Why this S.A. historic landmark is known as the Fred Astaire of hotels (2023)

Want to stay at The St. Anthony Hotel for $1.60 a night, or $2 if you want a private bath in your room? All you have to do is travel back in time to 1909.

Three cattlemen named B. L. Naylor, F. M. Swearingen, and A. H. Jones wanted to take a chance on San Antonio. They believed the city had potential, and that a luxury San Antonio hotel would encourage visitors to stay in the South Texas town. Something tells us these three pioneers were right.

Together they founded The St. Anthony in 1909, and built one tower with 210 hotel rooms.St. Anthony Hotel historian Debbie Gonzales tells MySA, "From the beginning Naylor, Swearingenand Jones had a real eye for luxury. They wanted The St. Anthony to be the funnest hotel in the South."

Opulent beginnings for The St. Anthony

What better way to draw a 20th century crowd than with ... chilled water? That $1.60 a night was certainly put to excellent use. Seriously, chilled water was a luxury back in 1909.

Not satisfied with luxurious chilled water, Naylor, Swearingenand Jones decorated the interior of The St. Anthony with Italian marble and Phoenician tile. Guests could also enjoy steamed water running through the pipes, and actual telephones.

The St. Anthony's first ever ad in the newspaper that year boasted that the hotel was "absolutely fireproof" and that there was "no better or more complete hotel of its size in America."

Guests could dance away in the grand ballroom, resplendent with crystal chandeliers, and grab a bite to eat afterward at The St. Anthony's four restaurants.

Although the exact opening date for the hotel is still debated by historians to this day, a story from the San Antonio Light(a local paper at the time) published on January 15, 1909, described the opening of The St. Anthony was supposed to be that night, but it had been postponed due to the fact that the lobby and dining room had yet to be finished.

However, there is one major clue that leads historians to believe that The St. Anthony opened sometime around February 1, 1909. Although methods of transportation like trains were becoming more commonplace, visitors to San Antonio made headlines by simply arriving at hotels.

The first arrivals column for The St. Anthony was published on February 1, 1909. The column described guests checking-in at The St. Anthony by way of cities like Baltimore, New York, Wacoand Houston.

And with that, The St. Anthony was officially open for business.

A year later, the founders of the iconic San Antonio hotel added a second tower with an additional 210 rooms. By the end of 1910, The St. Anthony was eight stories tall with 440 rooms total.

For years, The St. Anthony continued to be a hotbed of activity, just as its founders originally intended.

Why this S.A. historic landmark is known as the Fred Astaire of hotels (1)

A new era for The St. Anthony

Sometime between 1935-1936, Ralph Waldo Morrison purchased The St. Anthony after it had been foreclosed by the Massachusetts Insurance Company sometime before 1935, during the height of The Great Depression.

Morrison quickly got to work on The St. Anthony, connecting the original two towers and building a third.

As Texas celebrated its centennial in 1936, The St. Anthony put out another ad that boldly claimed the hotel was, "The world's largest completely air-conditioned hotel."

However, the real star of The St. Anthony hotel arrived in 1938. As MySA previously reported, Morrison claimed that he purchased the gilded Steinway piano that adorned The St. Anthony lobby from the Soviet Embassy in Washington (this claim has never been fully substantiated).

Morrison's $27,000 investment in the piano paid off well. The Steinway transformed into the crowning jewel of St. Anthony's Peacock Alley, serving as a centerpiece that drew in a crowd without having to say a single word — the music emanating from the keys spoke louder than words, after all.

Little did the guests know at the time the piano would go missing decades later; more on that below.

Not content to stop with the Steinway and the tower expansion, Morrison also doubled the size of the popular coffee shop in The St. Anthony, recognizing that it was an ideal spot for locals and travelers alike. His motto? "They will come back to eat."

More Morrison makeovers at The St. Anthony

Morrison installed a "magic eye door," at The St. Anthony, the first of its kind in the entire state of Texas. Now something we take for granted, the door that automatically opened when guests approached in 1936 was yet another innovation unique to The St. Anthony.

But wait —there's more from Morrison. He also installed the very first drive-in auto lobby. Back in the '30s and '40s cars weren't air conditioned; and as any local knows, San Antonio weather can get ridiculously hot. This wasn't ideal for guests of The St. Anthony who wanted to make a respectable impression upon their arrival.


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Thanks to Morrison's drive-in auto lobby in the garage on the third wing of the hotel, guests could simply drive up to the check-in desk, sign in and take a private elevator to get to their rooms. This enabled them to freshen up and look their best, which is a difficult feat in the Texas heat.

The drive-in auto lobby was really more of a necessity than a luxury. After all, there was always something going on at The St. Anthony.

In 1939, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stayed at The St. Anthony for one night. Her husband, President Roosevelt, had also stayed at The St. Anthony, respecting the owner of the San Antonio hotel enough to appoint Morrison to the Federal Reserve Board.

Morrison died in 1948, but needless to say, he left behind his hardworking spirit in The St. Anthony.

Why this S.A. historic landmark is known as the Fred Astaire of hotels (2)

A gentlemen's speakeasy at The St. Anthony

Hotels and hotel-going men alike were tired of buying bottles of liquor and drinking in their hotel rooms. And The St. Anthony was losing valuable revenue from drinks they could be selling. However, it was still illegal in the 1930s for businesses to serve liquor by the drink, leaving businessmen in need of networking and one or two stiff cocktails in a quandary.

As any good businessperson knows, the only way to fix a problem is to create a solution. The hotel saw a golden opportunity to do so in 1959, when it became legal for liquor to be served by the drink — in private clubs only. And thus, The St. Anthony Club was born out of necessity. Glamorous and internationally renowned decorator, Dorothy Draper was hired to design the club's interior — and ironically, as a woman, she wasn't allowed to drink at the exclusive club when it was initially founded.

However, Draper's designer touch still remains today; the interior design throughout The St. Anthony is accented in Draper's signature shade of green.

The St. Anthony Club hosted a vast array of incredible parties over the years that would make the parties of The Great Gatsby seem like child's play. Members of the club were in top-tier company, rubbing shoulders with fellow club members like Lyndon B. Johnson (who apparently, had a hankering for The St. Anthony Club's nachos).

Why this S.A. historic landmark is known as the Fred Astaire of hotels (3)

Famous business deals forged at The St. Anthony Club

As the legend goes, a Texas-sized business idea (Southwest Airlines) was born on a small St. Anthony Club cocktail napkin during a chat between Herb Kelleher, a lawyer/businessman, and Rollin King, a pilot.

That wasn't the only major business deal that went down at the club. Back in the 1970s, negotiations over the fate of the San Antonio Spurs went down at The St. Anthony Club. Red McCombs, the man responsible for bringing the Spurs to the city during that decade once said, "The club had a lot to do with the Spurs." He went there every day for lunch to barter out the fate of the team during a time when football was far more popular and financially successful. Oh, the irony.

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The St. Anthony is the Fred Astaire of hotels

In 1960, The St. Anthony hosted an ultra-exclusive party that everyone wanted to attend — after all, John Wayne was there to promote his latest film "The Alamo." Nine hundred guests entered the Anacacho Room at The St. Anthony that night, many of them eager to hobnob with Wayne and other guests including Frankie Avalon, Pat Wayne, famous oilmen and political dignitaries. The party itself was so monumental that the post-party premiere of "The Alamo" at the Woodlawn Theatre felt more like an afterthought.

Although other notable figures like George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan also graced The St. Anthony, it was Grace Kelly's visit that inspired the local press to deem it, "the event of the era."

Perhaps all that Hollywood swagger led a reporter for the Express News to perfectly describe the essence of The St. Anthony in 1974 stating, "If The St. Anthony Hotel were a person, it would be Fred Astaire."

Why this S.A. historic landmark is known as the Fred Astaire of hotels (5)

The St. Anthony Steinway is taken ... and returned

Three years before major Hollywood stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Patrick Swayze, George Clooney and more visited The St. Anthony (they were there for a gala celebrating the opening of San Antonio's Planet Hollywood location), someone stole The St. Anthony Steinway.

They say that those closest to you have the ability to hurt you the most, and The St. Anthony learned that the hard way when the owner of the hotel's parent company, Larry Chan of Park Lane Hotels, took the piano in 1993.

In a strange turn of events, the piano ended up at Bonhams auction house in San Francisco 20 years later. As MySA reported in 2013, the piano was in high demand when it went up for auction that fateful day. Initially valued at $60,000 to $80,000, the Steinway sold for $220,000. The buyer? A member of the ownership group that just happened to purchase The St. Anthony in 2012.

The anonymous buyer returned the Steinway back to its rightful place at The St. Anthony, where it remains to this day.

Guests continue to make history at The St. Anthony

Many more celebrities have graced the halls of The St. Anthony — from Elton John to Gucci to Julie Andrews and Liberace. However, the real stars of the 114-year-old hotel are the dedicated employees, who keep the building immaculate to the point where every guest can feel like they have their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Many memories have been made at The St. Anthony, and long may the hotel continue to make history.

Find it: The St. Anthony, A Luxury Collection Hotel, San Antonio, 300 E. Travis St., San Antonio, TX 78205; 210-227-4392

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