Monthly Archives: September 2010

You’re Americans. Start Acting Like It

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Visiting Hot Wells

The first time I ever heard of the Hot Wells Hotel was more than 30 years ago. San Antonio friends told me ab0ut this spooky old place out on the South East side – the ruins of an old resort spa. It had long been a particular favorite spot for people to sneak out to at night, drink beer and break other crimes that seemed best amid broken ruins in the moonlight.

I never went myself. Sometimes while going to Espada Dam or driving along South Presa Street, I’d catch the glimpse of the shadow of brick walls shrouded by overgrowth and tattered palm trees. But it always seemed oddly improper, like visiting a stranger’s sick bed, to sneak in past the fence and walk around.

Recently, I got the chance. Work and the new owner got me on the property. All that’s left are the sad remains of the bathhouse. And yet there is a regal sense of place. This was the queen of early 20th Century living and she may be down on her luck and broken, but she’s still lovely.

In 1892, workers discovered a hot sulphur artesian spring on the grounds of what was then called the San Antonio Lunatic Asylum. A year later, a far-thinking entrepreneur decided it would be the ideal spot for ‘a first-class bathhouse’ and leased the hot springs and the acreage around it. That was the first Hot Wells Hotel.

In the 1890s, folks were convinced that foul-smelling, sulphur-laden water was good for you, curing any manner of  “rheumatism, kidney, liver and skin diseases and blood poisoning.” Guests came, splashed in the pool and lived it up among the luxuries of the resort and its’ park-like grounds.

A fire in 1894 destroyed the hotel. The entrepreneur eventually sold out to San Antonio beer baron, Otto Koehler – think Pearl Brewery – in 1900. Koehler built on the theme, adding a bit of glitz to the healthy regimen of life at Hot Wells.

In 1902, Koehler added an area with three pools – for gents, for ladies and for those with ailments like skin diseases others wouldn’t necessarily enjoying the waters with. He provided electricity, hot and cold running waters in the hotel rooms and other amenities — including a bookie office on the first floor of the hotel.

Hot Wells became the place to play for rich and famous unburdened with daily labor. The days were brightened with concerts, domino tournaments, poetry readings and lectures. At night, there was dancing and drinks in the garden,

Rudolph Valentino came to play, as did Sarah Burnhardt, Douglas Fairbanks, Tom Mix and a young Cecil B. DeMile. Teddy Roosevelt visited, as did Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in the waning days of his office before the Revolution.

Prohibition ruined the mood at Hot Wells and Wall Street’s collapse in 1929 spelled the end. Hot Wells was sold to a Christian Scientist group as a school. It later became a tourist camp, a care, a honky-tonk and a trailer park. Subsequent fires totally destroyed the old hotel and the bathhouse began falling down around the pools. Neighborhood kids would still drop in to sneak a swim in the sulphur pools. The last residents in the trailer park left in the early 197os.

Developer James Lifshutz hopes to bring Hot Wells back to life. He plans to preserve the ruins as an attractive center around another luxury hotel and upscale RV park (yes, such things exist) and build in the economic development boom rippling through the South Side. It remains, at this point, only a plan. There have been many plans over the years to save Hot Wells.

But on this hot, windless day, brush clogs the evidence of the entrance to the bathhouse and dying palm trees stand miserable guard. Weedy plants that have turned into ill-kept trees rise up above the brick walls and empty windows.

But turn a corner, and you can still hear ghostly echoes of the orchestra strike up a foxtrot. Or listen to the bright chatter of women in glittering gowns and men in black tie formality. Maybe they looked into the night sky and thought such a life, such beauty, would never end.

UPDATE: For an excellent slideshow of past and current views of Hot Wells, go here. This is also a shameless plug, since I also wrote the story for NOWCastSA. Any similarity in the two stories is purely intentional.

Photo courtesy of Heather DiMasi/NOWCastSA

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