06. June 2007 · Comments Off on The Ghost of South Presa Street · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, History, World

On a mild spring day, my daughter and I walk on a narrow trail, trampled out between tall grass and wildflowers grown knee-high, waist-high, shoulder-high. A light breeze ruffles the flowers, around which orbit a fair of butterflies. We are on a quest, looking for the past, and exploring the ruins of the old Hot Wells resort, a sort of architectural sleeping beauty. There is no crystal coffin protecting this place, just a prosaic chain-link fence… but the place exudes quiet enchantment nonetheless. A feeling of serenity wraps around us; nothing threatens us. It is quiet, restful… even soothing.

Hot Wells today lies in a clearing among a grove of trees, across the railroad tracks, between South Presa and the San Antonio River. Someone casually driving by might think the ruins are of a factory, or a mill… but they would be judging by what the neighborhood nearby is now, little knowing that once there was a long elegant promenade, which terminated in a circular carriageway in front of the bathhouse and the hotel, a carriageway ornamented with a planting of flowerbeds, hedges and footpaths on either side. Little is left of that glory now, only the ragged stand of palms and some pomegranate shrubs grown lank and wild, far back in the scrub trees. The central ruins seem to float in a rippling green sea, a wrecked ship of buff-colored brick.

A few ranges of wall go as far as their original three stories. Some walls support a cob-web fragile roof over what had been changing rooms. Everywhere in the crumbling walls there are regularly-spaced openings for windows and doors. Faded flecks of aqua paint still adhere to the otherwise weathered grey wood. Mats of dark green vines shroud some walls, as if trying to pull them down to ground level. Trees of a good size grow up through what were once interiors; a prickly-pear cactus perches on top of a high wall, above a narrow interior courtyard

And yet, if you close your eyes, sit quietly and hold your breath in this place, one can almost hear the sound of ragtime music floating on the air from a nearby bandstand under the trees, or a wind-up Victrola paying in a high-ceiling room behind a deep verandah. Gravel crunches under the narrow tires of tinny little sedans and open touring cars, sweeping up to the front of the sprawling grand hotel, and a train-whistle blows, from the spur where a wealthy magnate has his private parlor car waiting. The past is just barely out of reach here at Hot Wells, the sounds of it just beyond our hearing, in this twenty-first century.

Women stroll past, shading themselves with fragile lace parasols. The hems of their skirts nearly touch the ground, rustling around their high-buttoned slippers as they laugh softly, perhaps recounting a tale of flirtation on the paths in the pecan grove, or at the luxurious baths. The gentlemanly object of their affections is a mustachioed gallant in a seersucker suit the color of ice cream, who wears a straw boater, and when he takes the waters in the gentleman’s swimming pool, he does so in a one-piece knit bathing suit that covers nearly as much of him as his suit of long winter underwear does. The rotten-egg smell of water infused with sulfur floats on the summer-warm air, drifting from the direction of the ornate brick and wood bathhouse with the three pools in it. This bathhouse, immortalized in a thousand hand-tinted postcards… this is the central jewel of this place, a fanciful bubble on the river of time.

We close our eyes and imagine again… that these walls are crisp and new-plastered, the paint on the signs is fresh, and the changing rooms stocked with clean towels, everything polished and pristine under the grooved-board ceilings. Hot Wells was built in another world, a slower-moving world than our hyper-kinetic present but no less perilous. In that world children routinely died from diseases that 21st century doctors barely recognize. It was a world that did not know penicillin or the atom bomb, a world that was barely acquainted with powered flight and civil rights. Out in city streets of that close-yet-distant world, horse teams still vie with motorcars, the British Empire still rules a quarter of the world, $3.00 a day is a good wage for a working man, and votes for women is a radical notion. Civil War veterans still abound… and there are movies and movie theaters, but so primitive that we would barely recognize them: silent, a jerky blur of black and white, filmed with hand-cranked cameras. An early movie company has just filmed the very first film version of the battle of the Alamo nearby, using one of the old missions as a stand-in. No doubt but that the actors, the director and the money men of the Starr Ranch Movie Company… they would have come here, the gentlemen smoking an expensive cigar on the balcony of the grand hotel while they work out the plot of their next fifteen minute epic. The seeds of our own world, for good or ill, were planted in this one by the contemporaries of the men and women who strolled along the landscaped paths and bathed in the mineral water, and nurtured through the changes that befell that world. The wars and movements that sprang up still reverberate, and affect our world profoundly.

The world changed first through war and then depression, both of which affected Hot Wells… but not as much as fire, the fire that ushered the resort from the world of my grandparents into the world of my parents in the mid 1920s. The hotel building burned to the ground in the Twenties, never to be rebuilt. Today another footpath leads into the woods where it once stood, towards two ranks of tourist cabins that replaced it; pastel stucco structures with oddly peaked roofs. The luxury resort became a motor court, then a trailer park. The music of my imagination changes here, in the sunny glades between the shattered stucco walls; it becomes big-band swing on a car radio, crackling with static and interspersed with an announcers’ voice reading a bulletin about a distant war and far away events.

Is that the perfume of honeysuckle, hanging on the air? We wade through wildflowers again; the cabins are as ruinous as the bathhouse; just enough of them left to hint at what was once here, which continue to haunt the woods on this patch of the Southside. There is a different feel to the ruins of place where happiness has been, though; melancholy, but without the oppressive sense of tragedy, and the knowledge that blood has been spilt into the ground. All the ghosts of Hot Wells are benign, even wistfully friendly, welcoming those who softly set foot in the places where joy and mirth have been. These woods, this clearing is indeed haunted… but haunted in a good way.

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