San Antonio is a city of contrasts. Venerable buildings stand next to modern ones. Poor people, some appear to be desperately so, walk along side well heeled tourists and businessmen. Both extremes seem to be invisible to the other. The cool tree shaded oasis of the riverwalk contrasts with the sun baked streets above it. A block boasting a magnificent theatre marquee and beautifully restored late 19th and early 20th century office buildings and hotels, is followed by a homeless man, his tattered possessions lying around him, sitting in a park in the intense Texas heat.
In the King Williams historic district tidy Victorian cottages sit next to grand Italianate mansions. Across the street resides a pre war bungalow, it's porch sagging and paint peeling. Loving, respectful restoration abuts neglect and decay. A forms a juxtaposition of eras, architectural styles and uneven wealth. On the porch of one well kept 19th century cottage a young, skinny, shirtless punk, complete with mohawk and tattoos stands playing an acid green electric guitar, his large golden lab sitting faithfully beside him. One mansion is on sale for $1.5 million, a bungalow nearby is listed at $220,000.
Located near the center of the city are the Spanish Governors home and the cities main Cathedral, both dating from the 18th century. The Cathedral is the oldest "Cathedral Sanctuary" in the U.S. This specificity seemed odd, however I could find no explanation for the seemingly overly precise nature of the description. In the simple, spare interior of the cathedral faith takes precedent over ostentatious ornamentation. It allows worshipers to concentrate on the their spiritual health and relationship with God undistracted by the trappings of the structure itself. It is a reverent space designed for quiet contemplation. The Spanish governors home, closed the day I visited, is a small, unpretentious one story hacienda. There is a 19th century brick courthouse in the same area. I failed to notice, until it was pointed out by my partner as I was showing him pictures of the trip, the phallic nature of it's torpedo shaped turret.
Outside of the city 6 missions were constructed in the 18th century. We visited two of these. The first was a fortified compound. Around a large grassy area, where workshops once stood, are rows of cells where the indigenous people who built the Cathedral were housed. The imposing main building, like many of the buildings in the region, is constructed of native limestone. The outside was originally c plastered and then painted to appear as if it was covered in tile. A small section of the painted plaster surface remains allowing one to imagine what it would have looked like. The temperature had soared to 100 degrees yet in the simple interior the air was comfortable due to the thick, solid walls. Ornately carved statues frame the Cathedral doors. Brick buttresses support the brick walls of the large granary. A series of arches juts off the main Cathedral, the remains of the convent housing the priests and nuns. Reconstruction was begun in the mid 19th century then abandoned leaving a half ruined reminder of what once stood there. The ancient bells of the cathedral rang out the early afternoon hour as we explored the grounds. Nuns, their habits fluttering walked past us reminding visitors that, although ancient and historical, these buildings are still functioning houses of worship.
The second mission, a mere 4 miles distant from the first, lacks the defensive walls and outbuildings of the other. It sits at the far end of a grass field. In one corner of the field is a small pit in the ground, once the quarry where much of the stone for the construction of the missions was gathered. This mission complex is the most well preserved of the 6 in the area. The remnants of the paint in the rooms and chapels hint at what once was. A blue sun decorates the center of the ceiling in one small room. In a chapel off to the side of the main Cathedral sanctuary the faded remains of a frescoed crucifix hover above an elaborately carved baptistery.
The beauty and age of the missions stands in contrast to the industrial and in some cases, poor and squalid neighborhoods that surround them As the city grew to encompass the missions which once sat outside of it, it created another contrast in a city full of them.