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Long-Awaited Hot Wells County Park Begins Construction

Written by on July 23, 2018

For decades the remnants of the storied Hot Wells Resort have sat in dilapidation, a far cry from its peak in the early 20th century as one of world’s premier hot-springs resorts. Residents of Bexar County have long urged both county and city officials to carry out revitalization efforts, with the first official proposal for a Hot Wells rebirth arriving thirty-two years ago in 1987. However, to fully grasp what Hot Wells could become in the near future, we must first take a look at its past.

Hot Wells as it appeared on a 1910 postcard.

In 1892, sulfur-rich hot water springs were discovered on the grounds of the regional mental institution, situated directly adjacent to Mission San Jose, on the southern end of the San Antonio Mission Reach. Entrepreneurs immediately capitalized upon the public’s enthusiasm for the supposed health benefits of bathing in sulfur-rich hot springs, and a full-fledged resort was functioning by 1894.

Subsequent prosperity in the following decade prompted expansions of Hot Wells’ hotel, bathhouse, and assorted entertainment venues. The resort had begun to entice the most distinguished and illustrious personalities of the early 20th century—celebrities such as Teddy Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, and Will Rogers had all, once upon a time, traveled to Bexar County for the re-invigoration provided by hot springs of the Hot Wells Resort. They gambled, bathed in the hot springs, attended concerts and lectures, and—wait for it—raced Ostriches.

Hot Wells was even the headquarters of one of the United States’ pioneer film studios during cinematography’s infancy. Over 70 feature-length silent films were shot and produced on the Hot Wells campus at the Star Film Ranch, the American extension of the French film studio that achieved global notoriety for its groundbreaking 1902 film, A Trip to The Moon.

Yet, star power wasn’t enough to overcome the next 100 years of bad luck: war, natural disaster, prohibition, and recession all proved to be too great a challenge for the once-famous resort to overcome. World War One hamstrung tourism whilst sulfur-rich water springs fell out of style, and resort attendance waned heavily. If that were not enough, in 1920, an immense fire ravaged the springs’ hotel, leaving behind little more than a scorched foundation. Small tourist cottages were constructed to salvage what was left of the springs’ vacation potential, but, ultimately, the once-famous refuge was converted into a trailer park. The trailer park closed permanently in 1977 and was subsequently abandoned.

Hot Wells Springs was left with little more than memories and graffiti. The mineral spring itself was shut off in 2013, but the ruins of the iconic bathhouse still stand proud.

The remains of the Hot Wells Resort prior to the most recent restorative effort. (Photo courtesy San Antonio Express-News)

In 2012, once again, a deal was reported to be in the works for the restoration of Hot Wells Springs, a full 118 years after its discovery.  Bexar County and Hot Wells property owner James Lifshutz announced plans for a joint effort to convert the ruins into the Hot Wells Historical and Cultural Park, a multi-use county park and satellite of the Mission Reach. Lifshutz, per the terms of the agreement, would donate the property and retain certain rights, and the County would in return fund the restoration effort.

In the following six years, the project came closer to fruition. Hundreds of hours were poured into the park’s design, planning, and fundraising—but negotiations between James Lifshutz and the county collapsed in early 2017. Tension had devolved into conflict as the two parties found themselves unable to reconcile their disagreements over a major contractual stipulation.

In the event of any unfulfilled promises on the County’s end, James Lifshutz proposed that he himself would reserve the right to repossess the property—a provision deemed unnecessary and risky by the County. The issue was apparent: why would the County pump millions of taxpayer dollars into an enterprise that could be repossessed by a private citizen?

The stalemate lasted for months. The partnership between Bexar County and James Lifshutz appeared to be following the same trajectory as the springs itself. However, at this juncture, $5.8 million in taxpayer funds had already been appropriated for the project, and they’d be wasted if the restoration effort did not result in a fully functioning County park.

In response to this potential crisis, Bexar County Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert took it upon himself to revive negotiations and finalize Lifshutz’s gift.

Commissioner Calvert and Mr. Lifshutz, after hours of deliberations through multiple sessions, hammered out a deal. The Commissioner is credited with persuading James Lifshutz to drop the repossession clause, in addition to finally reaching agreements on park operations, maintenance, and environmental cleanup.

As a result of this breakthrough, the first phase of Hot Wells’ transformation is officially a go to restore the famed bathhouse and transform the surrounding area into an array of educational and recreational spaces. Furthermore, there are even plans for a bridge over the San Antonio river will permit access to Mission San Jose the rest of the Mission Reach Trail.

The master plan of the park’s first phase. (Photo courtesy of Bexar County)

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