South Texas' newest public park springs forth from crumbling ruins

South Texas' newest public park springs forth from crumbling ruins

Former resort/health spa Hot Wells is reborn as a public park.
Former resort and health spa Hot Wells is reborn as a public park. Photo by Justin Parr

What was once an elite destination for the rich and famous has been transformed into San Antonio's newest public park and recreation space. Hot Wells, located at 5503 S. Presa St., part of that city's Southside, is officially open, complete with event space, parkland, and more attractions.

But the multimillion-dollar, county-led renovation is just the start for this unique space. In June 2018, nonprofit Hot Wells Conservancy kicked off its $6 million capital campaign, encouraging residents to help invest in the development of this four-acre site. And though the space is now open to the public, the conservancy's work is still underway.

Boasting Victorian architecture, Hot Wells was originally built as a recreation destination that hosted everyone from politicians, such as President Theodore Roosevelt and Porfirio Diaz, to members of the Hollywood elite, such as Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. (Filmmakers even used the site as a backdrop in a few early 20th century movies.)

“It’s an important part of our history, something a lot of people don’t recognize or people who didn’t even know what Hot Wells was or why it was here,” County Judge Nelson Wolff said at the grand opening April 30. “We want to tell that story.”

It's a story that begins in the late 1800s. The Hot Wells site, nestled right off the San Antonio River, was host to various attractions, but the site’s heyday happened at the turn of the 20th century, when it was promoted as a health spa and resort touting restorative, even healing, properties.

Over the decades, parts of the Hot Wells site fell prey to fire and, despite efforts to rehabilitate various elements of the property, structures fell into disrepair. Hot Wells officially closed in 1977.

Beginning in the late 1990s, public and private organizations began working to better protect the Hot Wells ruins. Local developer James Lifshutz bought the property and, in the early 2000s, began to clean up the site.

In 2012, Bexar County announced it would help transform some of the land into a public park. Three years later, in 2015, county commissioners approved $4 million in improvements, including updated trails to connect the Hot Wells ruins to Mission Reach.

“What we call ruins is now history,” County Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez said at the grand opening. “The James Lifshutz partnership with the conservancy is doing a phenomenal job. This is a big opportunity for the South Side.”

Today, walkers, cyclists, runners, fishing enthusiasts, and even kayakers, all of whom frequent the Mission Reach, can now add Hot Wells to their list of recreational attractions along the river in the South Side.

The Hot Wells Conservancy, local officials, and others also see the Hot Wells park as an opportunity to promote the site as a major gathering spot for community members. The conservancy held its Railroad Baron’s Ball, its major annual fundraiser, on June 6 at the Menger Hotel. Former Mayor Lila Cockrell, who supported rehabilitation efforts at Hot Wells in the 1970s, was one of the honorees at the ball.

The revival of Hot Wells also represents a chance for San Antonio natives to delve into the South Side’s past. “Everyone who grew up in San Antonio has some relationship with Hot Wells,” said Betty Bueche, director of the county’s heritage and parks department. “They remember the good times they had out here. So today, they come back and remember those things and get to share them with new family members and visitors to our community.”