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Atlee Ayres, Architect

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr
Atlee Ayres is the architect most associated with the city of San Antonio. Stroll down any street in downtown, and within a few blocks you'll likely see his name etched on a cornerstone. He was a prolific architect whose designs brought San Antonio into the 20th century while honoring the city's architectural roots.

Atlee Bernard Ayres was born in Hillsboro Ohio on July 12, 1873. The family moved to San Antonio in 1888.

Ayres studied architecture in New York; then spent several years working in Mexico. He developed a fascination for the haunting beauty of Mexican churches, and he fell under the spell of the art and architecture of the Spanish Colonial period.

When he returned home in 1900, the Alamo City was booming. An affluent merchant class had big bucks to spend on residential and commercial projects. It was a perfect storm for a talented young architect.

Ayres designed homes for wealthy San Antonians in the new upscale suburbs of Terrell Hills and Alamo Heights. Although he worked in a variety of styles, he popularized the Spanish Colonial style with its now familiar asymmetrical configuration, arched passageways, white stucco walls, red barrel tile roofs and enclosed patios.

A distinguishing mark of an Atlee Ayres design is a prominent room, often the dining room, skewered at an angle to the main part of the house.
San Antonio TX - Atkinson House, Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum
Atkinson House
Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum
600 New Braunfels Avenue
Photo courtesy Michael Barr, February 2019
One of his more famous designs is the Atkinson House at 600 New Braunfels Avenue - a1929 Spanish Colonial Revival estate today known as the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum. The house is a fitting repository for the Picassos, Cezannes, Gauguins and other priceless treasures inside.

His commercial buildings are among the most prominent structures in San Antonio. Ayres designed the Freeman Coliseum at 3201 East Houston Street and the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium. The original auditorium, built of native limestone in a modified Spanish Colonial style, has been remodeled and expanded into the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

Ayres worked with his son and partner Robert Ayres to design the 35-story Smith-Young Tower, the tallest structure in San Antonio until the Tower of the Americas went up in 1968. The Smith-Young Tower, today the Tower Life Building, is believed to be the only 8-sided neo-gothic skyscraper in the world.

Atlee Ayres designed the Plaza Hotel on St. Mary's Street. He did remodeling projects for the St. Anthony Hotel and the Menger Hotel.
San Antonio TX - Administration Building at Randolph Air Force Base
Administration Building at Randolph Air Force Base
Photo courtesy Michael Barr, February 2019
Many people consider his masterpiece to be the Administration Building at Randolph Air Force Base, often referred to the Taj Mahal. Lt. Harold Clark sketched the original design, but Atlee and Robert Ayres ran with it.

The Taj is one of the most recognizable military buildings in the world. The stately white tower draws the eye toward the clouds while cleverly concealing a 500,000 gallon water tank.

Outside San Antonio Ayres designed courthouses in the Texas Renaissance style for Cameron County, Refugio County, Jim Wells County and Kleberg County. He built a 10-room 2-story house at 425 Water Street in Kerrville for Whitfield Scott Schreiner, grandson of Captain Charles Schreiner.
Kerrville TX - Kerr Regional History Center, Whitfield Scott Schreiner Mansion
Kerr Regional History Center
Whitfield Scott Schreiner Mansion
425 Water Street, Kerrville TX
Photo courtesy Michael Barr, February 2019
As president of the West Texas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Ayres jump started the program to restore the Spanish missions in San Antonio.

Ayres was a member of San Antonio's conservative elite - the source of most of his commissions. He was a founder of the Fiesta Association and its first president. The Menger Hotel hosted his birthday party each year in the colonial dining room.

On his 7 trips around the world he collected shoes from 53 countries.

By the age of 90, Atlee Ayres was the dean of San Antonio Architects and the oldest practicing architect in the country. He died in 1969 in San Antonio at the age of 96.

The San Antonio Light called attention to the oddest memorial to Ayres at the entrance to the old Bexar County Jail on Cameron Street where the names Atlee B. Ayers and Robert M. Ayres, both misspelled (Ayers), are carved in stone.

Few people notice the error. If Atlee Ayres noticed, he never bothered to correct it.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" March 1 , 2019 Column

Robert James Coote, The Eccentric Odyssey of Atlee B. Ayres, Architect, Texas A&M University Press.
"Atlee Ayres, Architect, Dies at 96,"San Antonio Express, November 7, 1969.
"Ayres Honored At Luncheon," San Antonio Light, July 13, 1948.
"Atlee Ayres," San Antonio Light, November 8, 1969.

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