Centro San Antonio tour guests explore the Joske's construction site. Photo by Katherine Nickas.
Centro San Antonio tour guests explore the Joske's construction site. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

With then Mayor Henry Cisneros driving the project, the Rivercenter Mall was built around a lagoon on the river extension under the slogan, “Just Add Water.”

Today, visitors can amble back and forth between the Alamo and the mall, enjoy an ice cream cone, listen to Peruvian pipes, stay at the nearby historic Menger Hotel, and enjoy the scenery.

What has become of the famous Joske’s building amid all this activity?

The flagship store at the corner of Alamo and Commerce streets has hosted many retail stores over the years, and a developer is working to bring retail activity back. Construction crews have removed the roof and hollowed out the inside, leaving only the exterior walls intact.

San Antonio Light Collection, L-5058. Santa descending from atop Joske's department store building. Circa mid 1950s. Courtesy of Hearst Corp. to UTSA's Institute of Texan Cultures
Santa descending from atop Joske’s department store building. Circa mid 1950s. UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures San Antonio Light Collection, L-5058. Courtesy of Hearst Corp.

Youth living in San Antonio today may have memories of grandparents who worked at Joske’s. Natives and first-time guests to the city conjure up memories of holiday visits to the store in the 1960s, when a 30-foot tall Santa Claus waved his hand and greeted customers as they entered the Christmas Fantasyland.

A few blocks south, the Institute of Texan Cultures has hosted photo exhibits revisiting the celebrations of yesteryear.

The famed store’s founder was Julius Joske who, according to the Texas State Historical Association, immigrated to Texas from Germany in 1867 and chose San Antonio as his home because of its access to Texas military installations, Native American areas, and Mexico.

In 1878, he expanded his space to include women’s merchandise and in 1887 it moved from a small adobe house at Main Plaza to Alamo and Commerce Streets where the owner began offering custom-made women’s dresses, customer service departments, delivery services and promotions, the association recorded.

Under new leadership, the store eventually became the first *completely air-conditioned store in Texas and the site of many groundbreaking advertising campaigns. By the time it was a chain of 27 outlets in Texas, Joske’s was sponsoring radio and TV shows, hosting beauty pageants, art shows, charity benefits, and more.

A truck exits the Joske's construction site onto Alamo and Commerce Streets. Photo by Katherine Nickas.
A truck exits the Joske’s construction site onto Alamo and Commerce Streets. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

Shortly after Joske’s closed the building for remodeling in 1987, Dillard’s department stores acquired the space, and the structure was divided up to suit different retail outlets, including AMC movie theater, with Dillard’s occupying only a small portion.

Now, the New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which owns Rivercenter Mall, is bringing a new batch of retail outlets to the historic venue.

On Tuesday night, Centro San Antonio hosted a hardhat tour of the Joske’s building to show guests the demolition of the old frame and plan for construction of new concrete piers to support several floors of restaurants and shops including H&M clothing store and Johnny Rockets, the “all-American hamburger” chain.

Rendering of the future Joske's building. Image courtesy of SA Partnership.
Rendering of the future Joske’s building. Image courtesy of SA Partnership.

Between 12 and 20 tenants will move into the new retail spaces in by June 4, 2015, the grand opening date.

Part of the renovation involves bringing back old elements of the building including concrete structures and flooring built in the 1930s and 1950s, the brick outer wall along Alamo Street, and antique pivot doors. Longleaf pine joists, supports for ceilings and floors, discovered by construction crews in Joske’s will be used in the nearby $11 million Bexar County Courthouse renovation project.

“We reclaimed as much as we could – Joske’s went from a two-story to a four-story structure between the late 1880s and the 1950s,” said Rivercenter Mall General Manager Chris Oviatt. “The existing mall is bordered by Alamo, Commerce and Blum streets.”

Tenants will have eight feet of awning space, he said. A modern mall that Ashkenazy Corp. hopes will attraction even more national brands to Joske’s

Rivercenter Mall General Manager Chris Oviatt (center) speaks with Centro San Antonio tour guests in the Joske's construction site.
Rivercenter Mall General Manager Chris Oviatt (center) speaks with Centro San Antonio tour guests in the Joske’s construction site. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

The hardhat tour, which coincided with a monthly event for Centro San Antonio members, drew several businessmen and women, including one from an Eastside brewery and an historic downtown hotel.

William Brendel, the executive assistant general manager of the Menger Hotel, said he was looking forward to seeing the project completed.

“It’s been six years since this area under renovation has been occupied – it was a big loss when Dillard’s left, because they were an anchor tenant at the most traveled part of the (Alamo) Plaza,” he said.

He said many tourists, locals and children travel through Rivercenter Mall and that many hotel guests shop there.

“People have many choices in hotels, restaurants and stores in shopping downtown, and there is a niche of the traveling public that’s interested in history,” he said. “I think this will be a win-win for San Antonio, and in drawing retailers and vendors that are not already in this area.”

Rivercenter Mall General Manager Chris Oviatt calls the cavernous demolition site, "the pit." Photo by Katherine Nickas.
Rivercenter Mall General Manager Chris Oviatt calls the cavernous demolition site, “the pit.” Photo by Katherine Nickas.

Featured/top image:Centro San Antonio tour guests explore the Joske’s construction site. Photo by Katherine Nickas.

*Correction: As reader Garl B. Latham pointed out in the comments below, technically Joske’s was the first building to be entirely air-conditioned. “Dallas’ Neiman-Marcus had already air-conditioned portions of their store five years prior to Joske’s installation.”

Related stories:

A Dome Update, Walkability, and a City on the Rise Attract Final Four Delegates

Alamo Plaza Conversation Continues

Bernal Targets Vacant Buildings, Sets Sights on Alamo Plaza

Something Monday: Historic Downtown Church

People Want a Park: San Antonio’s Passion for Hemisfair

Katherine Nickas

Katherine Nickas was born in San Antonio near Fort Sam Houston but grew up in southern Indiana. In 2007, she began working for Indiana AgriNews where she covered topics ranging from corn and soybean production...