More than any other Texas city, San Antonio relishes its history. From missions built in the 1700s to hotels established in the 1800s, fascinating bits of history can be found all over town. As commercial enterprises, hotels tend to get remodeled more often than historic churches, but even the renovations can provide interesting insights into changing times and evolving priorities. Here’s a sampling of some of San Antonio’s most notable historic hotels.
Since it opened in 1909, the St. Anthony Hotel has seen many owners come and go, but they’ve all had a strong appreciation for the finer things and the latest technological advancements. The book Dusting Off a Legend: The St. Anthony Hotel includes vintage ads for the hotel that claimed that the building was “absolutely fireproof.” That may have been a bit of hyperbole, but the hotel was among the first to have automated doors (triggered with the “magic eye”) and air conditioning throughout the building.
The St. Anthony also invented the “auto lobby,” where guests could check in immediately after parking in the luxurious underground parking garage.
Today, the hotel continues to showcase its history, through photographs, paintings, architectural details and antique furniture. The most fascinating artifact is the ornate Steinway piano in the lobby. Built in 1924 for the Russian Embassy in Paris, the piano was sold off several years later as the Soviet Union experienced a financial downturn. St. Anthony owner Ralph Morrison snatched up the piano and it lived happily in the lobby for decades. After the hotel experienced struggles of its own, the piano was sold to a private owner in California in 1993. A new St. Anthony investor, Sid Greehey, repurchased the piano in 2013. It then had to travel from California to New York for major repairs. By looking at the beautiful piano today, you’d never know it was so well-traveled.
Music has always played a big role at the St. Anthony, particularly as part of Fiesta, San Antonio’s lively celebration of spring. A formal affair since its founding in 1891, Fiesta involves fancy balls, parades, and traditions only the locals understand. Historic photos throughout the St. Anthony offer a taste of the hotel’s long connection to Fiesta. For those interested in business history, you can sit at the bar where Herb Kelleher sketched out his idea for Southwest Airlines on a bar napkin.
If you’re a devoted beer geek, you’ll love learning about some of the décor at Hotel Emma. The building was home to a brewery, Pearl’s Brewhouse, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Equipment from that era has been repurposed to enhance the hotel’s current industrial-chic design. The large red machines in the lobby were once ammonia compressors at the brewery. The tile floor in the lobby is an exact reproduction of the floor in the original brewery.
In the ballroom area, look up and you’ll see chandeliers made from vintage bottle-filling equipment. In the Elephant Cellars event space, there are huge orange tanks that once stored liquid CO2 for the brewery. During prohibition, the business survived due to the innovative management style of Emma Koehler, one of three Emmas associated with the hotel. The widow of Pearl President Otto Koehler, Emma Koehler used the building for dry cleaning services, auto repair and making “near beer,” soda and ice cream. She kept most of her workers employed by retraining them.
While he was alive, Otto had affairs with two other Emmas who had been his nurses, and he even set them up in their own house together. His dallying came to a brutal end, however, when one of the mistress Emmas shot him dead after an argument.
Beyond its fascinating history, Hotel Emma is also just a great boutique hotel. You’ll enjoy all the modern conveniences in a one-of-a-kind setting. “In addition to the impeccable service and the human component that makes Hotel Emma special, a critical component of the hotel’s brand is the South Texas industrial-chic aesthetic,” says Beth Smith, director of sales and marketing. “From the moment you step inside, the historic brewery comes to life.”
While the hotel name may not sound particularly historic, San Antonio’s Home2 Suites is housed in a Sullivanesque structure that dates back to 1919. After the building’s renovation in 1982, the hotel received the prestigious Conservation Society Historic Preservation Award in 1983. As part of the grand re-opening ceremony, a time capsule was placed in the cornerstone. It contained a variety of artifacts, including a handful of maize to honor the site’s more distant past as a corn farm. The land that the hotel sits on actually has records stretching back to 1793, when it was part of a Spanish land grant.
Once the tallest building in San Antonio, the costly project was dubbed the “million dollar bank” in early press accounts. In addition to serving as a bank, the structure was an upscale office building for several years. The all-suites hotel is now fully up-to-date and equipped with all the modern amenities.
Built in the 1920s, the Emily Morgan Hotel was originally home to doctors’ offices and a hospital. It was later converted to office space before being transformed into an upscale hotel in 1984.
The 13-story Gothic Revival tower has eye-catching architectural features such as cast-iron ornamentation and a copper roof with wooden ribs. The gargoyles situated around the structure each represent a different ailment, reflecting the building’s original purpose. The building has also been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places.
On a side note, the hotel’s namesake, Emily Morgan (aka Emily West), was the original “Yellow Rose of Texas” depicted in the famous song. As the legend goes, a mulatto indentured servant by the name of Emily Morgan was dancing for Santa Anna when the Battle of San Jacinto started, distracting him long enough for the Texans to get the upper hand and overwhelm the Mexican army.
While this hotel’s history stretches all the way back to 1837, the current structure was built in 1909 and made of concrete and buff brick. The eight-story, 301-room hotel was the largest in San Antonio at the time. Four more stories were added by 1926. Modern guests staying at the hotel may not want to know the rest of the history. It’s a bit gruesome.
A grisly murder occurred at the hotel in 1965. The suspect was eventually hunted down at the nearby St. Anthony Hotel, where he committed suicide. Only pieces of the woman’s body were found at the hotel. It was speculated that the murderer may have disposed of her body in wet cement at a nearby construction site. Because of these events, some people believe the hotel is haunted. Those who are a little less superstitious will find the hotel to be simply a lovely place to stay.
Situated right next to the Alamo, the Menger Hotel is one of the oldest hotels west of the Mississippi River. Theodore Roosevelt tried to attract new recruits for his famous Rough Riders at the Menger Bar. Roosevelt would sit at the bar and buy drinks for unsuspecting cowboys fresh off the range. Some would wake up the next day surprised to learn that they were expected to show up for basic training for Roosevelt’s fighting force. In fact, he made many trips to the Menger for hunting trips and banquets.
The hotel's distinctive oval lobby features Renaissance Corinthian columns and historic photographs and artifacts. The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the photos depict U.S. presidents who have stayed at the Menger over the years. A common complaint at many historic hotels is that the rooms are often tiny, but the Menger has a few spacious suites, including the 900-square foot Moody Luxury suite.