The crowded locks during the 2009 grand opening of the Mission Reach. Photo courtesy of San Antonio River Authority Facebook page.
The crowded river locks during the 2009 grand opening of the Museum Reach. Photo courtesy of San Antonio River Authority Facebook page.

Former Mayor Phil Hardberger was invited to deliver the keynote address to those gathered in San Antonio for the Texas Association of Museums annual meeting last year. Unless you happen to be a museum director, you probably missed his speech, so the Rivard Report acquired a copy directly from the source to share with readers on this Fourth of July. It seems like a good day for an homage to our namesake river.

Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger
Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger

I love the theme of this year’s Texas Association of Museums meeting. It has multiple meanings – but the most important one is that all museums must stay in the current of public interest, or lose their audience. Where the current runs swiftest is where you want to be.

Fish die when caught in the stagnant waters of the shallows. So do museums.

It is appropriate that this conference has chosen for its location the banks of a historic river. Rivers mean life, movement, rebirth – it is dynamic, changing, ever revelatory. Museums are often a city’s best adults’ educational institution.

SAMA Director Katie Luber. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Executive Director Katie Luber stands in a courtyard at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Photo by Iris Dimmick. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

There are many competitors for your members interest – beginning with the cell phone in their pocket and their TV at home. We live in a dynamic time, where we are bombarded with much information, but little time to synthesize or understand. We are too busy seeing and listening to be learning. Our brains are filled with discordant facts – yet we are neither wiser nor more thoughtful. We suffer from a lack of content. We are in continuous motion, but like the rat in the rotating cage, forward progress is negligible.

This is where museums can make the greatest contribution. The museum has the opportunity to put it all together: context, illumination and reflection. A well-run museum is a superb learning place.

It is an integration of natural, artistic, and cultural landscape. The river, outside these walls, has the same qualities.

Rivers and museums have something else in common. They both deal with the fluidity of time. And time is the molecule of life. In a history museum, we go back in time. In an art museum, we are transported to the time of the scene in the painting. The river becomes time itself. It flows as our life progresses – continually and in one direction.

Opening day for the dinosaur exhibit at the Witte Museum in February. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Opening day for the dinosaur exhibit at the Witte Museum in February. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

We speak of “water under the bridge now,” meaning that time and events are behind us and we cannot alter them. The same thing can be said about time, it flows like the river’s current and what happened an hour ago is now “water under the bridge.”

But a museum, through paintings or history, can capture the moment. Make time stand still and give us a chance to think.

Last summer I stood in Maryland’s state house, the oldest of the state capitals in the United States. I was in the room where General George Washington resigned his military commission. I know who was in the room, I know what clothes General Washington was wearing and I know where he was standing when he spoke. And I know where the others sat and what they were wearing. I know because I was there: through the paintings and the room itself. Time had stopped and as I read his words, I could hear them and think of their impact on the future of our country.

The McNay Art Museum. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The McNay Art Museum. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

I was also at Renoir’s boating party and got a good look at the pretty girl with the rosy cheeks. I could hear the slightly tipsy laughter and the boatman with his hat pushed back on his head telling a slightly off-color story. The wine looked good also, plenty of body and luminescent color. I was there because I stood in front of a picture in a museum. Museums can do things like that.

But museums are like that – they transport time and place. They educate us. I never go to an art museum without leaving with a new sense of vision. Our eyes are educated.

Museums are totally relevant. They integrate the natural and cultural landscape of the urban community. Great cities have great museums – it is not possible to have a great city without them. I cherish ours and salute all of you in this room for the contribution you make to our society through your own museums.

The San Antonio River

I’ve been asked to talk some about the San Antonio River. My first reaction was that this was an odd choice as a subject for museum directors and workers. But… on second thought, maybe not. The San Antonio River is a museum itself. It knows much and has seen much. Its mood varies from serene beauty to careless destruction. It saw the first Indians settle on its banks 10,000 years ago and it saw the first Spaniards come in the 1600s and it saw San Antonio come into life as a small community in 1721 when five missions were settled along it’s banks.  And now, almost 300 years later, it sees San Antonio as the seventh largest city in the United States.

Blue Bonnets on the Mission Reach, April 2012
In April 2012, bluebonnets brightened the trail along the Mission Reach. The Mission Reach Ecosystem Restoration and Recreation Project is gaining recognition from around the world for being an example of how urban ecosystem restoration can be accomplished. Photo by Al Rendon, courtesy of SARA.

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, said the San Antonio River was “nothing more than a muddy ditch”.  Our citizens thought this rather harsh, though perhaps, at times, it could be so characterized. But the Mona Lisa can also be described as some paint on canvas, and the Taj Mahal described as a clever pile of polished rocks.

However you describe it though, had there not been a river, there would be no San Antonio. That’s why the American colonists came, and that’s why many of us are here today. The river is the number one tourist attraction in Texas, but more than that it is a moving museum of history and beauty.

The River Project

The original River Walk improvements were done in 1939-40: this is the horseshoe-shaped bend in the River. Much of the work was done by the Works Progress Administration under President Roosevelt, while Maury Maverick was the Mayor. Mayor Maverick had been a strong supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and he talked the President into making the river improvements a local priority. This led to the first two miles of the River being improved. It has been used, enjoyed and made money for San Antonio ever since.

San Antonio's famous River Walk was developed as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures.
San Antonio’s famous River Walk was developed as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures.

Incredible as it may seem, no further work was done on extending the original improvements for the next 65 years.

To be sure, there were numerous meetings, conferences, committees and planning discussed during those 65 years. But nothing actually got built. I campaigned on the idea of building improvements on the river for its entire San Antonio length. From the headwaters of the Blue Hole, which is near the Witte Museum, to the Missions on the Southside of town. This would encompass 13 miles, rather than just two miles.

The nearly two-mile long landscaped walkway along the San Antonio River included dozens of stairways and bridges, allowing for both flood prevention and enormously successful commercial development. Photo courtesy UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures.
The nearly two-mile long landscaped walkway along the San Antonio River included dozens of stairways and bridges, allowing for both flood prevention and enormously successful commercial development. Photo courtesy UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures.

As you might expect there were those that said, “it would take too much money.”

Others felt “more planning needed to be done.”

My advice to the first group of critics was that they were correct in saying it would be expensive. I agreed it would cost millions, but pointed out it would bring in billions. This argument prevailed and public opinion swung our way.

To those who thought more planning needed to be done, I said:  “Quit planning and start digging. We need less pencils, and more shovels.”

And so it came to pass.  But there were a few bumps along the way.

Zachry Construction was the logical choice for such a large multi-million project. They are from San Antonio, the company is headquartered here, they have a worldwide business, and they have a great reputation for building “on time and on budget.”

I was surprised when the bids came in to find out they hadn’t even bid. I went to the senior member of the family, Bartell Zachry, and asked why.

He replied that:  “You can’t do business with the city and we have stopped trying.”

When I asked why, he replied that the City’s contracts were “too one-sided in favor of the City.”

I went back to my office, read the contract, and saw his point.  The general contractor was responsible for all negligence, even that of the City. Clearly this was unreasonable. So we changed all of the contracts of the city to simply provide that every party is responsible for their own negligence, but no one else. Then we rejected all bids, and started the process all over.

This time Zachry bid and got the contract. They began work immediately on the Museum Reach, and when the weather turned sour they worked on weekends and holidays. Hundreds of men, and dozens of pieces of heavy equipment.  They never asked for more money, or additional time. They simply got it done: on time and on budget.

The cost was $72.1 million for the Museum Reach. It opened to the public on the last day I was Mayor, May 30, 2009.  Two hundred thousand people lined the banks, and strolled the sidewalks while Linda, my wife and I, the City Council and numerous dignitaries rode the City barges up the River, and through the locks.

The crowded locks during the 2009 grand opening of the Mission Reach. Photo courtesy of San Antonio River Authority Facebook page.
The crowded locks during the 2009 grand opening of the Mission Reach. Photo courtesy of San Antonio River Authority Facebook page.

The locks were necessary because of a nine-foot drop in the river as it flowed downstream. One of our former mayors, Lila Cockrell, much beloved, was insistent of solving this problem with a fast, new and sophisticated lock.  Some money could have been saved to eliminate the lock and I had looked at some alternatives such as stairs, etc. Mayor Cockrell came to my office and, close to tears, made her case about keeping the locks as a part of the design. She had served our city so well for so long, I was convinced and promised her the locks would be built.

It was. Mayor Cockrell was absolutely right. It is now a part of the fascination of the river.

My wife had a tree planted in my honor at the north end of the project marking the completion of the Northern Reach of the River.  Near that time the citizens of the Southside also planted a tree marking the appropriate end of the South Reach. After more than 60 years, the North part was finished. It was a happy day.

Even before completion of the Museum Reach, there had been a groundbreaking for the Mission Reach in June of 2008.

Map courtesy of the San Antonio River Authority.
San Antonio River’s reaches and projects. Map courtesy of the San Antonio River Authority.

It was obvious that the Mission Reach could not be finished while I was Mayor. But I wanted to make sure that it was at least started. For construction purposes we had broken the River into two parts: the Museum to the North, and the Mission to the South, with the original horseshoe bend in the center.

Of course all of these divisions were artificial as there is only one river, not two pieces joined by the historical center.

The southern portion is much longer: eight miles compared to four miles. It was also remedial in nature. The original river course had been straightened, concreted and all vegetation killed for the purpose of flood control in the 1950s. The idea was to get the water out of town as quickly as possible. This was done at the expense of nature and beauty, and to the detriment of the entire Southside.

It was very ugly. A beautiful, historical river had been turned into a drainage ditch. This time, we apologized to nature, and made a fresh start.  Because so much had to be done in terms of bringing back the vegetation and the length of this portion, this work is slower and more expensive: $245.7 million. It is still ongoing. The sources of funding have now been broadened, including a major source of funding from the County (thanks to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff), a lesser amount from the City, private citizens, the United States Government, and the San Antonio River Authority. Work is proceeding with a scheduled completion date of October.

Those of you in this conference are in the business of capturing time and showcasing beauty. Your work educates us, and enchants us. You create the magic that fills our senses and imagination. We are honored to have you in San Antonio. So we have a gift for you.

Before you go home, walk the banks of our river – you walk through history and the beauty of our natural museum. Walk north and see the Museum Reach, or walk south and see the original WPA improvements in the history’s horseshoe bend – or continue walking south on the Mission Reach until you reach the cradle of San Antonio, our Missions.

Sit quietly a moment and listen. In the gurgling and the riffles of water running, you can hear the voices of a thousand generations, whose destinies long since carried them into the eternity of the restless sea.

Time ticks.

The river flows.

We wait. Patiently.

… Our turn.

Phil Hardberger, lawyer, judge and sailor, served as Mayor of San Antonio from 2005-09. He piloted the B-47 bomber as a captain in the U.S. Air Force, and later served as executive secretary of the Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration. In 1968, he married the former Linda Morgan, who in 1956 survived the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria. After a career in private practice, he served as associate justice and then chief justice of the Fourth Court of Appeals. Today he is an active partner and shareholder in the Cox/Smith law firm.

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This article was assembled by various members of the San Antonio Report staff.