It’s not every day you get to experience life outside of the present. Sometimes basking in the beauty and reality of the past, especially when it is unfamiliar, is fun – if not necessary – for an appreciation of a city’s history. That is what Hot Wells Conservancy, established in 2013, is trying to do for the ruins of the Hot Wells Hotel and Spa.
“This has been a 12-year process and this is the year it has finally really come together,” said Justin Parr, local artist and caretaker of the of the historical site that smells of sulfur and has intrigued passersby for years.
Fresh off the success of last month’s Harvest Feast, a dinner featuring leading San Antonio chefs benefitting the conservation of the former bath house and spa, Hot Wells is just getting started. Despite sharing a date with the downtown River Parade for the 2014 NBA champs, the San Antonio Spurs, the second year of Harvest Feast was much more successful than either Parr or any of the HWC board members could have imagined.
“We sold close to 500 tickets this year and the majority of it went straight to the Conservancy,” Parr said. “We didn’t even think close to 500 people would show up or have an interest.”
Harvest Feast’s first year featured 10 chefs, 11 courses and an elite list of invitation-only guests. This year, Harvest Feast was open to the public. The Feast was eight courses and in its second year, only attracted more interest to the mysterious site.
“We definitely have plans to do it again. The Feast will only get better every year,” Parr said.
The idea for Harvest Feast came while Parr and a few guests were wandering the Hot Wells gardens one night.
“Robbie Nolan and I were walking around the grounds, and we got the idea of putting on a dinner using foods from the gardens and different chefs from around the city,” he said. “There happened to be four chefs with us, too, so we started jotting down ideas for this huge meal.”
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Hot Wells was a spa and resort facility specializing in health and wellness. Built in 1893, the bathing pavilion contained three sulphur pools, believed to be the ultimate cure for just about everything.
The luxury site has a tumultuous history with fire. In 1894, the original site structure burned after only one year of operation. The replacement, a Victorian-style structure built in 1900, became a hot spot for celebrities such as Hollywood silent film star Charlie Chaplin and Rough Rider and future President Teddy Roosevelt. The grounds also served as a site for movies, gambling, ostrich races, and a jockey club.
The famous resort burned again in 1925, and the bath house caught fire twice in the late 20th century. The bath house is still standing, fortunately, and is being revitalized by the Conservancy.
Where many ideas of resorts, pools and spas have failed, the Conservancy is striving to succeed as the Hot Wells County Park. The Conservancy is in the process of positioning the Hot Wells ruin to be a model for restoration and community engagement on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. The ruin is meant to be a point of travel and leisure for all ages, with outdoor recreational activities and relaxation being the main focal points.
When asked about the actual renovation of the site, Parr stated that no actual renovation has begun, rather a slow cleaning and organization of the grounds. “Our first goal is to drill a new well to have water again in the facility,” Parr said.
The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance permanently plugged the 120-year-old artisan well in 2013 after a piece of clay had to be dislodged from deep within. The plug damaged the well which could not be repaired or reinforced enough to allow continued use.
When the site and the new well are officially ready, it will be the first historical park for Bexar County.
“I’ve known about Hot Wells for about 10 years. I was riding my bike in the Southside area and came across it one evening,” Parr said. “I smelled the sulfur, saw the broken down fence. The minute I got home I started doing research and became fascinated myself.”
Parr had art displayed on the chain link fence of the site shortly after his discovery of Hot Wells. Lifshutz never had a caretaker for the site, but when Parr showed interest in living on the grounds that captivated him for 10 years, the deal was set.
“I’m a caretaker parttime, but I’m as involved as I possibly can be with the site and I enjoy living there and watching the process of preservation unfold,” Parr said.
While the site is not yet open to the public, Parr has given multiple tours to those who request one and says there are plans to have more exhibition items of the site available for the public.
“The county courthouse has a space specifically for a Hot Wells exhibit, but there really are not many items left to show from Hot Wells,” he said. “We are slowly gathering items, though, in preparation for an exhibit. It’s been a slow process as far as turning it into what we would like it to be. We’ve never had an exact timeline on when we’ll be ready.”
The Conservancy has plans to turn the ruins of Hot Wells into a local park. Conservancy President Yvonne Katz has big plans for the site.
“We have many partners who are excited about the prospects of having programs at the Park,” Katz said. “For instance, the Mitchell Lake Audubon Society is looking forward to having early evening bird watches on the property. The (Texas) A&M Agri-Life Extension Service will help us develop the many gardens for citizens to grow vegetables, fruits, and flowers. They will promote foods for healthy living and show how to cook/can them in the demonstration kitchen.”
The National Park Service is another partner, just a hop-skip-and-a-jump across the San Antonio River, which will share its visitors with the Park, and will hold evening campfire programs on the Park grounds. The Green Classroom will have hands-on interactive educational and recreational opportunities for visitors.
Katz has plans for movie nights, with an emphasis on silent films, and historical interpretive pathways that will be designed around the park. She also has plans for a “watering hole” where visitors can get beverages and other refreshments. She said HWC is also working with the National Parks Service to help win international designation to get even more visitors into San Antonio.
Katz and the board of directors, including former First Lady of San Antonio Edith McAllister, strive to preserve history for future generations.
“This Park represents a prized part of our city from the 1800s, and so we need to establish it as an educational entity for our children now and those future San Antonians of all backgrounds,” Katz said. “The early tribes lived and worked along the river banks on this and other Southside property. It is a piece of the historical puzzle that needs refurbishing.”
As for Parr, he has his own artistic ventures coming up outside of Hot Wells. George W. Bush Intercontinental will host one of Parr’s projects, a stop-motion video made up of thousands of photos from Houston.
Parr said he is thankful for being allowed to live at Hot Wells, as it has provided inspiration for him personally as an artist.
“My living space at Hot Wells is a piece of art in itself,” Parr said. “Living there has definitely taught me to slow down and take on longer scale projects. I appreciate every moment.”