The Autumn of Alamo Heights

In San Antonio’s most genteel neighborhood, the only frightening sound is the ticking of the clock.

May 1982By Comments

Lucie Keblinger Whitehead, octogenarian widow of ten years, sat musing over a bowl of Cream of Wheat in the kitchen of her elegant two-story home in Alamo Heights. The room was chilly; it was late November, and a norther had howled into San Antonio overnight. A tiny woman with a wrinkled face and thinning gray hair pulled into a knot in back, Lucie drew her robe tighter about her frail shoulders and wished that Bill Talley, her gardener, would arrive and build a fire in the living room. The furnace was on, of course, but Lucie liked heat from the fireplace. Mabel Eggleston, the housekeeper and driver, would soon be here, too. Bill and Mabel came early each morning and left at midafternoon.

Lucie scowled at her Cream of Wheat. She didn’t like breakfast. She had gone for decades without it and ate it now only because she needed food with the Hydro-Diuril she took every morning for her blood pressure. She wished she could take medicine for her eyes. Throughout the day, her vision blurred, cleared, blurred again. Her peripheral vision was good. But retina damage made it hard for her to read, dangerous for her to drive. She had stopped driving, although she still had a license. She had once flown to Johns Hopkins to see some doctors about her eyes, and the doctors, thank God, had assured her she would never be blind.

Lucie liked to think of herself as someone who refused to worry. She did worry—she worried a lot—but she preferred to call it being concerned. Today she was concerned that not one of her two daughters and two nephews had called or written for a while; they customarily called every weekend. (She had thought of the nephews as her sons. She had raised both after her sister, Mary, had died while giving birth to the younger.) Lucie needed to know once and for all who would be coming for Christmas. If everyone came, there would a dozen people here in a few weeks. She would need to start preparations today.

Neither of her daughters had stayed in Texas. That was her fault for sending them to school in the East. Lucie Jean, with whom she had toured Scandinavia last year, had gone to Wellesley, married, and settled in Washington, D.C. Mary Ann had gone to Swarthmore, married, and settled in Boston. Each had three children, all grown now. Lucie got to see them only once a year. It wasn’t enough, so she spent a lot of money on phone calls—$141 in October.

Through the window came the faint hum of Tuxedo Avenue’s early-morning traffic. There were never any trucks, though; Alamo Heights forbade through truck traffic on Tuxedo. Alamo Heights was good about such things.

Alamo Heights is the silk-stocking city-within-a-city of San Antonio, the place where most of the area notables live. Three miles north of the Alamo, the city of Alamo Heights is a hilly, wooded village two square miles in area, with six thousand people. It is an incorporated town with its own police and fire departments, zoning codes, school and business districts, mayor, and city council. But to most San Antonians Alamo Heights also means the incorporated cities of Olmos Park, which adjoins Alamo Heights on the west, and Terrell Hills, which is adjacent on the east. Each is wealthier and more homogeneous than Alamo Heights proper—and smaller. Olmos Park has a population of 2069; Terrell Hills, 4644. Since neither has a business district, their residents use the shopping strip in Alamo Heights, and most churchgoers in both cities worship in Alamo Heights.

Lucie’s father, Thomas White Keblinger, a big, energetic man with a bushy moustache, had come to Texas from Virginia in 1872 and settled vast farmlands near Abilene that now belong to Lucie. In 1910, ready to retire, he had moved his family to Alamo Heights because its wooded, verdant hills reminded him of Virginia.

Lucie rose, put her empty bowl in the kitchen sink, and moved with short, slow steps into the living room. She sat down on the long sofa near the fireplace. She loved this room. It had a twenty-foot-high vaulted ceiling with hand-hewn beams, tall French windows, rose-tinted walls, a Goggan grand piano, a winding staircase, and a portrait of her late husband’s grandmother. She had lived in this house for 26 years, and she would never leave it.

Sometimes Lucie felt she had lived several lives: first as a child in West Texas, with carriages instead of cars and lanterns instead of electric lights and a governess instead of a school, then as a girl in Alamo Heights. She would never forget the day the city began chopping down those beautiful trees to turn River Avenue, which wasn’t even paved, into Broadway. Women had actually chained themselves to those trees to save them. Her next life was as a student at Columbia University, and later she taught history at Sul Ross and Kidd-Key colleges, and later still, she was the wife of a biologist for over forty years and a mother to four. The decades seemed to blur together.

And now, finally, she was a widow with failing eyesight and high blood pressure. She shivered. She heard a car out front, footsteps approaching in the yard. Bill. She rose and hurried to the front door. Soon she would have a fire and someone near her.

In the Country of the Old

San Antonio is a senior citizens’ paradise. For decades it has attracted retirees because of its mild winters, low crime rate, and leisurely, almost poky pace. With five military bases and attendant facilities, it is an ideal spot for retired servicemen and their families. Old people seem to thrive, to last longer in San Antonio. And the largest community of elderly people is in and around Alamo Heights.

Ours in an aging country. Between 1900 and 1977, our life expectancy soared from 47 to 73 years. In 1980, one in ten Americans was 65 or older. And women were out-living men by about 8 years, with the result that today half of all women over 65 and two thirds of all women over 75 are widows. Alamo Heights is truly the country of the old. In Alamo Heights, one out of four persons is 65 or older; in Olmos Park, one out of five; in Terrell Hills, one out of six. As these towns aged, their populations dwindled. During the seventies, the population of San Antonio increased, but that of Alamo Heights declined. One out of four elementary schools in the district was shut down.

In Alamo Heights, houses don’t change hands. Cappy Lawton, a 38-year-old, pudgy, apple-cheeked restaurateur whose parents were not affluent but still lived in Alamo Heights, recently did a study of their street, Harrison Avenue. “There are fifty-five houses on it,” he says. “Of those, only fifteen have changed hands over the last fifteen years. The other ones, the people just grew old in.” Transients are almost nonexistent. Neighbors collect mail and newspapers when someone is out of town and visit anyone who is ailing. Paramount in these communities is the sense of a shared fate, and that sense has motivated many of the elderly citizens to retain their independent households in spite of financial disadvantages and other hardships rather than move into apartments or condominiums. Old people fare well in communities where they own property and can exert influence not contingent on physical strength or productivity. Thanks to the advantages of name, address, property, affluence, and community tradition, they can avoid the horrors that accompany old age: poverty, loneliness, boredom, immobility, derision, and fear for one’s physical safety.

The village’s pace is slow even for San Antonio. With Broadway Avenue nearby, shopping is convenient. Driving is courteous and friendly. The diligent police, who frequently know the citizens and their children and grandchildren by name (and vice versa), are quick to nail speeding drivers, and woe betide those who neither work nor live in Alamo Heights. Cars parked on the streets between 2 and 5 a.m. require special permits from the police. Massage parlors, pawnshops, and porno movies are unheard of; there is but one “bar bar,” Montanio’s Fifty Fifty, in the whole three-city area. Along Broadway is a string of restaurants, including Luby’s Cafeteria and Earl Abel’s, that specialize in soft, chewable food for hoary-headed denture wearers.

In Alamo Heights it is the women who are active, vocal, and visible, and over the years the most conspicuous of all the women has been the dowager; her picture appears more often in the fashion, society, and arts pages of the local newspapers than their husband’s did in the business page when he was alive. She has lived to be an elderly widow not just because women outlive men but because she was ten to fifteen years younger than her husband to begin with, because conventional society (the only kind in Alamo Heights) did not encourage her to remarry, and because as she aged there were fewer and fewer suitable males around. In a few cases, widowhood so liberated and exalted her that she did not want another marriage.

Most Alamo Heights widows are in little danger of outliving their incomes. The typical dowager is rich not just because her husband was but because she came from a well-to-do old Texas family and had her own agricultural or oil and gas holdings. As Paul Aschbacher, president of the Alamo Heights National Bank since 1965, says, “If they don’t have their children running their ranches or farms or oil properties, you can bet some big downtown bank is running it for them. Sometimes it’s the old family bank back in Corpus or Galveston or South Texas. Trust departments handle all their affairs. Sometimes, when they’re too old to drive or travel or go downtown anymore, we’ll finally get their business. But not before.”

“This woman has been remarkably fortunate,” says Dr. Michael Kearl, a 33-year-old sociology professor at nearby Trinity University whose field is aging and the elderly. “She is probably far better educated than was the norm for her generation, and she still reads widely, patronizes the arts, and stays politically aware, if not active. She has spanned the gap between the pioneer woman in a wilderness frontier in 1915 and the sophisticated suburban socialite of the 1980s. She is the immigrant of time.”

The grande dame nonpareil of Alamo Heights is 83-year-old Margaret “Mag” Batts Tobin, who walks with a cane—she has had surgery on both her knees—and whose snow-white hair has been that color since her twenties. Fiercely independent, she flies off—alone with her son Robert—to New York City (where she is an honorary director of the Metropolitan Opera) whenever she has a mind to. “I am so intimidated by her,” one of the lesser dowagers told me. “When she says ‘frog,’ there are five hundred people in this town who jump, and I’m one of them. When she’s for you, she’s with you all the way but when she’s against you, you’d best get the hell out of the way.”

Mrs. Tobin’s star barely outshines that of 78-year-old Ilse Frost. She is matriarch of both the Frost banking family she married into and the Herff medical family she was born into. Known for her razor-sharp sense of humor, the six-foot-tall (in stocking feet) Mrs. Frost dresses in the simple, understated tweeds she has worn all her life and maintains two residences: one in San Antonio, the other at the old Herff ranch near Boerne. A heavy smoker, she is said to suffer from “regal emphysema.”

Ramona Seeligson, 79, belongs to an oil-rich clan and is its last living representative from her generation. She is a stunning woman who ordinarily looks 20 years younger than she is, 25 years younger when dressed for dinner at the Argyle, the city’s ritziest, most exclusive private club. She is tall and erect and wears simple jewelry and smart clothes. Mrs. Seeligson is famous for lavish entertainments and hunting parties at her South Texas ranch at Premont. She still bags quail and other birds during the hunting season.

Eighty-year-old Stella “Lulu” Herff is perhaps the most storied of the grande dames. According to one legend, during World War II she employed two young Japanese maids whom she had rescued from California detention camps. She hires a woman to come to her home every morning and comb her formidable head of bluish-white hair. While she was in the hospital recently with a slipped disc, her chauffeur brought fine food from her household kitchen because she considered the hospital food inedible. She goes to Paris every spring and has occupied the same room at the Ritz for sixty years. When asked why, she replies, “Because my servants must have two weeks off annually, and I have to go somewhere.

These women are all close friends and have been for five or six decades. To neglect to invite one of them to a party is to incur the wrath of all. They have much in common: they are all well coiffed, well dressed, well mannered, well read, well traveled, independent, willful, and generous. None could be described as arrogant or imperious, but all seem to inspire awe, particularly among younger women, and each cuts a wide swath when she walks into a restaurant or a beauty shop or a diamond salon.

The Alamo Heights dowager is no stranger to San Antonio at large. She is, variously, a philanthropist, a socialite, a conservationist and preservationist, a patron of the arts, a businesswoman, a property owner, a landlady, and, in some cases, as with Lucie Keblinger Whitehead, an intellectual who continues to pursue her formal education.

An example of both businesswomen and socialite is 82-year-old Hally Purvis Petiot, who was educated in Paris and keeps a house there but describes Alamo Heights as the headquarters of her life. Mrs. Petiot who also owns rental properties in the city, owns, operates, and buys clothing for the Fashion Dress Shoppe at 4000 Broadway. As a member of the Women’s Club of San Antonio, the French Club, the Business and Professional Women of San Antonio, and the San Antonio Symphony Society, she provides fashions for their style shows. She has dressed—or, in her word, covered—the wives of several astronauts and the wife of one former vice president: Judy Agnew. She flies to Dallas every three months to buy clothes at the Apparel Mart and visits her daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter in Florida every December.

The widows have maintained friendships over the decades, but many have not made new ones in several years. As the women die off, the survivors pursue their remaining friendships with desperate intensity. “I can remember,” says MarJo Rogers, 39, of Olmos Park, “that when I waitressed for the Junior League’s Bright Shawl lunchroom, six of the old Texas Chili Queens would come every day for lunch. They would scold me if I hadn’t arranged their chairs so they could all touch each other with their hands as they conversed. I think there’s still three of them left.” Most dowagers claim that they don’t suffer from loneliness, but one prominent octogenarian from an oil family admits, “Loneliness is my biggest problem. My husband has been dead since 1964, and there have been no other men. My daughter lives a block from me and my grandson four blocks, and I see them a lot. I meet old friends at Cappy’s and La Louisiane and Chez Ardid for lunch; I go shopping; I entertain. But it’s never enough. There are evenings I’m on the phone desperately calling every friend I have until I finally get one to meet me for dinner at the Argyle. Please don’t write who I am.”

Grandmother Ann Tobin Rowland, 58, Mag Tobin’s niece, enjoys the stability of Alamo Heights. “We have the American dream of an old-fashioned town in the heart of a big city. I like to go into the HEB grocery on Patterson for a loaf of bread and know it’s going to take me forty-five minutes because I recognize everyone on every isle and have to stop and chat.”

Some of the younger residents are not enamored of the small-town manners of Alamo Heights. “Sometimes the chummy atmosphere can be oppressive,” admits Sharon Baker, a 38-year-old divorcée and mother of two. “When you’re going through a personal crisis like a divorce, you may not want to discuss it with neighbors and acquaintances you bump into at the HEB. Yet they’ll ask you about it. After my divorce, a woman I hardly knew sidled up to me at a high school football game my son was playing in and said confidentially, ‘I just want you to know that I’m praying for you.”

An Old-fashioned Sunday Drive

To a visitor driving into Alamo Heights on Broadway from the south, the area is indistinguishable from thousands of other streets in small American towns. No commercial building may exceed two and a half stories without city council approval. The architecture is unremarkable and eclectic. Many establishments, some operated by the same proprietors for the past 35 years, have deep sentimental value to the residents, but a visitor is unlikely to see Broadway as more than a typical succession of small shopping centers with offices above the stores and boutiques, an abandoned movie theater, a quaint drugstore, convenience stores, a bank, and a fire station. Stands of oak trees grace the curbs.

And churches. One passes church after church, and on Sunday mornings, the bells ring incessantly. There are more churches in Alamo Heights than in any other two square miles of San Antonio (itself an exceptionally devout city), including downtown. There is, however, no synagogue; Alamo Heights Jews must go into San Antonio to worship.

On ecclesiastical subjects, there is no more qualified spokesman than retired bishop Everett H. Jones, 79, who has lived in Alamo Heights since 1910. A graduate of the University of Texas and Union Theological Seminary, Jones was prelate of the San Antonio–based Episcopal Diocese of West Texas for 35 years, during which he baptized, confirmed, married, and buried innumerable Alamo Heights residents. Today he is a red-faced, snowy-haired little man who fairly crackles with energy.

“This community,” says the bishop, “has always been churchgoing, because of a certain wholesomeness here, a love of the clean life. I think our standards are still more wholesome than elsewhere. Religiously we may be above average, but we’re still too casual—not as devout or sincere as the people I remember from my childhood. Church today must compete with society parties, hunting trips, and vacations to the coast. These things are not bad, they’re just not good enough. Often the good is an enemy to the best.”

The homes in Olmos Park and Terrell Hills are more imposing than those in Alamo Heights. Palatial Tudor mansions belonging to old oil families perch atop rises in Terrell Hills; some forested, secluded estates in Olmos Park are valued at $2 million. By zigzagging west off Broadway, then doubling back south on Greeley Street, a visitor can see evidence of the patchwork history and economic integration of Alamo Heights. “Many people here from Dallas,” says a middle-aged realtor who has offices of Broadway, “are disappointed because it isn’t another Highland Park. They say, ‘Is this all there is?’ the cottage mix and the hill-and-dale syndrome and the few eyesores really put them off.”

On streets like Argo, Abiso, Normandy, and Ogden Lane, the “Alamo Heights cottage” dominates. It’s a small clapboard structure with a gray or green shingled roof. It usually has two bedrooms and one bath. In 1968 it sold for $15,000; it costs four times that today, and just $25,000 more will buy you one with three bedrooms and two baths. A two-story cottage with a rock-and-siding exterior goes for $108,000; in 1972 the same house could be bought for $45,000, and on the south or west sides of San Antonio it still can. Obviously, in Alamo Heights a house is an entrée to a community, a way of life.

Along Patterson, Torcido, and Lagos—the heart of Old Alamo Heights, an area west of Broadway that was the original development—one sees what that realtor meant by the hill-and-dale syndrome. A thirty-year-old cottage will be nestled between a magnificent old estate shrouded by spreading oaks and ivy-choked palms and a new 6000-square-foot French château valued at $900,000. The cottage does not depreciate the value of the palaces next door; instead, the elegant homes inflate the value of the eyesore. Many of the yards become botanical showcases in the springtime, with meticulously manicured gardens of snowdrops, redbuds, and irises, islands of pansies, towering palms, dazzling azaleas and camellias and jasmine and mountain laurel, forests of elms and magnolias and pecans and stately oaks.

The Argyle, at 934 Patterson, is within walking distance of homes, no two remotely alike, belonging to families with hallowed names like Straus, Moorman, Zachry, and Maverick. The Argyle itself is the oldest surviving structure in Alamo Heights. The white Greek Revival mansion with wide galleries and burnished-wood dining rooms was converted to a hotel in the 1890s and gained a national reputation for Southern hospitality and sumptuous meals.

After World War II the Argyle sank into decay, like so much else in Alamo Heights. In 1955 it was purchased by the Southwest Foundation for Research and Education and restored to its former grandeur as a private club. Today it is the site of wedding receptions, debutante fetes, and private parties, and members can rent the plush old suites upstairs for one night or for the weekend.

The membership is mainly couples, but of the single members, women far outnumber men. One Argyle employee confides, “We’re a home away from home for many members, particularly the old and lonesome. Even the widows and widowers don’t come alone, though. They always drag someone, usually another member, along with them. The old ladies come more for lunch than dinner, though they’re here a lot for dinner, too. Some come seven, eight times a week.”

Seven blocks from the Argyle on the same street, a vacant seventeen-acre plot has become the subject of a community controversy. Four of its acres are being cleared for two condominium towers, one six stories, the other ten. Such heights violate a long-standing zoning law, but the developer, Robert Callaway, appealed to the city council for a variance and got it. The Old Alamo Heights Neighborhood Association immediately filed suit against the city. At last report, the community forces were losing. Historian and Alamo Heights resident T.R. Fehrenbach, in one of his guest editorials for the village’s weekly newspaper, the North San Antonio Times, wrote, “It may be that ‘park cities’ such as Alamo Heights are a futile dream doomed to be steam-rollered by inexorable forces and tides. Perhaps the future lies in mass concentration, traffic, and neighborhoods of strangers living cheek to jowl.”

Five years ago Callaway developed the 4001, a high-rise condominium near the San Antonio Country Club, just outside Alamo Heights, that caters to the elderly rich. Prices on his units at 200 Patterson Avenue will start at $300,000 and skyrocket from there. The unspoken fear among younger residents is that the Callaway project will set off a chain reaction of high-rise condo building “adult living” that will make the village older still.

Lucie at Midmorning

By midmorning Lucie Keblinger Whitehead’s mansion felt warm and secure. From downstairs came the reassuring hum of Mabel’s vacuuming; from outside, faintly, the clip-clip of Bill’s pruning. Lucie’s garden was famous in the neighborhood. Every week Bill planted something new: this week he was digging up caladiums and putting out pansies.

Lucie sat at a desk in the incandescently bright upstairs room that she used as a study. She was opening her morning mail and reading each item with a magnifying glass, craning her neck almost to the desktop. The only way she could see to attend to her business was to brighten the room with the three-hundred-watt bulb in the lamp behind her. Her friends tried to persuade her to let somebody help her, but who would it be? If there was anything she couldn’t stomach, it was old ladies who had to have people do everything for them.

Today was the only weekday she didn’t have a continuing education class. At nearby Trinity University she took a course called “Books and Coffee”—the students read assigned books, them everyone sat around drinking coffee and discussing them. She also took the “brown bag” literature course—the class talked about the classics over sack lunches—and an art course there. In addition, she took a course on government policymaking at La Mansion del Norte motor hotel. Mabel drove her to and from most of her classes. But tomorrow was the Bible scholarship course she attended with her old friend Marie Helland and Marie’s niece Lucile at University Presbyterian Church, and Lucile would drive them to that one. Lucile drove Lucie lots of places, including Canyon Lake.

This morning there was a letter from her lawyer in New Braunfels (her lawyer in San Antonio had died) about her log cabin at Canyon Lake, a quarterly report on six of her nineteen West Texas farms, an astronomical utility bill for the house, and some tax shelter tables from her fiduciary, in print so small she couldn’t read it, squint her eyes and peer through the magnifying glass though she did. There was also a letter from a man in San Marcos who wanted to buy the Lantern, her little restaurant on Canyon Lake. Lucie blinked and wiped her eyes.

She would answer the letters tomorrow. With mounting effort she opened and read the rest of the mail: announcements from the Conservation Society and the Symphony Society. On the calendar beside her desk she scrawled the days of forthcoming meetings. She then opened her copy of the North San Antonio Times. Many of her friends read Bonnie Sue Jacobs’s “Social Notes”—a treacly mix of society gossip and area history—before anything else, but Lucie always turned to the obituaries first. She read, and sighed with relief. No one she knew had died since last week.

Finally, though her neck ached and her eyes blurred intolerably, she read four more paragraphs of the notorious piece in the Atlantic on David Stockman. Economic policy fascinated her. So did politics in general. She was an independent voter, as her father had been. But Laurence, her husband, had come from rabidly Republican Indiana stock and voted a straight ticket. Sometimes they had disagreed on presidential candidates. “Let’s not vote in this one,” Laurence had suggested when Eisenhower ran against Stevenson. “We’ll only cancel each other’s vote.” But Lucie had refused, afraid he would sneak out and vote anyway. She had always revered independent thinking. During her career as a college professor she had stressed it above everything else.

After reading the four paragraphs, she turned off the lamp and put her Talking Books record of Hardy’s Return of the Native on a phonograph in the corner. That was coming up next month in her “Books and Coffee” course. Who would know she’d heard the novel instead of read it? She chuckled to herself. It was almost time for Lucile to pick her up for their lunch date at Chez Ardid, but she had time for one side at least.

She sat at her desk and listened. “A Saturday afternoon in November,” read a male voice, “was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.” Lucie turned the volume up. She was hard of hearing, too.

A Lot of Pioneer

One need not, of course, be widowed or elderly to live in Alamo Heights. One need not be wealthy, either, though wealth is indispensable in most of Terrell Hills and Olmos Park. Indeed, for a neighborhood regarded as elitist, Alamo Heights is remarkably heterogeneous—a condition that makes it more interesting than monolithic enclaves like Houston’s River Oaks and Dallas’s Highland Park. Alamo Heights was not settled at a specific time for a specific age group or economic class. It is the product of a series of developments, most of them unsuccessful.

In the mid-nineteenth century a Kentuckian named Charles Anderson built the mansion that later became the Argyle. In 1861 he was arrested as a Union sympathizer and escaped to Ohio, where he eventually became governor. His land is now the heart of Old Alamo Heights.

Subdivisions were first attempted in the 1890s, when a Denver-based investment firm, the Alamo Heights Land and Improvement Company, planned a suburb in the area. It converted the Anderson mansion into the Argyle Hotel and apportioned lots for homes around it. The hotel marked the southern boundary of the Loop—the area now known as Old Alamo Heights—which was laid out as a horse-and-buggy neighborhood.

It was a marvelous development, but it failed. It was too far from town, there were no graveled roads, and the only way to get there was an arduous trip by horseback, buggy or canoe. Nevertheless, a few frontier families stubbornly stuck it out. Between 1891 and 1893 a dozen homes were built.

In 1907 a second development, north and east of the Loop, fared somewhat better. The fashionable residents of San Antonio, most of whom lived south of Commerce Street in an old German enclave called King William, began to toy with the prospect of country living combined with city money-making. It was quieter “up there” and cooler in the summer, and the land was firm for foundations. A few more families took the plunge.

In 1909 a go-getter named Clifton George, Sr., from Oklahoma, bought up the Loop properties and most of the acreage west of River Avenue (later Broadway). George became the area’s main developer; he was a reckless, gutsy hype artist and risk taker who converted his losses with profits from his Ford motorcar dealership, the village’s first. Under his design, dusty, dinky roads were built to San Antonio, and a sizable number of King William families traveled them to relocate to Alamo Heights. By 1920 the development was solid.

A mule-drawn streetcar that struggled around the Loop furnished adequate transportation to San Antonio and back, but city services to the suburb were inefficient and life there was primitive. Last December, a month before his death, the developer’s son, Clifton George, Jr., told me, “You had to have a lot of pioneer in you then. I remember being told ‘Sonny, if you see a rattlesnake, don’t run away. Kill it!’” Alamo Heights cried out for better services, but the big city seemed indifferent to the needs of those new suburbanites a mile north of its northernmost limits. Already, perhaps, the elitist mystique had aroused the city’s resentment. According to some old-timers, there were even a few suburbanites who asked the city to annex Alamo Heights; San Antonio wasn’t interested.

In 1922 there was a rumor that San Antonio would at last annex Alamo Heights and tax the suburb to pay for the new Olmos Dam. Alarmed, Alamo Heights residents called an emergency meeting on June 4, 1922, and held an election at the Argyle Hotel three weeks later. The vote was 289–8 for incorporation and against annexation.

The following year, the Alamo Heights Independent School District was created. By 1928 all Alamo Heights streets had been paved and were humming with motorcar traffic. Sewer lines had been dug and connected to the San Antonio system. New shops along Broadway flourished. Prominent families like the Judsons, the Bairds, and the Sheridans moved in. (Jack Judson, of the Judson candy family, served as mayor for eighteen years at a salary of $1 per year.) The crazy-quilt pattern of different age groups, income levels, and architectural styles characteristic of a village continued.

By the late thirties, San Antonio was preparing to expand northward and annex everything in its path. Olmos Park, which had been developed by an expansive man named R.C. Thorman (who liked to crash through its brush in his Cadillac as if the car were a tank), was in its path. Clifton George, Jr., who built the third house in Olmos Park, told me about a day in 1939 when he and another developer, Albert Negley, were walking in Olmos Park and Maury Maverick, Sr., who was running for mayor of San Antonio, pulled up in his car to chat.

“Hear you boys been thinkin’ about incorporatin’,” said Maverick.

Negley and George honestly denied that they had.

“Well,” Maverick went on, “no need for you to. I would never annex this place if I were mayor.”

Negley and George glanced at each other uneasily. That night, they started making plans to incorporate Olmos Park. Residents in an adjacent area, Olmos Terrace, across the railroad tracks to the west, begged to be included. But the incorporators (including industrialist Henry Catto, Sr.) felt Olmos Terrace had too many homes to service. “We incorporated Olmos Park without delay,” George recalled with pleasure, “and when Maury got elected, know what he did? Annexed poor Olmos Terrace the first thing.”

Terrell Hills, separated from Alamo Heights by New Braunfels Avenue, incorporated the same year for the same reason. Originally the city was the cotton farm of Dr. Frederick Terrell, a native of Indiana. In 1920 a group of nine men who called themselves the Community purchased 22 acres of Terrell’s farmland for home sites. Straightaway they built tortuous roads intended to discourage traffic. To design the houses, they hired the best San Antonio architects—Alfred Giles, for example, who also designed some of the most venerated buildings downtown.

After World War II, Alamo Heights deteriorated while San Antonio (which by then completely surrounded it) boomed. New businesses were not encouraged; the economy faltered. Most of its original houses fell into disrepair, and the many low-cost houses that had sprouted up during the war were eyesores. Younger families left. Property values plummeted. In the fifties, the businesses along Broadway began to move out to suburban shopping centers. In the sixties, even the Alamo Heights News folded. It looked as though the town would turn into a seedy retirement community.

But Alamo Heights recycled itself. In 1971 Lewis Fisher, a transplanted New Yorker, started the North San Antonio Times. The same year, Fisher, T.R. Fehrenbach, banker Paul Aschbacher, and pharmacist H.C. “Pat” Patteson began plans for a celebration of the town’s golden anniversary in October 1972 that would feature a play depicting the community’s history, parades with marching bands, and barbecues. The celebration was not a financial success, but it did result in a resurgence of village identity and pride and in two parades that have become annual events—one a Fourth of July parade, the other a “Macy’s Day” parade on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

The celebration also spawned a merchants’ group, the Alamo Heights Business and Professional Association, to fill the void left when the Alamo Heights Northeast Chamber of Commerce folded in the sixties. The association managed to attract several stores back to Broadway, and small shopping centers like the Stewart (which had been called the Chadwick) began to thrive again. New centers—Oliver Square, the Exchange, Cambridge Place—filled up.

In the late seventies, the business renaissance inspired a residential one. Many houses in Old Alamo Heights—particularly on Patterson, Argyle, and Westover streets—were renovated by young couples who had grown up in the village, left for a while, and then returned. Other houses were torn down and new ones built on their lots. Property values began to rise again. Children wore T-shirts reading, “I’m an 09” (78209 is the zip code for Alamo Heights and Terrell Hills). “I feel sorry for anyone who didn’t grow up in Alamo Heights,” says a dowager who has seen seventy years of community history. “I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t live here now.”

Family Matters

On a recent Sunday evening, two second-generation Alamo Heights matrons with blue-rinsed coiffures sat in La Fonda on Broadway, gossiping, sipping margaritas, and daintily eating North Side–bland chalupas compuestas with their forks. They were joined by a well-dressed couple in their late twenties. The conversation was spirited and cheerful. They did not talk loudly, but a listener at a table nearby could hear much of what they said.

Abruptly this party and just about everyone else looked up at a woman walking though the room. Clad in a smart but simple dark dress, she had long honey-blonde hair, high cheekbones, and almond eyes. She was beautiful and moved with extraordinary grace.

When she had left the restaurant, the man at the matrons’ table asked, “What is her name?”

“She’s the Ritterbach* girl,” said one of the matrons. “Meridel.”

“Are her people Alamo Heights?” asked the young woman.

“Oh, yes. An old family.”

“Do they have money?”

“Some,” said the matron. “I think there was a line of bankers on her mother’s side. I’m not positive.”

“Doesn’t she live over on Morton?” the other matron asked.

“No. You must be thinking of her grandmother. She’s lived on Morton for years and years. Anyway, Meridel’s thirty-nine years old and never been married. Can you imagine? Anyone so pretty?”

“Unbelievable,” said the young woman.

“I hear she is getting married finally,” the second matron announced. “To a rancher from West Texas.”

“Really?” said the first. “I heard she was seeing the Winston* boy.”

The young woman asked, “Wasn’t his father King Antonio a few years ago?”

“No,” said the first matron. “You’re thinking of another family. I know the Winstons well. The daughter is just precious. She was a princess last year in the coronation.”

“Not last year,” said the second matron. “It was year before last.”

“Oh, well,” said the first, “that’s what I meant.”

In Old Alamo Heights it’s all in the family. Wealth is less important than name, kinship, and how far back one can trace one’s people. In this respect San Antonio seems less like a Texas city than like a town in New England or the Deep South. One can even be poor in Old Alamo Heights society so long as one maintains one’s address, church attendance, and club memberships. “I dated a guy from one of the old families,” says a self-employed San Antonio public relations woman, “and he was in a quandary every month over whether to pay his rent or his club dues at the Argyle. He was always broke, but no one knew.”

San Antonio has never displayed wealth in the ostentatious manner of the Dallas and Houston rich. In Alamo Heights especially, that’s considered bad manners. Old Alamo Heights money is old money, with nothing to prove, no one to impress, and it is possibly a little embarrassed to be in the midst of one of the poorest major cities in the United States.

Who are these old families? They include the Oppenheimers and Frosts (banking), the Zachrys, Brownings, and Steveses (construction), the Franks and Calverts (retailing), the Moormans and Seeligsons (oil), the Browns (timber and oil), the Herffs (medicine and land), the Tobins (aerial surveys), and the Strauses, Mavericks, and Wests (ranching and oil). As with the royal families of Europe, there has been considerable intermarriage among them. A genealogy of the Tobins, for example, reveals that blood, marriage, and money link the Rotes (as in Kyle and Tobin) to the Tobins to the Armstrongs (as in Anne) to the Steveses to the Gillespies to the Mathises to the McClellands. The Tobins can be traced back to a woman from one of the original fifteen Canary Islander families that settled San Antonio in the eighteenth century, and she married the last messenger dispatched by Travis from the Alamo. That’s old San Antonio.

The role of the outsider marrying into an Old Alamo Heights family is seldom an easy one. One such newcomer, now a 37-year-old divorcée still living in Alamo Heights, is bitter about the treatment she received from her ex-husband’s family: “My mother-in-law thought only a barbarian would walk around her own house barefoot, like I did. My sister-in-law was scandalized because I chose to nurse my first baby. The whole family was horrified that my ears were pierced. Even the family dog was not to be petted; a black servant cared for him completely. And the worst thing I did was be kind and polite to the black servant. You weren’t supposed to ask him to do things, you were supposed to tell him.”

Lucie at Lunch

Over lunch at Chez Ardid, Lucie Keblinger Whitehead asked Lucile Helland, “Is Marie going to Bible class with us tomorrow?”

“It’s doubtful,” said Lucile.

“Beg your pardon?”

“I said, ‘It’s doubtful,’” Lucile repeated louder and took a bite of her veal kidneys. A plain, short-haired, sixtyish woman, who like her aunt Marie, had never married, she had been a flower girl at Lucie’s wedding. These days, Lucie saw more of Lucile than of Marie Helland, her oldest friend. She and Marie had ridden the streetcars to school together. Now Marie suffered from muscular ailments and couldn’t get out much.

Lucie clucked her tongue. Poor Marie. She had missed last week’s class, too. She lived in pain. Once she had been so active, so beautiful. Queenly. Now she was almost immobile.

Chez Ardid is a rose-carpeted, white curtained French restaurant north of Alamo Heights on Broadway. It’s a favorite of elderly women from the sister cities, who fancy its people-watching intimacy, its unhurried pace, and the fawning solicitude of its owner-chef. Today Lucie could have done without the Muzak Christmas carols that sounded from the ceiling, but her veal kidneys sautéed with fines herbes were delicious.

Lucie changed the subject to Waldine Tauch, the sculptor. She had once been a protégée of Pompeo Coppini’s and still lived in his old house. She was even older than Lucie.

“Actually,” Lucie said, “Waldine’s always been more a friend of my governess’s, Septima Smith. Whenever Septima visits from Fort Worth, I invite Waldine over. Septima must be ninety-five now.”

“Perhaps you should invite them both soon,” said Lucile. She loved to help Lucie entertain.

“Yes. Septima is a remarkable woman. She taught me to read Latin, to play Chopin. I must have her over soon. She must be ninety-five now.”

Over dessert—chocolate mousse—both women fell silent. Finally Lucie said, “I’m thinking of fixing up the apartment out back again. Having someone there full time.”

Lucile brightened. “Oh, Lucie. That’s wonderful.”

“But not for the reason you think,” Lucie added. “It’s not because I’m insecure there. I’d rather feel insecure there than totally secure in a condominium or . . . something else.”

“Of course you would.”

“I need someone to drive me places at night,” Lucie went on. “There are so many wonderful things to do at night.”

“So many,” Lucile said and took a sip of coffee. “I don’ know why you haven’t gotten someone already.”

Lucie smiled. She knew that Lucile knew she had money for a hundred chauffeurs. But money wasn’t the point. Self-reliance was. “Besides,” she admitted, “I need someone to read to me.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Today some mail arrived with print so small I couldn’t read it.”

“Not even with your magnifying glass?”

“Oh, no. The print was so small.”

Lucile paused, then asked, “Do you have someone in mind to stay there?’

Lucie nodded and dabbed her mouth with the napkin. “The people next door think they can find me a Trinity student. I could call whoever stayed out there on the phone when I needed her.”

Lucile eyed her levelly. “Lucie,” she said, “you should do this right away.”

“Well,” said Lucie with an old lady’s laugh, “it’s not that urgent.” But it was, she knew. And from the look on her friends face she could see that Lucile knew it, too.

The Dowager Dodders

For all her agelessness and seeming indestructibility, the Alamo Heights dowager is beginning to dodder. And unfortunately she, unlike most of Alamo Heights, is not recyclable. The village will mourn her, for she has contributed more to the social and cultural life of San Antonio than has any group in San Antonio itself.

Throughout the last fifty years, some sixty families in Alamo Heights have safeguarded and perpetuated everything conveyed by the words “Old San Antonio.” And most of the hard, dirty work of that safeguarding and perpetuating has fallen to the women of those families. Since the twenties it has been the families of Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, and Terrell Hills who have crowned the queens, thrown the debutante parties, danced all night at the Chrysanthemum Ball, and populated the exclusive clubs. And its still the socialite dowagers and matriarchs like Mage Tobin and Ilse Frost and Stella Herff and Ramona Seeligson that one thinks of when conjuring up images of the Order of the Alamo coronations, the distaff rites of the German Club and the Texas Cavaliers, the charity balls and fashion extravaganzas of the Junior League. They entertain artists and political visitors to the city, pump up the perennially deflated symphony and ballet, support the McNay and the Witte museums and the Conservation Society.

Mrs. Tobin has donated a heliport to the Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital, kept charities alive, and saved historic downtown buildings by going to her own purse. Mrs. Herff enabled the Witte Museum to restore the Celso Navarro House, a city landmark, and donated $165,000 for the animal nursery of the San Antonio Children’s Zoo. Others like Lucie Keblinger Whitehead, far less visible but nonetheless indefatigable, have remained active in social welfare organizations, the symphony, the Conservation Society, and women’s rights projects throughout their lives.

But how much longer can three shrinking, aging boroughs with a combined population of less that 14,000 continue to dominate the social and cultural life of an area containing more than a million people? The old families do not run San Antonio any longer—the recent victory of a West Side Mexican American, Henry Cisneros, over their preferred mayoral candidate, John Steen, and the continuing industrialization of the city prove that—and there are signs that their hammerlock on the city’s cultural life is loosening, too. Now that there finally is new money in San Antonio, its voice must be heard. Today a rich man new to the city can, for example, with enough wheeling and wheedling, buy a debut for his daughter. Previously? Never.

Where high culture is concerned, it’s the money of businesses rather than of old families that’s talking loudest. As in other cities, corporations rather than families and individuals are beginning to keep the arts above water. In the offices of the new San Antonio Museum of Art, the Society for the Performing Arts, the Arts Council, and the Symphony Society, one is more likely to hear the names of big local banks or new companies like Valero Energy and Datapoint spoken in reverential whispers than those of families like Tobin, Steves, and Oppenheimer. They are a breed the likes of which San Antonio and Texas will not see again.

Alamo Heights must wonder how the loss of its matriarchs will alter its aristocratic mystique, just as it wonders how the appearance of high-rise condominiums and apartment complexes on its low skyline will alter its Norman Rockwellian mystique as a village—a village that like the Beatles’ Penny Lane, with its lovable barbers and bankers and firemen and its blue suburban skies, exists less as a reality than as a collective memory, a dream of small-town innocence, a state of mind.

Lucie at Twilight

Near twilight, alone again, Lucie Keblinger Whitehead pulled on a sweater, then stepped out for her hike. She had walked at least a mile in Alamo Heights every day for as long as she could remember. Her enormous front yard, graced by half a dozen oaks, was dappled by shadows and bathed in an eerie, rosy glow. Lucie blinked, wishing she could see more clearly. It felt chilly; she was thankful for the sweater.

Walking slowly, she cut through an opening in the hedge alongside the house and headed south on Nacagdoches, past the drive where her 1975 white Chrysler Newport was parked. That she couldn’t drive anymore caused her great anguish. In 1911 she had been the first member of her family to drive the black Dodge her father had bought; he never once drove it. And earlier than that she’d been the first Keblinger to ride in an automobile. Pompeo Coppini’s wife –what had her name been? –had come by one day in her new red roadster and taken Lucie for a drive though Madeleine Terrace.

Having turned west on Castano, she crossed Woodway, keeping to the curb because there was no sidewalk. Her destination was a dead end two blocks from the Texas Military Institute. The houses along the block where she walked now were mostly shingle-roof cottages, with a two-story brick home here and there. How the neighborhood had changed in just three decades, she thought. Instead of only a few families there were so many, and the houses had grown smaller, closer together. The yards had shrunk and the people had become anonymous.

Laurence, her husband, had loved to hike and explore with her. They used to walk all over Alamo Heights; she could still remember the unearthly cries of the peacocks along the paths in Madeleine Terrace.

At dinnertime she and Laurence would sometimes hike from Grove Place to the Argyle and arrive with hearty appetites for the rich, heavy meals Alice O’Grady served family style on the round tables. Alice had loved flowers: they’d adorned every table, every sitting, even the food-heaped platters. Once Laurence had found himself chewing a rose petal with his roast beef. Lucie laughed out loud, remembering.

Her reveries were jostled by the clumping footsteps of someone behind her: a fat, middle-aged jogger in a gray sweat suit. As he passed, he gave her a look. She knew what it meant. Poky little old lady in tennis shoes. Occasionally motorists gave her that look too, and a young one would give her a honk to boot. As if she had no business walking alone in the neighborhood she had lived in for seventy years.

Lucie quickened her pace as the sun sank further into the horizon. She thought of Thomas Hardy’s November twilight on the heath. At La Jara the street dipped sharply, and soon she was struggling uphill. The houses were uniformly impressive now: brick homes with colonial pillars, servants’ quarters in back, iron gates and long, winding driveways in front. The branches of two oaks on either side of the street met above it, forming an archway. On one yard two boys passed a football back and forth, taking no notice of her.

And why should they? she thought. Just a little old lady. She did not fear dying and, unlike most women her age, didn’t think about it much. Death was part of life. Who really wanted to live forever? She was ready for it; she had already donated her body to science, to the UTSA medical school. She would leave everything to her daughters and nephews, though she wasn’t sure any of them would want to keep the house here. Tonight, she supposed, she would break down, phone them all. Someone had to give in.

Now from the middle distance came the barking dog. Lucie felt a tremor of fear but did not change her pace. One evening last year, as she walked to TMI, she had heard a similar bark and turned to see a blurry black shape charging her. A big dog, which had bounded over a six-foot fence, bit her ankle, drawing blood, and ran off. “My Grandma, what big teeth marks you have!” the doctor had said, laughing, and she had laughed along with him, though she hadn’t really found it funny. The next evening, she had forced herself to walk to TMI again, taking a different route.

Just past a little street named PennyLane, Castano dead-ended at a thicket behind a sheet metal fence. Through a watery haze Lucie blinked at the persimmon-colored rays slanting above the thicket and thought she could see past it to a distant hilltop. Momentarily, as if by sheer exertion of her will, the blur cleared and the scene came into focus. It blurred again, but it had been clearer than anything Lucie had seen all day. Her spirit took flight as she turned homeward. “Heavenly God,” she thought, “how wonderful still to be able to walk in Alamo Heights.”

*A fictitious name.

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