Without the vision and perseverance of Robert Harvey Harold Hugman, the San Antonio River Walk would likely not be what it is today. The years-long trajectory to the completion of the River Walk, which is arguably the Alamo City’s most popular tourist attraction, was as winding and meandering as the fifteenmile trail network itself. Hugman, who is known as The Father of the River Walk and believed to have influenced San Antonio’s future more than any other individual before or after him, passed away in 1980, but not before seeing his dream come to fruition: quaint shops, cafés, and nightclubs dotted along the banks of the river, and music wafting through the air as gondolas glided lazily across the water.
Chasing a Dream
He pushed his plan for several years, hitting roadblock after roadblock, including (most notably) a lack of funding thanks to the Great Depression, which hit San Antonio hardest in 1934. Two years later, however, the City of San Antonio began receiving make-work projects to help boost the economy; Hugman was the architect for many of those. Meanwhile, A. C. Jack White, manager of the Plaza Hotel, complained to City Hall that the river adjacent to his hotel needed beautification. During that meeting, he learned of Hugman’s forward-thinking ideas. However, the price tag
for Hugman’s plan at the time was a hefty $380,000, the equivalent to roughly $5 million today (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’s consumer price index). The Works Progress Administration, or WPA, stated that an additional $75,000 would also have to be raised. With money again an issue, a bond election was held to raise the funds. The bond passed 74 to 2, and White hired Hugman as architect.
As a result of the bond’s passing, approximately 17,000 feet of walkways and roughly 20 bridges were installed, and trees and foliage were planted that still thrive today. In 1946, Hugman’s plan to deter flooding was tested – and passed – when rain thrashed and flooded Downtown San Antonio but inflicted minimal damage.
In a YouTube video on the San Antonio River Walk website, Michael Beaty, of Beaty Palmer Architects, said, “Robert Hugman clearly was a design genius, and his masterpiece, of course, is the San Antonio River Walk. From a technical side, he did four or five things that really define the River Walk. First, he solved the flood problem that had almost caused the River Walk to become paved over in the 1920s. He made the River Walk walkable. He also made the river itself comfortable and easily navigable. And, finally, he was really thinking ahead of his time in terms of some of his design to be flexible. Technically, he was brilliant. From an aesthetic point of view was where his genius really showed through.”
Beaty cited the Arneson River Theatre as one example of Hugman’s brilliance. “He also, in my opinion, did some brilliant architectural work,” Beaty said in the video. “There’s two prime buildings there. One of them [is] a stage which recalls a portion of a Spanish mission or Spanish villa, and the one on the other side, which is the concessions building, to me would look right at home on the Canary Islands.”
The River Walk is akin to a series of outdoor rooms, Beaty continued. Hugman utilized the natural scale of the surrounding buildings of these “rooms” to his advantage. “He used the curvature of the river to establish vistas. You have edges no matter where you’re looking; you’re not typically looking down a long extended view, so there’s a sense of closure. The vegetation and the buildings form the walls of the room, and, of course, the sky is the ceiling, but it is comfortable to humans. It’s as if you’re in a series of courtyards, and as you move along, each one is a surprise. This is not accidental; it’s actually the key to why this works, in my opinion, and why most people in cities who’ve tried to copy the River Walk fail – because they don’t understand the scale” as Hugman did.
Shanon Miller, the director of the City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation, agreed with Beaty’s assertion. “No one has been able to replicate the magic that is the San Antonio River Walk, but its impetus for the growth and development of downtown has been undeniable.”
Despite Hugman’s foresight and knowledge, his refusal to compromise on some of the River Walk’s aesthetic features led to his dismissal just a year prior to its completion. Still, he continued to work with the project’s chief engineer and construction supervisor to ensure his plans were brought to fruition. Minus the stonework for which he had lobbied and lost, the finished project was, for the most part, a reflection of Hugman’s vision. Unfortunately, likely because of the fallout after World War II, the business boom he and other city officials had anticipated was not immediate. Instead of the magical atmosphere Hugman had pictured, the area was largely undeveloped and became so neglected that military personnel were forbidden to go near it.
In 1947, Hugman opened an architecture firm with Paul George Silber that was named after them. In 1952, the River Walk’s distinctiveness increased, and local businessman David Straus started pushing for commercial development. However, that did not come until the early 1960s, when two hotels opened along the River Walk for San Antonio’s HemisFair. The area became such a popular destination for new businesses that the issue suddenly was not bringing them to the River Walk but rather keeping them local.
Recognition at Long Last
Improvements continued long after Hugman’s dismissal in the 1940s and his passing in 1980. According to the River Walk’s website, once the San Antonio River Improvements project, started in 2011, is complete, the river will traverse 2,020 acres of connected public land, an area larger than Central Park in New York City, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and Chicago lakeside parks in Chicago. In 2014, 9.3 million tourists flocked to the San Antonio River Walk, where an estimated $2.4 billion is spent there each year.
Silber eventually left his practice with Hugman, but the latter architect continued working there until 1957, when he left for a job as an architect for Randolph Air Force Base, where he retired in 1972. Around the same time that the River Walk was booming, Hugman’s years-long efforts were finally recognized. The San Antonio Chapter of the American Institute of Architects honored him for his work with the River Walk, and in 1978, Hugman was the first to strike the bells named in his honor that hung at the Arneson River Theater.
“He had poured himself into this River Walk,” said Kerry Hugman, his grandson, in the YouTube video about Hugman’s invaluable contributions to his hometown. “And to me it’s still here; he’s still here. He’d be very proud to see what’s continued to be the centerpiece of his life; now it’s the centerpiece of San Antonio. He designed that; that was him.”
On July 22, 1980, Hugman was 78 years old when he passed away in the hometown he so loved, the very city he dedicated so much of his time and effort to improving for future generations to enjoy. He left behind two children, Robert H.H., Jr., and Anne Karin (from his first marriage to Martha Aurora Smith, who passed away in 1941), and his third wife, Elene Barnby Newman. He was buried in City Cemetery No. 6, beneath a headstone that read, beneath his name and dates of birth and death, his greatest life’s accomplishment: “Concept Architect, San Antonio River Walk.”
Hugman was once quoted as saying, “The river is one of nature’s greatest gifts to San Antonio and should be appreciated and developed as such.” Hugman, by all accounts, did both.