Posted: Jul 6, 2005, 3:09 PM
Join Date: Nov 2004
Location: Houston, TX
David Hendricks: Big changes coming next year for historic buildings downtown
Web Posted: 07/06/2005 12:00 AM CDT
San Antonio Express-News
The corner of St. Mary's and Commerce streets downtown is headed for a grand rebirth in 2006.
The 24-story Alamo National Building, built in 1929, will reopen in May or June as a Drury Plaza Hotel, the flagship property for the 130-hotel Drury Southwest chain, based in Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Catty-corner from the Alamo National Building, the 1926-vintage Aztec Theater will be renewed in January as a 475-seat, big-screen Iwerks Theater, supplemented by two special-effects lobby presentations.
The Alamo National Building's conversion will occur in two stages. The Drury Plaza Hotel will open with about 310 rooms and about 15,000 square feet of meeting space, a $57.6 million project. The $10 million-plus second phase will add 60 to 80 rooms on top of the adjacent parking garage.
The garage itself will be relieved of its eyesore Cold War-era exterior, replaced with an improved façade, said Rick Drury, a director of Drury Southwest.
The second phase has no timetable. The entire River Walk community will keenly expect it, however, because of changes that will occur along the San Antonio River bypass channel along the west side of the parking garage.
The wall is slated to be removed in January 2006 during the 10 days the river will be drained downtown for channel maintenance. At a later date, Drury Southwest will spend $3 million to build a cantilevered walkway that will make the River Walk a loop for the first time.
The River Walk, a top state tourist attraction, now is like a horseshoe that forces visitors to double back when reaching the dead ends. A loop will make the River Walk more pleasant for visitors and business owners alike.
With Drury Southwest donating the walkway to the city, City Hall ought to consider building a Robert H.H. Hugman-style arched stone bridge across the bypass channel at that point to improve visitor access to the west side of downtown.
That would better link the River Walk to El Mercado. The Drury Plaza Hotel, after all, will provide excellent views of San Fernando Cathedral and City Hall.
The exterior fire escapes inside the L-shaped Alamo National Building will be removed, replaced by a new interior stairwell. Three floors of the one-time Class B office building will retain original marble and plaster designs. Other historic features on six additional floors will be preserved.
Original office wooden doors throughout the building are being stored for reinstallation when possible for the hotel.
The elevator reaches only the 23rd story of the building, so penthouse suites on that floor will extend up to the 24th floor.
The old San Antonio Club on the fourth floor of the building will become part of the Drury Plaza Hotel's meeting space.
Drury Plaza is the Drury chain's top brand. The only other Drury Plaza Hotel is in downtown St. Louis, occupying a Lewis and Clark Trail landmark building, Drury said.
Less than a block away on St. Mary's Street, the 150-room Drury Inn & Suites occupies the original City Public Service building, which dates back to 1921.
Until last year, the Alamo National and Aztec Theater buildings both were owned by Theo Bracht of Belgium and operated by Bracht's Euro-Alamo Investments.
Drury Southwest's purchase of the Alamo National Building provides funds for Euro-Alamo Investments to spend about $15 million to renovate the Aztec Theater.
The theater will be largely finished by November. After employee training and installation of Iwerks Theater equipment, the attraction should open in January, featuring two historic items of the original Aztec, the 428-light lobby chandelier and the 1,700-pipe Wurlitzer theater organ.
The Aztec Theater's street-level lobby will feature a light-and-flame three-dimensional special-effects presentation portraying a story about the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and a re-enactment of the Battle of the Aztec Empire.
Each showing will signal visitors to move to the Iwerks Theater seating upstairs. Iwerks movies will be preceded with a short-subject film on the history of the Aztec Theater and silent movies.
Another 3-D presentation will be staged downstairs on the theater's River Walk level. Titled "Pepper's Ghost," it will portray the workings of historic theater machinery.
The River Walk level also will have gifts shops and a River Walk-entrance restaurant, Austin-based Iron Cactus. The restaurant kitchen will be situated beneath the Iwerks Theater stage.
This will be the fourth restoration of the Aztec Theater since its 1926 opening; the others occurring in 1946, 1952 and 1972, when the 2,800-seat auditorium was subdivided into three movie screens.
An illustrated curtain depicting the initial meeting of Aztec king Montezuma and Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortez will be retained behind the Iwerks screen, visible from stairway landings to the theater's seating area.
The Aztec Theater also will house offices and spaces for school groups to congregate.
The news about both buildings would not be possible without $40 million in bond financing that City Hall qualified for through the federal Empowerment Zone program.
The bonds will finance the Alamo National Building's conversion to a hotel.
And Drury Southwest will not be through investing in San Antonio.
Director Rick Drury said the company, which operates a regional office in San Antonio, is looking at possible projects in the Loop 1604-Interstate 10 area and downtown.
San Antonio has been a favorite city of the Drury family, he said, since a family member moved here as a teacher in 1968. The hotel construction and tourism development that occurred that year in connection with HemisFair '68 was inspiring to hotel founder Bob Drury, who now lives here.
"We're sold on San Antonio," Rick Drury said. "We'll keep on going."