Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Crossing railroad tracks that run alongside South Presa Street, a span of dirt road leads past heavy equipment and chain-link fencing into a busy construction site where workers have cleared years worth of overgrown vegetation and graffiti as they work to restore what’s left of the long abandoned Hot Wells Resort.
The project, which has had several false starts in recent years, began in earnest just over one year ago. Bexar County Commissioners solidified the deal in April 2017 with local developer and Hot Wells owner James Lifshutz to redevelop four acres surrounding the historic ruins into a County park.
Now the ruins of the turn-of-the-century bathhouse are rising from the ashes of decay and neglect to become a first-of-its-kind public park on the Southside.
On the humid and overcast day the Rivard Report toured the historic grounds, the bathhouse was already gleaming from restoration work in progress, creating a centerpiece for what’s to come through multiple phases of its long-anticipated renewal.
Sulfur springs were first discovered on the site in 1892. Within two years, the property's first owner had established the luxurious Hot Wells hotel, spa, and bathhouse, which burned to the ground in 1894. Replaced by a Victorian-style structure in 1900, it drew Hollywood glamour and famous figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Teddy Roosevelt, and Porfirio Diaz into the Roaring ‘20s as the elite from all over sought the water’s healing powers.
During its heyday, more than 70 silent movies and the very first Academy Award-winning film, Wings, were filmed at Hot Wells. Before Hollywood, there was "Star Films Ranch," and a roadway into the site is today named Star Films Way.
The resort’s long run ended after a second fire in 1925 completely consumed the hotel; about that time bathhouses were falling out of favor.
In later years, a motor inn, now hidden by brush, and a bar and grill restaurant operated there until the 1970s. With the site left virtually abandoned for a decade or so, nature, vandals, and two more fires in 1988 and 1997 nearly erased history until Lifshutz acquired the property in 1999. The public has gotten a closer look at the site in recent years at a ticketed fundraiser event known as the Hot Wells Harvest Feast.
Gone are the ostriches, peacocks, and zebras that once made up the exotic farm at Hot Wells, and the sweeping verandas where guests lounged. But despite the fires over the years, much of the three-story brick bathhouse, once connected to the hotel by an upper-floor breezeway, remains standing as if to keep its story alive. A fountain and lone palm tree, remnants of the lushly landscaped resort, preside over the rebirth.
“There were three attempts to save this structure – one with the City of San Antonio, two with Bexar County – and now this one,” said Justin Murray, project engineer with Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, who grew up in the area and has been overseeing the project for more than six years. “Last year, finally, they came to terms. This is phase one.”
Hot Wells County Park, which sits within the UNESCO World Heritage Buffer Area, will soon take its place among the many other heritage sites the County operates.
"It certainly has some of the most visible heritage and cultural resources that are in our parks, and its remaining cultural resources tell a story that spans time over hundreds of years," said Betty Bueche, director of the Bexar Heritage & Parks department. "And not just as a spa, but as a site where Native Americans made their homes, and then as it developed as a bathhouse and spa site, it was important in medicine, important in social circles, and then also home of Star Film Ranch."
The Hot Wells Conservancy and the County are already planning multiple uses for the park to provide programming in partnership with groups like the National Park Service, the San Antonio River Authority, and the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center.
The hot springs well that drew so much attention to the site was capped as a condition of the County’s acquisition of the property. The park will eventually offer new reasons to visit, including a “green” classroom, raised garden beds, an outdoor demonstration kitchen and herb garden, interpretive panels describing the site’s history, and pedestrian pathways. There will be restrooms, a water fountain, and permeable surface parking.
One section of the bathhouse is being restored to accommodate offices for the Conservancy and the Park Service, plus community gathering exhibit and educational space. The upper floors will have views of Mission San José.
Although visitors won’t have access to the ruins due to safety concerns, every angle of the structure will be visible from just beyond its buttressed walls. Programmable lighting will flood the bathhouse walls, tiled floors, and pools at night.
Legend has it railroad magnate Henry Huntington believed so much in the medicinal benefits of the baths, he ran a rail line right to it and was among the many elites who sought relief there. Murray said that tie smoothed talks with Union Pacific, which Huntington founded, when it came time to create an at-grade public crossing for the park. “That was a huge accomplishment,” Murray said.
On the river side of the ark, Davila Construction will soon begin cutting through the brush that separates the site from the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River and create a portal for pedestrian access. Mission Pavilions, Mission Park II, and Padre Park sit across the river from Hot Wells. A monument will mark the original hot springs well, and the salvaged Hot Wells signage will be reinstalled.
Work on the park is at full speed and expected to be complete by the end of August.
"It has a very weird, eclectic history," Murray said. "We're at the crossroads of a natural formation – there's not a lot of hot water wells in this part of the world. That, and the history of the people who used to come to this hotel and the kind of things they did here, it's just very eclectic. And I think that's really what's going to happen to the park as it goes in the future. People just embrace the weirdness of this place."
Future phases of the project will complete renovation of the bathhouse building and the gardens. The Conservancy is kicking off a capital campaign to raise funds for that project at its Railroad Baron Ball, June 7, at Sunset Station. The fundraising entity is led by Conservancy President Yvonne Katz and a board that includes people like Mayor Emeritus Lila Cockrell and local philanthropist Edith McAllister, who Katz said can recall residing at the Hot Wells Hotel as a child.
“There have been fits and starts on this for decades,” said Katz, happy to see it finally underway.
Touring with us in hard hats Thursday morning, Katz told of how she became familiar with Hot Wells when she served as Harlandale Independent School District superintendent starting in 1985. In those days, she said the sulfurous smell seeping onto school grounds at Terrell Wells Middle School caused students to call it “Terrible Smells” instead.
“All under the Southside, you’ve got springs everywhere,” Katz said. “The water just comes up and we had two schools where the water just came up all the time.”
With the well at Hot Wells now capped, the Conservancy may someday dig a new well and create a new “warm water experience” for visitors.
It won’t be exactly like the sulfurous bath experience people such as Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, former County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, and others recall from their childhood days spent at Hot Wells, Katz said, but it also won’t unnecessarily discharge thousands of gallons of water like the original.
On Friday, the stars came out again at Hot Wells. In celebration of the Tricentennial, fireworks lit up the night sky over the site and across the Southside.
“All different kinds of people have tried to do something here. And so here we are 30 years later in the midst of doing it,” Katz said. “So it’s preserving a major piece of history of our community, and especially our Southside community.”