A San Antonio Bridge Once Carried Beer, Now It Carries People
When the Museum Reach stretch of the San Antonio River was revitalized and opened to the public in May 2009, it turned the littered, scrub-choked waterway into a one-of-a-kind linear park. A decade later, one of the Reach's most interesting aspects still has a hidden mystery.
That mystery is a walk bridge that spans the San Antonio River at the end of Roy Smith Street. To understand why it's there, you have to go to what is now the San Antonio Museum of Art. SAMA's Katie Luber said the art museum was originally the Lone Star Brewery from 1884 until 1920, when prohibition shut down beer production.
"The brewery was largely abandoned. There were some intermittent uses of it, so I think there was a cotton gin here for a while but for the most part it was abandoned for the next 50 years," she said.
That 50 years had taken its toll. The buildings' structural problems even left some sections of it with caved-in roofs. During that late 1970s renovation, Luber said it was decided that one of its most interesting attributes had to be removed from the twin-towered structure.
“There was a walkway that connected the east tower to the west tower. The beer was brewed on the east side and shipped from the west side,” she said. “And there was a narrow little bridge open to the air that connected the two towers. That bridge, in the renovation, was removed."
The danger of an open-air walk bridge spelled its doom there. It was removed and replaced with an enclosed black glass one. After a $7.2 million renovation, SAMA opened to the public in 1981. But when that walk bridge was taken down, what had become of it?
John Mize is a principal with Ford, Powell and Carson, an architecture and urban design firm here in San Antonio.
He was project manager on the Museum Reach river re-do from 2002 to completion, turning it from an overgrown drainage ditch to a river with landscaped, ornate walkways and public art.
Early on, to see exactly what they were getting into, he and some co-workers hacked their way through the underbrush 'til they came across a surprise.
"As we got up a cross from the Museum of Art we saw this bridge. As I recall it was pretty much overgrown with poison ivy," Mize said.
They had done their research and they knew what they had found.
"As soon as we saw it, we knew we had to incorporate it into the project in one way or the other," he said.
It was in a sorry state, but the architects saw inherent beauty in the design.
Though the bridge was made primarily of steel the way it arcs upward from below, and downward from above, gives it a kind of delicate look.
"It does have a delicate look. The steel members are very thin,” Mize said. “And it was just a beautifully designed original bridge when it was done."
The bridge was owned then by Mark Watson, but he quickly took to the idea of its reuse as walk bridge.
"Mr. Watson is generous and donated it to the project. And so one of the first things we had to do obviously to see if the bridge was in any kind of condition to be brought up to the current codes," he said.
Engineers determined that with repair the bridge was structurally sound. And Frates Seeligson said there's something about this old bridge that just... works.
"It sounds it's so cliché but (it's) that whole idea of ‘they don't make them like they used to,’" he said.
Seeligson is with the San Antonio River Foundation, which raised about $19 million to pay for the aesthetics of the Museum Reach project — the public art, landscaping and the river barge turnabout at the Pearl. He said walk bridges are easy to find.
"You can go online or you can get a bridge fabricated, a modern bridge,” he said. “We could have put something like that. But you and I wouldn't be here talking about that.”
And there's another mystery you may not know about the walk bridge: when they installed it at the end of Roy Smith Street a hundred or so yards from SAMA, they built at either end a small tower, using similar brick and architectural touches as seen at the museum. It now looks miniature, much the way it did 130 years ago.
"I don't know if people actually know that. There's still a little hidden things that people don't even realize,” Seeligson said. “And the bridge is one thing. It's not hidden but it's the history still somewhat hidden."
Standing in the middle of the bridge, it's a clear view up to the towers between which it once spanned.
But do the hundreds of people who walk it every day even know that it was once there? One passerby was a woman named Leah who was walking two full-sized fully-coifed poodles. When she was told the bridge she was standing on used to stretch between SAMA’s two towers, she was shocked.
“Oh, you’re kidding. It connected the two sides of the museum?” she asked.
Yup. The walk bridge dated back to the days when SAMA was the Lone Star Brewery.
“Yeah, yeah... very cool. And it’s beautiful,” she said.
Leah and her two poodles wandered off. She didn't know. But then, none of the half-dozen or so people interviewed did.The next time you're down here, take your time. Look up and you'll see. Frates Seeligson likes the way the walk bridge found a second life in the Museum Reach.
"And so now the bridge's come home and it's where it should be,” Seelingson said. “On the river. And it's a cool element to the whole museum reach."
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