Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Donkey Barn

This unusual building is about to undergo renovation and I do plan on posting updates as it progresses.  Located in Brackenridge Park this building was originally one story and was believed to have been the location of the barn built to house the hay and, possibly, donkeys used on the Donkey Trail in the park. 

In 1916 the San Antonio Rotary Club gave 12 burros to the children of San Antonio.  They were tended by a one-legged man known only as "Peg".  The San Antonio Light ( April 8, 1917) states that all the kids just loved Peg.  The donkeys were originally kept in corrals built next to the river, but in 1920 Ray Lambert, the Commissioner of Parks and Sanitation credited with much of the development of the park, took bids to construct a barn near the corrals. 

It is not clear if the building actually was used to house the donkeys or just hay for them and the nearby zoo.  In the 1920's children enjoyed the simple pleasure of a ride on the trail through the park on the back of a donkey; what a wonderful, simple time! The rides ended during the 1940's as a result of World War II.

The second story and the Alamo-style parapet were added in 1956 when the building was converted to offices for the Department of Parks and Recreation. The visible line above the door denotes the addition.  I can only assume that the window motif (in the style of the Rose Window at Mission San Jose) and the buttress like towers were added at that time.

The current renovation will replace the roof, convert the interior into office/educational space, and make the building handicap accessible.  Upgrades to electrical systems are also included.  The cost is estimated at $500,000.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

John Twohig house

The plaque on the front of the John Twohig house gives a brief glimpse into the interesting history of this house now located on the grounds of the Witte Museum. 

“In 1841, John Twohig – a San Antonio pioneer, Texas patriot, and prosperous merchant – erected this house on a site which was part of the Veramendi Palace within a curving bend on the San Antonio River at St. Mary’s and Commerce streets.  Mr. Twohig’s house was unique in the community since few buildings in this area at that time could boast a second floor.  In 1852, John Twohig surrounded his house with a beautiful garden for his bride, Elizabeth Priscilla Calvert, and later smaller guest houses for his important friends.  The Twohig’s were famous for their hospitality!
The property eventually passed into the ownership of the San Antonio Public Service Company, and finally, in 1941, was moved to the grounds of the Witte Museum.  The building as it now stands was restored as authentically as possible to John Twohig’s original home.  Built entirely of local limestone, each stone was carefully numbered and replaced in its proper position.  The original fireplace mantles and doors were installed, the outside stairway replaced, and details, such as lamps, were reproduced.  Even the bend in the river is strongly reminiscent of the landscape which surrounded the house downtown.”

Mr. Twohig, originally from Ireland, was known locally as the “Breadline Banker” because of his generous distribution of loaves of bread to the poor every Saturday night.  The original site of the house was actually on a small island formed by the tight curve of river and was reached by crossing a small footbridge.  After the removal of the house this bend in the river was filled in and the river re-channeled for flood control purposes.  (Click here to read more about Mr. Twohig and his interesting life)
Back side of house, facing the river
The house was to be torn down, but local preservations went into action.  The Historic Buildings Foundation provided three architects and an engineer to oversee the relocation.  City Public Service (the public utility entity of San Antonio) donated the building and paid for the move; the Conservation Society would provide furnishings for the house. The Portland Cement Company donated the cement to reconstruct the blocks; the last 430 bags of cement arrived just before the war necessitated a freeze on the use of cement. The Twohig house would be the last WPA project to be completed in Texas (Fisher, 1996).
Back side of house (stairs on left)
View river as seen from outside the Twohig house (looking north toward the start of the river)

Monday, August 4, 2014

Reptile Farm, Brackenridge Park

Remains of the front gate
The Reptile Farm had originally opened in 1933 in close proximity to the Witte Museum.  It would move twice before coming to this final location in 1939 when permanent stone structures replaced the temporary structures made of planks, barbed wire and old sheet metal.  The NYA assisted museum employees in constructing the large tank and surrounding snake houses.

These snake "apartments" featured steam heat to keep the snakes comfortable!
The first snake garden had opened on June 8, 1933, and was stocked with rattlesnakes captured on surrounding ranches and bought for 15 cents a pound, alligators that had been purchased at 50 cents a foot, and turtles. This was a solution for the abundance of snakes on area ranches and it provided income to the brave souls who rounded them up and brought them to the garden.  But the real benefit was for the Witte Museum.  Admission was 10 cents and within one week the garden had paid for itself; this was the Depression!  
The garden's popularity would continue throughout its existence.  A history of the Witte Museum states that it is believed that this was the first such facility in the United States. A popular attraction at the garden was a weekly rattlesnake fry; the last fry would be held on September 14, 1950.
Side of main entrance
South Texas was hit with a severe drought in the 1940's and snakes became scarce.  When the San Antonio Zoo opened their Reptile House the remaining snakes at the garden would be transferred to it in 1942.  The garden would switch to alligators as a substitute attraction; from 1952 until its closure in 1975 the garden displayed alligators and crocodiles. The snake garden closed when the manager, George Kimbrell, retired and took his collection to Arkansas.
The original roof structures are long gone, but the snake pits and other enclosures are still visible.  At the time of these pictures work was underway to remove debris and overgrown vegetation.  I doubt if there any plans to re-open the snake garden, but at least the structures are still visible and somewhat intact.  Their future remains to be determined.