Hot Wells is a San Antonio hotel that was built in the last 19th century and counted as its guests people such as Charlie Chaplin and Teddy Roosevelt.
Since that time the hotel experienced at least five different fires and now all that is left is the bath house, the hotel itself long gone. And even the bath house is now mostly a ruin, with walls that defy gravity and bricks piled everywhere. But despite its rundown appearance, it’s a magical place.
I first visited Hot Wells in 2012, when I was extremely fortunate to get to spend a full day within the ruins and spend the night there (I documented that visit here). Although it’s reputed to be haunted, I didn’t experience any ghost sightings, though the lower two levels gave me the creeps in a big way. Since that time, I became obsessed with the hotel and its history, and have desperately wanted to return. On Sunday, April 3rd, I participated in a caretaker’s tour of the property led by Justin Parr. While on the tour I discovered that it would be the last tour of its kind, as the property is being turned over to the county for construction of a park. We may well have been the final group who was able to walk within the ruins. Knowing that, I am extraordinarily grateful to Justin and to the Hot Wells Conservancy for allowing me one final visit, and the opportunity to better document the structure and surrounding landscape.
In 2013 I wrote my first NaNoWriMo novel, Chasing Mermaids, which ponders what might happen if people can enter each other’s dreams. As evidence of how significant Hot Wells is to me, I decided to set part of the story in a fictionalized version of the hotel, imagining it both as it might have been during the Jazz Age and then as it is today.
Below is a chapter from this work in progress. In it, the protagonist Gigi has recently met this graduate student named Simon. After a very disconcerting date with a man both of them know, Simon takes her to meet his brother, who has taken up residence in “Silver Springs” hotel. (I should also note that in the story, for simplicity’s sake the structure that remains was the hotel itself, not just the bath house. But that’s a minor detail.) This is a work in progress so this chapter may differ from the final published version that I hope to make available in 2017.
Below that, I have a gallery of a handful of the 311 images I took last Sunday.
An excerpt from Chasing Mermaids
The ruins loomed over them.
Hidden behind a thick curtain of oaks was a massive collapsed building, with untethered walls reaching towards the sky in supplication. The building was once a grand affair, but now piles of crumbled bricks served as a reminder of its former splendor. To the left were a handful of walls that stubbornly refused to collapse, and archways that once were doorways but now were nothing more than trellises for masses of fragrant honeysuckle vines. Skyscraper stalks of sunflowers popped out of what might have once been a ballroom that stretched across the center of the building.
It was like something from ancient Greece. Like a forsaken relic from an era long ago, it projected a forlorn example of former elegance and power hidden within its broken facade.
“This is your family’s hotel?” Gigi asked.
“What’s left of it, yes.” Simon took a few steps forward, his feet crunching on gravel. “Look over there,” he said, pointing to a discarded sign identifying the hotel as Silver Springs. It lay broken in two against the trunks of one of the neglected palm trees. He took a closer look at the sign and then raised his eyes to the tops of the trees, three of which had no fronds, as if they had been beheaded. “This used to be a fun place. But now—” he wriggled his shoulders. “It’s pretty creepy, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know if I’d use that word.” Red and black graffiti marred cream-colored bricks that remained upright in a stubborn battle against gravity. “I think it’s kind of cool, like an old castle.” She gazed up at one of the walls that stretched high overhead without anything holding it up. Poison ivy crept across what would have been the ballroom floor, and then up the side of what was once a chimney. “Is that a prickly pear cactus up there?”
He squinted in the direction she pointed. “Huh, sure looks like it. I never noticed that before.”
She was having a hard time taking her eyes from the view. It was unlike anything she had seen before, and she longed to pull out a pad and sketch it. She hoped there’d be time to do that later. “How did it end up this way?”
Like her, he was staring at the structure, though he was frowning. ”There was a fire, or I should say, several of them, over the years. The north wing got the worst of it, as you can see. For a while it was just a gutted building, but another fire before I was even out of high school took out the roof on that side. After that, there wasn’t anyone here to take care of it, and it slowly fell apart.” She realized that while she was fascinated by it, he could only see how much it had deteriorated over the years. He stepped forward to a pair of windows that looked to her like eyes in a face, and opened to the blue sky beyond, the broken tops of the upper story jutting out like spiky hair. “You can still see the charred wood here,” he said as he pointed to the wooden frames. “Most of the wood burned away, but here and there you can still see reminders of the fire.”
While the north half of the hotel looked like a movie set facade, with walls that had nothing behind them, the southern wing was still partially intact, with a roof still intact and capping the third floor. Simon curled a finger in her direction, urging her to join him as he circled around that side of the building, following what appeared to be a well-worn footpath through the weeds that otherwise were waist high.
She gazed up at wide windows that now were mostly covered by sheets of plywood. Then she cast her eyes lower, spotting items scattered throughout the grassy area along the walls. There was a rusted steel drum, a broken old toy wagon, a wooden pallet missing two slats, and a plastic milk crate filled with empty soda bottles. In the tall grass she spied a pair of concrete steps that had been moved from their original location against the building’s foundation and now were backed up against one another, forming a pyramid. A couple of long metal poles rested against the wall, and some dried-out bamboo canes lay stacked on the ground. The trash was random, but seemed to be arranged methodically, as if someone regularly cleaned up the property. They walked up to a makeshift fire pit constructed from bricks that matched the building’s walls, with a rusty metal iron grill leaning to one side. Beside that was a table made from a warped sheet of plywood laying across stacked milk crates, and on its surface were several coffee cans. When Gigi looked inside, one can was half-full of nails, one had an assortment of fast food condiments, and one, remarkably enough, had a roll of toilet paper inside.
They circled around to the rear of the structure, and she gasped at the sight of the pools. The walls for this section had completely collapsed, and three sectioned-off swimming pools, once shiny and filled with crystal clear water, now were filled with dead leaves, dirt and broken limbs. She could still read the stenciled labels on the walls for “Ladies” and “Gents”.
“The famous hot springs,” he announced. “High dives are strictly prohibited,” he added, pointing to the sign that still emblazoned the wall. “So don’t be jumping in, okay?”
She punched him lightly in the arm. “Damn, it looked like that would be so much fun, too.” She kept looking around, and noticed a tree that had grown through a support beam. “So why are we here, anyway? I thought you were taking me to meet your brother.”
He didn’t seem to want to say more than that, so she looked at him, trying to decipher the strange comment. “Is he working on the property?”
“In a manner of speaking.” He pushed aside a willow sapling and then climbed over the threshold of a doorway hovered a couple feet from the ground, since there were no longer steps leading up to it. “Follow me.”
She stared as he disappeared into the darkness. “Are you kidding? Is it even safe to go inside?”
His face reappeared briefly. “Safe enough.” Then he vanished into the belly of the hotel again, and she stood there for a moment looking around, sure she must be crazy for even considering this. Then she raised her right leg to climb over the wall and go inside.
Although it seemed pitch black from the outside, there were in fact just enough windows that weren’t boarded up for her to see where she was going.
Simon was waiting for her beside a ladder. “Ready?”
He climbed up to the second level, and then there were makeshift wooden steps up to the third level. The risers were made from what looked like a combination of new two by fours and recycled wood from pallets, and the juxtaposition of fresh pine with its healthy yellow tone and the weathered gray from the older wood made her hesitate. “I don’t know, Simon. This is really weird.”
“Come on. You can do it.”
Tentatively, she put a foot on the first step, and it seemed solid, so she started to climb, holding onto a makeshift railing on one side, and grabbing onto Simon’s hand when she reached the top. “Why are we doing this again?” she asked, meaning it as a rhetorical question.
“This way.” He pushed open a door made from plywood and helped her climb inside. “Trevor, are you here?”
The windows on this floor had been boarded up, other than two of them on the far side.
She saw the skinny figure standing in the window, facing away from them. The window was tall, probably 5 feet high, and it cast his whole figure in silhouette. He was wearing a dirty hoodie and torn jeans and was hunched over the windowsill, as if watching something outside. “Who’s that? Should he be here?” She whispered to Simon.
Even though she had spoken softly, from all the way across the large room, the man straightened up and snapped around to face them. “What the hell are you doing here?” he shouted, his body falling into an aggressive stance, his legs apart, his hands on his hips. He was ready for a fight.
“Calm down, Trev.” Simon gestured to him by holding out his hands, palms first. “We just want to talk.”
“I don’t have anything to say to you, Simon. And who’s this? You know I don’t want anyone to know I’m here.”
“Simon?” Gigi looked at him, and grabbed his sleeve. “what’s going on? Who is this?”
“It’s my brother.” He took a couple steps forward, holding his hands low, as if trying to suggest he meant no harm. “Trevor, I just wanted to check on you, and introduce you to a friend of mine. This is Gigi.”
Gigi didn’t follow him into the room, instead feeling as though her feet had been nailed to the plywood floor. Instead, she raised her hand to wave, and feebly, said, “hi?”
“What the fuck, Simon?”
Simon approached, one step at a time, as if his brother was a feral animal. “Trevor, I’m just here to help. She’s a friend, and I thought the two of you should meet. She’s been through a rough time the past few days, and I thought you could help her.”
“As if I care,“ Trevor replied. Gigi felt his eyes rake up and down her body, and with each pass she felt he was scouring away her defenses.
“It’s about Andy Jacobs,” Simon said. “I thought maybe—”
Trevor dropped his arms. “Andy?” His voice took on an entirely different tone, it was softer, almost childlike. “He’s still around?”
“Unfortunately. I wanted to tell you the last time, but you wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise. Andy’s pressuring me to sell this hotel.”
His former hostility returned as quickly as it had left. “Just like his dad.”
Simon nodded. “Apparently the Jacobs family hasn’t given up on the property.”
“Or on this family.” Trevor spat onto the plywood floor. “You told him no, right?”
Simon nodded. “Of course. But it’s never that simple.”
“Of course it’s that simple,” Trevor snapped back.” You need to tell that asshole to leave us the fuck alone.” He stared at Gigi, his eyes seeming all the more menacing because of the fraternal trait of heavy eyebrows. “So what’s her story?”
Gigi was still standing on the other side of the room, unable to summon up the courage to join them.
“Come on over, Gigi.” Simon said, waving to her. “His bark is worse than his bite.”
“The hell it is,” Trevor shot back. “You should just take off now, while you still can. You too, Simon.”
“Not happening.” He waved to her again. “It’s okay, I promise.”
Gigi shook her head. She didn’t know what was going on, but this was freaking her out. This guy—this, she couldn’t even think of the right words. Vagrant? Junkie? It was impossible to figure out his story from his filthy appearance, but one thing was for sure—other than the dark eyes, he looked nothing like Simon.
When she didn’t move, Simon walked back over to her. ”I know it’s weird, but I promise it’s okay. Come on over.”
“You didn’t tell me your brother was homeless,” she whispered.
“I’m not homeless.” His words were oozing with indignation. “I’m sure to someone like you it it doesn’t seem like much, but this is my home. Simon, I don’t need you to bring your friends over here to feel sorry for me.”
“Someone—like me? What does that mean?”
“You with your pink hair and trendy clothes. Your folks got you on a trust fund?”
“Are you kidding me? I don’t have money like that.”
“But you’ve got the attitude, don’t you? I can see that do-gooder look about you. Simon, did you really think this would work? There’s nothing she can say to me that will get me to leave. Plus she’s too chickenshit to even try. Just look at her.”
At the force of those words, Gigi took a few steps backwards, until she stood in the doorway. She wasn’t sure what was going on, but she was feeling less and less inclined to find out.
“Trevor, that’s enough. That’s not why she’s here.” For someone who seemed as shy as Simon, the force of his words was breathtaking. Noticing her retreat, he caught her arm. More gently, he entreated, “please don’t go.” He wore a pained expression, as if he were struggling to keep his wits about him. She could tell that dealing with his brother was an ongoing stressor. Why he had brought her here was anyone’s guess, since they scarcely knew each other, but it struck her that between his coursework and shyness, he probably didn’t have many friends.
She was still thinking about the incident with that other homeless guy, Rainbow, and how freaked out she had been after that. And he hadn’t been half as hostile as Trevor was. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Give me a chance. I promise you that there’s a reason I brought you here.”
She glanced back at Trevor, who was still fuming at his brother’s remarks, his arms folded tightly across his chest. She didn’t want him to think he had scared her off, even if deep down she was terrified. With a deep breath, she lifted her feet to move forward—even though each foot felt like it weighed ten pounds—and made her way with Simon across the room.
When they reached the window where Trevor was still standing, Simon introduced her. “Let’s try this again. This is Gigi. She’s an art major at the University. The reason why I brought her out here is that—” he paused, “well, um…”
“What?” Trevor was impatient, and cast his eyes between the two of them, his arms still crossing his chest.
Gigi looked at Simon, and followed his eyes to the roof supports overhead. The wooden beams made Gigi think of the hull of a ship, but upside-down, and she realized they were new, as if someone had been working on renovating this half of the hotel. “Well, until the other night she was dating Andy.”
Trevor flung his arms out. ”Are you shitting me?” he shouted. “You brought his girlfriend here?”
“I’m not—” she began, but then didn’t feel like finishing the statement and let it drop. Instead, she stared down at the floor, to the sheet of plywood that bowed a little under her feet. She didn’t really want to think about Drew at all.
“Trevor, she’s had some problems with him. I thought you could shed some light on what kind of guy he is.”
His brother didn’t waste a moment with his response. “He’s a fucking sociopath, that’s what he is. Just like his whole goddamn family. But what do you want me to do about it?” Trevor stared at Simon, his eyes full of his fury. “I’m not some goddamn caseworker.” Then he turned to her. “Andy’s a bastard. Case closed.”
Simon held his ground. ”I was hoping you could maybe explain what happened when we were kids.”
“Well, sorry to disappoint, but you were wrong. I’m not gonna talk about that asshole to anybody. That’s in the past, and I want it to stay there. Dead and buried. Just like our parents.”
Simon sighed. “Please?” He looked to Gigi. “Maybe if you tell him a little bit about what happened?”
She shook her head. That wasn’t part of the deal.
Trevor laughed, but it was a sinister attempt at humor at Simon’s expense. ”Looks like you screwed up again. She doesn’t want to be here any more than I want her to be. So take her and get the hell out. And don’t be bringing any more of your little friends over to visit.”
“Trev, be reasonable. I really thought it would help…”
“Help with what? You act like I need something. Like you can fix me. I’m not fucking broken. So quit already.”
“Simon, maybe we should just go?” Gigi said.
“Yeah, see? She gets it. Get the hell out.”
“No, dammit. You guys need to talk.”
“I don’t need to do anything, Simon. Can’t you tell she’s freaking terrified anyway?” When he pointed at Gigi, it was as if a dart flew right into her heart. “Give it up already.”
Simon’s face wrinkled up like a wadded up ball of paper, and it looked like he wanted to explode. But when Trevor referred to Gigi, he turned back to her, and he let it go. “Fine.” Deflated, he nodded with his head towards the doorway. “Let’s get out of here.”
[This passage is part of the work in progress Chasing Mermaids and is © 2016 by Jackie Dana.]