Postcard from Portugal: Lessons for San Antonio?

Whenever you travel, you always come across things you’d love to see at home. These are listed randomly, not ranked. Click on the photos to see larger images or the highlighted links if you would like to see additional related photos.

  1. tables under giant rubber trees at Esplanada Cafe
    sandwiches served under giant rubber trees at Esplanada Cafe

    Huge multi-grain sandwiches oozing with melted cheese served under towering rubber trees in a park. This was the easiest of things to adapt from Portugal. Panini(tost)-maker purchased. How did I live without one? It grills veggie burgers, Greek cheese, eggplant, zucchini, naan bread, pineapple, French toast. Anything and everything.

  2. DSCN0748Robert H. H. Hugman designed the River Walk  in San Antonio with varying designs of sidewalks underfoot, but Portugal takes such artistry a giant step farther, and the results are striking. Every step you take should be memorable. Maybe we need a non-slick surface, though. But, it all goes back to something we haven’t quite embraced in Texas. Park the car. A city should be walked to be appreciated.
  3. DSCN0692Statues should be statuesque, or not at all. Poor Henry B. by the Convention Center, wherever he ends up relocated, is rendered too petite. He seems less than life-size. Statues should be awe-inspiring (The exception: Keep oyster-shelly Gompers small and hidden under overgrown trees.).
  4. DSCN1349DSCN1350Festival beer booths do not have to be hideous. Lisbon utilizes these little self-contained booths with several different designs for their special events. Some have homey images, such as a cat in a window or a friendly dog at the door.
  5. DSCN1163Tiles. We have the tradition here. Wonderful tiles from Ethel Harris’ San Jose Pottery. Or those colorful tiles Marion Koogler McNay installed on the risers of her patio stairs. Susan Toomey Frost donated a San Jose tile mural for the Museum Reach of the river to add to the original ones along the downtown river bend, and there are the incredible ones at Alamo Stadium. But we need more. They are such an enduring form of art.
  6. DSCN1200Promotional banners and advertising for festivals do not all have to be identical. Maintaining integrity of logos is one thing, but succumbing to boring repetition renders the message meaningless. Love the way Lisbon engages several artists each year to interpret their marketing materials for its month-long festival in honor of Saint Anthony.
  7. Sardines are a good thing. When they are fresh. Grilled street-side. Just before we left for Portugal, Central Market had a few laid out for the media preview of their Ciao Italia. Then we left, and dove into the land where they were in abundance. We’d like them here, please.
  8. DSCN1214DSCN1216Love our San Antonio Book Festival. But how in the world does Lisbon keep Feira Livro up and running for two weeks? Self-contained booths that can be locked up securely each night help. The sheer number of booths and books made me feel downright illiterate, particularly since the books were in Portuguese.
  9. DSCN0582Inner-city parks are filled with activities on a rotating basis. Farmers’ markets. Regional gourmet food festivals with vendors and tastings. Mini-book fairs. A once-a-month antique fair that would be great some place like Travis Park.
  10. DSCN1316The San Antonio Missions are crying out for intimate, customized tuk-tuk tours crisscrossing the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. The tuk tuks of Lisbon had different designs on the outside. My favorite one, not pictured, was covered with a skin of images of some of Portugal’s distinctive blue tiles.
  11. DSCN1229We now have food trucks, but what about little portable craft beer carts, perfect for sampling new beers on tap in park-like settings. This cart was parked outside the botanical garden. We also encountered wine trucks for sampling Portuguese wine, complete with bar stools for sipping at the wine truck counter. Oh how I would love it if Texas wines were as inexpensive as Portuguese.
  12. DSCN1160Portugal seems to have more than its fair share of parts of saints enshrined in reliquaries. I always thought American Catholics were too squeamish to even want to know how far one saint could be spread, but I was wrong. We just don’t have many saints and parts to fight over. Archbishop Fulton Sheen has not even been beatified yet, and New York and Peoria are fighting over his body and whether he should be exhumed for obtaining some first-class relics to disseminate. I wonder if Portugal would share some modest little second-class relic of Saint Anthony with this city bearing his name….
  13. DSCN1248And about Saint Anthony. He is ever-present everywhere in Portugal. This city named after him needs to pay more attention to him, particularly on his feast day in June. He is a really useful saint.
  14. And, finally, although this blogger might prove the exception….DSCN1257

Note Added: The featured photo strangely popped up on my facebook page immediately after I posted this. Thanks to Mark Twain for providing it.


Susan Toomey Frost stimulates a second revival of San Antonio’s traditional tilework

“Benign Obsession” was the moniker she assumed on eBay, but, fortunately for San Antonio, Susan Toomey Frost’s obsession with the products of San Jose Tile Workshops proved anything but benign.

I first “met” “Benign Obsession” online, back when eBay was more fun because you could see the id of those you were bidding against, begin to understand their patterns and learn from an expert willing to warn you of forgeries lurking out there. Susan, in fact, became the leading expert on San Jose Tile Workshops; she literally wrote the book about them. The stunningly beautiful publication, Colors on Clay, was published by Trinity Press in 2009.

I was excitedly telling Sally Buchanan, then president of the San Antonio River Foundation, that I finally succeeded in purchasing a San Jose plate on eBay when she casually mentioned her friend, Susan, was looking for a home for an entire tile mural. I was thrilled to be near one plate, but an entire mural…. With miles of extended riverside trails in the planning stage, surely we could find a home for a Work Projects Administration ((WPA) era mural.

And Susan said, yes, of course, she would donate it to the River Foundation. 

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Privately commissioned by Mayor Maury Maverick, the 188-tile mural had been rescued by Susan from a home on Huebner Road that was slated for demolition. She flew in a tile preservationist from California to gently pry the mural from concrete and carefully stored the tiles for close to a decade.

“What I do,” Susan explained to me the other day, “is try to save their lives and get them in public view in a safe place.”

Architects from Ford, Powell & Carson came up with the ideal location within the project, directly below El Tropicano Hotel on the river, the point where the original Robert H.H. Hugman designed River Walk began and the new Museum Reach now extends northward. This also is directly below the spot where the mural was born – the Mexican Arts and Crafts shop operated in the old Nat Lewis Barn by Ethel Wilson Harris (1893-1884).

In Colors on Clay, Susan wrote that Harris became the technical supervisor of the Arts and Crafts Division of WPA in San Antonio in 1939. Sixty workers joined her existing crew of craftsmen in the workshop on St. Mary’s Street.

While I had long admired the two existing murals on the river resulting from the WPA program – the “Twin Cypress” mural on the stairway by the flood control gate at the northern end of downtown river bend and “Old Mill Crossing” now at the river level of Hotel Contessa by the Navarro Street Bridge – I had no idea of the quantity and diversification of the products resulting from the WPA program until reading Colors on Clay. In addition to the four spectacular 60-square-foot works – depicting a century of sports in San Antonio from Native American archers on Military Plaza in 1840 to high school football in 1940 – at the entrance to Alamo Stadium, here are other contributions Susan described:

Six weeks after Harris’s appointment, WPA workers were building a kiln to fire 500 sets of dishes for distribution to needy families….

Harris also supervised the wrought iron shop that forged lanterns, railings, table frames and other decorative and useful objects, including window grilles for the Spanish Governor’s Palace, a fountain in the form of lilies of the valley for the San José Burial Park, a wrought iron gate and window frames for the San Pedro Park bandstand, barbecue pits for Olmos Park, and fifty artistic foot scrapers for schools and city parks….

Because federal funding supported the program, charitable and public institutions in and around San Antonio received the products free of charge. City parks and golf courses, for example, received tile drinking fountains and 1,000 concrete and wooden benches carved with a Lone Star….

Susan’s search-rescue-and-return efforts have taken her on virtual and actual adventures throughout the country as she finds new homes in San Antonio and nearby for the tiles made here long ago. Her obsession with the project is only matched by her generosity: Texas State Centennial tables now live at the Witte Museum and the Wittliff Collection at Texas State University; a “Las Sombras” mural graces the cafeteria at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church; and soon works will be installed on the river behind the Witte Museum, at the Ceramics Studio of the Southwest School of Art, at the new theater at SAY Si and at the restored Women’s Pavilion in HemisFair Park.

And there is another mural, this one recovered from Indiana, that Susan has pledged to the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project. It, too, is returning to just below its birthplace. During her lifetime, Ethel Wilson Harris operated San José Potteries next to Mission San José and Mission Crafts within the mission compound itself. The Mexican village scene will be installed at the portal reconnecting the historical ties of Mission San José to the river.

In 1943, the Texas Legislature recognized Ethel Wilson Harris for her role in “the revival and perpetuation of Mexican arts and crafts,” skills Spanish friars taught Native Americans long ago on mission grounds, skills almost lost as Americans rushed pell-mell into an age where machines mass-produced what once had been crafted carefully by hand.

This traditional art form from San Antonio’s past is now entering its second revival due to the efforts of Susan Toomey Frost. Her obsession is bringing the tiles home to roost before they were lost or all ended up hidden away from public view in the homes of wealthy Californians.

Leave a Lasting Imprint

Their handprints symbolize the mark they made and, for some, continue to make on San Antonio.  The founders of the San Antonio Women’s Pavilion, which opened in time for HemisFair ’68, left their imprints in tiles designed by Ethel Wilson Harris on a back wall of the pavilion designed by architect Cyrus Wagner.  Writing in San Antonio Current, Jessica Ramos described the building:

The 12,000-square-foot, four-level building’s most eye-catching traits include the city’s tradition of masonry infused with ’60s-inpired open spaces, Mexican brick, hand-carved doors by Lynn Ford, and modulated lighting that includes skylights, clerestories, wooden grills, and Martha Mood ceramic fixtures.  One can squeeze into any nook of the building and still have a view of all of its levels.

Grassroots fundraising efforts made the original construction of the pavilion, dedicated to the contributions of the women to the world, possible.  Ramos wrote:

(Sherry Kafka) Wagner and other prominent San Antonio women, including Nellie Connally, wife of Governor John Connally, Edith McAllister, Mary Denman, Patricia Galt Steves, and Bertha Gonzalez, wife of Congressman Henry B., organized a bottom-up campaign with the intention of showcasing women’s achievements in art, science, business, and government.  They hosted coffee parties to finance the exhibition.  One coffee klatch seeded hundreds, and soon, more than 8,000 women from 49 states and 14 countries became members by donating funds — as little as $1 apiece — to build the pavilion.  What began as plans for a temporary exhibition space soon flourished with an organized wave of support.  The word-of-mouth movement attracted other organizations, which donated thousands of dollars in grants to build a permanent structure.

“You have to remember, this was before the women’s movement,” said Wagner, “this was huge.”

Today’s board of directors of the Women’s Pavilion, including Wagner, are resorting to grassroots efforts again to restore the building as part of the city’s revitalization plans for HemisFair Park.

This is late notice for one of the ways you can help this Saturday.  Drop by the AIA’s Center for Architecture at Pearl Brewery any time between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to help cut out bags from recycled convention banners.  According to the Express-News:

Volunteers cut the tote bag and banner patterns, created by local designer and store owner Kathleen Sommers, from the vinyl banners. Those pieces are then delivered to La Fuerza Unida, a sewing cooperative and social justice organization, to be sewn…. Last year, La Fuerza Unida sewed 206 pieces for the Women’s Pavilion.  All the items sold within two hours of the group’s first sale in November.

If it’s too late for you to go tomorrow, mark your calendar for August 21.

The colorful bags and aprons sell from $32 to $46 and represent a great fundraising tool, but, with $12 million to secure for the renovation project, more than that is needed.  So the Women’s Pavilion is looking for helping hands of another kind as well for the Artful Legacy Project.  Each donor of $500 will have a scanned image of her hand and her name engraved into a glass tile.  In collaboration with artists Gini Garcia and Kay Lorraine, the resulting wall installed adjacent to the pavilion will be illuminated at night with fiber optic lights that change colors.

The board of the Women’s Pavilion is a creative and determined one.  Current quotes member Ginger Purdy:   

Before I leave this planet, I am going to bring that building back to life.

P.S.  Don’t forget to bail Gayle out of jail!