San Pedro Avenue streetcar going south on South Alamo Street near the intersection of East Commerce Street, early 1900s.
A San Pedro Avenue streetcar going south on South Alamo Street near the intersection of East Commerce Street, early 1900s. Credit: Courtesy / Zintgraff Studio Photograph Collection

If you venture to the Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC) to see the new exhibit San Antonio 1860s-1990s: A Photographic Chronology from UTSA Special Collections, bring a longtime San Antonian familiar with the trivia and details of local history.

I had the good fortune of touring the exhibit with my boss, Robert Rivard, former deputy managing editor of the defunct San Antonio Light newspaper and, for many years, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, and currently the Rivard Report editor and publisher.

As we made our way through the by-decade, chronological sections of archival photographs, Rivard shared offhand anecdotes, trivia, and details about San Antonio history that went far beyond the short captions describing each image.

Those details are fascinating. For example, the wooden doors of the former Veramendi Palace on Soledad Street, where the Savoy Building now stands, were moved to the Alamo in 1912, where they currently welcome visitors to the chapel.

Veramendi Palace on Soledad Street, late 1860s.
Veramendi Palace on Soledad Street, late 1860s. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA Libraries Special Collections General Photograph Collection, image loaned by Thomas Cutrer

Without the knowledge of the palace location and the fate of its doors, the images stand intriguing, but mute.

Rivard will speak about the show during its free, public opening reception on Friday, Aug. 3, 6-8 p.m., along with Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) and Father David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions of San Antonio and a Tricentennial Commission chair. Representatives of the University of Texas at San Antonio Special Collections also will speak.

But during regular ITC hours, without significant knowledge of San Antonio’s historical development, viewers of this official Tricentennial exhibit are largely on their own. No catalogue or other publication is planned to accompany the exhibit.

To be fair, despite the lack of a publication or docents, many images hold interest for those with only a passing knowledge of local culture, like myself.

The best picture I’ve seen of the Alamo Plaza area during the Hugo & Schmeltzer mercantile store days of the mid-1880s is here. So, too, are a circa-1866 image of San Fernando Church before it became the grand cathedral it is today, and images of the 1890s-era Alamo Plaza, an early example of “urban redevelopment” perhaps relevant to current debates.

The plaza’s gracefully curving sidewalks and walking paths, bountiful (though young) trees, ample seating, and what looks to be a public pavilion, might spark debate and inspiration among those currently involved in redeveloping the plaza. Is it time to talk about bringing back hexagonal mesquite block paving around the plaza’s streets?

Small park on a former open dusty area of Alamo Plaza, circa 1890.
Small park on a former open dusty area of Alamo Plaza, circa 1890. Credit: Courtesy / UTSA Libraries Special Collections General Photograph Collection, image loaned by Robert Ayres Estate

Granted, with more than 3.5 million images in the UTSA Libraries Special Collections archive, according to James Benavides, the ITC’s senior communications specialist, any selection of 300 pictures would necessarily leave some things out. The 140-year period that the images span reflects the limits of the photo collections donated to UTSA.

What’s left out: The Civil War is absent from the 1860s section, and the Jim Crow era in San Antonio is represented by only one image, of the “Negro Waiting Room” at the KATY train station in 1956. Thus, the show doesn’t tell the whole story of San Antonio’s recent history, Rivard told me, but it does offer illuminating glimpses of that past to detail-conscious viewers lucky enough or willing to delve more deeply into the context of the images.

What is notable in the exhibit are representations of the city’s diverse ethnic makeup throughout its history: Chili Queens hawking their tasty wares in Military and Haymarket plazas in the 1870s, urban cowboys on the downtown streets of 1885, black residents of the 1880s West Side, Belgian-American farmers of 1908, refugees from the Mexican Revolution lined up for meals at the Municipal Market House around 1910, Lebanese pageant performers of the 1920s, Canary Islander descendants in 1931, Chicano protesters from 1971, Filipino Fiesta celebrants from 1974, Italian dancers at La Villita and Indian grocery shoppers in 1984, and Pride picnickers from 1992. Scroll through the gallery below.

There are images of floods in 1920 and 1946, and a snowball fight at the Avenue B Chinese Baptist Church in 1949 and the famous blizzard of 1985, when 13.5 inches dropped on the city. Also of note is an image of ice skaters on a frozen Woodlawn Lake from 1899.

The selection appears to be a sampling of the various facets of San Antonio culture, from what must be among the earliest examples of a fast food joint, the 1931 Chickn Kichn at 1230 Broadway (where now stands a parking lot), to grandiose Order of the Alamo Fiesta coronations, to an unidentified woman seated under the famous Rose Window at Mission San Jose, where the King and Queen of Spain posed for pictures during their May visit.

Fans and naysayers of alternative transportation options will take note of the three-wheeled pedal car – “useful for short trips during the oil price crisis” of 1974, according to the caption – and the 1950s version of a “driverless” car, when rental vehicles were a new phenomenon and didn’t include chauffeurs.

San Antonio 1860s-1990s opens Aug. 3 and runs through March 31, 2019. Regular ITC hours and information on parking and admission prices is available here.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...