Public plaza at San Antonio’s Pearl, an urban re-use neighborhood

Pearl mixed-use development

The old Pearl Brewery in San Antonio might have been razed, once its brewing days were over. Instead its century-old manufacturing buildings have been transformed into restaurants and even a boutique hotel and embraced by walkable streets lined with shops and apartment buildings. Public green spaces throughout the development invite one to sit and people-watch.

We visited Pearl one afternoon just before Christmas, after reading about it on Rock-Oak-Deer blog, and enjoyed a delicious dinner at Southerleigh. (Afterward we strolled the River Walk to see the holiday lights.) Pearl was lively with shoppers and diners and utterly charming with its restored old buildings, recycled industrial materials, and lush South Texas-style landscaping.

The main plaza, which sits in the shadow of the old brewery, feels European with cafe seating on a gravel “floor,” under a grid of new-planted trees that will one day provide welcome shade. Until then, umbrellas and an industrial-mesh arbor do the trick.


Notice that the plaza trees are not ghettoed off into circular beds of mulch but are planted cleanly in the floor of the plaza itself. I love this look. Board-formed concrete planters filled with agaves, palmettos, and bamboo muhly grass soften the expanse of gravel and lightly screen seating areas from each other.


Under the arbor, vines climb each metal post, trained on long sections of encircling rebar. Unlike the trees, they are set off in circular beds, probably because their more delicate stems require protection from people stepping on them.


I adore this industrial-chic arbor, which sparkles with twinkle lights in the evening. Hanging can lights provide additional illumination…


…and two Big Ass fans cool the space in warmer seasons.


Industrial relics from the old brewery are incorporated into the plaza, as well as throughout the development.


A closer view


I wonder what these used to be?


Designed by Austin’s own Christine Ten Eyck, Pearl’s landscaping is lush with dwarf palmettos, grasses, and other mostly native Texas plants. Drought- and heat-tolerant exotics like purple heart aren’t shunned either.


Bougainvillea, its flower-like bracts still colorful a few days before Christmas, climbs an industrial-mesh screen.


Pearl’s irrigation, I read, uses only wastewater from the buildings’ cooling towers, and the landscaping needs just one-fifth the water a typical commercial landscape would require. Rain gardens like this one keep runoff out of the city’s wastewater system and use plants to filter pollutants.


This sunken patio offers outdoor seating for diners at one of the restaurants.


An aqueduct runs from an old silo (now used for water storage?) across one side of the plaza and empties — when the water’s running; it was off during our visit — down a chain into a tiered fountain. I enjoyed the clever re-use of industrial materials to create a new version of a traditional Spanish courtyard fountain.


It must be pleasant to sit here on warmer days, with the fountain playing its cooling music.


The Culinary Institute of America is located here, but even so it was a surprise to see lettuces growing in old brewery tanks placed like window boxes along the campus building.

Pearl is located on the north end of the River Walk Hike & Bike Path. A 3-mile stroll along the San Antonio River takes you to the main River Walk downtown, or you can grab a water taxi and just enjoy the ride. Or maybe you won’t leave Pearl at all, but just sit in the plaza and enjoy the scene.

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Remember the Alamo for Christmas lights in San Antonio


We rolled down I-35 to San Antonio on Monday afternoon to see the famous Christmas lights along the River Walk. Naturally, we remembered the Alamo and made that our first stop.


A grand tree alight with clusters of colored bulbs and cascading ribbons, bedecked with oversized San Antonio Spurs ornaments, stood in the plaza in front of the Alamo. Surrounding live oaks, like ladies-in-waiting, glowed with long, draping strings of white lights.


A closer looks shows the basketballs and Spurs ornaments on the tree.


The Alamo itself, as befitting an historical shrine, was washed with light and adorned simply, with only a festive wreath on its door.


A quick stroll across the street and down a flight of stairs took us to the city’s famous River Walk: a magical underworld of bald cypress-lined sidewalks packed with cafe seating for the many restaurants, hotels, and shops built along the San Antonio River, which flows through downtown. For the holidays, colored strands of lights hang like beaded curtains from the majestic trees, and tourist boats motor slowly beneath them.


The lights were beautiful, but the sidewalks were very crowded, and I confess I got a bit Grinchy before we’d walked very far — in single-file, unable to talk to each other because it was so packed.


The thing to do, I imagine, would be to come early and grab a cafe table along the river, and just people-watch over a Tex-Mex dinner. Or come late for a romantic stroll with your honey. I’ll know next time. It really is quite beautiful.


I leave you with this final image of holiday lights, and I wish you all the peace and joy of the season, dear reader. See you again after Christmas!

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Alpha males along Buffalo Bayou: Tolerance sculptures by Jaume Plensa


When she runs along Houston’s newly scenic Allen Parkway, my sister passes a septet of sculptures that she loves. They’re peaceful, she explained, as she asked if I’d photograph them for her during my visit last weekend. Early last Saturday, we headed over to Buffalo Bayou Park, at the intersection of Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard, to view Tolerance, seven kneeling aluminum figures by Barcelona artist Jaume Plensa.


Each 10-foot-tall figure is made up of random assemblages of alphabets from languages spoken around the world, including Korean, Greek, Hindi, and English. While I’m not keen on the work’s didactic title, as the morning light shone through the lace-like bodies and glinted off the silver metal, I appreciated their appeal. In a way, it’s about making light and the sky a part of the art itself, like James Turrell’s Skyspace, which we’d visited earlier that morning.


The seven figures represent the seven continents and, according to the City of Houston website, reflect “the artist’s belief that, whatever culture we live in and whichever language we think in, our lives are similar.” It’s a hopeful message for our time, especially in light of yesterday’s devastating massacre in Paris.


I’d like to go back and see them at night, when they’re lit from within.

I’d also like to see the Plensa sculptures on the Rice University campus, titled Mirror. I was on campus the day before, and the gleaming sculptures caught my eye — they’re new since my days at Rice — but I didn’t have a chance to view them up close. So it was a fun surprise when my sister showed me this work, and I immediately recognized it as the work of the same artist.

Speaking of art at Rice, I also caught a glimpse of painted-book sculptures by Mike Stilkey in Fondren Library. I recently encountered a fabulous Stilkey piece at the home of Joy and Roland Feuer in Los Angeles. Clearly I need a return trip to Houston and to Rice for a day of art appreciation!

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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