Abandoned hotel in Texas

Robert E. Lee Hotel, San Antonio Texas
Date added: August 11, 2022 Categories:
Detail of principal entry, (1995)

The Robert E. Lee Hotel was constructed three blocks north of the Plaza de las Islas and Plaza de Armas, where San Antonio's earliest civilian and military settlers made their homes after the city's founding in 1718. The site lies between San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River and is bounded by some of the city's oldest thoroughfares including Obraje (Travis) Street on the south, Acequia Street (Main Avenue) on the east and Flores Street on the west. The San Pedro Acequia, a Spanish irrigation ditch that began in today's San Pedro Park, crossed the property on its way south through downtown. This acequia was closed in 1912.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the area north of the plazas developed as a commercial and residential district. On Flores Street north of Paseo or Rivas Street (now Houston Street) and on Acequia Street, one block to the east, small limestone and caliche block houses and business buildings were constructed. These included the house of Maria Montes de Chavez, widow of prominent San Antonio politician, Ignacio Chavez, who lived at the northeast corner of Flores and Obraje. By 1900 Caroline Mayer operated a grocery store at the northwest corner of Main and Obraje. North of the hotele, the Castafiola family also lived and operated their grocery business from 1858 until about 1912.

In 1912, real estate investors Edwin Rand, Joseph Frost and V.P. Brown purchased the Robert E. Lee site, holding it for the next ten years. Rand owned significant holdings in the area including the Rand Building, constructed in 1913 one block south of the hotel. He also built the Ideal Garage "the finest garage building in San Antonio," at the corner of Travis and Soledad Streets. Joseph Frost, an influential business leader, served as president of the city's largest bank, Frost National Bank, located two blocks to the south. Cattleman V.P. Brown was "a promoter of big real estate deals" and was instrumental in the sale of important tracts of downtown real estate.

Other construction in the immediate area included the 10-story Clower Building (now demolished), the city's first reinforced concrete building. Built in 1910 on the block just south of the Robert E. Lee site, the Clower Building (later called the Stowers Building) was expanded in 1912 to house the Majestic Theater, the predecessor of the extant theater three blocks to the east.

The property owned by Rand, Frost and Brown was acquired by the Travis Investment Company in 1922 for construction of a new hotel, the city's first since 1916. The Robert E. Lee marked the beginning of a new era of hotel construction in San Antonio, the state's largest city prior to the 1920 census. Successive hotel construction sought to meet the needs of travelers including salesmen, rural residents in town on business, military personnel, and tourists traveling to the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico.

San Antonio's 19th century hotels were constructed near its plazas. The Plaza House, on the north side of Main Plaza, was the city's first hotel. On the south side of Main Plaza, the Southern Hotel stood until demolished in 1929. On Alamo Plaza, the still operating Menger Hotel opened in 1857. Short distances from the plazas, the Maverick Hotel operated on Houston Street from 1878 until its demolition in 1919, and the Mahncke Hotel operated until it was torn down in 1907 to make way for the new Gunter Hotel, completed in 1909. These hotels were no more than three or four stories tall, built of timber, brick or limestone.

The new generation of 20th century hotels was constructed of steel or reinforced concrete. These buildings were taller and included modern amenities such as elevators, modern heating and electrical systems. By the 1930s, they also incorporated air conditioning systems. The city's early 20th century hotels included:

St. Anthony - a 7-story hotel built in 1909, with additions in 1911 and 1935 Gunter - an 8-story hotel built in 1909, with additions in 1926

Crockett - a 5-story hotel built in 1909, with additions in 1927

Travelers - a 6-story hotel built in 1914

Lanier (later White Plaza or Travis Plaza) - a 7-story hotel built in 1916, now demolished

Between the completion of the Robert E. Lee in 1923 and the onset of the Depression in 1929, two older hotels were expanded and two new major hotels built. Completed in 1927, the 14-story The Plaza Hotel was developed by the Smith Brothers on land adjacent to the Smith-Young Tower. The 12-story Bluebonnet Hotel (now demolished) was completed in 1929.

The tallest hotel in the city at the time of its completion, the Robert E. Lee brought "the majority of skyscrapers to the west end of the business section, west of the river" (San Antonio Express, 22 May 1923). The hotel not only surpassed other hotels in height, but offered pricing and amenities that were appealing to a growing number of business travelers.

The Travis Investment Company constructed the hotel as part of a campaign to redefine the boundaries of the downtown commercial district. The firm began its real estate development during a period of phenomenal growth. Building permits were at an all-time high, with projects totaling $7,515,045 issued in 1921, nearly double the prior year's figure of $4,122,175. The boom period in San Antonio's downtown development was facilitated by extensive reconstruction of the city's infrastructure. Though much of this work was concentrated east of the San Antonio River, work was also undertaken to enhance the development potential of the area west of the River. When the city's business center moved toward Travis Street (one block north of Houston), it was critical to improve or create both more north/south and east/west passages. North Flores and Travis Streets were widened in 1913 and 1916, with Main Avenue improved in 1927.

The Robert E. Lee Hotel was among several major downtown buildings constructed between 1921 and 1922. Others included the Central Trust Company Building, the Woolworth Building, the Frost National Bank Building, and the Maverick Building.

Russell Hill, Harry H. Rogers and Wallace Rogers (no relation), the founding partners of Travis Investment, were among a group of early 20th century developers who dramatically shaped San Antonio's downtown development in the years prior to the Depression. In addition to Edwin Rand, Joseph Frost and V.P. Brown, mentioned earlier, others included L.J. Hart, Jot Gunter, Lewis Maverick, and in the mid to late-1920s, the Smith Brothers.

Russell C. Hill (1891-1975) moved to San Antonio in 1913 from Dallas where he had a successful career in real estate. In San Antonio, he first served as Field Engineer for the Texas State Insurance Department, but continued to engage in insurance, investments and real estate. About 1914 Hill entered partnership with Wallace Rogers, another local real estate developer to form Rogers, Hill and Company. That firm specialized in suburban development, and operated until 1930 when it became Wallace Rogers and Son (later Wallace Rogers and Sons). Rogers, Hill and Company was responsible for the development of San Antonio's Monte Vista neighborhood.

Wallace Rogers (1887-1969) was apparently only involved with Travis Investment Company for the year during which the Robert E. Lee was constructed. He later became an extremely important figure in the development of residential real estate in San Antonio. Rogers graduated from Baylor University in 1908, and came to San Antonio. He worked for the San Antonio Public Service Company for five years, beginning as a meter reader and advancing to Assistant Purchasing Agent. Rogers then quit his job to enter the real estate business, working alone for one year before entering partnership with Russell Hill.

Harry H. Rogers (1877-1957) was a lawyer, oil executive and banker who moved to San Antonio in 1920 from Oklahoma because of his wife's health. Born in Wheatland, Missouri, and educated at Weadblean Christian College and Warrenburg State Teachers College in Missouri, Rogers was admitted to the Indian Territory Bar in 1903. He became a successful lawyer, oil producer and bank executive. He served as president of the Oklahoma State Bar Association from 1917 to 1918. After coming to San Antonio, Rogers entered banking and real estate. Serving as president of Travis Investment Company was only one of his many business enterprises. In 1926-27, Rogers served as president of Rotary International, at that time a 120,000 member organization representing 35 nations. He remains the only Texan to have held this office. In his role as real estate developer, the San Antonio press credited Rogers with "...bringing about a complete revolution and causing the skyline of San Antonio to change constantly." Rogers was described as "....largely instrumental in this company [Travis Investment] building the magnificent Travis Building in San Antonio...his offices are located in the Travis Building, directing his various interests from there".

The Travis Investment Company was aptly named. During the decade of the 1920s, the company was responsible for construction of the Robert E. Lee, the 10-story Travis Building (1923) and the 21-story Milam Building (1927), all along Travis Street. These buildings continue to dominate the street today. Only the St. Anthony Hotel is comparable in stature among buildings constructed before the 1960s.

The State of Texas chartered the Travis Investment Company 50 years on 17 June 1922, two months before bids were opened "for construction of a nine-story hotel building" at the corner of Travis Street and Main Avenue (San Antonio Builders Exchange Bulletin, 22 August 1922). The company was capitalized for $250,000, divided into 2,500 shares of $100 each held by the three partners. At the end of 1923, the company recapitalized. Wallace Rogers was no longer a shareholder, evidently bought out by Homer Rogers. Wallace Rogers Jr. was unaware that his father had ever been involved with Travis Investment. The firm was again recapitalized on 14 December 1923, with $500,000 divided between 5,000 shares of preferred and common stock. This adjustment probably financed construction of the Travis Building at the corner of Travis and North St. Mary's Streets, three blocks east of the Robert E. Lee.

The Robert E. Lee Hotel was designed by Herbert Stanley Green (1874-1957), a practicing architect in San Antonio for some 65 years. Green was born in London in 1874, and according to his application for membership in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), worked in the London office of William, Wallace and Flockhart. Green evidently left England about 1900 to take a job with Alfred Giles, the English architect who came to Texas in 1873. Giles expanded his extremely successful practice in 1900 by opening a branch in Monterrey, Mexico. In 1902, the Monterrey News wrote about Giles' office, noting that "all of his draughtsmen, of which Mr. H.S. Green is chief....have their respective offices". Green worked in Monterrey until about 1905 when he transferred to Giles' San Antonio office, where he served as draftsman for 15 years. He established his own practice in 1920 after Giles' death. Green was elected to membership in the Texas Chapter of the AIA in 1921, later serving as chairman of the organizing group of the West Texas Chapter of the AIA in 1924.

At the time Green completed the Robert E. Lee, the San Antonio Express wrote: "his fame is securely written in imperishable brick and stone through the Southwest States and the Republic of Mexico" (San Antonio Express, 22nd May 1923). Green's reputation in Mexico undoubtedly resulted from his 15 year affiliation with Alfred Giles, whose designs are found throughout Northern Mexico. Green continued to do work in Mexico in his own practice. In December 1920, for example, he completed plans for a hotel and bathhouse in Monterrey. Green's extensive work in Mexico was reported to include the Julius Derby Residence and Cantu Trevino business block in Monterey; the electric light plant, a casino, the Jose Arispe factory building, and the State University of Saltillo all in Saltillo; and the National Casino in Piedras Negras.

Green continued to practice architecture throughout the 1930s, and appears sporadically in the City Directories of the 1940s. No other architects are listed as working in his office. Though not listed as a practicing architect in 1948, in 1951, at age 87, he was working as a draftsman in the office of architect Leo M.J. Dielmann.

The 200-room Robert E. Lee opened to the public on 26 May 1923. The company formed to operate the hotel was led by chairman and president, Percy Tyrrell. Shareholders included Frank Patton, Nat Goldsmith, Edwin Coombs and Perry L. King. Jack White, who had managed the Gunter Hotel for nine years and subsequently served as mayor of San Antonio, was the hotel's first manager. Opening ceremonies were marked by a tribute by the Barnard E. Bee Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, which donated a plaque commemorating the hotel's namesake. The lobby was described as "...a charming thing. Pretty lighting fixtures, handsome rugs, softly shaded lamps, tables, chairs, and divans in oak and Spanish leather give it the atmosphere of a charming living room" (San Antonio Express, 22nd May 1923). Rooms, each with a private bath, were furnished in "brown American walnut, rich carpets and dainty curtains" with prices ranging from "...$2.50 a day and down--not up--down!" (San Antonio Express, 27th May 1923). A hot water generating plant in the basement had a capacity of 1,500 gallons an hour, while an ice water system supplied drinking fountains on every floor. A vapor system supplied radiators in every room, and fire protection hoses were located on every floor. A rooftop water tank provided a backup water supply for emergencies.

According to Russell C. Hill, the Robert E. Lee "....was conceived and was built with the view of making it a popular place for visiting merchants and business men from Texas cities and towns." The site was selected for its south and east exposure, giving 150 of the 200 rooms access to the Southeast gulf breeze, as well as for its location on the Old Spanish Trail which "passes this corner, making the hotel easily accessible to motor tourists who follow it." The location was also nearer the Missouri Kansas and Texas, International and Great Northern and San Antonio and Aransas Pass railway stations than "any other first-rate hotel" (San Antonio Express, 22nd May 1923).

To serve its visitors, The Robert E. Lee boasted a full range of support businesses on its ground level. These included the Coffee Room operated by Captain H.F. Talmadge, a World War I veteran. Talmadge's resort on Medina Lake, Camp Medina, was "...famous among the sportsmen of Texas for its camp comfort and camp cooking." In the 1-story extension east of the main lobby, the Coffee Room seated 225 people and served fresh Texas food products. Other support businesses included the Robert E. Lee Barber Shop, the Lady Lee Millinery and Leonie's Beauty Parlor. Amenities also included a cigar stand in the hotel lobby and a parking garage a block away on Soledad Street.

In July 1928 the Travis Investment Company transferred ownership of the property to the Robert E. Lee Hotel Company, a new corporation formed by the original trustees. This transaction allowed the partners to refinance the $235,000 balance due on a $250,000 promissory note dated 1 November 1925, and extend the note until November 1935. A deed of trust executed in 1930 subordinated this lien to a new note for $300,000 from the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. The partners, who were all shareholders of City National Bank, were acquiring capital in an attempt to save the bank. When the bank failed, Massachusetts Mutual foreclosed on the Robert E. Lee Hotel in 1933.

When the existing management lease expired in 1938, Massachusetts Mutual hired Scott Stewart as the hotel's new manager. Stewart had experience as former president of the Oklahoma Hotel Association and manager of various Oklahoma hotels. To keep their hotel competitive in the face of increasing competition, a $150,000 modernization program was immediately announced. The architectural firm of Adams and Adams was hired to design improvements including:

redecoration of most of the 200 rooms

remodeling and air conditioning of the lobby

air conditioning of several suites of rooms

a new hot water system with showers and circulating ice water added to each room new plumbing and lighting fixtures

a new elevator system

enlargement of the coffee shop (San Antonio Express, 2 August 1938)

It remains unclear how much of the hotel was air conditioned before 1938. The schedule of work also included "expansion of air-conditioning apparatus in Coffee Shop," indicating that some cooling equipment pre-dated 1938 (San Antonio Builders Exchange Bulletin, 12th October 1938). By 1952 the "the hotel had 250 rooms and was completely air-conditioned". Historic signs on the hotel advertise that it is "100% air conditioned." Although not the first hotel in the city to be completely air conditioned, the Robert E. Lee was definitely at the forefront of the movement. In 1936 the St. Anthony Hotel installed air conditioning for its 450 guest rooms and all public spaces, leading local accounts to call it the largest completely air conditioned hotel in the world. By the end of 1936 the city boasted air conditioning in 3 banks, 12 theaters, 15 department stores, 33 residences, 10 clubs, 1 church, 10 restaurants, 2 hotels and 6 office buildings. The other air conditioned hotel cited remains unconfirmed.

The Travis Investment Company pioneered air conditioning in skyscraper buildings. The company's Milam Building, completed in January 1928, was the first high-rise air-conditioned office building in the country, a distinction that earned it designation as a National Mechanical Engineering Heritage Site. It is possible that, prior to losing the hotel to lenders in 1933, Harry Rogers installed some air conditioning in the building, although this remains speculative.

The hotel continued to enjoy a good reputation through the 1950s. San Antonio's downtown district began to decline in the 1960s, however, as businesses moved to the suburbs. While San Antonio remained a destination for regional conventions, vacationers and traveling businessmen in during this period, many hotels served their needs. With the exception of motels such as the El Tropicano on the River Walk, and the Granada Inn, adjacent to the Plaza Hotel (renamed the Granada Hotel), no new hotel rooms were built downtown in the 1950s and 1960s prior to HemisFair '68. The 6-month fair brought worldwide attention to the city, with new hotels and motels such as the Hilton Palacio del Rio Hotel constructed downtown. The River Walk was extended, and the city's new convention center was completed. This development occurred many blocks away from the Robert E. Lee, whose location hampered efforts to capitalize on this boom. The Robert E. Lee could not compete with the St. Anthony, Gunter and Granada Hotels, all of which were considered more elegant. It took another twenty years for the tourist trade to develop that might have made the Robert E. Lee a viable hotel. Today, the tourist business brings some 10.5 million visitors and $2 billion annually to the city as its second largest industry.

By the 1960s the declining Robert E. Lee leased retail spaces to businesses such as the Rebel Beer Room and AAA Finance Company. The Robert E. Lee Drug Store and Coffee Shop was still operating in 1960, but by 1970 the Villa Hermosa Restaurant occupied the space. The hotel was ordered closed in 1976 due to fire code violations. Left vacant and virtually unsecured for 19 years, the property suffered extensive vandalism.

After a succession of owners, the entire building was scheduled for demolition in 1988. Concerned preservationists and local politicians saved the building only after the 1-story east wing and a portion of the hotel lobby were torn down. This left the east side of the hotel lobby at the first floor level completely open between the concrete piers. The building was secured by only a chain-link fence for 10 years, providing little protection from vandals and transients. The majority of the 496 double-hung wood sash windows were also removed in preparation for the demolition, exposing the interior to the elements. Water also entered from the aging roof. As a result of this neglect, the hotel retains few of its historic finishes, except for those in the original lobby.