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Arts & Culture

New County Park Infused With The Memories Of Old Hot Wells Resort

The remnants of the former Hot Wells resort that attracted the rich and famous of its day is now part of a new South Side park. Hot Wells at Bexar County Park opened on Tuesday.

The resort opened in the 1890s off what is now South Presa when sulphur spring water was discovered, officials of the Hot Wells Conservancy said.

An 80-room hotel soon followed.

The resort offered three giant spring-fed pools for men, women, and children. There were dozens of private baths and two hundred dressing rooms, according to the conservancy.

The rich and famous flocked there too, including Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and future president Theodore Roosevelt.

Visitors enjoyed dancing, concerts, lectures, garden teas, dominos, and gambling, according to markers at the site.

The resort survived fires, had a few different owners and by the 1970s it was closed for good.

Credit Brian Kirkpatrick | Texas Public Radio
The pools.

Alfred Alvarez worked at the nearby state hospital as a social worker, and then in his 20s he was among the last round of guests.

He remembered how the sulphur springs reeked of a rotten egg smell, which Alvarez doubted today’s health buffs would enjoy.

“I don’t know if people would have liked it or not," he said, "because when you swam in those sulphuric spring waters you would have to take about three or four showers to get that smell off of your body and shampoo your head also about the same number of times."

Health experts thought the waters were healthy despite the smell. Yvonne Katz of the Hot Wells Conservancy said the resort had a list of ailments it claimed the waters could cure.

“One thing was diarrhea ... when you look at the list, it includes herpes, it includes asthma,” Katz said. “It is a list of ailments that people had back then, and they did not have pills and modern medicine.”

Credit Brian Kirkpatrick | Texas Public Radio
A teacup.

Archaeologist Rhianna Ward works for Raba Kistner, the engineering firm the county hired to keep an eye out for artifacts found during the re-development project, including fine china, bottles, and even old shoes.

“Strikes me as very strange that we have recovered a lot of shoes. ... I’m gonna chalk that up to when [after] the fire, a lot of items were left behind. ... you find a couple of kitchen pieces, and then there is a child’s shoe laying in the middle of everything,” she said.

Workers even explored the resort's preserved trash, and they found something unexpected: alligator bones. Researchers believed they might've been from an alligator dish on the resort's menu. Ward said alligators were common in the area at the time.

County Judge Nelson Wolff said the new $4 million park was built on property donated by developer James Lifshutz, who plans to open a new spa next door. The state chipped in $1 million for the park, which includes plenty of space for picnics.

Credit Brian Kirkpatrick | Texas Public Radio
Alligator bones, possibly from a dish from the resort's menu.

Wolff grew up on the South Side. He said he loved to play baseball, and he often played near the old resort.

Jagged walls and pools are all that remain of the original resort. Wolff said it was not feasible to fully restore the spa. He said one building, however, will include offices, a museum, and classroom space.

He said silent movies that featured many of the stars that visited the resort will be screened at the park.

”You’re going to be able to see where they also did films out here. Star Film made a lot of silent movies. We’re going to be showing them out here,” he said.

The Hot Wells Conservancy said it would accept donations for future preservation and expansion at the park.

Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at Brian@TPR.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian.