Bathhouse to be part of park in San Antonio, salute to films

This July 24, 2018, photo, shows the old Hot Wells Resort off of Presa Street in San Antonio being transformed into a recreational facility by Bexar County. It is slated to open in the coming months (Billy Calzada/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The ruins of an early 1900s bathhouse, where sulfur-laden hot water lured the rich and famous in search of its curative powers, will soon rise from the dead.

The San Antonio Express-News reports crews have been stabilizing the walls of the abandoned bathhouse at the former Hot Wells resort and hotel. It will become the centerpiece of a county park that will open in the fall and pay tribute to San Antonio’ s little-known historic ties to the early film industry.

Hot Wells County Park, when completed, will host screenings of silent movies, community garden programs, weddings, art exhibitions and other events, with public restrooms to serve people walking, jogging and biking along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. The site in the 5000 block of South Presa Street is on the east side of the river, across from Mission Park Pavilions and Mission San José.

The land, once occupied by Native Americans prior to arrival of the Spanish, has been redeveloped several times by entrepreneurs tapping its warm, sulfuric waters. In its heyday as a resort, Hot Wells was the field headquarters of the Star Film Ranch movie studio, hosting Rudolph Valentino, Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and other celebrities of its era.

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Although the hotel was struck by fire in 1925, the bathhouse ruins, with separate swimming pools marked “Ladies” and “Gents,” stand as a reminder of days when people flocked there for healing and relaxation.

“People often think (the bathhouse) was the hotel. The only thing you got here was healing and spa services,” said Justin Murray, project manager with Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, a planning and engineering company working on the $5.3 million project.

According to a 1985 archaeological report published by the University of Texas at San Antonio, the 104-degree water, though smelly from sulfur and other minerals, was thought to be a cure-all for everything from ringworm to kidney disease. A well was drilled in the early 1890s and a hotel was built, promoted through newspaper articles and advertisements.

But after two fires heavily damaged the resort, another investment group led by beer magnate Otto Koehler, once head of what would later be known as the Pearl Brewery, built a larger bathhouse and a three-story, 80-room hotel. Silent films shot at Hot Wells included “The Immortal Alamo,” from 1911, also known as “Fall of the Alamo,” an early depiction of the 1836 siege and battle.

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A decline in popularity of the resort, changes in ownership and repeated fires left the site largely in a state of decline. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff remembers playing baseball in nearby fields as a boy.

“Sometimes you’d chase a baseball all the way over here to the bathhouse,” Wolff said. “And then later, for at least 40 years, we went through many different iterations of how this could be restored.”

Betty Bueche, Bexar Heritage & Parks Department director, said the National Park Service, the City of San Antonio and at least three private developers studied ways to make the site “something that the public can enjoy again.” After about three years of negotiating, the county made a “final offer” to developer James Lifshutz, who owned the 4-acre site and was ready to donate it as a park.

Lifshutz owns land around the park and plans to redevelop it, possibly as a resort or spa facility, tapping into the same water that made the site famous, Wolff said. The nonprofit Hot Wells Conservancy will oversee programming for the park and raise funds for future improvements, including renovation of a three-story wing of the bathhouse for a museum, office and meeting space.

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Wolff said stabilization of the bathhouse was urgent because some of its stand-alone brick walls were in danger of collapsing. A couple of them were partly reconstructed after being blown down in storms.

“The longer we waited, the more likely it was going to cave in on us,” Wolff said.

To stabilize the walls, the project team reapplied mortar and attached vertical steel square tubing as buttresses. Still to be added is landscaping and interpretive signs. The public won’t be allowed inside of the ruins; handrails and sidewalks will prevent people from climbing into the pools or ruins. A small concrete monument memorializes the resort’s famous well, now capped.

“There likely will never be a hot water well or a well of any kind on this site,” Murray said.