Argyle Clubhouse evolved with Alamo Heights

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SAN ANTONIO — “It’s crazy what’s intact in Alamo Heights,” architect Don McDonald said during a landmark presentation this week at the Argyle Club, held near the end of the centennial celebration of the municipality. He was one of four speakers on the development of Alamo Heights, including local historian Sarah Reveley, planner/preserver Genie Cooper and architect Tim Blonkvist – all of whom spoke about the history of the Argyle building itself. itself, which dates back to about 1859.

Cooper identified it as one of the two oldest structures in the community, along with the Sweet Homestead (1854) on the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word. It traces the growth of Alamo Heights from interest in the nearby headwaters of the San Antonio River to the creation of housing estates (beginning in 1909), the introduction of a streetcar line (1889), and the construction of the Olmos dam (completed in 1926) .

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Nearly 200 homes in this mostly residential city have been recognized with Centennial House signs, based on historical records that show their existence at the time of the city’s 1922 charter.

McDonald traced an eclectic mix of architectural styles – each enjoying a fashion from the early 1900s to the mid-20th century – from the English country house to the Italian, from the Spanish colonial and the arts and crafts to the house of ranch and mid-century modern. The work of well-known architects such as Harvey Page (designer of Temple Beth-El), George Willis (Milam Building) and O’Neil Ford (Trinity University campus) are still represented on these mainly residential streets, while like some original structures. like a house-studio, built without a kitchen to serve artistic purposes only.

The Argyle is something of a unicorn, in that it has always had a business purpose.

In 1919, the Argyle Hotel was an Alamo Heights landmark, transformed with additional stories, porches, and antebellum-style columns added in the 1890s and beyond. Known for Southern hospitality, he was popular with officers from nearby Fort Sam Houston.

Courtesy of Sarah Reveley

At the center of the grand plantation-style mansion is the original house, a modest cube built of local rubble stone still visible in the shape of a Maltese cross. On one floor, these few rooms first served as the headquarters of a horse ranch established by Charles Anderson, who moved from Ohio to San Antonio with his family for his health. Here he amassed estates stretching north to Boerne, intending to raise horses for the cavalry and other uses. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Andersons moved out of San Antonio and their still unfinished home, which went up for sale as “Anderson Place” within a few years.

The next owner was Hiram McLane of Indiana, another horse breeder who purchased “the 1,400-acre ranch that is now the site of Alamo Heights,” according to the Handbook of Texas.

He lived there — collecting books and writing epic poetry and economic treatises — during the Civil War era until he sold it to the Chamberlain Investment Co. of Denver, a real estate developer that formed the Alamo Heights Land and Improvement Co. It was the first to flatten property for smaller residential lots. The company kept the old McLane/Anderson house (lot 26) and turned it into an inn – necessary as the area was 4-5 miles from downtown San Antonio.

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The guesthouse, which hosted visitors and builders, was named the Argyle Hotel because the hilly terrain of Alamo Heights reminded one of the company’s directors, WJ Ballantyne Patterson, of the Argyll area of his native Scotland, even if he didn’t. spell it the same way.

A pair of innkeeper siblings from Boerne, Bob and Alice O’Grady, took over the management of the Argyle and bought it in 1906, as the investment company died out. This began a golden age for the hotel, which became a beloved restaurant/event venue and even a home for army officers, accommodating semi-permanent boarders as well as travelers occasional floors, wings, and porches added with style that leaned hard on O’Grady’s Southern hospitality branding.

For 35 years, the cook who made his table famous for his well-cooked Southern-style dishes was a black man, George Bannister, but it was “Miss Alice” O’Grady, known for her ornate wedding cakes, who been credited with “The Argyle Cookbook”, first published in 1940, two years after Bannister’s death. The book, which has become a widely reprinted classic, collecting recipes dating back to the 19th century.

The Betty Coates Patio at the Argyle Club is shown in this photo from 2014.

The Betty Coates Patio at the Argyle Club is shown in this photo from 2014.

TOM REEL, Staff / San Antonio Express-News

The hotel and its restaurant closed in 1940 due to the poor health of the O’Gradys and the calamitous state of the Argyles’ fortunes, avoiding foreclosure by a technicality.

For a time it was operated as a no-frills boarding house, and there was even talk of demolition when the building and its grounds were sold for transfer to the Southwest Foundation for Research and Education (now the Texas Biomedical Research Institute ), with the intention of supporting the institute with its income. Championed by the institute’s founder, Tom Slick, and his sister, Betty Moorman, the club concept took off in 1955 with 300 founding members. Since then, the number of members has more than doubled, most often with a waiting list.

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Like Alamo Heights itself, the club remains traditional and eclectic.

Robert Lee, a 30-year-old employee, tours the rooms on the ground floor – upstairs offices are being refurbished – pointing out that many are named after their donors, some of whose portraits still hang there . While at the Argyle, Lee watched the members’ children grow up and become active members themselves. Groups have met in certain halls on a particular day for decades, and some of the original members have continued to come until recently.

From room to room, ceiling heights vary, floorboards run in different directions, and there are even a few discreetly exposed pipes in an old basement. On the walls, there are wooden signs from the 21 Club of New York, wooden trophies, and historic 1930s prints of San Antonio landmarks.

Outside there is a WWII ship’s bell and a miniature playhouse, moved to the site from the home of a member whose children had outgrown. Called “The Dollhouse”, it is available for members’ children and grandchildren, who can ask the staff to borrow the key so they can play there while the adults linger over lunch or dinner.

The most recent addition is the Coates-Kelso Garden, a terrace room added in 2020.

The Argyle did not close during the worst of the COVID pandemic, but reduced take-out only, with members heading to the valet entrance to pick up their favorites in carry-out bags. Lee briefly retired at this time, but returned when asked. He remembered a former manager who lived nearby who came almost every day for lunch at 11:30 a.m., stopping to pick up scraps of paper from the parking lot and straighten cutlery.

When asked if he had any other plans for his retirement, Lee simply smiled.

For more information about the new Alamo Heights Historical Society, contact Reveley at [email protected]


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