Originaly published: San Antonio Express-News October 6, 2015
By Steve Bennett
Brandon Raney said something last week that you don’t hear every day: “We have a large cache of doorknobs.”
The CEO of San Antonio-based BC Lynd Hospitality, Raney was talking about the ongoing renovation of the St. Anthony Hotel. For almost 30 months, Raney and his partner at BC Lynd Clyde Johnson IV have been overseeing the renovation of the downtown hotel, which the investment and management firm purchased in 2012.
At the time, the new owners vowed to complete a $24 million facelift. BC Lynd won’t disclose dollar figures today.
“We’re about 98 percent done,” said Johnson, with an eye on a grand reopening celebration on Nov. 19.
He added: “As far as the doorknobs go, we can’t use them because they are not up to code. We kept them, though.”
“We went overboard on not throwing things away,” Raney added. “We have a warehouse with 20,000 square feet of stuff.”
The doorknob dilemma illustrates the passion the two men have for what was known as “the Queen of San Antonio” hotels.
“Clyde is a sixth-generation Texan, and I’m a fourth-generation Texan with deep roots in San Antonio,” Raney explained. “We both remember going there as kids and hearing stories about big parties and business deals at the hotel. To me, it was like exploring a mansion.”
Opportunities for rediscovery abound in the hotel’s public spaces, such as the main lobby and Peacock Alley, which have been thoughtfully restored to bring them back as close as possible to their original elegance.
“It’s had a very beautiful facelifting,” said former mayor Lila Cockrell, who is 93 and has been going to events at the St. Anthony in the ’50s. “I think the major event and function rooms — the Anacacho Ballroom and the Pereaux Room — are very beautiful and very elegant.”
Built by cattlemen Augustus H. Jones and B.L. Naylor in 1909, the St. Anthony underwent several expansions and renovations over its 106 years, leaving it with a somewhat disjointed and illogical design — even though it was named to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1986.
“A lot of what we’re doing is removing past mistakes,” said Michael Monceaux of Overland Partners, the local architecture firm overseeing the renovation. “Over the years, there was a lot of infill, and they really chopped the hotel up. So part of what we’ve done is decluttering.”
For example, the front desk had been moved across the lobby at some point, making it difficult for guests to recognize where to check in. The desk has been moved back to its original location, creating better flow in the lobby.
Throughout the public spaces, drop ceilings and carpeting abounded, which, when removed, revealed beautiful original plaster moldings and tile floors. Chandeliers and iron railings were cleaned, restored or re-created. Glass leaves from a revolving door at the entrance became doors in the lobby area.
“We preserved every fixture and tried to reuse or repurpose it,” Raney said.
With its dark paneling and floors and beefy leather sofas, The Library is a refuge for guests just off the lobby up a set of marble stairs. It leads into the Cavaliers Room, which is a meeting place for the Texas Cavaliers, the San Antonio service organization and Fiesta stars.
Adjacent to the lobby are two new entertainment spots: Haunt, a bar with cocktails such as the Jilted Bride and the Lavender Lady, which pays homage to spirits said to walk the hotel; and Rebelle, named for the rebellious nature of the hotel’s founders. With its curving terrazzo staircase and iron-railed mezzanine, the restaurant has the feel of a 1940s supper club.
“There won’t be another restaurant like it in San Antonio,” said Andrew Goodman, the proprietor of Feast in Southtown, who is overseeing both Haunt and Rebelle with chef Stefan Bowers.
Peacock Alley, with its burl wood and ormolu furniture, glittering chandeliers, white tile floors, historic Steinway piano and loggia overlooking Travis Park, is the backbone of the hotel.
One of the most famous bars in the city is the St. Anthony Club, where Herb Kelleher drew his Houston-Dallas-San Antonio triangular route plan for Southwest Airlines on a cocktail napkin. Created in 1959 so that bigwigs could get liquor by the drink, the club has been restored to decorator Dorothy Draper’s original British pub design.
Another stunning entertainment area is the 150-foot-long Navarro Terrace off of The Library. Once glassed in and chopped up into offices, it is now a light, airy space with tables for drinks and dining. The second-floor terrace is open to the street, but on a 90-degree day last week it was remarkably cool and comfortable.
The event rooms, such as the Anacacho Ballroom and the Draper Room, maintain their opulent elegance. “In these rooms, we wanted to use Old World patterns, but modern colors,” Johnson said.
The rooftop terrace, with its Spanish colonial architectural feel and Brazilian hardwood decking, as well as the rooftop infinity pool, with cabanas and adjacent bar, have stunning views of downtown San Antonio.
The St. Anthony, in one of its configurations, had more than 400 rooms, some less than 200 square feet. “And what was weird was they were filled with all this big furniture,” Raney said. “You just couldn’t get around.”
The owners have cut the number of rooms down to 277, including 82 suites, sometimes combining two and three rooms into one. Rates will fluctuate with the season, a sales associate said, but guest rooms average around $240 a night, with suites going in the $650 range.
Although there is an 1,800-square-foot John Wayne Suite, named for a famous patron of the hotel, the granddaddy of them all, you might say, is the Presidential Suite on the top floor, which encompasses 2,400 square feet in three bedrooms, 3½ baths, a fireplace, formal living and dining rooms, and a full kitchen.
Where public spaces have been taken back through time to their original splendor, the guest rooms are chic, sleek and high-tech, with clean contemporary lines and furniture, dark wood floors and a muted palette. Some rooms even have a TV screen embedded in the bathroom mirror.
Over the years, the St. Anthony has its share of celebrities, including Al Jolson, Princess Grace and Prince Ranier, Olivia de Havilland, Yogi Berra, Billy Graham, Gary Cooper, Jane Russell. But the St. Anthony was best known as a gathering place for local families and businessmen.
“I hope young people will be able to experience the beauty that their grandparents and great-grandparents did,” said Rosemary Kowalski of the RK Group, one of the city’s top catering companies. “I remember when going to the St. Anthony was a privilege, a big deal. I think the city has a big asset back.”