This may be the one that got me started. A fabulously illogical castle in San Antonio, with a colonnade and a tower with a turret, it was credited to Mifflin E. Bell (1846-1904), the U.S. Supervising Architect, who once said, “In the preparation of designs for various buildings, I have endeavored to avoid monotony.” Certainly this was a prime example.
Bell’s original design, as it appeared in American Architect & Building News, 1887
But the final result was actually the work of three architects. In an 1890 history of San Antonio, William Corner wrote:
“The Federal Building affording accommodation for the Federal Court and Post Office was designed by M. E. Bell, of Chicago, who was supervising architect at Washington under President Arthur’s administration. The original plan was modified, in the direction of economy, by W. A. Freret, of New Orleans, during President Cleveland’s term. Mr. [James Riely] Gordon of this city being appointed architect in charge [of construction], again re-arranged the building, in its present form. Under his direction, the structure grew to be the beautiful mediaeval dream that it is. Its details are worthy of careful study. The style may be called Richardsonian Romanesque with a touch reminding one of Lombardy and the South of France. Notice the tower and the bold angle turret, the arcades whose proportions are so cleverly relieved by the flight of approaching steps, the beautiful mass of the building, and the construction and outline of the tile roof.”
It is likely that one of William Freret’s modifications, “in the direction of economy,” was the elimination of the ornate stonework Bell had planned for the tower, and it may have been James Riely Gordon, present at the site in San Antonio, who moved the tower to the opposite end of the building so as not to overshadow the nearby Alamo chapel. But as you can see from a comparison of the drawing and the completed building, Bell’s vision predominates. (More recent writers, especially those from Texas, cite native son Gordon as the sole architect, but this was not the case.)
The building was completed in 1890 and anchored its end of the Alamo plaza for the next 45 years. It witnessed the transition from the horse-drawn buggy to the Model T, and watched in silence as its historic neighbor – the Alamo – was hemmed in and devoured by commercial development and its last building, the chapel, left to decay.
The Plaza with the Alamo Chapel seen on the right
The San Antonio Post Office was unique in that it also served as a backdrop for an open air market and, when night fell, the chili queens.
The back of the postcard above reads, “For the sake of olden times, the Mexicans are still allowed to set up their tables and camp stoves on the Plazas and serve their native dishes in the open air, such as Chili con Carne, Tamales, Enchiladas, Chili Verde, Frijoles and Tortillas, etc. As day dawns and the lamps show dimmer, these queer hotel keepers put out their fires and folding their tables ‘silently steal away’ until another night.”
From the 1880s into 1930s, the chili queens heated their pots of food over flickering mesquite fires.
An 1894 story in the San Antonio Express spoke of “bright, bewitching creatures (who) put themselves to much trouble to please their too-often rowdy customers.” Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, visited in 1895 and wrote:
“Upon one of the plazas, Mexican vendors with open-air stands sell food that tastes exactly like pounded fire-brick from Hades — chili con carne, tamales, enchiladas, chili verde, frijoles. In the soft atmosphere of the southern night, the cheap glass bottles upon the stands shine like crystal and lamps glow with a tender radiance. A hum of conversation ascends from the strolling visitors who are at their social shrine.”
William Sidney Porter, who wrote as “O. Henry,” visited San Antonio in the 1880s and 1890s, and drew upon his experience for a short story, “The Enchanted Kiss”:
“Their nightly encampments upon the historic Alamo Plaza, in the heart of the city, had been a carnival, a saturnalia that was renowned throughout the land. Then the caterers numbered hundreds; the patrons thousands. Drawn by the coquettish señoritas, the music of the weird Spanish minstrels, and the strange, piquant Mexican dishes served at a hundred competing tables, crowds thronged the Alamo Plaza all night. Travelers, rancheros, family parties, gay gasconading rounders, sight-seers and prowlers of polygot, owlish San Antone mingled there at the center of the city’s fun and frolic. The popping of corks, pistols, and questions; the glitter of eyes, jewels, and daggers; the ring of laughter and coin – these were the order of the night.”
All in the shadow of the post office. But the chili queens – alternately embraced, romanticized, tolerated or shunned by the city fathers – served their last chili in the early 1940s. By then, the post office was gone as well.
As early as 1917, the castle had been showing signs of wear. The stonework was crumbling; the turret was supported by a single stone, and that stone was cracking, as were the arches over all the doors leading into the turret. The post office building was also “very congested” and in need of an expansion.
In 1932, funds were appropriated in Washington to build a new post office. The new building would be the project of a federal program enacted to provide jobs during the Great Depression.
In 1935, the old post office was dismantled and demolished, but not without one last drama. As an oak tree was being removed, human bones were found in the root ball, at a depth of four to five feet. The bones were too old to identify but it was clear a number of bodies had been thrown in together. Rumors flew, and while even today no one knows for sure, one plausible explanation was that these were the bodies of 16 to 20 yellow fever victims, thrown into a ditch and hurriedly buried during the epidemic of 1854 or that of 1867. The remains were reburied in a nearby cemetery after solemn rites appropriate for both Catholics and Native Americans, and in 1937, a new San Antonio post office was open for business. Today, the old post office lives only in postcards and photographs…
Love the little newstand on the corner.
And the Post Office is remembered in oddities like the commemorative coin below, a souvenir for patrons of Nentwig’s Bar.