One man is credited with creating the River Walk. He got fired halfway through the project.

Locals and tourists alike think of the River Walk when they think of downtown. Here’s how it all got started

SAN ANTONIO – The shops, restaurants and river barges that draw people below street level downtown today were the idea of a young architect named Robert H. H. Hugman.

“He was 27 years old in 1929 when he came up with what he called the Shops of Aragon and Romulus. Sounds like ‘Game Of Thrones’ or something,” said Vincent Michael, Ph.D., executive director of the Conservation Society of San Antonio.

Photograph shows a studio portrait of Robert H. H. Hugman holding a pipe. Photo from 1930-1939. (Photo from Hugman Family, Photo courtesy UTSA Libraries Special Collections)

Hugman’s plan came about years after a flood devastated downtown in 1921.

Water rose to 11 feet at the corner of St. Mary’s Street and Commerce Street.

Fifty people were killed.

On the left, the Navarro Street bridge is seen after the 1921 flood in downtown San Antonio. The photo on the right is what the Navarro Street bridge looks like now. (UTSA Special Collections, Google Maps)

The flood of 1921 was, unfortunately, not the first nor would it be the last.

“There was a movement after successive floods to do some river improvements,” local historian Maria Pfeiffer said. “And so early on, as early as the 1860s, there were proposals to build a dam, to build retaining walls.”

The flood of 1921 prompted the construction of the Olmos Dam in 1927 and the creation of cutoff channels along the river downtown.

The Olmos Dam after its completion in 1927. (UTSA Special Collections)

Before the flood, downtown San Antonio was a busy, bustling place.

But not along the river itself.

“By 1910, citizens thought there should be a park on the river and that it should be a place where people come and everything would be very quiet,” said Lewis Fisher, author of River Walk: The Epic Story of San Antonio’s River.

The projects to minimize the flooding risk made it possible for an idea like Hugman’s to gain steam.

“He studied architecture at the University of Texas at Austin,” Fisher said. “He had taken a job in New Orleans as an architect.”

He later came back to San Antonio and his office looked down on the river.

Hugman believed New Orleans had found a way to showcase its French history to the world and wanted San Antonio to do the same with its Spanish history.

He wanted the downtown stretch of the river to become a destination anchored by shops and restaurants.

“What was clever about it was he was showing the business community a way to capture more land by having business at the river level and at the street level,” Michael said.

The Conservation Society of San Antonio and City Councilmembers supported the plan.

But then the U.S. stock market crashed that same year, so the River Walk construction would wait another decade to start in 1939.

Once work on the project was underway, Hugman got fired for his use of limestone along the river, which today is one of the signatures of its design.

The River Walk in downtown San Antonio. (Copyright 2024 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

But back then, the new limestone was a bright, stark contrast against what was already along the river.

“The limestone was cut. It’s very fresh and looks very new,” Fisher said. “And a whole lot of people didn’t like that.”

The river had also been drained to do the construction, making the site even more unsightly, according to some.

That included the Conservation Society.

“And he kept pleading, ‘wait until it grows in, wait until the plants grow and it’ll look much better,’ which was true ultimately,” Michael said.

A photo of the San Antonio River Walk from 1968. (UTSA Special Collections)

After Hugman was fired, the project continued without him though most of the stonework had already been done.

“It was funded with federal funds. And so if those were taken out, the federal government had to be repaid,” Lewis said. “So people just shrugged and said, ‘We’ll make the best of it.’”

“Hugman never really recovered from that,” Fisher added.

The initial phase of the project was finished in 1941, but the River Walk was not an overnight success.

“It didn’t really change downtown for a long time,” Pfeiffer said. “In the late ‘30s, early 1940s, there were still only one or two restaurants down here and people still perceived it to be a dangerous place to come.”

The river languished, according to Fisher, which spurred city efforts to revitalize it.

“The Chamber of Commerce got desperate one time and they hired somebody who designed Disneyland to come out,” Fisher said. “They had this, this incredible plan that infuriated so many local architects and other people.”

But then came Hemisfair to the rescue.

In 1965, San Antonio was chosen to host the 1968 World’s Fair.

Elevated walkway and carnival at HemisFair'68 from Tower of the Americas. (Photo courtesy UTSA Libraries Special Collections)

The next three years brought the creation of Hemisfair downtown and, along with it, a renewed interest in the city’s heart that ultimately changed how people saw the river.

“The thing that really brought the River Walk home and transformed the city was Hemisfair,” Michael said.

Hemisfair brought new hotels downtown and, eventually, restaurants along the river.

It was on its way to becoming the destination Hugman envisioned decades before and the one that it still is today.

“You come down here and you’re in another world, no matter what part of town you’re coming from,” Fisher said. “This is, this is different, and it’s San Antonio. And how lucky we are.”

In 1978, Hugman would get the honor many thought he deserved for being the “father of the River Walk.”

Hugman was the first to ring the bells on the stage of the Arneson River Theater when they were hung that November, one of which bears an inscription dedicated to Hugman.

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About the Authors

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.

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