25. March 2010 · Comments Off on My Map of San Antonio · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, History, Old West, Working In A Salt Mine...

I bought a map last month, when I got a slightly-more-than-usually generous check for work that I had done, a map that I had my eye on for a while: it’s a reprint of the 1873 birds-eye view of San Antonio, done by an artist-printer-mapmaker-entrepreneur by the name of Augustus Koch. There’s a very high-end reprint available from the Amon Carter museum, but I found a rather more affordable version from an antique shop, and bought a frame from a thrift shop for it. To cover the gap between low-rent map and low-rent frame, I had a matt for it cut at a big-box hobby store which does this at very reasonable rates. So there it is, hanging on the wall to my left at the corner of my bedroom chez Hayes which serves as my office. The magic happens here, people – adjust. Please ignore assorted dust bunnies and the very dirty and scrofulous Shi Tzu sleeping underneath my office chair, also the three levels of desk, piled with computer tower, monitor, speakers and reference books – the writers’ life is supposed to be so romantic and all, I would hate to demolish anyone’s fond illusions.

So – this is the mental foundation which serves me when I try and visualize mid-19th century San Antonio – a spaghetti-tangle of streets, eight public plazas of various shapes (the oldest of them being the most asymmetrical as to layout) and an aqua-blue river which can’t actually be said to cross it. Lord no – the river rambles like a spastic snake in the middle of a particularly energetic fit, although the course of San Pedro Creek, and the remaining constructs of the old Spanish aquicias describe a considerably more rational line. The San Pedro Springs once came leaping out of the ground, such was the pressure exerted by the Edwards aquifer: so much water seeping down into the limestone layer of the Hill Country – when it escaped, it escaped with a bang. There are still natural springs and seeps, visible for weeks after it rains, even in my neighborhood. In the 19th century, the San Pedro Spring was focus for a summer excursion, a nice relaxing afternoon in the park-like setting and in the local beer-gardens.

This map was drawn and published before the railway arrived, when the middle of all but the oldest city blocks were open – even if the streets were lined with Monopoly-block little houses, plain little cubes with pale walls and dark dashes for windows. Throughout, significant buildings and mansions are given a trifle more detail than the “Monopoly-house-and-hotel” treatment: a second or third story, a tower, ornate apse or merely an eccentric lay-out relative to the street adjacent. The Menger Hotel is clear, on Alamo Plaza – where it exists to this day.

The aspect is from an imaginary viewpoint somewhat to the north of modern downtown, looking out towards the south and east. It looks a very tiny town, my town of the past and my imagination. As such, it devolves very rapidly from a tight-packed huddle around Commerce Street and the old Main Plaza, dominated by the spire of San Fernando – which would be re-built in grey-stone neo-gothic splendor within a few years.
During the siege of the Alamo, the blood-red banner of ‘no quarter’ was flown from the stumpy tower which existed then – an event which would be well within the memories of anyone above the age of forty, who had been living in the town at the time. In my mind, and aided by this map, I can place so many landmarks now overbuild with steel, concrete and glass. Samuel and Mary Maverick had a house on the corner of Houston and Alamo. The last few structures remaining of the mission of San Antonio de Valero are relatively unchanged, save that they are now a shrine of another sort. The Veramendi Palace on Soledad Street just a little way from what the Main Plaza (would they have called it the Plaza Mayor, back in the day?) is gone now, but it still remains on this map – a long low, windowless building, so-called because it was the town-house of a powerful Tejano family. James Bowie married a Veramendi daughter, and lived there briefly: by the year of my map, the building housed offices, and around in back – a beer garden. The grand double front doors of the Veramendi Palace are on display in the Alamo.

Mid-19th century San Antonio’s city blocks devolved very rapidly from that core into city blocks, loosely lined with houses, then to blocks with just a scattering of them, interspersed with regular plantings of trees which could be seen as orchards. As the pale, buff-colored streets ravel out into the countryside, the houses become sparse – although some of them are distinguished by a bit more detail, a porch perhaps, or a row of miniscule dormers along the roof. The present King William district – almost the first high-end suburb – is a twelve-block stretch of town laid out to the south and adjoining the San Antonio River as it rambles off in a coast-wards direction, or at about 2 o’clock as I view the map. This is where the good German bourgeoisie magnates and men of business built their homes, when Texas began to recover some semblance of post-Civil War prosperity. C.H. Guenther’s Pioneer Flour Mill anchors this district today – but it does not appear on this map, although it is there and plain to see in the follow-up birds-eye map done a little more than a decade later, when the railway had come in, connecting the town with the greater world. But that’s what the 19th century American rail system did – connect far-spread communities with the larger world. There is another birds-eye view, by the same artist, done a bare ten fifteen later, in 1886, after the railway, after the Army had decamped to a new-built post somewhat to the north – the Fort Sam Quadrangle and the clock tower in it, all clear and neatly inked in. The houses are tinier, and even less detailed in the second man – for by then, San Antonio had become a city.
I think I will go and buy the second map, also – as soon as I have a bit more of the spare change.

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