SAN ANTONIO -- Just the bones remain, scalped and hollowed out by fire, use and time. Yet there was a time when crowds flocked to the magnificent Hot Wells Hotel. It is said that Rudolph Valentino, Sarah Bernhardt and Cecil B. DeMille joined those that frequented the south San Antonio resort for rest, recuperation and the therapeutic, warm sulphur waters that still run at the site along the San Antonio River.
Now tall palm trees stand as quiet sentries and as reminders of what once was.
From a distance many look on the crumbling, dilapidated structure, and dream. Was that a Victrola playing Irving Berlin or Scott Joplin tunes from the shaded veranda?
Visionary real estate developer and patron of the arts, James Lifshutz, is working to make the dream a reality. He's looking at the past and the present to weld a new future for the Hot Wells Hotel and Spa. Lifshutz purchased the 21-acre plot on S. Presa near Hot Wells Blvd. in 1999.
"I had admired it from over the fence for years like a lot of other people, and I'd seen it suffer one indignity after another in the form of fire," Lifshutz said. "It was a wasting asset."
Lifshutz wanted to conserve the property until he could figure out what to do with it. And now he has. His plans include a new take, a new interpretation that will highlight Hot Wells' historical significance while breaching the gap toward economic development.
Lifshutz has proposed a public/private partnership that includes Bexar County. A small portion of the property, 3 acres, was donated to the county and accepted last August. That portion will likely encompass a museum, gift shop and a historic interpretation of the original Hot Wells resort. The formerly grand swimming pools of the old bathhouse will be filled in and landscaped in a way that will allow visitors to learn about its picturesque and glorious past. It's a plan to "preserve the ruined part as a ruin," Lifshutz explained.
In the private portion, Lifshutz has plans to build new structures for lodgings, 75 to 100 cabins, an inn-style lodging, restaurant, picnic area with entertainment venue and an affordable, or "democratized' day spa - an everyman's spa, so to speak. And, yes, that includes utilizing the thermal waters.
"The fact is that civilization since the beginning, and before the beginning of recorded time, has sought out thermal waters," Lifshutz said.
He's laissez-faire when it comes to skeptics who doubt the healing properties of the odorous sulphur spring. He says you just have to soak in it to realize it must be beneficial, at least to some extent,. But he's not pushing the point. What Lifshutz is pushing is that the community can really benefit from this new development.
A 2011 study on the impact of a private/public partnership so close in proximity to Mission San Jose, Mission County Park and the $245.7-million Mission Reach project revealed that 1 in 5 visitors would stay if there were better lodging options available, like the ones Lifshutz is proposing. Those people, a large majority "day-trippers" who don't stick around, would now hang around longer...spending more money and boosting the neighborhood's economic development.
And right now, in spite of the wonderful improvements at the aforementioned sites, it could use some boosting.
Signs of urban decay are plentiful. The Hot Wells site alone has been plagued by repeated fires, some not long ago in outbuildings that subsequently had to be torn down.
But Lifshutz is undaunted.
"That's what you you call revitalization," he said.
Lifshutz is no stranger to that term. He is, after all, the mastermind behind the Blue Star Arts Complex on S. Alamo.
"When I first started working on Blue Star, it was the late 80s. It was the wrong side of the river and the wrong side of the tracks," Lifshutz says. "The commercial corridors near there were scary places. Commercial revitalization had not even begun."
And look at it now. Blue Star encompasses apartments, art galleries, artists studios, retail and restaurant, and it is still growing. Lifshutz hopes to break ground this spring on the Big Tex portion of the complex. That means 320 residential lofts you can be assured will include an artsy vibe that incorporates the grain silos that so charmingly line the Eagleland portion of the San Antonio River Improvements Project.
But still, there are some impediments to the Hot Wells development.
Like the fact that the plans call for a public roadway cutting off of Hot Wells Blvd. less than a block from the San Antonio River. The problem is that it belongs to someone else. Without that byway, the main driveway to the new development would have to enter over the railroad tracks at S. Presa.
But, Lifshutz has divested himself of that technicality. By giving the three acres to the county, building an appropriate roadway becomes their problem. On Tuesday, the Bexar County Commissioners Court authorized a $296, 307 expenditure so that Alamo Architects can explore the possibilities of the proposed Hot Wells Interpretive Center.
Now, stand back and watch what happens. Rising from the age-old ashes, a new Hot Wells springs.
Click through the photos to see images of Hot Wells' past, present and plans for the future.