Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More Iconic San Antonio: A 750-Foot Icon, to be Exact

In the fall of 1968, I went with my family to the world's fair in San Antonio, known as HemisFair '68. I doubt that we would have traveled to see it, but we didn't have to go far to get there, since we'd moved to town in July of the same year. I remember a few things about attending HemisFair, such as my brother Jim getting lost in the crowd once; and my brother Jay buying an African-style wooden mask and some small iron-tipped arrows to go with it; and the exciting fact that the West German Pavilion was giving away one-pfennig coins as souvenirs.

Then there was the Tower. Officially, the Tower of the Americas, but few San Antonians during my time growing up there in the '70s called it anything but the Tower. It is as distinctive to the skyline of the city as the Arch is to St. Louis or the Space Needle to Seattle, and visible from countless vantage points far away, some even outside the city. More than 40 years later, it endures. Stand right under it and you see this.

If a city or town has a public observation tower, I'll find it and go to the top, provided it isn't outrageously expensive (that means you, Top of the Rock in Manhattan: $21 for adults, bah. Tower of the Americas: a tolerable $10.95). This tendency of mine might go back to 1968, when I went with my grandmother and brothers the top of the Tower during the world's fair: a thrilling ride for the seven-year-old that I once was.

I hope it was thrilling enough for the seven-year-old and the 12-year-old who went with me to the Tower after we visited the Alamo last week, getting there by way of the Riverwalk. They seemed to enjoy the rising view from the outside-facing elevator as it sped upward, and the miles and miles you can see on a clear day from both the inside and outside sections of the observation deck. To them, it might have been just a large, unknown city below, stretching out in all directions, but still impressive.

I recognized a lot of San Antonio's buildings from that perch, such the former downtown Joske's of Texas department store, home of the first retail escalators in Texas, and an early user of air conditioning. The structure would have been a complete city block in size but for the refusal of St. Joseph's, a Catholic church, to be demolished to make way for Joske's expansion. The church remains, surrounded on three sides by the former department store. "Former" because Dillard's, the successor flag to Joske's, closed up shop downtown a few years ago. (God forbid there be any local or regional variation of department store names, like Joske's or Marshall Field.)

Looking down from the observation deck on a summer afternoon, you see this, if you're facing east.

Not far from the shadow of the Tower is US 281/I-37, and beyond that -- the Tower shadow is nearly pointing at it, and note the rail line -- is the 1902-vintage Southern Pacific Railroad Station (Sunset Station), now a special-events facility. Early one morning in March 1990, I caught an Amtrak train there that took me to San Francisco, where I caught a flight to Japan.

I barely remember my 1968 visit to the Tower (except it was a thrill), but in 1978, I clearly remember taking a date up to the observation deck. On January 13, as it happened, because that was also the day that Hubert Humphrey died, and remarkably it was warm enough to spend time on the outside part of the deck. In the mid-80s I came again, with a out-of-state girlfriend who previously doubted that San Antonio was a city of any size; and in early 1993, I brought Yuriko. So besides seeing the three dimensions in front of me, I also sensed the arc of time as I made the ambit around the Tower's observation deck with my kids.

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