Robert Harvey Harold Hugman was a native San Antonio. Born in 1902, he graduated from Brackenridge High School and went on to the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1924 he and his bride moved to New Orleans, where he was struck with the city’s exploitation of its French heritage. Three years later he returned to open an architecture practice in San Antonio, which he thought could better emphasize its Spanish heritage. His office was near the River Park, which he believed needed substantial enhancement.
Hugman came up with his basic River Walk plan in 1929 and lobbied for eight years until hotelier Jack White picked up the cause, got Hugman hired and started the process which led to the River Walk’s completion in 1941. However, Hugman’s refusal to compromise on some of his nontraditional stonework elements had led to his dismissal a year earlier. His work never again rose to that level of creativity. He ended his career as an architect at Randolph Air Force Base, and died in 1980.
Following Robert Hugman’s dismissal as River Walk architect in 1940, the project was completed the following year substantially as Hugman had planned but without additional stonework he had intended. World War II shifted attention elsewhere. The postwar years brought none of the commercial development Hugman had envisioned. Undeveloped, often ramshackle backs of buildings adjoining the River Walk gave a derelict air to the surroundings. The River Walk was usually deserted and became so dangerous it was declared off limits to military personnel.
Awareness of the uniqueness of the River Walk increased in 1952, when the San Antonio Conservation Society opposed, unsuccessfully, a low bridge across the River Walk to a parking garage at St. Mary’s School of Law. Businessman David Straus began advocating commercial development. The Chamber of Commerce hired developers of Disneyland to develop a plan that also riled citizens. Its defeat in 1962 led to River Walk design restrictions that influenced the successful development soon sparked by two new hotels opened along the River Walk for HemisFair ’68, San Antonio’s World’s Fair. The offending low bridge from 1952 was removed.
With pedestrian traffic assured by the new hotels, River Walk development increased after HemisFair to the point that too much success grew into an issue. An important element of debate became how to keep the presence of chain developments from overwhelming the less uniform appearance of local enterprises. The River Walk was lengthened by two extensions of the extension already built to the new convention center at the time of HemisFair. To the north, construction of a lock in 2009 enabled boats to continue along a newly landscaped 1.3 mile stretch of the San Antonio River to open to the north. Construction got under way to the south to erase the effects of a concrete flood control channel and return the river to a natural state. Hike-and-bike trails reaching to the most distant of the city’s five Spanish missions will incorporate the River Walk into what is becoming an overall 13-mile linear park—unique in the nation—to be completed in 2013.