Robert Hugman had a dream of turning a winding, lazy river, prone to frequent flooding, into the beautiful River Walk that we see today – and he had that dream while living right here in our neighborhood.
Hugman was born February 8, 1902 to a working class couple. His father, Harold, was a carpenter and his mother, Annie, worked for the Social Services & Legal Aid Bureau. The family lived in a rented house at 507 Westfall Avenue in Denver Heights near the intersection of Hackberry Street and the MKT Railroad.
In 1918, Harold, Annie and their three children, 16 year-old Robert, 18 year-old Marguerite and 22 year-old Irene, moved from their house on Westfall to a home of their own in the King William neighborhood. They purchased the 1909 Queen Anne style cottage at 108 Fir Street for $3,700.
In February 1920, 18 year-old Robert graduated from Brackenridge High School where he was an art student of Emily Edwards, a co-founder and first president of the Conservation Society. A few months later, he enrolled in the School of Architecture and Design at UT Austin. He graduated in June 1924 and in the same month married Martha Aurora Smith of Austin. Shortly thereafter, Robert and Martha moved to New Orleans to begin their married life.
Three years later, the family, now with two small children, Robert Harvey, age three and Anne Karin, age one, moved back to San Antonio where Hugman started his architecture practice. They rented the 1920’s, two-story craftsman style house at 503 Madison where they lived for the next three years.
When Robert’s father died in 1932, they moved into the family home at 108 Fir Street. For the next several years, they shared the house with Robert’s widowed mother, Annie, and his sister, Marguerite. According to the 1960 city directory, Robert, by then a widower, was still living there.
It was during the years Robert was living in King William that he formed his idea of what the San Antonio River could become – a linear park system of carefully detailed broad walkways, arched bridges, stairways and boat landings made of locally quarried limestone. He envisioned the river as an urban park with restaurants, shops, cafes and places to live.
Hugman began his river beautification campaign shortly after returning to San Antonio from New Orleans. He is said to have been greatly inspired by the restoration of the Vieux Carre District there. He shared his plan with Amanda Taylor, who chaired the San Antonio Conservation Society River Committee. She was impressed by his vision and persuaded city officials to arrange a meeting to see and discuss his proposals. In June 1929, armed with his finished drawings, Hugman made a formal presentation at Chamber of Commerce headquarters to business, civic and political leaders, including Mayor C. M. Chambers and two city commissioners.
Even though he got an enthusiastic response, it was just the beginning of Hugman’s journey. For the next several years, he took every opportunity to speak to every civic group imaginable. He was like a salesman going door to door talking to businesses, restaurateurs – anyone who would listen to his dream of what he knew the river could become.
Jack White, a local entrepreneur and later mayor of San Antonio finally endorsed Hugman’s original plans and provided the leadership necessary to promote the development of the River Walk. White was able to obtain $75,000 through a bond issue in 1938, which cleared the way for a federal grant of $450,000 through the Works Progress Administration. In December 1938, Hugman was finally hired as architect of the San Antonio River Beautification Project.
In March 1940, Hugman was ignominiously fired from the project that he had conceived and nurtured. Various reasons for his dismissal appeared in the press. It was 30 years before Hugman gave his side of the story. He said that the WPA bookkeeper found evidence of malpractice; materials ordered for the WPA river project were being illegally diverted to Mayor Maverick’s La Villita restoration project that was under construction at the same time. When Hugman blew the whistle, Jack White called a board meeting where Hugman was unanimously fired without a hearing.
In March 1941, the Works Progress Administration signed over the completed River Walk to the City of San Antonio. The San Antonio River Beautification Project was finished. Although Hugman no longer had an official connection with the River Walk development after his dismissal, he remained dedicated to its beautification throughout his lifetime. He continued his private practice of architecture until he was employed by Randolph Air Force Base to design facilities for flight simulators where he worked from 1957 to 1972.
On November 1, 1978, a long overdue ceremony was held in the Arneson River Theatre to honor Robert Hugman for his contribution to the River Walk. In June of this year, a bronze bust of Hugman was installed at river level just outside his old office in the Clifford Building near the Commerce Street Bridge. Hugman died July 22, 1980 at age 78.
Over the years, the River Walk has gone through many changes and improvements – none of which would have happened if Robert Hugman had not had his dream.
- Bill Cogburn
Sources: Michael Carroll, UTSA intern; Vernon Zunker, A Dream Comes True; Lewis F. Fisher, River Walk, the Epic Story of San Antonio's River; Lewis F. Fisher, Saving San Antonio; SAPL Texana Room; photo courtesy of Anne Hugman Robinson