Is mys­tery tower artist’s fancy, a mis­take?

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Metro - Re­tired Army Col. Thomas Ty Smith

I was look­ing at the 1891 San An­to­nio Light Birds Eye map of San An­to­nio, and no­ticed in the hills north of Fort Sam Hous­ton (maybe Ter­rell Hills or Alamo Heights), there is a tall tower be­side a large square struc­ture. I have looked at all of the pe­riod maps and can­not fig­ure out what this is. I thought at first it was the tower at Co­manche Look­out

Park, but that was not built un­til 1928. Any ideas?

It looks like a sec­ond Quad­ran­gle — the orig­i­nal rec­tan­gu­lar stor­age and of­fice build­ing with a wa­ter and watch tower built in the late 1870s at Fort Sam Hous­ton is on the map, too — but the sec­ond one is a lit­tle far­ther north of the Army post and set in what ap­pears to be un­de­vel­oped land.

You’re not the only one to be puz­zled by the dop­pel­ganger tower. Weigh­ing in on your ques­tion were some of the heav­i­est hit­ters on the lo­cal­his­tory scene, and they’re also stumped by the un­marked land­mark. De­spite the dou­ble quad­ran­gle, when artist Au­gus­tus Koch was first shop­ping this map around, this news­pa­per’s an­ces­tor had no prob­lem with it. “An en­ter­pris­ing cit­i­zen has re­cently com­pleted a mag­nif­i­cent birds-eye view of San An­to­nio,” re­ported the San An­to­nio Ex­press, Feb. 25, 1891. “The plan of the city and sub­urbs can be dis­tinctly traced and all the prom­i­nent build­ings are shown plainly.”

In a tra­di­tion of itin­er­ant map­mak­ers that goes back to Europe of the 16th and 17th cen­turies, the Ger­man-born Koch brought his craft to this coun­try in time to serve as a drafts­man with a Wis­con­sin in­fantry unit dur­ing the Civil War. Ac­cord­ing to the Vin­tage City Maps site, “He be­gan his bird’s-eye-view ca­reer with a few pic­tures of Iowa cities” dur­ing the late 1860s. From there, he made his way to Texas, whose cities and towns he de­picted for most of the last three decades of the 19th centu- ry.

His 1891 map was an up­date; he al­ready had pub­lished San An­to­nio maps in 1873 and 1886. In be­tween, he trav­eled the state. A list of his works on the web­site of the Amon Carter Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in Fort Worth shows he also was ac­tive in at least 17 other Texas cities, in­clud­ing Austin, Cor­pus Christi, Hous­ton and Galve­ston and smaller towns such as Bas­trop, Bren­ham, Cuero, New Braun­fels and Schu­len­berg. Our city may have been the only one he mapped three times; in 1891, he is thought to have been about 51 years old.

Koch is a man of mys­tery him­self. He was just below the top pro­duc­ers of these maps but seems to have just dropped out of sight. His date of death is not known; the map in ques­tion is one of his later pro­duc­tions.

Koch’s last San An­to­nio map “was pub­lished in a spe­cial is­sue of the San An­to­nio Light in De­cem­ber 1891” as the cen­ter­fold, ac­cord­ing to a sales site, Copano Bay Press Gallery. Read­ers could save and use it or more likely frame it. It’s hard to know what ex­pec­ta­tions they had for its ac­cu­racy, al­though it is stud­ded in the cen­tral city with rec­og­niz­able places, such as “Alamo Plaza planted with palms and the (Alamo’s) Long Bar­rack ‘en­hanced’ with Hugo & Sch­meltzer’s wooden (store) fa­cade.”

Known as “per­spec­tive map­ping,” the prepa­ra­tion for this work was de­mand­ing, tak­ing “a vast amount of painstak­ingly de­tailed la­bor,” stated an un­signed ar­ti­cle, “The His­tory of Bird’s Eye View Maps,” on the Vin­tage City Maps site. “The artist gath­ered up any ex­ist­ing sur­veys and plat maps and then walked in the streets, sketch­ing build­ings, trees and other fea­tures to present a com­plete and ac­cu­rate land­scape.”

So … if Koch walked all the way up to the north­ern­most reaches of the city and saw a tower next to a much lower, squar­ish build­ing, what was he look­ing at?

The rest of his map in this area is sub­stan­tially true to the area and might hold some clues. “The line go­ing from the tower to the lower right gen­er­ally fol­lows the old Tilden Street,” notes John Man­guso, au­thor of “The Quad­ran­gle” and re­tired di­rec­tor of the Fort Sam Hous­ton Mu­seum. “The build­ing at the left edge above Fort Sam is the Cun­ning­ham House. So, the tower is along Tilden Street and some dis­tance north of Wil­son Street. Tilden stopped at the reser­voir, around John Street, which is now ap­prox­i­mately Funston Place. That puts the tower near the reser­voir,” a then-open reser­voir that was part of G.W. Brack­en­ridge’s wa­ter sys­tem and is now the am­phithe­ater at the San An­to­nio Botan­i­cal Gar­den.

Be­cause of the el­e­va­tion, higher than at Fort Sam, Man­guso pos­tu­lates that, “A wa­ter tower would be use­ful in main­tain­ing wa­ter pres­sure in wa­ter mains lead­ing (from the reser­voir) to other parts of town.” When he checked pho­tos of the area taken in the early years of the 20th cen­tury, how­ever, none showed any­thing that looked like the tower drawn by Koch.

In 1891, the year the map was pub­lished, the wa­ter works was go­ing in an­other di­rec­tion. “That was the year Brack­en­ridge drilled the first large Ed­wards (Aquifer) well for mu­nic­i­pal supply,” said Gregg Eck­hardt, cu­ra­tor of the Ed­wards Aquifer web­site. “They were go­ing straight to dis­tri­bu­tion, no tow­ers.” The city’s first wa­ter tower was built in 1925, just north of Hilde­brand Av­enue, be­tween Shook Av­enue and Devine Street, he said, cit­ing a story in the City Wa­ter Board’s news­let­ter, the Wa­ter Log, May 1965, which refers to “the city’s first el­e­vated stor­age reser­voir.” Taken down in 2008, Eck­hardt said, “It was a round tank on legs, very dif­fer­ent from the rec­tan­gu­lar tower in ques­tion.”

Koch’s pre­vi­ous San An­to­nio map, pub­lished in 1886, “es­sen­tially ends at Fort Sam, though it does look north to show some scat­tered houses,” said Maria Wat­son Pfeif­fer, au­thor of sev­eral nom­i­na­tions to the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places and a for­mer city parks his­to­rian, who has done a re­port on the his­tory of the area, in­clud­ing the reser­voir, and “didn’t find any ev­i­dence of a tower.”

Also con­sulted were In­sti­tute of Texan Cul­tures photo cu­ra­tor Tom Shel­ton and in­de­pen­dent re­searcher and lo­cal photo his­to­rian David Haynes, co-au­thor with Pfeif­fer of “The His­tor­i­cal Nar­ra­tive of San Pe­dro Creek,” as well as a few oth­ers — none of whom could iden­tify what’s be­gin­ning to look more and more like a fairy-tale tower. This may be, said one of them, “the first time these col­lec­tive minds have run up against a brick wall.”

Al­though it’s not other­wise a “Here be dragons” kind of fan­ci­ful map, “It seems pos­si­ble that the map­maker might throw in a fake fea­ture way off in the back­ground just for fun,” said San An­to­nio Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety Li­brar­ian Beth Stan­di­fird, “es­pe­cially since peo­ple at the time had lim­ited means of mag­ni­fi­ca­tion.”

Or maybe Koch was just hav­ing a bad day and needed to move on to the next town, the next pile of plats and the next news­pa­per pay­day.

The mys­tery tower may have been noth­ing more than “the artist’s first im­pres­sion of the Quad­ran­gle, in­cor­rectly drawn and mis­tak­enly placed,” Haynes pro­posed. “When the artist re­al­ized his mis­take, he just left it on the edge of the (map) and drew the Quad­ran­gle in cor­rectly, rather than re­draw­ing the whole thing. I mean, it’s way up in the cor­ner, way out of town; who the hell would ever no­tice?”

Any­one who can ex­plain Koch’s ex­tra Quad­ran­gle may con­tact this col­umn. All re­sponses will be for­warded and may be fea­tured in a fu­ture col­umn.

Cour­tesy re­tired Army Col. Thomas Ty Smith

Mys­tery sur­rounds the tower at the top of artist Au­gus­tus Koch’s map that was pub­lished in 1891 in the San An­to­nio Light.


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