The Ghost of South Presa Street
On a mild spring day, my daughter and I walk on a narrow trail, trampled out between tall grass and wildflowers grown knee-high, waist-high, shoulder-high. A light breeze ruffles the flowers, around which orbit a fair of butterflies. The sounds of the city, of traffic and commerce seem to come from a long distance; the birdsong and the rustle of moving leaves are much more immediate. We are on a quest, looking for the past, and exploring the ruins of the old Hot Wells resort, a sort of architectural sleeping beauty.
Hot Wells today lies in a clearing among a grove of trees, across the railroad tracks, between South Presa and the San Antonio River. Someone casually driving by might think the ruins are of a factory or a mill... little knowing that once there was a long elegant promenade, a carriageway ornamented with a planting of flowerbeds, hedges and footpaths on either side. Little is left of that glory now: the central promenade devolved decades ago into a rutted footpath trampled out in the grass, lost in the creeping undergrowth. The central ruins seem to float in a rippling green sea, a wrecked ship of buff-colored brick.
And yet, if you close your eyes, sit quietly and hold your breath in this place, one can almost hear the sound of ragtime music floating on the air from a nearby bandstand under the trees, or a wind-up Victrola paying in a high-ceiling room behind a deep verandah. Gravel crunches under the narrow tires of tinny little sedans and open touring cars, sweeping up to the front of the sprawling grand hotel, and a train-whistle blows, from the spur where a wealthy magnate has his private parlor car waiting. The past is just barely out of reach here at Hot Wells, the sounds of it just beyond our hearing, in this twenty-first century.
Women stroll past, shading themselves with fragile lace parasols. The hems of their skirts nearly touch the ground, rustling around their high-buttoned slippers as they laugh softly, perhaps recounting a tale of flirtation on the paths in the pecan grove, or at the luxurious baths. The rotten-egg smell of water infused with sulfur floats on the summer-warm air, drifting from the direction of the ornate brick and wood bathhouse with the three pools in it. This bathhouse, immortalized in a thousand hand-tinted postcards... this is the central jewel of this place, a fanciful bubble on the river of time.
Today among the crumbled walls, plaster falls from the sides of the sulfur-water pools, where men bathed on one side, women on the other, and families splashed together in the pool between, but it is easy to call them into imagination.... Even if plants grow in cracks, clinging to vertical surfaces like a drawing of the bathing pools, and the whole of it is open to the sky. "Ladies Pool" is still visible in paint once black and now faded to grey. The concrete steps going down into the pool are so weathered by exposure that the pebbles in it are visible, and lantana grows in the pools where another faded sign forbid bathers to high-dive.
We close our eyes and imagine again... that these walls are crisp and new-plastered, the paint on the signs is fresh, and the changing rooms stocked with clean towels, everything polished and pristine under the grooved-board ceilings. Hot Wells was built in another world, a slower-moving world than our hyper-kinetic present but no less perilous. It was a world that did not know penicillin or the atom bomb, a world that was barely acquainted with powered flight and civil rights. There are movies and movie theaters, but so primitive that we would barely recognize them: silent, a jerky blur of black and white, filmed with hand-cranked cameras. An early movie company has just filmed the very first film version of the battle of the Alamo nearby, using one of the old missions as a stand-in.
The world changed first through war and then depression, both of which affected Hot Wells... but not as much as fire. The hotel building burned to the ground in the Twenties, never to be rebuilt. Today another footpath leads into the woods where it once stood, towards two ranks of tourist cabins that replaced it; pastel stucco structures with oddly peaked roofs. The luxury resort became a motor court, then a trailer park. The music of my imagination changes here, in the sunny glades between the shattered stucco walls; it becomes big-band swing on a car radio, crackling with static and interspersed with an announcers' voice reading a bulletin about a distant war and far away events.
Is that the perfume of honeysuckle, hanging on the air? We wade through wildflowers again; the cabins are as ruinous as the bathhouse; just enough of them left to hint at what was once here, which continue to haunt the woods on this patch of the Southside. There is a different feel to the ruins of place where happiness has been, though; melancholy, but without the oppressive sense of tragedy, and the knowledge that blood has been spilt into the ground. All the ghosts of Hot Wells are benign, even wistfully friendly, welcoming those who softly set foot in the places where joy and mirth have been. These woods, this clearing is indeed haunted... but haunted in a good way.
(The site of the Hot Wells Resort is owned today by Lifshutz Companies, who have long-term plans to develop it in a way that benefits the community, and respects the history of the site as well as the existing remains.)