The Tiled Stairways Of The River Walk


To get down to the San Antonio River Walk, you take stairways and ramps from bridges and overpasses.  Many of the stairways and ramps are of the bland, concrete variety, but some are special — gracefully curved, with wide steps and overhead greenery and delicate tiled facings that reflect a southwestern flair.

It’s amazing how a few colorful squares of tile can turn a generic stairway into an eye-catching addition to an already festive area.  If I had my say, every concrete municipal staircase would have bright tile facings with bold colors and geometric designs.  It’s a way to inject some much-needed art into our everyday surroundings.

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In Celebration Of King William

IMG_4104We’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.

IMG_4101That’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.IMG_4107

On The River Walk

IMG_4118When you ask most people about San Antonio, they’ll probably mention the Alamo and the River Walk.  (The NBA fans among us would probably also mention the San Antonio Spurs, who fell just short this year in their bid for another NBA championship.)

I was one of those people who’d heard of the River Walk.  I figured it was something that was created in the ’60s or ’70s as one of those grand urban renewal projects, but the reality is much more interesting.  The River Walk in its modern form actually dates back to the 1930s, and as you walk along you will occasionally see signs about areas that were built by New Deal agencies like the Works Progress Administration.  There have been many other additions and modifications over the years.

IMG_4064The River Walk obviously has been a great positive for San Antonio from an economic standpoint.  It’s a tourist attraction and is one of the reasons why San Antonio draws lots of convention traffic.  Many restaurants, bars, and shops are found there.  A number of people are employed as tourist boat operators, or landscapers, or in other jobs related to the River Walk.  It’s home to a number of sidewalk vendors selling their wares.

There’s lots to like about the River Walk.  In many American cities, planners seemed oddly eager to close off access to the rivers or lakes that caused the city to be founded in the first place.  If residents wanted to take a stroll by the river, they had to try to cross multiple highways or the parking lots of sports stadiums, and if they got to the water they found desolate, underdeveloped areas.  San Antonio, in contrast, embraced its river.  The wise city fathers here understood that people like walking by water and hearing the quack of a duck.  Now other waterfront cities are scrambling to catch up and correct city design mistakes that should never have been made in the first place.

IMG_4133There are other nice aspects of the San Antonio River Walk, too.  It’s a place full of unique vistas.  Some areas are home to towering trees and welcome shade, others have a distinct Spanish feel.  There’s a lovely riverfront theater, with seats built into the hillside on one side of the river and the stage on the other.  The bridges spanning the river walk and the stairways leading up and down aren’t uniform, either, which adds to the charm.  And even on the hottest San Antonio summer day, it’s cooler down by the river.

During our visit here, we’ve walked on the River Walk every day, and it’s been crowded.  Richard says that San Antonio residents tend not to use it much because of the tourist crowds.  I can understand that, I suppose, but I applaud any urban plan that has “Walk” in it.  I have to believe that some people use the River Walk to get to work, and that the River Walk makes the downtown workers in San Antonio much more likely to walk somewhere for lunch than is the case in other cities.   In an era of too many red-faced, flabby Americans, any urban planning that also encourages walking and fitness is a good thing.IMG_4059

A Noble Place To Stay

IMG_4092During our visit to San Antonio we are staying on the second floor of the Aaron Pancoast Carriage House, in a bed and breakfast arrangement.  On trips like this we look for an alternative to hotels if possible, and Kish did a great job in finding this place.

I’m a fan of old hotels, but when you’re staying somewhere for more than two days they can begin to feel cramped and sterile.  Under those circumstances, the bed and breakfast can offer some real advantages.  You’re in a real neighborhood, rather than a downtown hotel district, and often that allows you to get a more rounded perspective on the town you’re visiting.  It’s also nice to camp out in a place that has a refrigerator, a large common area where we can spread out and read, and other agreeable amenities.

IMG_4051Our lodging here is one of three locations owned by Noble Inns.  All of them are located in the beautiful King William Historic District area of San Antonio (more about that later).  The district is on the RiverWalk, which means we’re just a short stroll away from downtown.  It’s nice to be able to walk rather than driving, and we’ve taken advantage of that convenience.

We eat our breakfast in the lushly decorated Oge House.  It’s got a historic landmark sign outside, and inside it has all of the fantastic carvings and moldings and nooks and crannies that make me marvel at how unique these old homes were, and how soulless and cookie-cutter our modern homes have become.  It’s a pleasure walking in the front door and eating a home-cooked meal in the dining room.

We stay in the carriage house found right across the street.  It’s a pleasant place with one huge advantage:  a fantastic pool complete with statuary that makes you feel like you’re hanging out at a Roman villa.  I am not much of a pool person, but when you’ve been walking along in 90-plus degree heat and bright sunshine it’s nice to take a dip in cool water and then find a shady spot for some reading and conversation.  The Romans knew what they were doing.IMG_4093