Three hundred years of history are under my feet as I stand inside the Rand Building parking garage on Soledad Street, gazing down at the gaping hole created by the demolition of the long-shuttered Solo Serve department store.
History is always on display one-half block away at Main Plaza and San Fernando Cathedral, yet all but invisible in many of San Antonio’s downtown commercial corridors.
The former Solo Serve property will become home to a Hampton Inn and Suites/Home2 Suites by Hilton, but it is the past, not the future, that invites a search for layers of lost history peeking out from under the growing piles of rubble.
To the left of the former Solo Serve, workers continue to renovate the historic Savoy Building on the corner of East Houston Street, its cream-colored limestone facade recalling the late 1800s when guests arrived on horse-drawn trolleys to the Savoy Hotel. By 1890 the line was electrified, the horses gone. Today the Savoy is home to ScaleWorks, the fast-growing software development enterprise founded by former Rackspace President Lew Moorman.
It is May 2017, one year from San Antonio’s Tricentennial, when I start to watch the demolition project. Because the Rivard Report office is in the Rand Building, we can steal a few minutes each workday to watch as construction workers and their heavy machinery slowly peel back time along the east side of the street between Main Plaza and East Houston Street.
The remnants of long-lost buildings slowly come into view, caliche and limestone walls hearkening back two centuries, the outlines of missing doors and windows visible below street level. At one point a section of a limestone wall fronting the San Antonio River collapses during the removal of the 20th century rubble. How many other limestone walls have fallen in these downtown streets over the city’s 300 years? How many crumbling adobe walls fell to make way for the stone masons?
It will not be long before this view once again is obscured, this time, perhaps, forever. San Antonio keeps growing out, but long ago it first grew upwards. Today’s downtown streets and sidewalks are elevated many feet above the original town that began to take shape in the early 1700s. This single block of Soledad was home back then to two of the city’s most prominent early families, the De la Garzas and the Veramendis.
I never pass a construction site where workers wearing hardhats are laboring below grade without stopping to peer downward to look through layers of the city’s past.
For the first time in a century or more, as the demolition proceeds through the early summer, onlookers can stand above Soledad Street and see the San Antonio River, a view that has been obscured by various buildings over the generations.
As the days go by, more and more people who park in the Rand garage pause at the elevators to watch the work. It’s as close as any of us will ever get to glimpsing the past and sensing the people and places who made this block home centuries ago.
The Rand Building itself is a snapshot of San Antonio’s history. The garage itself took the place of Veramendi Street that once ran for a single block between Soledad and North Main Avenue. Rackspace Co-founder Graham Weston bought the eight-story building from Frost Bank and refurbished it several years ago, making it home to Geekdom and a growing number of startups. Longtime residents of the city remember the building as home to the Wolf & Marx department store, which opened in 1911 and was purchased by rival Joske’s in 1965.
José Antonio De la Garza minted the first copper coins in Texas after his home was built on the site in 1734. His house, the mint, the family’s bank, an exchange house, as well as his garden and orchards, occupied the entire block. Two surviving 1/2 reales, or jolas, from the Spanish colonial era that were minted by De la Garza are on display in the lobby of Frost Bank.
But it’s the construction site across Soledad Street that captures my attention each morning. The San Antonio Conservation Society provided research from its files of the many buildings, families and businesses that have come and gone along the block.
The late 18th century Veramendi Palace is the most celebrated building to have disappeared from the east side of Soledad Street. The one-story Spanish colonial building fell into a state of disrepair by the early 1900s and was torn down in 1909. The entryway’s double cedar doors, all that is left of the estate, are now installed in the Alamo. Ben Milam was fatally shot outside the Veramendi Palace doors by a Mexican sniper seated in a cypress tree along the river during the Siege of Bexar in 1835.
I stare at the still-extant limestone walls evident below the streetscape and wonder if they might have been the dwelling’s basement.
Fernando Veramendi was a petty merchant from Spain who came to Texas and married into a Canary Island family here. He built the house in the late 1770s. The site included his store, money lending business, and family residence. While opulent by early San Antonio standards, the place was hardly a palace. The family figured prominently in local government affairs throughout the Spanish colonial period, long after Veramendi himself was murdered by Apaches on a journey to Mexico City in 1783.
Once the house passed out of the hands of Veramendi’s descendants, it was used for everything from a saloon and bawdy house to a curio shop, according to a 2011 story by historian and journalist Paula Allen in the San Antonio Express-News. Once the building was torn down it was replaced by the San Antonio Printing Co. The Clegg Co. furniture company also was located on that side of Soledad.
There are many other buildings that have come and gone along the block. The Masonic Building, which was remodeled and became the Old Court House in 1883, was torn down around the same time as the Veramendi Palace as the advent of the 20th century brought with it a market for commercial buildings with electricity, plumbing, and other modern amenities.
The San Antonio Conservation Society was not yet active at the start of the 20th century. Many historically significant buildings that would win protection today were deemed of no value back then and are now visible only in grainy photographs, on old maps, or not at all.
The last remaining evidence of some of these buildings can be glimpsed now, if only for a time now, as San Antonio readies for its Tricentennial. Beyond the celebratory parties, it’s the city’s history, its people and what they built here, that matters more, a story best gleaned one block at a time.