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The St. Anthony Hotel: The Queen of San Antonio

Whenever my husband, Roger, and I travel, especially to a city we haven’t experienced before, we look for centrally located hotels that are part of the area’s history. That was just what we found at the St. Anthony Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. 

Both San Antonio’s and the hotel’s name go back to June 13, 1691, when the Spanish explorers arrived. It was the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua.

By 1909, San Antonio was the largest city in the state and B. L. Naylor and A. H. Jones, who had built fortunes in the cattle and land businesses, recognized the need for a luxury hotel. They invested in the St. Anthony , which was built with the Old World elegance of Italian marble, Venetian mosaic tile, Corinthian columns. It was called the “Waldorf of the Prairie,” and rivaled the New York City hotel that set the standard for the rest.

They added the finest furnishings and conveniences of the day, like illuminated closets and private bathrooms. It stood as the epitome of gracious Texas hospitality for business and professional men and discerning travelers.

Entrepreneur Ralph Waldo Morrison, a subsequent owners of the hotel, rescued it from foreclosure during the Great Depression. He was an avid traveler and collector and furnished it with many of his treasures — museum-quality French Empire antique furniture, sculptures, oil paintings and tapestries. 

Morrison paid $27,00, equivalent to nearly half a million dollars today, for the hotel’s magnificent Steinway piano, handcrafted of rosewood veneer, tulip wood inlay and gilt bronze trim. It was said to be built for the Russian Embassy in Paris. The Russian Embassy in Washington D.C. sold it to raise money for the Soviet Union’s war debt.

Morrison also added a drive-in auto lobby, an underground garage and the first “magic eye” doors that opened upon approach. There was live music in Peacock Alley at noon and nightly, seven days a week. When the St. Anthony became  the first fully air conditioned hotel in the world the big band music broadcast from the rooftop in the 1920s and 1930s  was moved to air-conditioned Anacacho Room ballroom.

And what a glorious place it was to see and be seen! An area of the lobby has been known as “Peacock Alley” since the 1930s. It’s a reference to New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria’s walkway between its two buildings, which the New York Herald Tribune referred to as a place for the city’s peacocks to parade their finery. The eight magnificent chandeliers in the St. Anthony Hotel’s Peacock Alley were modeled after those on the Titanic to complement the palatial antique furniture.

Stroll past the photographs of the rich and famous that line the hallways today and you see that the St. Anthony Hotel soon became the hotel of choice for visiting celebrities, royalty, renowned musicians, socialites, and the most important and prestigious local celebrations.

Famous guests of the hotel read like a Who’s Who of the rich and renowned in America — Presidents and other politicians, generals, A-list celebrities, writers, filmmakers, famous athletes, debutantes, cattlemen, oil barons and other business tycoons and royalty.

Filmmakers and 1920s silent film stars, like Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, “Buddy” Rogers of  “Wings” lived here during filming. LBJ and Lady Bird and their wedding guests dined on the rooftop in 1934.

When a young Dwight Eisenhower was stationed at Fort Sam Houston he danced with Mamie on that rooftop. Eleanor Roosevelt stayed at the St. Anthony Hotel when lecturing at the nearby Municipal Auditorium.

John Wayne was a hotel guest so many times that a suite is named after him. His most notable stay was during the  premiere of the 1960s film “The Alamo.” It also brought stars like Richard Widmark, Chill Wills, Frankie Avalon, Kinda Cristal, Pat Wayne, and Richard Boone to the 900 person cocktail party in the hotel’s Anacacho Room.

Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco attended a party in their honor in the Anacacho Room during HemisFair ’68. 

The 1990s movie “The Newton Boys” with Texas-born Matthew McConaughey was shot in and around the St. Anthony. The bank robbers, who netted more than Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, and others combined, sometimes stayed here.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver, George Clooney, Demi Moore, Chuck Norris, Luke Perry, Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Brett Michaels were hotel guests while in San Antonio for the opening of Planet Hollywood on the Riverwalk.

Receptions for San Antonio Fiesta’s Ball royalty are held here. The queen and her court of duchesses hang their elaborate trains from the balcony for all to see.

The hotel’s Cavalier Room is a designated hospitality room for the Texas Cavaliers. Hundreds of business, civic and community leaders are now members of this all-male charitable organization that began as a small social group to promote and preserve the bravery, horsemanship and independence of the heroes of the Alamo.
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Its  programs, like their Texas Cavaliers River Parade, raise money for their charitable foundation formed to assist local children. The Cavaliers also host a lavish King’s Ball.  

The glamorous Dorothy Draper was hired to design the private St. Anthony Club in the 1950s, a time when liquor by the drink could only be sold in private clubs. She created a crested British-style bar with a separate dining room and dance floor and filled it with art from England, France, Holland, and India.

Some of Texas cattlemen’s and oil barons’ biggest deals were made there. It is where the founders of Southwest Airlines drew the original triangle route —San Antonio, Dallas, Houston —on a napkin and with the idea of offering fares so low people would fly instead of drive.

The St. Anthony Club is now open for the public. It is a place to enjoy live jazz from the circa 1924 Steinway while sampling some savories like Oysters St. Anthony or Billionaire Beef Tenderloin Cobb Sliders with a Texas-inspired signature drink like the signature Triple S, Dorothy’s Day Off or Fit for a Cavalier.

A day at the St. Anthony begins with breakfast in Gallery On the Park, the sunny atrium with floor-to-ceiling windows. It overlooks Travis Park, land that was once part of the Alamo’s farmland. The park was named for the commander of the Alamo, which is just three blocks away.

The dining experience continues with innovative dining options at San Antonio’s award-winning ReBelle, the creation of entrepreneur Andrew Goodman and Chef Stefan Bower, who opened FEAST in the King William District in 2011. Individual and shared plates of New American cuisine are served along with signature cocktails named for the seven deadly sins.

It sparkles with blue-violet lighting and crystal chandeliers. Produce and meats are locally sourced. Its seafood, shipped overnight, is renowned and a popular choice for dinner before a performance at the nearby Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

ReBelle was awarded “Best New Restaurant” by Texas Monthly, “Top 10 Best New Restaurants” by San Antonio Magazine and was ranked #6 in the Express-News “100 Top Restaurants in San Antonio for 2016.”

Just across the hall, Haunt, named for the hotel’s ghostly legends, is a place to gather and to watch the news or a sporting event. Stop by for the Happy Hour. Try a signature cognac cocktail like The Lady in Red, named for spirit spotted around the hotel. The menu was created by Chef Stefan Bowers.

Or relax and enjoy the panoramic view of the city with a poolside margarita and casual selection like a steak quesadilla at the rooftop Cabana Bar.

The St. Anthony Hotel has been renovated to its former glory as the “Queen of San Antonio.” State-of-the-art technological improvements have made it better than ever.

Morrison’s art, sculpture and tapestries have been restored. Original Venetian mosaic tiles were polished after being uncovered below layers of flooring.

The treasured Steinway that had been shipped to the San Francisco home of a hotel parent company’s owner was repurchased at auction for $220,000, repaired at Steinway in New York, and returned to Peacock Alley.

The St. Anthony is a Luxury Collection Hotel and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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