When the Menger Hotel first opened on Feb. 1, 1859, there were horse hitching posts near the main entrance. It was less than 23 years after the Battle of the Alamo – a stone’s throw away from the hotel’s front door – and German immigrant William Menger decided to build a place for his customers to sleep it off instead of using his tavern’s tables – or so the legend goes.
These days, instead of passing by horses, guests of the Menger Hotel and its ground-floor retail shops must find a path through electric scooters, said Bill Brendel, general manager of the adjacent Crockett Hotel.
“A lot has changed,” he told a crowd gathered in the historic lobby for an anniversary reception Thursday evening. And with work underway on finalizing details of the multi-million dollar Alamo Master Plan, there’s more change coming – including the relocation of the Alamo Cenotaph to the Menger’s original entrance.
The City has yet to hire a firm that will eventually restore and relocate the 1930s sculpture that honors the defenders who died in the 1836 siege and stands nearly 60 feet tall in Alamo Plaza. Its future home will be roughly 500 feet south, outside the original Alamo footprint and right in front of the Menger, from its current location near the Alamo Long Barrack and church.
San Antonio City Council and the local-state partnership tasked with developing Alamo Plaza into a world-class destination approved a master plan in October that includes the Cenotaph relocation, a museum, designated points of entry complete with barriers, street closures, and more to bring a sense of “reverence” to a site that represents thousands of years of American, Texan, Mexican, and indigenous people’s histories.
The Alamo redevelopment and Cenotaph are welcome additions to the Menger’s long list of amenities and connections to San Antonio history, Brendel told the Rivard Report ahead of the celebration reception.
“Can’t complain that somebody’s going to spend 400-500 million dollars right outside our front door,” said Brendel, who has served on the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee since he was appointed by then-Councilman Joe Krier in 2014.
The portion of Crockett street that scoops around the plaza and a gazebo will be closed – but the hotel’s vehicular entrance is located on a section around the building that will not close.
All that construction, however, will likely have an impact on the hotel, he said, “but we’re working on ways to get through that without too much pain and agony.”
That gives the hotel more space than just the sidewalk to welcome guests, Brendel said, and to connect the historic hotel entrance to the history of the city. “We look forward to it.”
But not everyone does. Protesters associated with descendants of the Alamo defenders and gun rights advocates have vowed to prevent the Cenotaph’s relocation. State Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg) filed a bill in February to stop it, though the legislation is not expected to gain traction.
Relocating the Cenotaph is part of “maximizing all the resources on the site,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who serves on the Alamo Management Committee. “Before we move it … there’s still a lot of design work still left to do,” Treviño said, and they will be working with the Menger to finalize the Cenotaph’s new location.
“We’re not eliminating anything, we’re actually enhancing it,” he said, adding that it’s still unclear if the Cenotaph will be renovated on-site or taken in sections for repair at another location.
The timeline – when it will start, how long that process will take, and when it will be re-installed, is also unclear. Installation could more easily take place after the streets are closed, which is expected to take several years, Treviño said. “We’re going to work to find the best way to do it.”
Downtown San Antonio grew up around the Alamo – and the Menger, the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Mississippi, was one of the first buildings to sidle up to the historic site. The hotel, too, has grown to host about 20,000 guests a year.
When it opened, it was a two-story, 50-room hotel – and not as luxuriously decorated as it is today.
Now it has 316 rooms, additions of various height, and 10,000 square feet of meeting and event space. The rooms in the original portion of the hotel maintain a historic design and decor, while the more contemporary portions have slightly more modern looks. All rooms were given an upgrade, a process that started less than two years ago in anticipation of the 160th anniversary, Bendel said.
The lobby and interior courtyard maintain much of their original Victorian architecture.
In 1871, William Menger died and his wife, Mary, took over the business with their son. The hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Alamo Plaza Historic District in 1976.
Sam Houston, Robert E. Lee, Babe Ruth, Mae West, Roy Rogers, Teddy Roosevelt, Richard King (of the King Ranch), Oscar Wilde, and Bill Clinton are among the celebrities that have stayed – and, in King’s case, died – at the Menger Hotel. Roosevelt spent at least one night at the Menger after gathering Texans at the Menger Bar to join his Rough Riders and mission to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War.
1859 Historic Hotels purchased the hotel about 80 years ago, Brendel said. The Galveston-based hotel company also owns the 110-year-old Crockett Hotel and he splits his time between the two.
Wally Harb has worked for 1859 Historic Hotels for nearly 35 years, the past four at the Menger.
“The Menger has a special identity,” Harb said, that attracts people from all over the world.
“To walk around, [it’s] like a museum,” he said, nodding toward the photos, furniture, and other historic artifacts in the original lobby. “Each picture tells a special story.”