Menger Hotel in San Antonio

The Menger Hotel in San Antonio, Texas

Where the Wares Met the Barnabys 
and Where Roberta Mayrell is Introduced in “Mary Ware in Texas”

The Menger Hotel  is located at 204 Alamo Plaza, just 100 yards from The Alamo.
Built in 1859, it is the oldest continually operating hotel west of the Mississippi River 
and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Photo c. 1865. 

The opening scene in Mary Ware in Texas takes place at a San Antonio hotel. Author Annie Fellows Johnston describes it as, “…one of the older hotels of San Antonio, much sought by Northern tourists,” because of its “inner garden… The rooms opening on to it had vine-covered balconies, and, looking down from them into the tropical growth of palms and banana trees and roses, one felt that it was summer time, no matter what the calendar said.” 

More clues to the hotel’s identity follow. Shutters separate the guests’ rooms from their balconies, where “Queen’s wreath (editors note: Petrea volubilis or Bluebird Vine) and moon-vines (editors note: Calonyction aculeatum)” create private bowers. In the courtyard below an orchestra plays two-steps and other popular tunes and “electric bulbs” are “strung through the cacti and devil's ivy (editors note: pothos) like elfin lamps.” Glass doors lead into the dining room, where the bill of fare is written in French, and there are private dining rooms as well. Alligators swim in the fountain and the hotel itself is located very close to The Alamo.

This 1905 post card shows how the Menger Hotel looked when the Johnston family arrived in Texas

The hotel Annie Fellows Johnston describes in the story is the Menger Hotel, built by German immigrant and brewer, William A. Menger, 23 years after the fall of the Alamo. What began in 1859 as a two-story hotel to accommodate the carousers at Menger’s brew house next door is now a five-story, 316-room hotel offering first class accommodations to its guests. 

The Menger’s bar was patterned after the House of Lords Club in London when it was built in 1887. 
Photograph by Thomas D. Mcavoy for the October 12, 1959 edition of “Life” magazine © Time Inc.

The original building, designed by local architect John M. Fries, was completed in 1859. By the time the Johnston family arrived in Texas in 1903, the hotel had already been enlarged twice: first in 1881, when an east wing was added, and again in 1887, when a solid cherry bar, patterned after the House of Lords Club in London, was added at a cost of $60,000. Among its accoutrements were a cherry paneled ceiling, booths and beveled mirrors from France, gold-plated spittoons and decorated glass cabinets. Beer was chilled in the Alamo Madre ditch in the hotel courtyard, and other liquid refreshments, such as mint juleps and hot rum toddies, were sold.  

Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt

Roosevelt’s Rough Riders had their own uniform: slouch hats, blue shirts, spotted bandanas, brown trousers, leggings and boots. 
Above, Teddy Roosevelt with his Rough Riders on horseback, and 
below, a group shot of the Rough Riders’ officers.

In 1898, Teddy Roosevelt used the Menger bar to recruit for the 1st United States Cavalry Volunteers. He had first visited the hotel in 1892, while javalina hunting, and returned at the outbreak of the Spanish American War to sign up men from law enforcement, cattle ranches and mining camps for his Rough Riders, who later led the charge of San Juan Hill in Cuba.

The Menger’s famous balcony is shown in this centennial celebration photo 
that appeared in the October 12, 1959 edition of “Life” magazine; photo by Thomas D. Mcavoy, © Time Inc.

In 1909, while the Johnstons were living in Boerne, another addition was made to the south side of the hotel and the main façade was restyled.  Overseeing the addition and retooling of the façade was architect Alfred Giles, who also added an interior rotunda above the courtyard.

The elegant hotel restaurant mentioned in Mary Ware in Texas was the Colonial Dining Room, first built as an addition to the hotel. In 1912, it was remodeled in neoclassical style by San Antonio architect Atlle B. Ayres. It was famous throughout the West for fine dining and offered wild game, mango ice cream, and snapper soup on its menu. Hunters, in fact, would exchange venison or even bear for lodging. 

Just as described in Mary Ware in Texas, alligators once dwelled on the hotel’s patio. The following “Around the Plaza” article by Jeff Davis, published February 20, 1932, tells the story of how the alligators came to call the Menger home and details their life at the hotel: 

No list of Oldest Inhabitants would be complete without mention of the two ancient and venerable alligators who spend their days lost in deep and moody retrospection in the shade of the old cottonwood tree in the Menger hotel patio, and on whose broad backs lie the weight of many years.

 A waiter, the hotel’s oldest employee in years of service, recalls that the alligators came to the hotel some 30 or so years ago.

 According to tradition, a showman was staying at the hotel during an international fair held here several decades back. He was exhibiting an alligator at the fair, and after the fair closed, he put the saurian in a crate and put him out in the patio.

 Things went from bad to worse for the showman, and finally one night he skipped out, leaving the alligator as part payment for his hotel bill. And that, little boys and girls of Radioland, is why the big old alligator is named Bill.

 The second alligator came to the hotel when he was only a foot or so long. An unknown walked into the hotel grill one night when the late Gus Groben was bartender, took the alligator out of his pocket, and depositing it on the bar, walked out.

Mrs. Keith McGowen, former manager of the Menger and now manager of the St. Anthony, who will be the gators’ biographer if they ever have one, recalls that some 10 or so years back, the saurians passed words and came to close grips. The firemen had to come and pry the battlers apart with crowbars. Since then they have had a fence between them.

The alligators lead melancholy and sexless lives. They are both gentlemen alligators and if there were ever any girl friends in their dark lives, they have pretty well managed to keep the scandal down.

The ancient pair, not being impulsive or given to whimsy, don’t constitute much trouble for their keeper. He recalls that one night a lady guest wandered into the patio for air, which she badly needed. She leaned over the wire enclosure and jabbed one of the immobile saurians with a stick. She taunted the gator…”You big sissy—you big sissy.”

 Alligators don’t have much of a sense of humor, and the saurian turned his head slightly and opened his mouth more in mild curiosity than in angry resentment. The gesture was eloquent, however, and this lady guest backed up so hurriedly she fell over a pot plant and needed attention.

 She will go round calling alligators sissies, will she?

The alligators have spent a stole quarter-century in the shade of a cottonwood tree more than 200 years old. They live in a small pen with separate compartments, and never have words. Of their mental processes, as the saying goes, it would be kinder to say nothing. 

When it gets cold, they stay under water, which leads to the generalization that alligators aren’t very bright. In fact, it’s just that sort of thing that gets a bad name for alligators. 

Their eating is erratic. Except for an annual period when they diet, they eat about once a month, taking on buckets full of meats and fish. They are now on a diet, self-imposed and common to alligator-kind. They haven’t eaten a it since Christmas and won’t until April, the keeper tells us. 

For the benefit of our dieting lady friends, we report that after nearly two months of dieting, the alligators are still hitting the scales around 700 or 800 pounds each. 

But don’t let us discourage you.

The alligators weren’t the only famous personages to call the Menger home. Other celebrities over the years have included Captain Richard King, founder of the King Ranch, the largest ranch in the U.S.; silent film star Pola Negri;Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who designed Mount Rushmore and carved statues in the hotel’s courtyard; and the savior of The Alamo, Adina De Zavala. Five U.S. presidents -- Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower -- and a host of high-ranking military officers have also been guests.

The hotel is purported to be one of the most haunted sites in San Antonio with more than 30 ghosts, according toLegends of America and History and Mystery of the MENGER Hotel  by Docia Schultz Williams.

Unfortunately, the hotel only has a few registration records left from the early 20th century, so it’s impossible to prove that the Johnstons actually stayed at the hotel during their years in Texas, according to Menger’s public relations director, Ernesto Malacara.

Thanks to Ernesto Malacara, public relations director at The Menger Hotel, for the article about the alligators and providing leads to sources for some of the images shown on this page.


Page by Donna Andrews Russell

Copyright 2009

Menger Hotel, 1911