There are five Missions in San Antonio. The most famous is the Alamo and my favourite is Espada, but all are captivating. Looking at their bright white facades one could be forgiven for forgetting that they were originally decorated – as author William Corner wrote of one in 1890: ‘[It] must have been very gorgeous with color for it was frescoed all over with red and blue quatrefoil crosses and with large yellow and orange squares to simulate dressed stones.’
‘Gorgeous with colour’ could also describe a book that I have been reading on the old tile workshops of San Antonio. The revival of decorate tile making was made possible thanks to financing under President Roosevelt’s New Deal and a Texan called Ethel Harris. Two of the tile workshops were based for more than thirty years at Mission San José. This is the most complete of all the Missions with its handsome dome, arches and intricate carved stonework, and its granary and Indian quarters and restored mill. After its extensive restoration in the 1930s it became a State Park and Ethel Harris would not only manage the tile making but also become park warden, moving into the Mission itself as supervisor. What a wonderful life that must have been.
The red clay used to make the tiles came from San Antonio and was carefully selected by Harris, who hired talented high school student Fernando Ramos to create the designs. Ramos drew scenes such as fiestas, Mexican villages, Texas ranch life and marine life of the Gulf coast. He was also a wonderful Flamenco dancer who would sometimes display his dance skills to tourists at the Mission.
Armed with my book, I recently returned to the Mission with Ethel Harris in mind. I imagined the sheep grazing on the grass and the peacocks she brought there, the workers moulding, designing and glazing the pottery pieces, visitors turning up at the granary shop, Fernando Ramos and his partner performing a dance show, the cook preparing tortillas outside… When the last tile factory closed in the 1970s, Ethel Harris eventually moved out of the Mission prefecture into a tile-filled house on the Mission grounds, designed for her by her architect son. I was at first unable to locate her house so I entered a small shop where a Franciscan monk was selling handmade glassware. I asked if he’d heard of Ethel Harris and he said he hadn’t so I opened my book to show him a picture of her house and immediately he pointed me in the right direction. Before leaving the shop I complimented the monk on his glassware, then said, ‘Did you know there was once tile making in this Mission?’ He replied, with a surprised look, ‘No I didn’t…How marvellous!’
Her house was closed to the public but by climbing over a small barrier I managed to catch a glimpse through a kitchen window of a row of tiles with her trademark maguey, or century plant, design. Not far away was a small amphitheatre that she had had constructed for the performance of traditional Mexican plays, or pastores; I assumed its onate wrought-iron gates had been made by the German metal artisan and his son whom she employed to build tables and other items in which to display the tiles. (She also employed a former cowboy who previously had branded cattle, turning his skills to branding workshop items instead.)
Surrounded by palmetto palms and with the sound of birdsong in my ears I later followed a narrow path for three-quarters of a mile to the Riverwalk. The construction of San Antonio’s Riverwalk began in the Downtown area in the 1940s and murals of the San José tiles are displayed at various locations along it. Other tile murals still exist in a sports stadium, a high school, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, the patio of the Menger Hotel near the Alamo and in various private ranches. Sadly, many have been lost or destroyed over the years.
Mike and I were in an antique shop recently and my attention was caught by a single tile in a locked cabinet bearing the image of a sleeping Mexican under his sombrero and with a wrought iron mounting. Due to the tile’s thickness and beautiful glazes, I was positive it was a San José tile. I asked the shop owner how much it was but she said it was not for sale.