History of the Cactus
 
 
 

The Hotel Cactus (originally the Hilton Hotel) of 1928 is one of the best preserved of the original Hilton hotels. Since then its fourteen-story buff-brick tower, capped with a red mission-tile roof, has served as a familiar regional landmark. For almost six decades its interior spaces have been hubs of activity for generations of west Texans. The tastefully blended colors and details of the building reflect Architect Anton Korn's sensitivity to both formal classical references and Southwestern regional influences.

The Hotel Cactus demonstrates highly refined principles of Renaissance palace design with a clearly defined base, shaft, and capital. The heavily rusticated base of cast- stone encloses the ground level and mezzanine, provides continuity with store fronts along Oakes and Twohig streets, and visually anchors the hotel tower. At these elevations, east and south respectively, the ground-floor commercial spaces open onto the sidewalks through 8' x 10' glass store- fronts. A gray granite plinth, varying in height from l0 in. to 3 feet 7 inches, runs along the ground plan for the entire length of the south and east elevations, tying the horizontal courses of rustication to the gradual slope of the sidewalk. The carefully proportioned buff-brick shaft of the tower (with a width-to-height ratio of 1:1 on the south and north, and 1:2.3 ratio on the east and west) is highlighted by additional cast-stone beltlines at the fifth and fourteenth floors, brick quoins, eight-over-eight window sashes, and cast-stone balusters and crests inscribed with "Hilton Hotel." A prominent pressed-metal cornice and red mission-tile hipped roof terminate the tower at a height of 165 feet, excluding the additional height of a neon sign reading "Hotel Cactus" (originally "Hilton Hotel") which runs the entire length of the ridge.

The basement, first floor, and mezzanine each occupy about 16,875 total square feet, while the floors (3-15) consist of roughly 6250 total square feet. The 125' x 50' footprint of the tower meets the 125' x 135' footprint of the three lower floors at the southwest corner, south elevation, and southeast corner. The entire building is supported on a rigid concrete frame organized around a repeated 11' x 15' bay with slight variations. Pan joists running north and south support concrete floor slabs at each level. Interior partitions in the lower three floors consist of 4" structural clay tiles faced with plaster. Light-weight 3" plastered gypsum blocks form the interior partitions in the tower floors. Floor-to-ceiling heights measure 8' 11" in the basement, 12' 3" on the ground floor, 9' 3" on the mezzanine, and 8' 8" on each tower floor.

Circulation, potentially a problem in such a large facility, has become a positive feature in the form of the grand lobby. Its location at the building's center permits circulation through the ground floor and mezzanine virtually without corridors. The usual problem with internal lobbies is their lack of day-lighting. The two-story Cactus lobby receives natural light via a 22' by 34' skylight directly above, set into the roof of the mezzanine floor. The difficulty with a skylight in this region, especially such a large one, is its vulnerability to the searing west Texas sun. Anton Korn solved this problem by locating the fourteen- story tower directly to the south of the lobby, eliminating direct sunlight on the skylight except in the early morning and late afternoon. Inside the hypostyle lobby a variety of details suggests a blend of southwestern, neo-classical, and even Byzantine influences. Blue-green, red, and gold plaster ornamentation on ceiling beams and column capitals complement the generous use of blue-green, yellow, gold, tan, and terra-cotta glazed tiles at the column bases and in the floor and wains coating. Other details include oak and mahogany casework, wooden ceiling beams with decorative stenciling, brass chandeliers and handrails, and bronze castings--all viewed in softly diffused gilded light. Retail businesses such as a barber shop, drug store, cafe and kitchen, Western Union office, and a stock brokerage firm originally opened into the grand lobby.

The basement provided space for most of the mechanical systems and locker rooms for the building's staff. However, a fine public space use to be located on this level directly below the grand lobby. The English pub room provided an "old world" atmosphere for gambling, drinking, game-playing, and entertainment. An article from the San Angelo Standard-Times (April 29,1979) recounts an early description of this room: "Decorated in the style of English club houses, the `basement clubroom' had oak beamed ceilings with white plaster walls upon which were hung pictures of English hunting scenes. The floor was covered with alternating black and white terrazzo tiles with brass fillings. At one end of the room there was a large fireplace of local fieldstone which was a replica of continental wayside inn fireplaces. Graceful supporting arches divided the room which was furnished with deep divans, Windsor chairs, a morocco- leather covered game table, bridge and domino tables, buffets, and sideboards...."

A series of spaces for galas and public events highlight the mezzanine level. The mezzanine balcony surrounds the grand lobby and provides circulation to the crystal ballroom (originally the Marie Antoinette room), a cavalcade of period rooms, hotel suites, and a lounge opposite the grand ceremonial stair descending into the lobby. The 32' x 84' 6" crystal ballroom features Renaissance Revival detailing beneath a 20-foot-high vaulted ceiling. Plaster detailing and stenciling, original oil paintings set into penditives above arched windows 15 feet tall, crystal chandeliers and sconces, and maple strip flooring all combine to create elegance in this room which belies the harshness of the west Texas landscape. Period furnishings originally accommodated banqueting and socializing in the Marie Antoinette room. Other rooms were also executed with thematic decor. Raised paneling and plaster detailing established a Spanish atmosphere in one room while a sparsely decorated men's smoker and pool room also occupied space on the mezzanine level.

The south and north orientation of the tower allows ease of cross ventilation through 4' x 5' single-hung windows and transoms above hotel room doors. Within the tower itself the strategic location of plumbing chases permits maximum spatial efficiency with back-to-back bathrooms forming a wet core which separates the suites from the central corridor.

The tower use to support 250 rooms and 250 baths as originally billed in the Hilton Hotel advertising. Rates for these distinguished rooms ranged from $2.00 to $3.00. The hotel in general incorporated state-of-the-art amenities and conveniences including individual room baths, air- conditioning at public spaces, three high-speed elevators, room intercom service, chilled water to room baths, and of course the Hilton Minimal Logo (minimum rates and maximum service). A typical hotel floor had twenty single rooms and was served by two passenger elevators and one elevator. The elevator lobby and central corridor received daylight from windows at each end and were carpeted in floral patterns. A typical room had about 120 square feet of space excluding closets and bathrooms which featured colored glazed tile, enameled pedestal sinks and gravity ventilation. Each room was individually decorated with period furnishings and wallpapers, and featured ceiling moldings and mahogany doors and transoms.

Steel trusses freely spanning the 50-feet tower width support the hipped, red, mission-tile roof. The naturally ventilated attic contained within this roof allows access to all plumbing chases and ventilation shafts, and contains water reservoirs, the elevator penthouses, and additional mechanical and electrical equipment.

The Hilton Hotel (one of the original Conrad Hilton hotels), later to be renamed the Hotel Cactus, still stands as the tallest building in San Angelo. Stretching fourteen stories into the west Texas sky, it is visible from fifteen miles. The mission-tile, hipped roof and stately brick tower have served almost six decades as a familiar reference point and historic landmark. The elegant interior offered unrivaled spaces for many of San Angelo's important meetings, receptions, balls, and other public gatherings. The Downtown Men's Bible class, for instance, met here for some 53 years uninterrupted until the recent temporary closing. Today the Hotel Cactus still stands as one of the best preserved original Hilton Hotels.

The development of this hotel involved several men, including Hilton, H.H. Hale, and the architect-master builder, Anton F. Korn. Mr. Hale was a prominent lumber yard owner from San Angelo and evidently played a key role in the property acquisition and project financing. Mr. Korn, the project architect and master builder, provided the most significant input into this classical structure. Korn, an architect trained in the classical styles,, contributed to the architectural environment of San Angelo and throughout Texas. First based in Galveston and later in Dallas, Korn designed many prominent structures independently and with Hilton in San Angelo. He was responsible for the San Angelo National Bank (1928; listed in the National Register, 1983), Tom Green County Courthouse, and several fine larger homes overlooking the Concho River.

The Hotel Cactus completes the trio of historic public buildings Korn designed in San Angelo. The Cactus demonstrates Korn's skill as a designer in two ways. First of all it represents a unique blend of southwestern motifs with classical forms, spaces, and details. This successful combination provided for San Angelo a highly efficient hotel plant within an elegant building appropriate to its West Texas setting. Second, it allowed Korn to exercise his talents above and beyond the requirements of textbook styles, which he clearly leaned upon in his designs for the San Angelo National Bank and the Tom Green County Courthouse. Unlike these two buildings, the programmatic requirements for a high-rise hotel are not singular and pure but multiple and hybrid. A hotel is less serious but more complex than a courthouse. Korn recognized this fact and it shows most clearly in the grand lobby on the ground floor. The lobby is more than a circulation hub serving the hotel desk and offices, commercial spaces to the south and east, restaurants to the west, service zones to the north, and the tower's elevator core. It is also the building's public open space, analogous to the town square at the urban scale or the living room at the domestic scale. Like the ballroom, the pub room, and the other period rooms in the hotel, the lobby conveys a strong sense of the dramatic. The axial relationships of the entrances to the ceremonial stair and concierge station reinforce this theatrical backdrop, as does the light-and-color of the space. Indeed, the lobby provides a welcome, even fanciful, escape from the harsh west Texas climate.

Another important fact which Korn understood about this building was the status as a landmark. Visible from near and far with its tallest, southeast corner sitting directly on the northwest corner of the intersection at Twohig and Oakes streets, the Cactus is also monumental, but not in the same sense as the courthouse. Instead of detaching the Cactus from the street with a lawn or plaza, Korn retained maximum exposure for storefronts by bringing the building right up to the property line. In so doing, he recognized the reality of the marketplace, the sidewalk, and the street without forcing the Cactus to assume more importance than it is due.

In addition to the aforementioned architectural treasures, the special events and daily activities occurring within the Hotel offered as rich a setting as its physical presence. Steer riding in the grand lobby during rodeo week, deal making by oil men and cattlemen in the smoker, high- stakes gambling in the English pub room, and wedding showers and other civic galas in the crystal ballroom all form an intriguing legacy for generations of west Texans. "The Cactus is a place where the history of a region was focused, a place where wealth changed hands and love was consummated and dice were rolled and hymns were sung. In this it resembles, oddly, some ancient ruin with a far grander history than the Cactus could claim, a place where marble columns lie broken in the grass. There, as here, you stand beside the ancient stones and listen in the wind for the whispers of their ghosts." (Gregory Curtis, "Behind the Lines",, Texas Monthly, September 1983, p., 8).

After almost 35 years in use as a hotel by Hilton Hotels and later under National Hotels (Moody Foundation) control, the Baptist Convention of Texas utilized the structure as a geriatric center until the spring of 1983. In August of 1983, Kim Alan Williams, A.I.A. and B. W. Alpha, Inc. acquired the structure with the intent of creating a mixed-used urban center that would include hotel suites, offices, apartments, restaurants, retail areas, meeting space, and athletic club.

Today the Hotel Cactus stands in remarkably original condition. With the exception of limited deterioration, mechanical system obsolescence, and a few historic elements painted over, the outstanding original design and details demand pure restoration, and indeed the current program of restoration and reuse will make it possible for the Grand Ole Gal's legacy to be revived again and continued.

MAJOR BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES:

Clemens, Gus. The Concho Country. San Antonio: Mulberry Ave.
Books, 1931.

Curtis, Gregory. "Behind the Lines," Texas Monthly.
September, 1983. pp. 5-8.

Kelton, Elmer, Farm and livestock columnist for the San Angelo Standard-Times. Letter to Wayne Daniel, Fort Concho Librarian/Archivist. March 24, 1984.

Kimbrough, Ann (niece of Anton Korn). Letter concerning Architect Anton F. Korn, on file with the The Williams Co., Austin, Texas. November 1983. "Landmark's Splendor Still Visible." San Angelo Standard-
Times. April 29, 1979.

Ruff, Ann. A Guide to Historic Texas Inns and Hotels. Houston: Lone Star Books, 1982.

http://atlas.thc.state.tx.us/shell-county.htm

 
 
   
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