Today, visitors can amble back and forth between the Alamo and the mall, enjoy an ice cream cone, listen to Peruvian pipes, stay at the nearby historic Menger Hotel, and enjoy the scenery.

What has become of the famous Joske’s building amid all this activity?

The flagship store at the corner of Alamo and Commerce streets has hosted many retail stores over the years, and a developer is working to bring retail activity back. Construction crews have removed the roof and hollowed out the inside, leaving only the exterior walls intact.

San Antonio Light Collection, L-5058. Santa descending from atop Joske's department store building. Circa mid 1950s. Courtesy of Hearst Corp. to UTSA's Institute of Texan Cultures

Santa descending from atop Joske’s department store building. Circa mid 1950s. UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures San Antonio Light Collection, L-5058. Courtesy of Hearst Corp.

Youth living in San Antonio today may have memories of grandparents who worked at Joske’s. Natives and first-time guests to the city conjure up memories of holiday visits to the store in the 1960s, when a 30-foot tall Santa Claus waved his hand and greeted customers as they entered the Christmas Fantasyland.

A few blocks south, the Institute of Texan Cultures has hosted photo exhibits revisiting the celebrations of yesteryear.

The famed store’s founder was Julius Joske who, according to the Texas State Historical Association, immigrated to Texas from Germany in 1867 and chose San Antonio as his home because of its access to Texas military installations, Native American areas, and Mexico.

In 1878, he expanded his space to include women’s merchandise and in 1887 it moved from a small adobe house at Main Plaza to Alamo and Commerce Streets where the owner began offering custom-made women’s dresses, customer service departments, delivery services and promotions, the association recorded.

Under new leadership, the store eventually became the first *completely air-conditioned store in Texas and the site of many groundbreaking advertising campaigns. By the time it was a chain of 27 outlets in Texas, Joske’s was sponsoring radio and TV shows, hosting beauty pageants, art shows, charity benefits, and more.

A truck exits the Joske's construction site onto Alamo and Commerce Streets. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

A truck exits the Joske’s construction site onto Alamo and Commerce Streets. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

Shortly after Joske’s closed the building for remodeling in 1987, Dillard’s department stores acquired the space, and the structure was divided up to suit different retail outlets, including AMC movie theater, with Dillard’s occupying only a small portion.

Now, the New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which owns Rivercenter Mall, is bringing a new batch of retail outlets to the historic venue.

On Tuesday night, Centro San Antonio hosted a hardhat tour of the Joske’s building to show guests the demolition of the old frame and plan for construction of new concrete piers to support several floors of restaurants and shops including H&M clothing store and Johnny Rockets, the “all-American hamburger” chain.

Rendering of the future Joske's building. Image courtesy of SA Partnership.

Rendering of the future Joske’s building. Image courtesy of SA Partnership.

Between 12 and 20 tenants will move into the new retail spaces in by June 4, 2015, the grand opening date.

Part of the renovation involves bringing back old elements of the building including concrete structures and flooring built in the 1930s and 1950s, the brick outer wall along Alamo Street, and antique pivot doors. Longleaf pine joists, supports for ceilings and floors, discovered by construction crews in Joske’s will be used in the nearby $11 million Bexar County Courthouse renovation project.

“We reclaimed as much as we could – Joske’s went from a two-story to a four-story structure between the late 1880s and the 1950s,” said Rivercenter Mall General Manager Chris Oviatt. “The existing mall is bordered by Alamo, Commerce and Blum streets.”

Tenants will have eight feet of awning space, he said. A modern mall that Ashkenazy Corp. hopes will attraction even more national brands to Joske’s

Rivercenter Mall General Manager Chris Oviatt (center) speaks with Centro San Antonio tour guests in the Joske's construction site.

Rivercenter Mall General Manager Chris Oviatt (center) speaks with Centro San Antonio tour guests in the Joske’s construction site. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

The hardhat tour, which coincided with a monthly event for Centro San Antonio members, drew several businessmen and women, including one from an Eastside brewery and an historic downtown hotel.

William Brendel, the executive assistant general manager of the Menger Hotel, said he was looking forward to seeing the project completed.

“It’s been six years since this area under renovation has been occupied – it was a big loss when Dillard’s left, because they were an anchor tenant at the most traveled part of the (Alamo) Plaza,” he said.

He said many tourists, locals and children travel through Rivercenter Mall and that many hotel guests shop there.

“People have many choices in hotels, restaurants and stores in shopping downtown, and there is a niche of the traveling public that’s interested in history,” he said. “I think this will be a win-win for San Antonio, and in drawing retailers and vendors that are not already in this area.”

Rivercenter Mall General Manager Chris Oviatt calls the cavernous demolition site, "the pit." Photo by Katherine Nickas.

Rivercenter Mall General Manager Chris Oviatt calls the cavernous demolition site, “the pit.” Photo by Katherine Nickas.

Featured/top image:Centro San Antonio tour guests explore the Joske’s construction site. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

*Correction: As reader Garl B. Latham pointed out in the comments below, technically Joske’s was the first building to be entirely air-conditioned. “Dallas’ Neiman-Marcus had already air-conditioned portions of their store five years prior to Joske’s installation.”

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8 thoughts on “Hard Hat Tour: ‘The Pit’ of Historic Joske’s Building

  1. The article mentions “bringing back old elements of the building including . . . the brick outer wall along Alamo Street” the the mockup doesn’t look historical at all. Do we have any idea whether they are going to keep the eight historical Rose Windows? I think it would be a terrible shame to lose them.

  2. Joske’s flagship location wasn’t exactly “the first air-conditioned store in Texas”; rather, it was the first fully air-conditioned department store in Texas.

    Dallas’ Neiman-Marcus had already air-conditioned portions of their store five years prior to Joske’s installation (1931 versus ’36).

    Garl B. Latham

  3. I assume that the fantastic facade along Commerce is what they are referring to to restore. There, there is the real building behind the 1968 fiberglass patch that they created for Hemisfair to make it look nice quickly for that venue. Behind the facade that looks like the Alamo Street facade is a wonderful old facade of double hung windows and brick detailing. I have been in that eight foot wide space between the real building and the false facade. Everyone needs to know how special this side is. It would be amazing to see this once again, restored.

  4. Wow. Thanks for the update on the developments at Rivercenter and with the old Joske’s building. I’m excited for the changes.

  5. What would be fascinating would be to have Architect and Alfred Giles aficionado, Richard MyCue tell us the history of the Alfred Giles Design, which is the red brick underneath the later Leo Dielmann facade. No one seems to be telling that part of the story,). And that’s a really good thing to explain! Billy Lawrence, you probably know the history of the layers of the ‘real building behind the 1968 patch’;)

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