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The St. Anthony Hotel came alive with stories of its 106-year history when several hundred people gathered in the hotel’s famed Peacock Alley on Tuesday afternoon. The crowd had officially gathered for the unveiling of the new book, “Dusting Off a Legend: The St. Anthony Hotel,” but for many it seemed more like a family reunion.
“Everyone has personal ownership of this hotel,” said the book’s author, Gaylon Finklea Hecker who was commissioned by the hotel to write the book, as she made a sweeping gesture around the room. “It’s a grand day.”
Over a span of three months, Hecker worked in the hotel’s Lincoln Suite where she sorted through box after box of artifacts that she dug through, sorted, scanned and researched. While the work could be exhausting – and dusty – at times, she said the experience was so much fun it kept her adrenaline going.
“Every time I discovered a little something about the hotel that was fun and interesting, I had to find out more about it, and that led to more fun and interesting things I would explore,” Hecker said.
Clyde J.B. Johnson IV, one of the founding principals of BC Lynd Hospitality, which acquired the property in 2012, said he felt that the stewardship of the St. Anthony was something special. For three years, the hotel has been undergoing renovations to convert the turn-of-the-century, 352-room artifact into a 277-room luxury hotel that preserves a sense of time and place yet delivers state-of-the-art hospitality.
“When we came into this project, we knew it wasn’t just your ordinary hotel deal,” said Johnson, a sixth-generation Texan. “The St. Anthony is the Queen of San Antonio.”
And the queen will begin her reign once again this fall, with the grand re-opening of The St. Anthony, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Antonio.
Some of Hecker’s interview subjects were at the reception, such as Amanda Ochse, who attended along with several family members. She and her late husband, Bill, owned the hotel from 1971-1981, but her family history with the property dates back to 1911 when her mother was a Fiesta princess.
As the leading hotel in San Antonio, the St. Anthony played host to hundreds of Fiesta events over the years. Ochse’s Fiesta royal heritage includes eight queens, eight princesses, two kings, pages and duchesses. She served as a duchess in the 1940 Court of the Old South, Mistress of the Robes in 1961, and presided over the Fiesta San Antonio Commission in 1976. Her husband served as King Antonio XXXVI in 1958.
Another guest was cattleman and auctioneer Bert Reyes, who lived in the hotel for more than 13 years. Now 87, Reyes traveled all throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America.
“I would check out if I would were going to be gone for an extended period of time,” he said. “The staff would store my things. That was when there was real customer service. You just don’t find places like that anymore.
“This was one of the top three hotels in the United States,” he continued. “And the dining room and club – they were the absolute best. If you didn’t show up to eat by 11:30 a.m., the line was out the door and down the street.”
Bonnie and Francine Prosser, whose father Frank was the banquet manager for many years, were at the reception. There were more than a few moist eyes when Bonnie read her poem about her father, titled “The Prince of Peacock Alley,” which is found in the book.
It seemed like everyone there had their own tale, or two, to tell about the St. Anthony.
Betsy Seligmann Robinson’s mother was the first bride married at the St. Anthony 105 years ago.
Family members of Jose Antonio Navarro, including his great-great-great-granddaughter, Lydia, described how the hotel honored Navarro, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, by naming a meeting room after him in 1959.
Allen Smith grew up at the hotel and his father, Zavell, was renowned for his photographs of Fiesta royalty and brides at the hotel.
Hecker also shared several stories from those who couldn’t be at the reception:
Herb Kelleher, who met with a friend at the St. Anthony Club and decided to start Southwest Airlines…and then sketched out his first airline route on a cocktail napkin – there’s a picture of it in the book; former Mayor Lila Cockrell, who gave what she felt were thousands of speeches at the hotel because everyone was so curious to see this “lady mayor”; Red McCombs, who negotiated his deal of buying the San Antonio Spurs in the St. Anthony Club; Mayor Henry Cisneros, who announced his first run for public office in the Cavalier Room.
Many more stories are included in the book, which is bound in the distinctive color known as “Dorothy Draper Green.” Considered a pioneer in interior design, Draper called her style “traditional with a dash of modern.” She was hired by the hotel in the 1950s to create the private St. Anthony Club – a place not only known as an exclusive entertainment venue, but also as the site where big ideas were born and deals were made.
How big? Ever hear of HemisFair ’68?
In addition to the first-hand accounts from both guests and staff, the cloth-bound book features a comprehensive collection of photographs of some of the famous guests who stayed at the St. Anthony, their thank-you notes, various parties and functions, the staff, postcards and advertisements. It’s available for $50 at the hotel registration desk, and will also be available for sale in the hotel’s gift shop when it re-opens.