New County Park Infused With Memories Of The Old Hot Wells Resort

The rich and famous flocked to the old Hot Wells resort in San Antonio, which opened in the 1890s and closed in the 1970s.

By Brian KirkpatrickMay 7, 2019 12:50 pm, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

The remnants of the former Hot Wells resort that attracted the rich and famous of its day is now part of a new South Side park. Hot Wells at Bexar County Park opened on Tuesday.

The resort opened in the 1890s off what is now South Presa when sulphur spring water was discovered, officials of the Hot Wells Conservancy say.

An 80-room hotel soon followed.

The resort offered three giant spring-fed pools for men, women and children. There were dozens of private baths and 200 dressing rooms, according to the conservancy.

The rich and famous flocked there too, including Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and future president Theodore Roosevelt.

Visitors enjoyed dancing, concerts, lectures, garden teas, dominos and gambling, according to markers at the site.

The resort survived fires, had a few different owners and, by the 1970s, it was closed for good.

Alfred Alvarez worked at the nearby state hospital as a social worker, and then, in his 20s, he was among the last round of guests. He remembered how the sulphur springs reeked of a rotten egg smell, which Alvarez doubted today’s health buffs would enjoy.

“I don’t know if people would have liked it or not,” he says, “because when you swam in those sulphuric spring waters you would have to take about three or four showers to get that smell off of your body and shampoo your head also about the same number of times.”

Health experts thought the waters were healthy despite the smell. Yvonne Katz of the Hot Wells Conservancy says the resort had a list of ailments it claimed the waters could cure.

“One thing was diarrhea … when you look at the list, it includes herpes, it includes asthma,” Katz says. “It is a list of ailments that people had back then, and they did not have pills and modern medicine.”

Archaeologist Rhianna Ward works for Raba Kistner, the engineering firm the county hired to keep an eye out for artifacts found during the redevelopment project, including fine china, bottles and even old shoes.

“Strikes me as very strange that we have recovered a lot of shoes. … I’m gonna chalk that up to when [after] the fire, a lot of items were left behind. … You find a couple of kitchen pieces, and then there is a child’s shoe laying in the middle of everything,” she says.

Workers even explored the resort’s preserved trash, and they found something unexpected: alligator bones. Researchers believed they might have been from an alligator dish on the resort’s menu. Ward says alligators were common in the area at the time.

County Judge Nelson Wolff says the new $4 million park was built on property donated by developer James Lifshutz, who plans to open a new spa next door. The state chipped in $1 million for the park, which includes plenty of space for picnics.

Wolff grew up on the South Side. He says he loved to play baseball, and he often played near the old resort. Jagged walls and pools are all that remain of the original resort. Wolff says it was not feasible to fully restore the spa. He says one original building, however, will now include offices, a museum and classroom space.

He says silent movies that featured many of the stars that visited the resort will be screened at the park.

”You’re going to be able to see where they also did films out here. Star Film made a lot of silent movies; we’re going to be showing them out here,” he says.

The Hot Wells Conservancy says it is accepting donations for future preservation and expansion at the park.