HemisFair ’68: Reflections of Childhood Wonder

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Images displaying the sky-ride that used to circle around HemisFair are displayed at the exhibit ¡Viva Hemisfair! in the Institute of Texan Cultures.

Courtesy / UTSA Special Collections at ITC

Images of the monorail at HemisFair are displayed at the exhibit ¡Viva Hemisfair! at the Institute of Texan Cultures.

The old house is fading from memory – a late 19th-century one-story on the edge of downtown – but I can still see a few contours and details. A mint green metal swing sits on a wraparound porch. White wooden pillars support the roof overhang. A palm tree provides shade in the front yard.

The house at 323 Goliad St. belonged to my grandparents, Antonio and Luz Hernandez, a couple who lived in Germantown, a neighborhood made up of German, Polish, and Mexican immigrants. In 1964, one year before the Hernandezes celebrated 50 years of marriage, the city informed them they would have to move.

My school teacher parents knew better than to try and explain “eminent domain” or “urban renewal project” to their 5-year-old son. So they took a different tack. A great big fair was coming to the neighborhood, they told me. To make room, houses had to be torn down.

Four years later, my parents and I stepped into an elevator about 600 feet east of the old homestead. It was to carry us on a 90-second ride to the top of the tallest building in Texas. Before we reached 500 feet, the elevator stalled.

For a few anxious minutes, we hung in uncertainty, suspended above a 92-acre wonderland of water shows and rides, pavilions and food. The street where my grandparents’ house once stood had become the main gateway to a world’s fair that brought more than 6 million visitors to San Antonio.

The souvenir guidebook called the fair “Confluence U.S.A., the blending together of many peoples and many cultures into one nation.” That sounded like grown-up babble. In my 9-year-old view, HemisFair was all wow and wonderful, a playground from heaven that had fallen to earth. Incredibly, it had landed three blocks from my grandparent’s new home on King William Street.

Throughout the summer of 1968, older cousins from other cities would visit my grandmother and walk with me to HemisFair. We rode the Mini-Monorail and Swiss sky ride. We went to magic shows and futuristic movies. We ate delicious food and played carnival games. Admission was $2 for adults, $1 for children. I don’t know how many times I went to HemisFair. But each visit felt like I’d won the lottery for kids.

In late June, my parents took me to the Tower of the Americas for dinner. On the way up, the elevator jerked to a sudden stop. Back then, I didn’t know there would be more than a dozen incidents of stuck passengers over the next 50 years, that firefighters would rescue 16 people trapped for more than two hours in 2013.

All I knew was that our elevator malfunction was corrected rather quickly. When we stepped into the restaurant, the view took my breath away. I don’t remember a thing about our food. But I remember the restaurant turning slowly – one complete revolution in an hour – and staring through floor-to-ceiling panes of glass at the stunning panorama.

The Tower of the Americas during the HemisFair era.

“Mom was explaining to you all the different areas you were seeing as we were spinning around,” my 88-year-old father, Henry, recalled.

My late mother, Blanche, an inquisitive and inspiring English teacher, saw HemisFair as an opportunity to advance my cultural education. It wasn’t enough that I had to endure trips to museums, libraries, and musical theater, all of which I enjoy today. Mom made me visit the HemisFair pavilions of numerous countries, not one of which I can recall by name.

This evening was different. It was fun to see mom identify the landmarks below and to point out familiar neighborhoods. After dinner, we attended a Vikki Carr concert in a venue created for HemisFair, the Theater for the Performing Arts, now known as the Lila Cockrell Theatre. We sat in floor seats that cost $5.50 a piece. Balcony seats cost $2.50.

I’m not sure how my parents were able to afford dinner and concert tickets. They did not collect a school salary during the summer. That evening, I imagine, was a reflection of the mystery and magic of HemisFair.

When the gates opened on April 6, 1968, the city marked its 250th anniversary with a miracle.

*****

In the late 1950s, San Antonio had the Alamo and a hero who had been dead for 120 years – Davy Crockett. Outside Texas, the city was known as an outpost, the site of a historic 1836 battle. A businessman wanted to change the image and elevate the city. Jerome K. Harris envisioned a world’s fair.

In true Texas fashion, Harris rounded up some influential help. Gov. John Connally. U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough. U.S. Rep. Henry B. González. Businessmen Bill Sinkin and Tom C. Frost IV. Legislation was passed, money raised, a site selected. Then letters began arriving at 323 Goliad St. about an urban renewal project.

The San Antonio Conservation Society opposed the mass demolition of Germantown, as did the owners of 2,239 residences and 686 businesses. In the end, two houses on the 300 block of Goliad were preserved. The Hernandez home was not one of them. And therein lies a political and family miracle.

In the 1940s, Henry B. González frequented the restaurant my grandparents owned on Dolorosa Street, the Liverpool Cafe, where an order of enchiladas cost 15 cents. González became a city councilman, a state senator, a Congressman, and a close friend of Antonio and Luz.

The friendship did not fracture when González used political muscle to advance the urban renewal project. It grew stronger. When relatives would fly to Washington, D.C., Antonio or Luz would make a phone call, and González would meet them for lunch or dinner.

More than a half century later, my older cousins still feel the sting of urban renewal, the loss of a treasured house. And yet no one – not even aunts or uncles – blames González. “I don’t recall mother or daddy ever saying anything against Henry B.,” said my cousin Cecille Martinez, 68. “Everyone was always so proud of him and the family friendships, which remained very strong.”

Once my grandparents settled into their new home on King William, a two-story with columns and an upstairs and downstairs wraparound porch, anticipation began to build. Antonio could not wait for HemisFair. He sensed it would change the city.

Ken Rodriguez as a young boy.

Courtesy / Ken Rodriguez

Ken Rodriguez as a young boy.

I felt his excitement. Not only was HemisFair beginning to dominate local news, I could see the daily construction of its signature building. Through the window of my third-floor classroom at St. Mark’s Episcopal School on Pecan Street, I watched the shaft of the tower rise in the near distance, 10 feet and eight inches a day. Then I saw the “doughnut,” as architect O’Neil Ford called it, go up, little by little. On the 20th day, city sirens sounded to announce the top house had reached the top of the tower.

HemisFair transformed the city and its reputation. Antonio never lived to see it. In January 1968, three months before the fair opened, he died. The immediate cause, according to the death certificate, was “pneumonia.”

What did he miss? The U.S. pavilion sprang up directly across the street from his old house and became the John H. Wood Federal Courthouse. The Tower of the Americas soared just beyond 323 Goliad St., 600 feet away. An arena rose a few blocks down the street and became the first home of the San Antonio Spurs. A convention center went up in Germantown and was named after Antonio’s friend, the Congressman.

To this day, Antonio and Luz remain close to the Congressman and his wife, Bertha González. They share the same burial ground at San Fernando Cemetery No. 2,  separated by flowers and a few feet of dirt.

*****

The fairgrounds crackled with energy and exploded with color. The anti-establishment anthem of the era, “Born To Be Wild,” boomed on loudspeakers. I remember women in pink pants, bright yellow tops, and white go-go boots, men in flowered shirts, bell-bottom blue jeans and black boots. Every exhibit seemed to have a splash of psychedelic color.

“It wasn’t like Fiesta,” said Claudia Medina, 67, a cousin. “It was futuristic.”

Claudia’s older brother, Rod, took me to a show called Kino-Automat, a Czechoslovakian audience participation film. On each seat were two buttons, red and green. At several points in the movie, One Man and His World, the action froze. The audience was given a choice about how the film should proceed. We had 10 seconds to push the green or red button. A computer tabulated the votes and the film resumed accordingly.

Rod had a strong social conscience, one impacted by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. , just days before HemisFair’s opening, and that of Robert Kennedy in June of that summer. When I attempted to push a button that would lead to a fight – all fighting on screen was entertaining but pretend, I reasoned – Rod protested strongly. “Don’t do that,” he said.

“Why not?”

“You’re promoting violence.”

We never had another disagreement. Rod was all about “peace, man.” Despite our nine-year age difference, we bonded through music. Bob Dylan. Cream. Vanilla Fudge. We talked endlessly about our favorite songs and bands, the soundtrack of that summer – “Hello, I Love You,” “Tighten Up,” “People Got To Be Free” – following us from the fair to King William Street.

As the sky grew black and our eyes grew heavy, we climbed into twin beds, the rhythms and melodies from HemisFair, drifting into the screened porch, lulling us to sleep.

The Mini-Monorail in the summer of 1968.

Courtesy / UTSA Libraries Special Collections at ITC

The Mini-monorail in the summer of 1968.

The summer ended, and HemisFair rolled on. On Sunday, Sept. 15, three weeks before the fair closed, my family made one last visit. I asked Dad if we could ride the Mini-Monorail, the futuristic train that whooshed around the park on a 13-foot high track. He said, “Later.” I said, “Please.” He declined. I persisted.

We passed the monorail boarding station and headed for the Southwestern Bell Exhibit, a favorite. I remember a picture phone and people disappearing and reappearing in phone booths. When the show ended, I imagined that “later” had arrived, that we would board the monorail.

As the exit doors opened, I saw a pile of red and blue monorail cars, crumbled on the pavement, about 300 feet ahead. Other cars dangled between the track and the ground. One 65-year-old woman, pinned beneath a car, died. The derailment, caused by two trains colliding on a curve, injured 48 passengers.

My jaw dropped. Unable to speak, I had one chilling thought: “That could have been us.” I went home from HemisFair, believing Dad had saved our lives.

*****

Today, a green live oak stands in the spot my grandparents once called home. A brown, two-story brick building sits right behind. The 300 block of Goliad Street has become a parking lot, where visitors stop before entering the drum-shaped federal courthouse across the street.

A thousand family memories stir in the afternoon breeze. Cousins recall the front porch swing and palm tree, the parquet floors and big chandelier in the entry way. I remember spinning the wheel in “The Game of Life,” the rules of which I was not old enough to understand, as my cousins moved pieces around the board.

Urban renewal bulldozed everything except the wonder of childhood. The house on King William was larger, more stately and beautiful, and created spectacular memories. I drove past it the other day, and although it has fallen into disrepair, a bit of 1968 came back: the music, the rides, the thrill of non-stop adventure.

HemisFair was an awakening, the realization of dreams and possibilities that transformed San Antonio and inspired its people. The six-month fair swallowed a neighborhood but left a legacy for the family, rising in the shadow of Goliad Street, 750 feet high.

 

17 thoughts on “HemisFair ’68: Reflections of Childhood Wonder

  1. What a great article Ken! Thank you for your personal insight regarding that exciting moment in San Antonio history that we all remember so fondly. I had a brother that worked in the German section so I was fortunate enough to visit Hemisfair several times & I loved every single exciting thing about it! Once again, your amazing talent encompassed those memories so articulately & vividly-bravo!

  2. I believe the top photo of the Tower restaurant is backwards. The NBC tower and The Nix are on the ‘wrong’ side of the Hilton.

    Great story. One of my earliest memories is being at the fair at night.

    • I agree the picture was printed backwards. You can tell by the position of the Hilton Hotel and La Villita Street and the buildings on that corner.

      It was a great article about HemisFair. An ironic twist of events – my family went to Montreal in 1967 for their Fair and we were going to come to San Antonio in 1968 for HemisFair. Something happened and we didn’t get to come down for HemisFair. But now, after signing into Randolph AFB in March of 1972, I have been here 46 years. And looking forward to all the celebrations this year.

      • Thanks for bringing this to our attention. We have corrected the photograph and will be alerting the UTSA Special Collections Department on the error. We appreciate the attention to detail.

        – Rivard Report Photo Editor Scott Ball

  3. What a great read Ken. I was in junior high (middle school as it’s now known) when it opened and it was truly a dream of what could be for a kid from the west side.
    Your line “Urban renewal bulldozed everything except the wonder of childhood” is succinct and so descriptive. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Any pictures of the opening /flag-raising? I was one of the kids who helped raise the flag. I was 3 yrs old

  5. Ken, thank you for this story. It evoked memories that I don’t have, (I was born in 1969), and that is a testament to your writing abilities.

    You are a San Antonio treasure.

  6. As someone who grew up near Goliad Rd, I had no idea there was a Goliad Street.

    Great memories. I was eight when HemisFair came around but only got to go twice – both very brief visits as money was in short supply for our family. And, of course, the incredible theater at what is now the Federal Courthouse was broken down both times.

  7. Wife and I were married June 21, 1968, San Antonio Tx. Believe I still have some Lone Star Beer Napkins from the fair. Love the history and the great work in keeping it up

  8. Sadly, I never went to Expo ’67 in Montréal (where my mother was born) or Hemisfair ’68 in San Antonio, although I am old enough to remember both vividly. Back then, World’s Fairs were a huge deal. The theme of Expo ’67 was “Man and His World”. They even built a “Habitat” which was a futuristic apartment complex (too bad it leaked every time it rained). World’s Fairs have sadly become a thing of the past. They were always an optimistic look at our future and how things would be…just around the corner. Thank you for sharing this fascinating tale!

  9. Great article Ken. Hemisfair made an important impact on my life. So much of my artistic vision emerged from expérience of working at Hemisfiar. Congratulations on a wonderful story. My cousin Martha Munguia married Edward Ybarra who grew up i his grandfather’s home at Goliad and Labor. Remnants of the back steps and foundation of the family home still remain visible near the Women’s Pavillon. My best to you and your family….jgc

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