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In The Lap of Luxury
San Antonio's Fairmount Hotel
IF YOU ASK Luke Tips, a popular concierge at San Antonio's century-old Fairmount Hotel, to reveal his favorite thing about his job, he'll tell you—with a certain oscillation of his eyebrows and a long satisfied sigh—that he adores sprawling on the cool tile floor in the foyer and greeting guests from his bed in the well-appointed lobby. Well, he won't tell you this in so many words, exactly. This loveable lug is the hotel's canine concierge (his business card reads"Director of Pet Relations"), and he's but one sign that the Fairmount is no ordinary place to rest your head in San Antonio.
The Fairmount's location can't be beat, for one. Nestled on the edge of downtown, the hotel lies a few short blocks from the Alamo and the hundreds of restaurants, bars, and attractions on the River Walk. It's also directly across the street from HemisFair Plaza, where the 750-foot Tower of the Americas offers a stunning view of the city, and where the Institute of Texan Cultures presents a captivating look at the state's heritage. A few steps from the hotel's front door, you can hop a trolley to El Mercado, the largest Mexican-style market in the United States, or to the King William District and the adjacent Southtown area, where dozens of funky bars, fine restaurants, trendy art galleries, and opulent homes beckon. And, as if that wasn't already enough to keep you busy, the Fairmount lies literally a stone's throw (or, if Luke Tips had his druthers, a bone's throw) from historic La Villita, San Antonio's first residential neighborhood, which dates to the early 1800s. La Villita now houses dozens of artists' shops and restaurants, including quite possibly the best steakhouse in San Antonio—an intimate, stone hideaway called Little Rhein, whose history also dates back more than a century.
Such varied and inviting amenities, in fact, inspired Luke's adoptive "dad," San Antonio businessman Robert Tips, to become re-enamored with downtown and, in 2004, to buy the Fairmount and launch an extensive renovation project. As so often happens with serendipity, one thing simply led to another. A Thanksgiving-Day fire in 2001 had destroyed Robert's home, and he had relocated to a hotel downtown. "I gained new insight into the city," he says, as downtown San Antonio's intoxicating mix of hustle-bustle and history began to grow on him. As fate would have it, he attended a party that December 31 at the Fairmount, and even as the champagne flowed and the mariachis serenaded the New Year, he noticed that the building was looking a bit worse for wear and tear.
No disrespect intended, of course: The Fairmount had earned every wrinkle of peeling paint and smudge of tarnish on its antique fixtures. In some ways, it was lucky to be standing at all.
Originally built in 1906 as a lodging for traveling salesmen who arrived at the nearby Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, the Fairmount during its heyday offered rooms at less than $1 per night, with a touch of modest luxury to boot. Architect Leo M. J. Dielmann, whose work graces the rectory at San Fernando Cathedral, designed the three-story hotel in the popular Italianate Victorian style, with a flat roof and a symmetrical shape, arches above windows and doors, and a wide first-floor porch topped with balconies.
Each of the 37 rooms features a different feel and decor.
The hotel feels reminiscent of a cozy yet luxurious European home.
Even as the ground floor saw businesses come and go with the inevitable financial booms and busts, the Fairmount's sturdy masonry, finely detailed brick work, limestone trim, and classic design seemed destined to survive the test of time.
In 1984, though, developers were moving forward on their plans for the future Rivercenter Mall and Marriott Rivercenter Hotel to serve as anchors for a new extension of the increasingly popular River Walk. Public improvements for that project required the widening of Bowie Street, but the Fairmount, which stood on Commerce Street near the Bowie Street intersection, stood in the way. Rather than raze the building, though, the developers worked with local and state conservation groups to hatch a plan that would make history: They would move the historic (and heavy!) structure to a new home some six blocks away.
On March 30, 1985, the six-day move commenced. Thirty-two specially designed dollies with pneumatic tires hoisted the hotel onto a frame of steel beams, each of which had individual suspensions to keep the building level as it moved. The Commerce Street Bridge was reinforced so it could sustain the building's weight. Then, as thousands of spectators watched and reporters documented the feat for posterity, specially designed trucks and cranes pulled the Fairmount ever-so-slowly toward its new foundation near La Villita. In 1986, the move was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as the heaviest building ever moved.
Even excavating the new site made news. As crews prepared the site to receive the building, they uncovered materials that appeared to date to 1836, when Mexican forces led by Santa Anna overwhelmed the Alamo. Archeologists spent days excavating the site, unearthing rusted bayonets, musket parts, and cannonballs from Santa Anna's army, as well as dishes and other housewares used at the time. Some of these artifacts, including dainty teacups and a cannonball, are on display in the hotel lobby today.
Decorated with European antiques, hand-painted tiles, and crystal chandeliers and light fixtures, the lobby also boasts comfortable chairs and sofas and stacks of current magazines, some of which you might like to take outside to read beneath a shade umbrella in the serene courtyard. From your seat on a wrought-iron chair, you can barely see where the original building ends and where it was joined with a newer structure after the 1985 move. With vines growing every which way on a latticed fence, the sound of birds singing melds with the soothing rumbles of the city.
Of course, you'll really relax when you reach your suite; each one of the 37 rooms features a different feel and decor. When Robert Tips began the renovation of the hotel in 2004, he hired San Antonio architect Val Dunis and his wife, Susan, a tile artisan, to create an environment that would remind guests of a cozy (yet luxurious) European home. To that end, Val and Susan brought in original artwork by national and regional artists to decorate the public areas. They sought out antique furnishings, light fixtures, fabrics, and architectural elements. Susan created one-of-a-kind tiles to embellish public areas and rooms throughout. In the Monet Suite, for example, which was decorated to evoke the painter's impressionistic depictions of nature, Susan's luminescent tilework shimmers in the entryway and in the bathroom. Yet another suite, the Golden Suite, gleams in soft shades of gold and cream, and the bathroom features 18-karat-gold mosaic tiles in the shower and floor.
The Fairmount's restaurant, Sage Ristorante e Bar, housed in the original section of the hotel, also bathes in inviting golden light. Large picture windows look out onto the street, white tablecloths cover the tables, and attentive waiters serve classic and modern Italian cuisine that has the culinary world buzzing with praise. Try for yourself such menu items as scallops with leek purée, arugula with fennel and oranges, and lobster ravioli with tomatoes and cream….
Surely, you might think, Luke the Labrador must eat like a king these days, seeing that he's surrounded by Italian chefs and the inevitable morsels of gnocci or risotto or rigatoni left behind by contented diners. But Luke's history as a street dog means that once he found his way to the lap of luxury, he gobbled up everything he could—and his own luxurious lap expanded with it. So Luke's on a diet these days, but if you're inclined to leash him up and take him on a sunny-day stroll, that's a treat for both of you. Downtown San Antonio awaits!
For the Fairmount and for Luke, and for you, too, if you choose to pay them a visit—everything's looking golden indeed.
THE FAIRMOUNT HOTEL is at 401 S. Alamo St. in San Antonio. Room rates start at $189. Call 210/224-8800; www.thethefairmounthotel-sanantonio.com. In the original section of the hotel, Sage Ristorante e Bar serves fine Italian food; call for hours.