At the Mission San Jose outside San Antonio, the convent area is now just stone walls and arches — but they have their own special beauty as they cast shadows and neatly frame the church dome and the bright blue Texas sky.
San Antonio and its environs are home to four of the early Spanish missions — or at least, what remains of them. From an historical preservation standpoint, the centuries have not been kind.
Yesterday I had a chance to visit two of the four missions, San Jose and Concepcion. San Jose is the most complete mission, with its outer wall intact and the small rooms where Indian converts and visitors lived available for a look. They are spartan, but practical — about what you would expect in a development that was intended to be an outpost of civilization in an untamed land. Some of the outbuildings and outdoor ovens also may be found there, as well as the ruins of a convent.
The centerpiece of the missions, of course, was the cathedral, and the church at San Jose Mission is striking — with a beautiful facade that features statuary of the saints and renderings of hearts, shells, and other meaningful symbols. I wasn’t able to see the interior of the cathedral, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. At one time the church was covered with brightly colored tile that must have presented a dazzling sight for weary travelers on the dusty Texas plains, but most of the tiles are gone and the church now stands as a stone monument.
Mission Concepcion, which is found in the middle of a neighborhood, is much less complete. It consists of a church, a well, some ruins, and a prayer area. The church itself is simple, and what you would expect to find at a Spanish mission, with whitewashed interior walls. Some signs of the former frescoes in the church may be seen, but for the most part the church interior has been decorated with modern paintings and furnishings.
The two missions must be popular wedding options. When I visited yesterday, both were busy hosting nuptial ceremonies — which is why I was unable to see the interior of the church at San Jose. That was disappointing, but I found myself feeling good about the fact that the churches were still being used as churches. A lot of work went into building these missions, which served as agents of colonialism but also as a testament to the power of religious faith. It’s nice to see that, centuries later, that part of the mission is still being served.
I’m a sucker for old courthouses. Take me just about everywhere in America and I’ll start scanning the horizon for a tower that might signal the presence of a county courthouse built back in the days when communities thought centers of justice were worth more than a just few tax dollars.
The Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio is a good example. It a a bold, multi-towered structure made of red sandstone and granite that stands out against the perpetually blue Texas sky. It was built in the Romanesque Revival style, with one spire that is topped with a beehive-like dome. The large courtyard in front of the courthouse also features a large fountain with a blind justice statute.
It’s a fantastic building, and I have only one suggestion for San Antonio’s city fathers: how about more shade in the courtyard? It would be nice to be able to appreciate the beauty of the building without worrying that your brain was frying like an egg.
We’ve been staying for the past few days in an old house in the King William Historic District. It’s located just outside downtown San Antonio and is connected to the city through an easy stroll on the River Walk.
You may ask, as I did: who in the heck was King William? You’ve searched your poor recollection of English kings and can’t remember a William among all the Georges and Henrys and Richards.
That’s because the Americanized reference is actually to Kaiser Wilhelm, Germany’s monarch during the 1870s. He was reigning when wealthy immigrant German burghers first started building grand homes in this area next to the San Antonio River.
The houses in the District are fabulous and would make the old Kaiser proud. Each step along the streets reveals a different style and architectural approach, with all of the special touches and artistic flourishes you’d expect from successful businessmen who wanted their houses to proclaim their prosperity to the world. Many houses are bounded by elaborate wrought iron fencing, and their grounds feature gazebos. fountains, stone lions, and yards filled with fragrant flowering plants.
Interestingly, the District fell into decline some time ago and some of the homes are still emerging from a period of prolonged neglect. It’s sad to see beautiful old homes that are overgrown with vegetation or crumbling — but it’s also encouraging to see that rehabilitation efforts are underway. San Antonio would do well to actively preserve this unique and lovely area, which is worth a short trip down the River Walk to visit.