History

The following text was written and researched by MidTown on Blanco. The text first appeared in a series of newsletters published by MidTown on Blanco, and was later included in the Midtown Neighborhoods Plan covering Alta Vista and Beacon Hill.

The Alta Vista and Beacon Hill neighborhoods are two of several unique older neighborhoods that evolved during San Antonio’s first and greatest expansion, which began in the 1850s and continued with few interruptions until the Great Depression of the 1930s. These neighborhoods grew around the San Antonio Street Railway Trolley lines that originally provided access to historic San Pedro Springs Park. By 1890, electric trolleys were traveling the fixed rail system carrying passengers to San Pedro Springs Park and in the process, significantly influenced the development of the city’s first new subdivisions to the north.

Alta Vista and Beacon Hill were among the first “modern” platted subdivisions developed in San Antonio. Alta Vista and Beacon Hill are actually the names of modern-day neighborhood associations. The original platted subdivisions within the boundaries of Alta Vista and Beacon Hill include Laurel Heights Addition, Treasure Hill, Fox’s Beacon Hill, Beacon Hill, Beacon Hill Terrace, and North Haven and were developed over three decades from the early 1890s to the late 1920s.

The development of the modern-day Alta Vista and Beacon Hill neighborhoods transformed farm and ranch land located in the hills north of the central district into residential subdivisions with distinctive turn-of-the-century architecture where many prominent San Antonians lived at the turn of the century. The history of this area is unique and very interesting.

The Beginning

The evolution of the area located roughly between Hildebrand and San Pedro Park, and IH-10 West and San Pedro Avenue may be traced to the turn of the century when today’s Alta Vista and Beacon Hill were developed as a part of the first northward expansion of the City of San Antonio.

The San Antonio City Limits were established in 1838, and consisted of 36 square miles. North Street (Hildebrand), which is the northern boundary of Alta Vista and Beacon Hill, also was the northern boundary of the city limits from 1838 until 1944. However, prior to 1870, most residences and businesses were located in or near the central district. Several factors significantly influenced the first northward expansion of the city and the development of the present day Alta Vista and Beacon Hill neighborhoods.

First, the city’s population grew from slightly over 8,200 persons in 1860, when the city was still a frontier town, to nearly 38,000 persons in 1890. With this magnitude of growth, the pressure to expand outward from the original central city was immense.

Second, the development of San Pedro Park as a recreational destination may have been one of the most significant influences in the city’s first northward expansion, pulling San Antonians northward to enjoy the beautiful park above the city. Reserved as a public park in 1851, San Pedro Park became one of the most popular attractions for San Antonians as early as 1854. The flowing San Pedro Springs helped make the park a place where San Antonians of the 1850s came to relax and have fun. Outdoor concerts, dances, and political rallies were held regularly at the park. In the 1860s, J.J. Duerler, who leased the park from the city, developed an amusement park with a small museum, zoo, and artificial lakes. As early as 1858, a stable owner by the name of W.D. Cotton was making two trips a day from downtown to the park by horse-drawn carriage.

Recognizing the demand for transportation northward to San Pedro Park, J.J. Duerler established the San Antonio Street Railway Company in 1866, to construct a street railway from downtown to the park. However, Mr. Duerler died in 1874, before he could construct the railway. Colonel Augustus Belknap took over and constructed the initial line of the San Antonio Street Railway from Main Plaza to San Pedro Park by 1878. Transportation on the line was provided by mule-drawn car. The construction of this line literally opened up the area around San Pedro Park for development.

Third, the arrival of the Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway in 1877, was the final factor that fueled the city’s first suburban expansion and the development of the Alta Vista and Beacon Hill neighborhoods. The railway not only provided accessibility to visitors and new residents, but also provided access to building materials to construct new homes and commercial buildings, as well as new street car lines to meet the demands of the growing population. By 1890, the city’s first modern real estate boom was underway and the city’s first suburbs were being built.

Building Homes

The first wave of expansion began to occur on the fringes of the central district where some of the city’s grand old neighborhoods were built. King William and Tobin Hill are examples of the first neighborhoods developed on the fringe of the central district where some of the city’s most prominent citizens lived. These areas were developed the old- fashioned way where individuals would purchase a plot of land and build a home on that land. In some cases, as in Tobin Hill, whole families would settle in the same area.

Beginning in 1890, the “modern” method of residential development was introduced in where the developer would assemble parcels of land into one property and “subdivide” the parcels into residential lots. The developer then would file a survey of the property which showed the location and dimensions of the individual lots in the subdivision. The subdivision survey is called a plat.

The first “modern” residential subdivision to be officially platted in San Antonio was Adam’s Laurel Heights, which is now a part of the Monte Vista neighborhood. Adam’s Laurel Heights encompassed the area between Magnolia and Woodlawn to the north and south, and Howard and San Pedro to the east and west. It also included the land between McCullough and Howard to the east and west, and Summit and Woodlawn to the north and south.

Jay E. Adams of Colorado saw the potential for development north of San Pedro Springs Park that apparently no San Antonian saw at the time. Donald E. Everett, the famed San Antonio historian, provides some insight into why this area was overlooked by San Antonio developers. In a January 28, 1988 supplement to the North San Antonio Times and Alamo Heights Recorder-Times called “Monte Vista: The Gilded Age of an Historic District, 1890-1930,” Mr. Everett captures the general sentiment of the time when he observes that the location of the proposed Adams Laurel Heights was viewed simply as Mrs. Kampmann’s goat pasture which was:

A dry and barren wilderness, which sustained only mesquite brush, cat claws, chaparral, and wild Mountain Laurel, had long been declared fit for nothing by most San Antonio citizens.

Its no wonder that Mr. Adams was severely criticized when he proposed the development of Adam’s Laurel Heights. In fact he was publicly ridiculed at the time by several of the very influential city fathers who did not believe that the land north of San Pedro Park was worth developing.

But Jay E. Adams proved to be right, Mr. Everett observes, “suburbs throughout the city enjoyed a building boom in the spring of 1901, but Laurel Heights exceeded them all in popularity.” And, as a result, the door was opened for development north of San Pedro Springs Park. But, only after overcoming one more obstacle.

Alta Vista and Beacon Hill’s Development

Laurel Heights Addition – 1893

In 1893, Jay E. Adams platted Laurel Heights Addition, his second residential subdivision located across San Pedro Avenue from his Adam’s Laurel Heights. There was only one problem — The Panic of 1893. According to Donald E. Everett, a depression in the San Antonio real estate market occurred between 1893 and 1896. This depression must have been very unsettling to Mr. Adams after having been so severely criticized for proposing his first development.

Laurel Heights Addition was the first subdivision platted in the area now known as Alta Vista and Beacon Hill. Mr. Adams purchased the land for Laurel Heights Addition for $7,000. The subdivision is bounded by W. Summit to the north, Russell Place to the south, San Pedro to the east, and Blanco Road to the west. The typical lot in Laurel Heights Addition featured a 50-foot frontage and were similar in size to those platted in Adam’s Laurel Heights in 1890.

Today, the Missouri Pacific Railroad bisects this tract of land. The Beacon Hill portion of the tract is to the west of the railroad tracts, while Alta Vista is to the east. Also, Mark Twain Middle School is located at the north east corner of this subdivision between W. Summit and Mulberry on San Pedro.

Treasure Hill – 1906

Treasure Hill was platted in 1906, after the Panic of 1883 and became the second residential subdivision to be developed in the Alta Vista/Beacon Hill area. Jay E. Adams also was involved in this development. But this time it appears that he decided to share the risk with partners, Kirkpatrick, and Nicholson.

Treasure Hill is located between Russell Place to the north and Fredericksburg Road to the south and west, and Blanco Road to the east. Located only a few blocks west of San Pedro Springs Park, Treasure Hill had excellent access to the park’s entertainment and recreational amenities. It also was an ideal location for residents who worked and/or shopped downtown, being located only a few blocks from the north-bound trolley on N. Flores, and to the south-bound trolley on Fredericksburg Road.

The residential subdivision features large lots similar in size to those developed by Jay E. Adams in Laurel Heights Addition. Treasure Hill was the last subdivision in Alta Vista/Beacon Hill to feature large lots.

Fox’s Beacon Hill – 1907

Fox’s Beacon Hill was platted in 1907 by Edwards Realty Company whose principals were F.M. Edwards and E.A. Fox. It is located between Hildebrand to the north, W. Elsmere to the south, Blanco Road to the east and Capitol to the west.

The developers of Fox’s Beacon Hill were among the first to use newspaper advertising to sell homes and lots. In the September 1, 1907 issue of the Express-News, an advertisement announces homes for sale for $5 down and $5 monthly, and lots for $50 to $75. In addition, the same advertisement claims “no taxes and no interest – only 4 blocks from [street] car” and instructs the potential buyer, “Be sure and get off [the street car] at North Flores and Blanco where our automobile will meet you today.”

Beacon Hill Addition (“The Queen Suburb”) – 1908

Nicholson, Furnish, and Smith platted Beacon Hill Addition in 1908 and then proceeded to blitz the public (by 1908 standards) with newspaper advertising. The September 1907 Express-News ads called Beacon Hill “The Queen Suburb” with “The highest and most beautiful locations.”

Beacon Hill Addition is located between W. Elsmere to the north, W. Russell to the south, Blanco Road to the east, and Capitol and Fredericksburg Road to the west.

The 1907 print ads also expressed high expectations, claiming that Beacon Hill Addition, “[is a] 203-acre tract – sufficient for 500 homes of 100-foot frontage each and a population of 5,000 prosperous owners.” The owners’ predicted, “Beacon Hill will be to San Antonio what Hollywood is to Los Angeles.”

In Beacon Hill, there was something for everyone. For example, a September 15, 1907 ad advertised more affordable lots, “Beacon Hill Tracts No. 2 and 3, Where fortune smiles on the man of limited means.”

Beacon Hill Terrace and North Haven

After Beacon Hill Addition was platted in 1908, it would be approximately 12 years before residential development continued in Alta Vista and Beacon Hill. One reason for this gap could be that property probably was used as a golf course and athletic fields until it was platted for residential use beginning in 1920.

The San Antonio Golf and Country Club maintained a nine-hole golf course and club house on the property between 1904 to 1907. This property is located between Hildebrand, W. Summit, San Pedro and Blanco Road. The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps show that the club house was located on the north side of W. Summit, just west of N. Flores. At the time, N. Flores ended at its intersection with W. Summit.

In 1908, the San Antonio Golf and Country Club became the San Antonio Country Club and moved to their present location on N. New Braunfels. According to the Club’s History, “After three years of playing in Mrs. Stribling’s cow pasture, they decided that they needed a more ambitious golf club.”

Mr. B.G. Irish completed the residential subdivision development in Alta Vista/Beacon Hill. Between 1920 and 1925, Mr. Irish platted the remaining undeveloped property located between Hildebrand, W. Summit, San Pedro and Blanco Road.

In 1920, B.G. Irish platted Beacon Hill Terrace located between Hildebrand and W. Summit to the north and south, and the Missouri-Pacific Railroad and Blanco Road to the east and west. Today, Beacon Hill Terrace is located in the Beacon Hill Area Neighborhood.

North Haven was platted in 1921 with Hildebrand and W. Lynwood as its north/south boundaries. North Haven (2nd Filing) was platted in 1925 and is located between W. Lynwood and W. Summit. San Pedro and the Missouri-Pacific Railroad form the east/west boundaries of both North Haven subdivisions which are located in today’s Alta Vista Neighborhood.

Many of the city’s most prominent citizens were the first to move into San Antonio’s first suburbs which were located high above the overcrowded central city and many of whose homes were designed by some of the city’s most respected architects.

In 1923, two years before residential development would be complete, Agnes Cotton School No. 20 was built. The opening of the Agnes Cotton school signaled that there was the critical mass of residents in Alta Vista/Beacon Hill that warranted the construction of educational facilities. It also was a signal that this prosperous population of consumers would soon create the demand for goods and services.

MidTown Business District’s The Early Years: 1920s and 1930s

The MidTown Business District was born as the Alta Vista and Beacon Hill neighborhoods were maturing. The MidTown Business District was primarily rural during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. In 1910, only a few homes dotted the district located at 1801, 1803, 1815, 1817, and 1917 Blanco Road. These homes were occupied by the Remiling, Daugherty, and Partin families. It appears that of the these original structures, only the home located at 1815 Blanco Road remains. David W. Pipes owns the building and uses it for his wood working business. All of the other original homes were demolished to make room for commercial development.

The first commercial building to be built in the MidTown Business District was today’s Powell Cleaners building located at 1401 Blanco Road at its intersection with W. Summit. Originally constructed in 1924, the building was the home of the Blanco Road Drug Shop from around 1924 until the late 1930s. However, the Blanco Road Drug Shop was located on the southern fringe of the area where the focus of commercial buildings would occur.

The first commercial multi-tenant building was constructed circa 1926, at the north east corner of Blanco Road and Coffman Street (Elsmere) at 1710 to 1720 Blanco Road. The two blocks between Fulton and Beacon Avenue (W. Lynwood) rapidly developed into the heart of the MidTown Business District as three new commercial multi-tenant buildings and a large Handy Andy Grocery store were constructed between 1926 and 1934. Over 40,000 square feet of retail space was built in this two-block area along Blanco Road in the eight years between 1926 and 1934.

By the late-1930s, the MidTown Business District had four grocery stores (Handy Andy, Piggly Wiggly, Hom-Ond, and a Red and White), two drug stores with soda fountains (Sommer’s and Prassel’s), a Winn’s five and dime store, Taylor’s Bakery, several beauty salons and barber shops, clothing stores, a shoe repair shop, The Elsmere Cafe, Casbeer’s Place and even a gas station (1801 Blanco Road).

It’s surprising that this portion of the Midtown Business District developed during a time in history when the country had plunged into the Great Depression of the 1930s. As these businesses flourished, this two-block area became the heart of the neighborhoods. The business district continued to thrive during the post-World War II years. But, by the 1950s, storm clouds were brewing on the horizon that would radically change the course of the Alta Vista and Beacon Hill neighborhoods and the MidTown Business District.

MidTown Business District: The Declining Years

In 1951, Handy Andy Store No. 16, located at 1704 Blanco Road, was like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. This was the year that Store No. 16 closed after 20 years of service to the neighborhood. Like the canary that is the first to be affected by deadly gas in the coal mine, the closing of Handy Andy did not bode well for the MidTown Business District.

Handy Andy’s departure was very significant because of the substantial investment they made in the neighborhood. While three other grocery stores including Piggly Wiggly Store No. 24, Mustsaer’s Red and White and Hom-Ond Food Store No. 11 were located in the business district at the same time as Handy Andy, they were all tenants in MidTown buildings. Only Handy Andy built their own building at 1704 Blanco Road in the early 1930s to house Store No. 16. Handy Andy’s dis-investment in the neighborhood in 1951 signaled the beginning of a downward spiral in the business district that would continue for nearly five decades.

Why did Handy Andy leave? While there may have been many reasons for their decision to leave the neighborhood, lack of adequate parking was probably the primary reason. Handy Andy was able to manage for 20 years without much parking, but the soaring popularity of the automobile eventually forced them to find a new location to accommodate the increasing demand for parking spaces. By 1960, all but one of the original four grocery stores moved out of the MidTown Business District.

Cities, neighborhoods, and districts have a dynamic quality. In other words, they are constantly changing. These neighborhood changes may be generally categorized into four stages including growth, stability, decline, and revitalization. The departure of Handy Andy and the other MidTown grocery stores ushered in a stage of decline. This came, however, only after Alta Vista, Beacon Hill and MidTown had been through periods of growth and stability.

The growth stage began in 1893, the year the Laurel Heights Addition was platted, and this growth continued for almost 40 years until the mid-1930s when Alta Vista and Beacon Hill were fully developed and populated. The MidTown Business District went through its growth period from the mid-1920s until 1940 when it provided store, restaurants, clothing stores and a wide variety of services ranging from beauty shops to a shoe repair shop. Both neighborhoods and the business district remained relatively stable from about 1940 to 1950.

During the 1950s, many changes began to occur which fueled the neighborhoods’ and business district’s decline. During the 1950s, the use of the automobile exploded in popularity and the nation’s interstate highway system was built. San Antonio’s interstate and loop highway systems also were built during this time. The highways opened up fresh frontiers as new suburbs were built along Loop 410 and people began to move out of the older neighborhoods. By the 1960s, retailing had changed dramatically with the development of the regional mall. Mom and pop entrepreneurs in neighborhood business districts like MidTown could not compete with the mall. Consequently, neighborhoods and neighborhood business districts alike began to lose their vitality and to slowly deteriorate.

In the mid-1990s, circumstances that had fueled the decline of Alta Vista, Beacon Hill and MidTown began to change. The stirring of a revitalization movement was about to be born.

Historic data sources:

  1. San Antonio on Track by Ann Maria Watson, Trinity University, Urban Studies Program, May 1982.
  2. U.S. Census historic data for San Antonio, Texas