Tower Life building, jewel of San Antonio’s skyline and history, has stories to share with visitors

Developers plan to remodel former offices and retail spaces into residences. But guests can tour the building until mid-May, before the work begins.

By Jack Morgan, Texas Public RadioMay 13, 2024 9:23 am, , ,

From Texas Public Radio:

For decades, one building defined San Antonio’s skyline. Recently, it was sold, and remodels are coming.

But before those changes begin, tour guides offered the public the opportunity to appreciate its distinctive interior.

In late April, about 40 visitors milled about the ornate lobby of what was once the Smith-Young Tower — now the Tower Life Building. They marveled at the marble floors and walls and the vaulted Gothic ceiling.

Tour Guide Brent Salter runs Amigo Tours. He showed visitors select floors from the basement to the 30th floor.

“The owners of the building and the investors were two brothers named Jim and Albert Smith,” Salter said, explaining the story behind the original name.

The front door to the Tower Life building.
Jack Morgan / TPR

Those brothers and partner Jay Young aspired to make their mark in San Antonio, and they selected what Salter said was an unusual location for a downtown building.

“Where the Tower Life building is today was called Bowen’s Island. And the water really was problematic with that plot of land,” he said. “The river in its original course is making it not very feasible for its use as it surrounded the land on three sides. Then there is an acequia water ditch on a fourth side.”

Downtown had been repeatedly wrecked by devastating floods, but by the late 1920s both the Olmos Dam and the the flood bypass channel had been built, making downtown investment wise again.

“Caesar Augustus is credited as saying, ‘hasten slowly.’ So there we see the Smith brothers say, ‘let’s start with a small structure first,’” Salter explained.

After re-routing the water, they built the Federal Reserve building, which is now the Mexican Consulate, at the corner of Villita and Navarro Streets, just a block away.

“Their next structure is a hotel, called the Plaza Hotel. Today we call it the Granada Apartments for older adults,” Salter said.

Both structures were considered successful. The brothers then turned their attention to what they really wanted to build: the tower.

“The building had two primary purposes. The first would be a major tenant anchor on the ground floor of the building. And that was Sears Roebuck,” he said.

In the 1920s, Sears represented a new world of retail, offering Americans options they’d never had before.

“Sears had just opened their first brick and mortar store in Chicago in 1925, and this is just four years later that San Antonio is getting this ‘cutting edge’ method of merchandise,” he said.

Customers could buy just about anything, including a house.

“Buying a home could be as easy as opening up a Sears Modern Home catalogue,” Salter explained. “You could choose from a Hollywood. A Martha Washington. Or any one of dozens more. Prices started at $650 and peaked at $5,140.”

At the Tower Life building, Sears occupied the basement through the fourth floors. The Smith brothers had other plans for the rest of the tower.

“And the second piece of their plan was commercial office space, which is what occupies the majority of the tower, largely inhabited by attorneys in the area because of the proximity to the courthouse, but also the construction company that built it — McKenzie Construction,” Salter said. “They wind up saying, ‘hey, I like this building, I’ll build it, and then I want to occupy it.’”

Opening day was a major success. Thousands of curious San Antonians showed up.

Architectural details in the lobby.
Jack Morgan / TPR

“The opening day of Sears was March 7, 1929. That’s when customers flooded into those basement areas and the first three floors of the structure to do their shopping,” he said.

Three months later the tower itself was completed.

“The tower opens on June the 1st, 1929, opening day. It’s said that there were 5,000 people inside the building, on the observation deck at the top of the building, dancing on the rooftop garden at the seventh level to live jazz music,” he said. “Five thousand people inside that building, and that more than a thousand people had to be turned away who couldn’t get there, because it was so crowded.”

Salter also shared his favorite tale about the building’s early days.

Granada Apartments from seventh floor balcony, looking west, and the Bexar County Courthouse is in the distance.
Jack Morgan / TPR

“A man runs into Sears Roebuck on November 17th, 1934, goes right up to the jewelry counter, which was one of the first things you saw when you entered,” he said.

The man was serving as best man in a wedding, and he was missing one critical item.

“His friend dated this woman for a short time, proposed to her, and she says ‘no.’ And so the friend keeps dating this woman and proposes again, and the woman says ‘no,’ ” he said. “And so the man unbelievably, continues to date this lady and proposes, and she finally says ‘yes.’ ”

Salter explained that after getting his yes, the friend wanted to get married the very next day, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church a few blocks away. But he didn’t have a wedding ring, so he sent his best man to get one. But the best man did not have a crucial bit of information in order to attain this crucial item.

“And the clerk says, what size of ring do you need? And he said, ‘I don’t know!’ ” he said.

So the best man bought 12 wedding rings — $2.98 apiece — and took them to St. Mark’s. The bride-to-be found her proper fit, and the couple — Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson — successfully married later that day.

“That is the story of Lady Bird Johnson’s wedding ring right there, taking place on street level just inside the doors of what was Sears Roebuck,” Salter said.

The Tower Life building viewed from St. Mary’s.
Jack Morgan / TPR

The Great Depression marked the beginning of the end for the Smith-Young era.

Salter said Sears & Roebuck’s rent arrangement was based on a percentage of their sales. “So when their sales go to zero, their rent goes to zero,” he explained. “But that does not change the owners’ mortgage payment on the building. The brothers lose the tower.”

Over the subsequent decades, the building changed hands and names several times. It was the city’s tallest structure until HemisFair’s Tower of the Americas opened in 1968.

In 2022, a new set of partners bought the tower, with plans to turn it into residences.

“Right now, the guess is somewhere around 240, 244 residential units that will be there,” Salter said. “There is a plan for there to be restaurant and beverage areas, perhaps some retail.”

The process will likely take several years.

The $40 tours of the building continue until mid-May. They include stops at the basement and tunnel underneath St. Mary’s Street, the ground floor, plus the 7th floor and 30th floor balconies. Centro San Antonio receives a portion of the proceeds.

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