Sleeping in the big house

Bexar County's old, old jail, built in 1878 and remodeled in 1911, originally housed 86 inmates. Today, the structure has been transformed into the Comfort Inn Alamo/Riverwalk, with 82 beds. The original building cost a little over $34,000, and the new owners have spent approximately $6 million to convert it into an attractive hotel in the City's downtown business district. (Photo by Michael Cary)

San Antonio visitors 'booked' into old county jail

During lunch at the old Bexar County jail one day in 1962, the "desperate" prisoners on the fifth floor of the old jail, and the less-desperate inmates on the fourth floor, were served stew and potatoes, apparently for the umpteenth time. Approximately 133 of the jail's inmates protested and demanded that they be served fried eggs.

They were told, "Short orders are not permissible," and a riot ensued. Prisoners piled mattresses on the floor and set fire to them. Sheriff Hauck sprayed the inmates with fire hoses, and ultimately fired a couple of wax bullets into the raucous jailbirds, quelling a disturbance that lasted for two hours.

"This is no darn hotel," Hauck said after the riot. "If they don't like the meals we serve here, they can go somewhere else." The sheriff put the instigators of the riot on a bread and water diet, and made inmates who had burned their mattresses do without new ones for several days.

Oddly, Hauck's comment has proved to be somewhat ironic.

The jail, located a half-block from City Hall, reopened Friday, November 26, as the City's newest, 82-bed Comfort Inn Alamo/Riverwalk, part of a chain of hotels operated by Alamo City Hotels.

In September 1962, local newspapers reported that 1,300 Bexar County citizens attended a grand opening, or housewarming, party at the new city-county jail. Then-sheriff Bill Hauck said the opening of the new jail at Nueva and Laredo streets was a step forward in law enforcement in Bexar County. "No one appreciates this new jail more than I do."

In the middle of the night, Hauck and deputies moved 328 murderers, robbers, thieves, and lesser criminals from the old county jail at 120 Camaron Street to the new facility four blocks away. The first meal served in the jail was stewed apples, sweet rolls, butter, and coffee - a far cry from the boiled bologna that had crept onto the jail menu by the late '70s.

The new jail was the third such facility in Bexar County's history since the Republic of Texas was established. Prisoners who weren't hanged immediately upon arrest were housed in the basement of what locals called the Bat Cave, also used for county and city government business. It was torn down after a new five-story, $34,000, 86-bed jail was erected in 1878.

Of course the new, now old, jail on Nueva Street, built for 707 beds, was overwhelmed soon enough, and there were inmates sleeping on the floor until the new Bexar County jail opened at its present location on Comal Street in 1988. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards deemed the new jail out of compliance with inmate population requirements in 2003, and county commissioners have struggled since then to maintain a population at 90 percent of its maximum capacity of 4,154.

Meanwhile, visitors to the old Camaron Street jail can still see the containment bars on the building's windows. Designed by architect Alfred Giles and built in 1878, it has a lot of windows since there was nothing like air conditioning in those days. Counties in Texas were charged with carrying out executions of prisoners until the 1920s, and the old jail was fitted with a trap door gallows between the second and third floors.

But such maudlin details haven't put a damper on reservations, says Omar Guevara, director of operations for Alamo City Hotels, who recently conducted a tour of the renovated prison. "Guests have been thrilled about getting 'booked' into a room. Our desk clerks joke with the guests about being in jail. They tell them 'You're our prisoner for the evening.'"

Alamo City Hotels has spent about $6 million on the conversion. The building's original structure and basic design was preserved during reconstruction. Bars that prevented inmates from escaping through the jail's many windows along the sides of the building were cut to meet fire code requirements, but the bars remain in place on the front façade and backside facing South Flores Street a half-block away.

The owner added a heated swimming pool and hot tub in a side parking lot, and the hotel features valet parking, Internet and cable TV, refrigerators and microwaves in each room, a breakfast area (no stew and potatoes), and a business office just off the lobby, which was built to resemble an old-style police booking station.

Nathan Villarreal, director of sales for Alamo City Hotels, says they are searching for old photos of the jail and historical information to display in the lobby of the new hotel, to apprise guests of the building's place in the City's history. "We are right here in what was the apex of life in San Antonio."

By Michael Cary

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