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The headwaters of the San Antonio River that attracted early nomadic Texas Indians also beckoned two early settlers: George Washington Brackenridge and Charles Anderson in the mid-1800s. Brackenridge acquired an earlier homestead, the Sweet Homestead, on land that had been part of San Antonio and built the mansion Fernridge on his estate that he called Alamo Heights.
Charles Anderson, a Kentucky resident, built the headquarters for his sprawling horse ranch on the Olmos Bluffs where the view of the natural beauty extended in all directions. Later the Anderson mansion became the Argyle Hotel, a place of charm and hospitality and the oldest surviving structure in the city.
From these two early endeavors, fueled by their desire to live in an environment of natural beauty, Brackenridge and Anderson set the stage for a city that even today places emphasis on its scenic vistas, towering trees and quiet environment.
The building of Alamo Heights began in the 1890s when the family which had purchased the Anderson ranch property sold it to the Chamberlain Investment Company of Denver. During the same time, the Brackenridge properties were sold to the Order of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word on the condition that they buy all 280 acres in “Alamo Heights” and preserve the house and grounds.
Brackenridge loved the natural beauty of the area and insisted that it be preserved. Records detail that he frequently visited the property to make sure the sisters did not cut down any shrubs or trees.
The Denver company planned a suburban residential development, turning the Anderson-McLane mansion into the Argyle Hotel and staking out large lots nearby for homesites. Their development plan sited streets that followed the contours of the land, preserved the centuries-old trees even in the middle of streets and retained the headwaters of the river with its associated lake. Beauty and natural charm described their efforts.
But the plans were ahead of their time. Only dusty roads that could be traveled by horseback or carriage connected Alamo Heights to San Antonio. River canoe provided the other transportation alternative at a time when San Antonio’s gentry lived south of Commerce Street.
The answer was a road-River Avenue that later became Broadway-and a rail line. But, while those improvements came too late to save Chamberlain Investment Company from financial disaster, the company had left its imprint on Alamo Heights.
Following lawsuits, the company was reorganized as the Alamo Heights Company. Owners Judge M.H. Townsend and W.B. Willim decided to open the acreage beyond the original development to other companies. By 1908, building began on more modest homes in Montclair, east of Broadway. Madeleine Terrace, farther south, quickly became the home of sculptor Pompeo Coppini and was better known than the original development around the Argyle. The pattern of scattered building by different developers continued, with the result that Alamo Heights’ character emerged. It became a community of varied architectural styles that attracted people of different income groups and ages.
By 1921, the auto had left its mark in many ways, including successful development of Alamo Heights as a residential community.
Earlier desires to be annexed by San Antonio, desires that were rebuffed, turned to fear in 1922 that San Antonio wanted to annex Alamo Heights to increase its tax base without providing services. Community leaders called a citizens’ meeting on June 4 and residents voted 289 to 8 to petition Bexar County Judge McCloskey for a city government.
Alamo Heights became a municipality on June 20, 1922, but with no city charter and a government that consisted of a mayor, five aldermen and a town marshal. The population stood at about 3,000 in an area that extended only as far north as Tuxedo Avenue. Bluebonnet Hills was annexed in 1928 and Sylvan Hills completed the current northern boundary when it was annexed in 1944.
From its earliest days, the city government focused on providing modern services without destroying the character of Alamo Heights as a residential area. Ordinances restricted business activity to those that provided convenience for residents and limited businesses to defined districts. Building and zoning codes restricted buildings to two stories and assured open spaces, natural light and greenery.
In 1927, the City Council recommended a $350,000 bond issue to provide modernization. Alamo Heights became the only municipality in the county with all paved streets. The city connected sewer lines to the San Antonio system and purchased the old waterworks and expanded it. Finally, the city officers moved from meeting in the Argyle Hotel to the current building on Broadway.
Later years saw the expansion of recreational facilities with the construction of the swimming pool in 1947 and addition of nature trails in Olmos Basin in 1965. But throughout its development, Alamo Heights maintained its character as a residential community that changed gracefully.
Historian T.R. Fehrenbach characterized the city by saying, “Alamo Heights, whatever else it is, reflects three qualities: good government, stable neighborhoods and a feeling of intimacy.” It has a character that goes back to its beginning as the home of George Brackenridge and Charles Anderson who loved its hills, beautiful trees and twisting roads.