Grand staircase remembered from childhood not likely at San Antonio’s business-oriented Continental hotel

I read the (June 5) article about the sale and redevelopment of the old Continental Hotel and wondered if you have any pictures of the inside or know if it had a grand staircase? My grandfather took me to a hotel in San Antonio as a child, and all I remember was a grand staircase when you walked in the door. I do not think it was the St. Anthony or the Menger. When I saw this story, I thought maybe this was the hotel … just wondering.

— Susie Williams

“Grand” was not part of the Continental’s brand. When it opened as the Laclede Hotel in late 1898, it was advertised as the “best $2 house in Texas … New furniture, good (dining) table, clean beds.”

The emphasis was on practicality — a short walk from City Hall and the Bexar County Courthouse with good streetcar connections.

Its original “well-ventilated” 100 rooms had “not a dark room among them” because of the building’s simple design, long and narrow, with a central hallway and outer walls with windows for each room. Guests could choose American plan (meals included) or European plan (dine on your own). On the ground floor was a handy restaurant, a barber shop and a tailor’s shop.

Built by mortgage investor Francis Smith at 722 (now 322) W. Commerce St., the Laclede’s design was “not as pretentious as some of its counterparts,” according to an undated (probably early 1980s) historic preservation certification application to the Department of the Interior provided by the Conservation Society of San Antonio Library.

The Italianate Victorian, three-story buff-color brick and limestone building had a stern and manly vibe, with its flat roof ornamented with fortress-like crenelations.

Its architectural significance, says the application, “is an example of the distinctive building demanded by the successful businessman who desired to present a prosperous image to the public.”

At the turn of the last century, San Antonio saw considerable economic growth. Hotel space on a major commercial street in what the Laclede’s ads called “the heart of downtown” was needed for the commercial travelers, lawyers and visitors from smaller towns who traveled regularly to what was then the largest city in Texas.

The Laclede was “not an elegant hotel,” says the application, but it was “reasonably priced and pleasantly decorated … built to meet a need and to accommodate the increasing trade in the city,” including “many cattlemen who sought its convenient location near the plaza and the stockyards.”

As Houston Street — wider, with streetcars, and a couple of newer hotels — took prominence over Commerce, the Laclede lost some ground. The Gunter (1908) and the St. Anthony (1909) were elegant hotels, as well as taller and situated in the new heart of downtown.

When the original owner of Laclede died in 1919, his heirs renamed the property, and as the Continental Hotel, it was divided into 200 smaller rooms, and began to advertise at lower rates – $1 a day for rooms with a private bath, 50 cents a day without one.

Sold in 1939 to former County Commissioner Jacob Rubiola, the Continental was expanded with new, one-story wings on each side. During the 1940s, the hotel became popular with tourists from Mexico and Central America, who paid for their rooms with their home currency.

The manager provided interpreters for those who did not speak English, according to the application. And he “always has a bundle of money from south of the border on hand,” reported the San Antonio Light, Nov. 14, 1947. “In fact, some of the local banks ask him for change when they run out of pesos.”

A 1951 remodeling reduced the number of rooms and by the end of that decade, the hotel advertised apartments with “modern kitchens” and maid service, catering mainly to single individuals for whom it was a winter or year-round residence.

The Continental dwindled in occupancy through the late 1970s; it changed hands until it became the offices of the Metropolitan Health District, after which it was sold by the city for residential development.

By the time you and your grandfather would have visited, it doesn’t seem like the kind of place out-of-town visitors would have treated themselves to. Also, according to the application, there was a stairway that led from the lobby to the guest rooms above and another one at the building’s west end — both apparently utilitarian, since their architectural characteristics aren’t described.

Tom Shelton, photo curator of the UTSA library’s Special Collections, checked hotel photos for you. They don’t have interior shots of the Continental, but he doubted that this comparatively modest building would have a grand staircase.

“The Gunter and the Menger didn’t have prominent stairways,” he said. “I think the St. Anthony would be the only one.”

Shelton found two photos of the St. Anthony Hotel lobby, the first built during a 1936 remodeling by architect John M. Marriott, showing a straight staircase to the left of the reception desk that leads up to a mezzanine that overlooks the lobby.

A second photo, taken after a 1960s remodeling by Ayres & Ayres, shows a much grander staircase, extended into the lobby. This was the “new serpentine staircase (that) has been installed, leading from the lobby to the mezzanine floor,” as described in the Light, Feb. 6, 1966. Opposite the Travis Street entrance, this one had intricate metalwork along its railings and red-plush carpeting on the stairs and the kind of long, curved course that allowed the hotel’s well-dressed guests to preen and pose a little on their way downstairs.

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