San Antonio Uncovered

by Mark Louis Rybczyk

Book Review By Steve Labinski

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San Antonio Uncovered All my life I have enjoyed learning about the history of cities. San Antonio, one of the oldest established in the United States, is chock full of it. San Antonio Uncovered, the new book from Mark Rybczyk, crams hundreds of stories, lists, frequently asked questions and famous firsts into 290 pages.

Rather than a standard travel/tourism book, San Antonio Uncovered goes into lesser known parts of town, beyond the Alamo and Six Flags. We learn all about interesting history from the town's 18th and 19th century, examining some of the city's legends and ghost stories. His detail ranges from the influence of the Germans in South Texas, to many other groups like the local Communist Party, which caused a sitting mayor to lose his next election.

The city has a rich military history. The author goes into interesting detail about Fort Sam Houston, plus the many airbases which appeared in the 20th century. San Antonio is considered the birthplace of the Air Force and the site of the first military flight. Military leaders who have spent time in San Antonio include Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and Black Jack Pershing.

The book is full of interesting lists. For example, we get "Eight Structures That Have Been Moved From Their Original Site to New Locations." The first item on the list is the old Fairmount Hotel, and the author proceeds to give a six-paragraph history of the building, and how it was moved. It is an interesting story about a now beautiful hotel.

In 1985, the 1600 ton structure had to move because of the construction of the Marriott Rivercenter. The hotel is the largest building ever moved down city streets.

Other lists include the city's most unusual historic institutions and the city most influential architects.

Rybczyk also writes about San Antonio's famous buildings and theatres. Some of the movie palaces still stand, like the Majestic and the Aztec, while others like the Texas and the Laurel are gone.
Here's an example of the entry on one classic old theatre, the Empire:
The Empire, located around the corner from the Majestic, was built in 1914 by Thomas Brady. It is part of the Brady Building, which sits at the intersection of Houston and St Mary's Streets. It was built for both movies and vaudeville on the site of the old Turner Opera House. Though much smaller than the Majestic, it was the largest theater in town when it opened. Its first film was the silent feature, Neptune's Daughter.

Originally, the stage was surrounded by gold leaf, but during the renovation in the 1940s, the gold leaf was plastered over, giving the theater a rather plain appearance. The once proud Empire closed in 1978 after sadly becoming a home to adult films.

The city purchased the Empire in 1988 and also leased it to the La Casa Foundation. The Empire and the Majestic were redesigned to share many of the support facilities, such as dressing rooms, offices and a music library. Work on the Empire auditorium did not begin until after the Majestic renovation was complete. Many people looked at the small theater as a poor stepchild to the striking Majestic.

Workman got their first surprise when they stripped off years of paint and plaster to reveal the gold leaf that had been hidden for fifty years. Due to the lack of color film in the early part of the century, no visual record of the Empire's previous beauty existed. It was then they realized this small theater might someday be as impressive as the Majestic.

Due to a lack of funds, restoration of the Empire progressed slowly. In 1992, workman found the old bronze eagle that once sat atop the marquee, tucked away in the ladies' room. They soon returned the bird to its original perch.

In 1998, the Empire reopened thanks to a one million dollar donation from Charlene and Red McCombs. The facility was renamed the Charlene McCombs Empire to recognize their generosity. San Antonians were amazed to see that the once dilapidated theater was actually a jewel, with mahogany railings and 6 1/2 pounds of gold leaf. The newly restored Empire is now home to a variety of concerts and banquets.

One person who really appreciated the renovation was Chris Crabtree. Mr. Crabtree was an usher at the Empire in 1951 when he lost his wallet. Forty-one years later workmen found it stashed inside a wall. A search of the phone directory found that the former usher still lived in San Antonio. The wallet was returned complete with an unused ticket to the Majestic.

The book has a chapter on sports in San Antonio. Rybczyk lists the city's current and past sports franchises, the histories of the stadiums and special sports events. He also has a section on names in the city, and how they came about.

Three Examples:

Bexar County - On May 5, 1718, Spanish Governor Martin de Alarcon proclaimed the establishment on the river as the Royal Presidio of San Antonio de Bejar, named in honor of the Saint and of the Duque de Bejar, a brother of the viceroy, who had been killed in Hungary fighting the Turks.

Dolorossa Street - Dolorossa is Spanish, meaning street of sadness. There are three different explanations as to why this street is named Dolorossa. Some sources say it was named for the Virgin Mary, mother of sadness. Others say it was named the street of sadness because it led to Mexico, and many wives saw their soldier husbands leave town on the road, never to return. A third story says the avenue was named the street of sadness in reference to mourners who witnessed a mass execution on Military Plaza in the early 1800s.

King William District - This historic neighborhood just south of downtown was once the bastion of wealthy Germans who settled in San Antonio in the nineteenth century. The area became known as the King Wilhelm neighborhood after King Wilhelm I of Prussia, who later became a German emporer.

We have just scratched the surface of the contents of San Antonio Uncovered. If you've never been to San Antonio, this book will make you want to go; if you've been to the city many times, this book will inspire you to return.

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