San Antonio Nerd Haven

I probably should've titled this post "San Antonio-Nerd Haven," thus indicating that if you are, like me, nerdlike in your obsession with the history and culture of San Antonio, then this post (and the place it's fixin' to recommend) are for you. Whereas if you are a nerd whose major preoccupation is, say, hentai ... frankly I don't know where the hell you should go in SA, haven-wise.

I'm sure there are havens for you, sir or madam, but the San Antonio Conservation Society Library ain't one of them!

Maybe you've heard of the San Antonio Conservation Society. They put on NIOSA. That's about all I knew about them, too, until last week, when I started researching a story about the Onderdonk family, one of whom was the King of the Bluebonnet pianters, and three of whom have work up at the Witte currently. The Witte Museum had provided me with a pretty slick press kit including a CD of images and the Fall newsletter and whatnot. I even had a show catalog with some essays in it.

Some of y'all woulda just been satisfied with the press kit, gone to see the Onderdonk show, done your little write-up, and then gotten back to your hentai or fyour antasy football or dressing your Madame Alexander dolls as characters from the Golden Girls.


I needed to know more Onderdonk-ery. Who were these folks? Were they in the newspaper? Where did they live? Did they write letters? What does "Onderdonk" mean? What the hell did they get up to besides painting bluebonnets and Alamo scenes and wee-tiny portraits of fancy ladies?

On the recommendation of another San Antonio-nerd, I consulted the San Antonio Conservation Society library. And it turns out, that place rocks.

Their website is here:

I called up and asked the friendly librarian, whose name is Beth Standifird, to reserve any materials pertaining to the Onderdonks--books, articles, and photos. She cheerfully said she would--( The SACS librarian and volunteers will do up to one hour of research for you, for free .Additional staff research is available at $30.00/hr.) Then I drove down there, almost not believing my luck.

I found the library on the third floor of the Anton Wulff House at 107 King William Street. It's a small floor-through facility that feels like a secret hideaway, chock full of microfiche and dusty bound multi-volumes of city directories (since 1877!) and rare books and periodicals (4800 on architectural history alone!). When I got there, Ms. Standifird was at lunch, but a friendly volunteer got my Onderdonk stash for me and left me to peruse it in the reading room, which is a quiet, unpretentious little room with a big-ol table and comfy chair where you can bury yourself in San Antoniana, and nobody hassles you. There are even not one but two clean, historical-style bathrooms in case your San Antonio-nerd excitement gets the better of you.

I sat there and read from books about early Texas painting, about the history of the Witte and its collections, and a book about the Onderdonks containing tons of artwork and some moving and surprisingly interesting letters they'd written to each other. Best of all was a hilarious 1955 profile of Eleanor Onderdonk by San Antonio Light "Society Editor" Claudia Poff. Eleanor was the Witte's art curator for thirty-one years. She tried to drag Depression-era San Anto into the world of modern art, fought for arts funding during WW II, wore awesome hats, never got married, nearly got attacked by a boa constrictor, and was the only female member of the "Men of Art Guild."

My favorite passage in this article is as follows, about the Witte's survival during the Depression:

An English herpetologist came through the country about

that time telling people about snakes...`the museum directors`

decided that people would pay to see them and therefore

started the Reptile Gardens...the idea went over. People paid

to look at the snakes and they also paid to eat them -- you

remember, of course, the rattlesnake steaks -- and that, Miss

Onderdonk says, got the museum through hard times.

(italics mine)

I'd heard of the Reptile Gardens, whose iron gates still stand on the Witte campus...but I do not remember the rattlesnake steaks. Oh, how I wish I remembered the rattlesnake steaks! I'd never heard about the SNAKE MENU AT THE WITTE. And I love the fact that the Dickensian-ly named Claudia Poff, back in 1955, assumed her readership would all share fond Depression-era snake-steak memories. If it weren't for the San Antonio Conservation library, I might never have known.

Here's my favorite moment of my SACS library visit, though. Upon reading about the rattlesnake steaks, I looked up in awe from the article and asked Ms. Standifird and the volunteer whether they knew about them.

"Oh, yes," they said.

Run, don't walk, to the San Antonio Conservation Society Library. Who knows what other crazy stories lurk in there.

They also have a Community Grant Program whose Grant application deadline is this Friday, Sept. 26, 2008 (by 4:30pm). If you live or work in a building that's over fifty years old, go check out the criteria at their website.


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