Postcards: Texas Star Trail
Walk through the centuries in historic Old San Antonio
By Gene Fowler
The streets of Old San Antonio have long been noted for their winding and crooked courses. And if you travel the way I sometimes do—the mule-headed “guy way” in which we set out exploring without maps or directions—you’ve no doubt gotten happily lost in the Alamo City’s avenues.
While the “stumble-upon” method of discovery can prove fun and rewarding, there is definitely something to be said for knowing where you’re going. So when I heard about the Texas Star Trail, a self-guided walking tour of historic downtown created by the San Antonio Conservation Society, I hit the streets with the brochure in hand.
The tour is a twofer. Not only do you learn about San Antonio history, you also get a nice cardio workout on the 2.6-mile route. You can start the tour at any point, of course, and walk as little or as much of it as you wish, but the annotated list of 79 sites begins at Alamo Plaza. It then sweeps west for several blocks to Main Plaza and Military Plaza before ambling back toward La Villita and HemisFair Park.
At the Alamo, the Star Trail brochure notes the often-overlooked fact that the post’s 1836 fortifications extend-ed across Alamo Plaza, which today separates the historic structure from modern shops and restaurants. The brochure also points out the partial re-creation of the site’s western wall in an area now called Paseo del Alamo. The Paseo features a glass-top enclosure that reveals a section of the original adobe bricks that formed part of the Native American quarters built along the Alamo’s western wall.
On Losoya Street, just west of Alamo Plaza, there stands a statue of the street’s namesake, the lesser-known Alamo defender Toribio Losoya. At 231 Losoya, fans of Tex-Mex flavor may wish to pay homage at the former site of Original Mexican Restaurant, purported to have been San Antonio’s first fixed-location Mexican restaurant, operated by the Farnsworth family from 1899 to 1959. The building has since hosted various establishments, such as an art gallery and a five-and-dime store.
Continuing the tour, trekkers turn west on Commerce Street at the 1883 red-brick Dullnig Building and cross the 1914 Commerce Street Bridge, one of many places along the trail where a staircase leads down to the famed San Antonio River Walk. But I stayed at street level, where I passed Schilo’s Delicatessen—a reasonably priced, historic German deli with a warm, wood-and-stone interior—and continued west on Commerce past a stretch of offices and retail shops. Along the way, the trail brochure provides details on historic buildings that contained hardware stores, confectioners, carriage dealerships, clothiers, and banks. Two structures housed saddlery shops that outfitted Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders for the Spanish-American War’s famous charge up San Juan Hill in 1898.
At the corner of Commerce and St. Mary’s, the 1926 Aztec Theatre recalls the heyday of grand movie palaces, with “elaborate Mayan and Mesoamerican in-fluenced motifs,” according to the Tex-as Star Trail brochure. Currently open only for special events, the Aztec sits catty-corner from the 1929 Alamo National Bank Building. The bank building, which is now home to the Drury Plaza Hotel, embodies another architectural trend of the era, Art Deco. The hotel’s ceiling moldings, marble and bronze finishes, and other artistic flourishes in the lobby exemplify Art Deco’s bold modernism.
In the next block farther west, the cityscape opens up on Main Plaza, or Plaza de Islas, established in 1731 when Canary Islanders settled around the plaza. Throughout San Antonio’s history, the plaza has served as the center of public life, and that tradition continues today. The 1890s Bexar County Courthouse, built in Romanesque Revival style of Texas granite and red sandstone, stands on the southern side of the plaza. On the western side, you’ll see San Fernando Cathedral, where Santa Anna raised a flag of “No Quarter” to the Texian rebels in 1836.
Beyond the Plaza de Islas, the trail arrives at Plaza de Armas, or Military Plaza, where Spanish Colonial soldiers were once garrisoned to protect the settlers against raids by Apaches and other Native Americans. Though the keystone above the entryway to the plaza’s Spanish Governor’s Palace shows a date of 1749, palace historians say construction may have begun in the early 1720s when the governor and captain general of the provinces of Coahuila and Texas wrote to the king of Spain about needing 25,000 adobe bricks for the structure. Today, only the north wall still contains adobe bricks.
Near the plazas, on South Flores Street, the trail visits one of my favorite lesser-known San Antonio icons—a statue of a lanky cowboy holding his saddle, atop the Kallison’s Western Wear store, which opened in 1899 and closed in 2000.
Back across the river, the trail loops through La Villita. Another of the city’s earliest settlement areas, the historic limestone and adobe structures of the “Little Village” now house art galleries and craft shops. Here, I rested my barking dogs and wolfed down a delicious plate of chicken with Oaxacan mole at the Guadalajara Grill.
While it’s always intriguing to revisit the Texas Star Trail’s “stars,” like the Alamo, I especially liked learning about lesser-known sites on the route, such as a row of homes just south of La Villita on South Presa Street. A surgeon-barber named Richter lived in one of the homes, located strategically by a Spanish acequia that provided leeches for his medical practice. Four frame structures built in 1903 and 1904 by Swiss carpenter Carl Frey now comprise the Arbor House Suites bed and breakfast.
Owner Ron Stinson points out that guests enjoy the spirit of Old San Antonio preserved at his lodge because it’s different than staying at a chain hotel.
The Texas Star Trail offers a historical and cardiovascular treat, but be careful to watch where you’re going while gawking skyward at corbels, lintels, cornices, and parapets. Your humble reporter was so intrigued by all he saw that he nearly cashed in his chips by stepping into the busy San Antonio traffic.
From the July 2013 issue.