The 21 stories that make up the newest hotel tower on the San Antonio River Walk are perched solidly on a base about the square footage of a large home.
The Canopy by Hilton at 123 N. St. Mary’s St. opened in late April after four years of construction, and three years of planning prior to that, said developer Chris Hill, who recently led a tour of the hotel for the San Antonio Report along with the design team from Gensler.
The result is a contemporary tower with 195 rooms and a foundation that occupies every inch of its 5,000-square-foot site along the River Walk. And as the structure ascends up past neighboring buildings and the cypress treetops, it “borrows” more space by cantilevering, or overhanging, downtown streets and the historic Esquire Tavern.
Along with the Witte Building, which Hill recently restored, the Canopy is helping transform an unremarkable city block that’s already attracting both tourists and locals even as major work continues on a new multifamily development known as Floodgate.
“The idea was certainly to bring something new, and frankly, maybe raise the bar a little bit for what’s happening for food and beverage, and for architecture alone, on the River Walk,” Hill said.
By blending the old and new, the building reflects the city’s character as a destination and will do so for many years to come, Hill said.
“We think Lake Flato’s and Gensler’s building is going to look as good 25 years from now as it does today, which is the standard test for architecture,” he said.
San Antonio-based architecture firm Lake Flato began work on the project as the lead designer starting in 2014 and brought in as architect of record the San Antonio team of Gensler, which has expertise in designing tall buildings.
Cantilevering the structure 3 feet out over St. Mary’s and Commerce streets as well as the Esquire allowed Gensler to put on a very tight site a vertical structure sizable enough to be a viable hotel, said Pete Chalfant, project manager at Gensler.
The cantilevering is clearly visible when peering up from street level. It’s also apparent while standing inside the guest rooms, where floor-to-ceiling windows provide panoramic views of the cityscape. But it does not overhang the River Walk – because that’s not allowed, Chalfant said.
Instead, the structure extends aerially to the property line, while the River Walk level of the hotel is pulled back from the river’s edge to create more outdoor space for the restaurant, a second-floor bar and terrace, and the meeting room’s patio.
The chance to design something new for property along the River Walk doesn’t come along often, Chalfant said. But it came with challenges given the size of the lot and the narrow river promenade.
“For us, it was a really fun project,” he said. “Chris gave us the opportunity to actually put 8 pounds in a 5-pound bag – a 5,000-foot site and an 8,000-foot floor plan.”
Chalfant said one of his favorite elements of the design are the windows, both those facing out and interior windows that create engaging views within the structure. And yet it’s not a glass tower, he said, which also makes it more energy efficient.
New York-based firm Markzeff designed the interior spaces of the hotel with modern but warm furnishings and lighting, and bold art by local artists including Cruz Ortiz and Ethel Shipton adorns the walls.
The architects also borrowed from the past, making use of material already on the site. Crews dismantled a limestone wall that formed the interior of the former Alamo Fish Market building and reinstalled it as a centerpiece in the street-level hotel lobby.
The workers removed, restored, and replaced a storefront facade and gave an old masonry cistern a prominent place on the patio of the hotel’s restaurant, Domingo.
“That’s what makes it authentic – tying in to the history that was here,” said Jim Shelton, design director in Gensler’s San Antonio office. “But it’s contextually appropriate for a contemporary hotel building. We’re not trying to mimic the past, we’re working within the context of the material, the massing, [and] how we relate to the river.”
Lewis McNeel, associate partner at Lake Flato, said the team knew it needed to give guests a distinctly San Antonian experience connecting to the river.
“I grew up here. I love the Riverwalk’s rambling atmosphere of quiet water and old limestone walls and balconies dappled in cypress tree shadows,” McNeel said. “We worked hard to amplify and extend the Riverwalk’s unique qualities, beckoning you up into the actual canopy of those gorgeous towering cypress trees and drawing you in alongside those old stone walls.”
The first time Jonathan Olvera, a San Antonio native and project architect at Gensler, saw that the Canopy plans called for cantilevering, he was impressed.
The first four floors are formed of concrete, and rather than conceal that, he said the warm-gray concrete is left creatively visible in public areas and guest rooms.
“So wrapping the structure with the historic stone to really honor the past but still have that structural integrity, to have these design moves around the building, was really challenging but ultimately very rewarding because of how it turned out,” Olvera said. “So it’s great to finally be done.”
White Lodging, a property management company based in Indiana, manages the Hilton-branded hotel. General Manager Daniel Haughan said the Canopy opened April 22 with 91 employees and will likely grow to 145. Listed online for between $183 and $503 a night, the hotel rooms have been solidly booked since opening, he said.
On the third-floor public space, where the hotel’s business center, fitness center, and lounge space is located and wide windows let in the neon light of the Aztec Theatre across the street, one wall displays a striking Vincent Valdez painting of a triumphant boxer.
“That’s how Chris felt the day the building opened,” Shelton said.
Across downtown San Antonio, where hotels bore the weight of canceled conventions and stalled tourism during the coronavirus pandemic, many hotels have reopened despite hiring shortfalls.
Nationwide, hotel occupancy so far during the month of May is hovering around 60%, regaining from a low of 22% in April 2020, according to the lodging data firm STR.
But some San Antonio hotels remain closed at least temporarily, including The Crockett Hotel and the El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel, which soon will undergo renovations under new management.
Lake Flato and Gensler San Antonio are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.