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Forgotten San Antonio

Dr. Aureliano Urrutia's Gates

San Antonio, Texas

Text and Photos by Walt Lockley
Dr. Aureliano Urrutia Gates San Antionio Texas

Dr. Aureliano Urrutia Founded This Institution 1921

San Antonio is a fabulous destination. You should really go, at some point. The place is extraordinarily pretty at Christmas, with colored lights strung in the live oak trees lining the Riverwalk, in the relaxed semi-Colonial air. If you're after a hotel, I'd recommend the Plaza San Antonio, with great service and peacocks strutting around on its croquet lawns. As a casual tourist you'll be dazzled by this romantic atmosphere - and the history, and the music, the food, my God. It's an easy city to love.

Ridiculously easy.
Dr. Aureliano Urrutia Gates tile fountain San Antionio Texas
Handpainted tile fountain at the former estate's main gate.
As a tourist, though, you're going to get the (correct) sense of missing something important. The San Antonio of the Mercado and the Cathedral buzzes with the street energy of a foreign capital. This is a city of badly-kept secrets and in some ways it's a puzzling, fractured place. You'll pick up vibes all over the place, especially if you're sensitive to architectural remnants and half-erased shapes.... as a casual tourist, sadly, you're going to miss the best part. Unless you have somebody to talk to.

San Antonio really needs to be told, not just shown. (Is this going to be on-topic? Yup. Admittedly it's going to be a long story, but it's going to wrap around and all make sense. This IS a travel piece. I swear.)

So if you and I were down there for Christmas at the same time, I'd kidnap you and drive you up Broadway from downtown, one of my favorite stretches of road. We'd park on the small asphalt triangle of Earl Able's parking lot at Broadway and Hildebrand, north of downtown, and look west across this frantic intersection. (Earl Able's is a tiny, rounded Art Moderne diner and landmark, with corny slogans on the walls, and pie. You want some pie?)

Across the street is an early 60's-style office building on the corner property. All back behind it, stretching out to the southwest, see, all the way back west to 281, and all south along Broadway, is the gorgeous live-oak-and-stone-bridge wonderland of Brackenridge Park. All that dark forest is the big urban park, with the zoo, the mini railroad, all those cool things.

If you look behind the rear parking lot of that office building, though, there's a small fenced area that looks like a neglected, overgrown private cemetery, except instead of headstones, it's a collection of statues and architectural fragments. Mysterious. And off-limits to the public. And this stretch of Hildebrand here, between Broadway and 281, it's like a curvy racetrack, and it smells like rhino farts and monkey chow from the zoo just over the back fence.
Dr. Aureliano Urrutia Gates San Antionio Texas
A view of the entire gate.
And there used to be two ornate, grand archways on the north edge of this property, by the roadside, leading nowhere, covered with colorful Mexican tilework in a Spanish colonial vernacular, like carriage archways. With a beautiful hand-painted image of the Virgin. Vandalized. All this fragmentary evidence was driving me nuts, I got really curious, so I parked and walked over one day, looking for an explanation, taking my life in my hands walking along Hildebrand, and on top of the larger arch there was an oxidized bronze plaque.


(Let's go inside Earl Able's. You want some pie? Actually that meringue looks a little rubbery, go for the pecan, I think.)
Tile peacock, frogs and Virgin of Guadalupe, San Antionio Texas
Tile peacocks, frogs, and the Virgin of Guadalupe
Tile peacocks, Dr. Aureliano Urrutia Gates San Antionio Texas
Close up view of the tile peacocks
I got really intrigued with Dr. Urrutia. Mom and Dad lived in this neighborhood in the mid 50's, and I asked Mom, and she said, "Oh yeah. He had a huge mansion there, like a palace, they tore it down where he sold the property to USAA. You could see him coming out in the mornings, and he always wore an opera cape. He was old by the time, in his 70's or 80's, but he used to come out and feed his peacocks running around. In this cape." My uncle Ben chimed in about how that old doctor had about 10 kids, and all of them were doctors, and about half of them had horns. Ben is old and wise and completely trustworthy and also full of it.

So I turned to the web. . . and you're not going to believe me.

The grand property across the street was called Miraflores, and Dr. Urrutia was Dr. Aureliano Urrutia, who died in his sleep in 1975, at the age of 103. After having five wives, the fifth about 40 years younger than he, 18 children, after practicing medicine for 81 years, inventing medical procedures still used today, being one of the first surgeons to separate Siamese twins - but that's not the interesting part.

Dr. Urrutia was a Mexican political exile when he arrived in
San Antonio in 1915, in his early forties.

He'd been born into full-blood Indian poverty in 1872 in Xochimilco, the town of the floating gardens, a little south of Mexico City. Urrutia rocketed out of the floating gardens like an underwater surface-to-air missile. By 1895 Urrutia had graduated at the top of his medical school class, sponsored by the president of Mexico himself, Porfirio Diaz. Diaz named him his personal physician at the age of 22.

Presidente Diaz got in trouble in 1910 and stepped down with his head still attached, his fortune intact - he'd been ruling for 30, 35 years if I remember right - but after Diaz, from 1910 to 1920, Mexico wasn't ruled as much as it was repeatedly raped. This was the age of bloody insurrections, clumsy intrigue, peasant revolutions, open warfare, dust and blood. Orozco, Villa, Zapata. More than once, the course of Mexico's history swiveled back and forth on the murderous impulses of drunk corporals and illiterate machine-gunners.

Diaz was replaced by a vegetarian idealist Francisco Madero in 1910, but Madero had unleashed forces that he couldn't control. He lasted about thirteen months. Madero's brother/advisor was brutally murdered, a messy killing with a sword thrust into his good eye for a first inning. Then Madero himself was openly betrayed and shot in the neck. This made way for possibly the worst president Mexico ever had, which is really saying something: a drunken military gangster named Victoriano Huerta.

Well, guess who had operated on Huerta's eyes. Guess who'd been implicated in the murder of Madero. Guess who was made Huerta's close advisor and trusted Minister of Government in 1912, and was supposedly more or less acting president. Guess who! None other than the guy who lived across the street from Earl Able's. Our friend, Doctor Urrutia.
Dr. Aureliano Urrutia Gates and garden San Antionio Texas
View from across the street.
In the full sunshine of 1913 Dr. Urrutia was known for trying to pass a raft of reform legislation under Huerta, things like a blue law, streetcar reform, and ordering the closure of the pulquerias.

(Pulque is a rich sort of fermented beer made from agave, like tequila and mescal, but brewed instead of distilled. Pulque has a long long history in Mexico.... the Olmecs and Zapotec civilizations made and drank pulque -- it was the liquor of choice for Aztecs, for whom public drunkenness was an offense punishable by death, but who had a five-day pulque frenzy at the end of the year... the Nahuatl had a goddess named Mayaheul with 400 breasts, each of which oozed pulque. To which I say, you go girl.

Hacienda pulquerias grew up as peasant-class breweries and underground drinking clubs. my understanding is that this was a peasant tradition, wrapped around native traditions and legends (probably ethnic and class dynamics at work). with names like the Plumed Serpent or whatever, strong centuries-old local identities, like English pubs. and I get the sense that pulque was as deeply rooted and necessary to make Mexican peasant life bearable, as vodka is/was in Russia.

The other thing about pulque is that it's never been successfully bottled, and it's extra perishable, and sort of a secret.

When Dr. Urrutia tried to close the pulquerias in 1912. I guess he did so ostensibly on public health grounds, because during the Diaz presidency more and more peasants were getting toxemia from sloppy brewing practices. Since this was the revolution, though, and since pulquerias were logical birthplaces and hiding places for a Peasant Revolutionary Network, and good places to hide ammunition and stuff, I'm supposing that Dr. U had more on his mind than wholesome beer. That's just my guess.)

Dr. Aureliano Urrutia Gates tile fountain backdrop San Antionio Texas
Tile fountain backdrop.
But after dark, Urrutia was also accused of a medical assassination - a federal senator from Chiapas who publicly spoke against Huerta, Belisario Dominguez, was arrested as an enemy of the government, in the Jardin Hotel, on October 7, 1913, then taken to a cemetery, where dark persistent rumor has it that Dr. Urrutia cut out his tongue.

Without anesthetic.

Huerta threw eighty congressmen into prison at one point. Urrutia himself issued an ill-advised ultimatum to the US government, wanting official recognition, and Woodrow Wilson responded with battleships to Veracruz. In the late summer of 1914, as this government fell apart, a lot of the Huertistas and the well-to-do and ex-governors and henchmen drained out through Veracruz. Dr. Urrutia was arrested there by General Frederick Funston and was allowed to exile himself to the US: by ship from Veracruz to New Orleans, train from New Orleans to San Antonio, and two rail cars of treasure smuggled across the border later, to finance his new American life and humanitarian career.

All of which brings us back here to Earl Able's parking lot.
The old Earl Abel's Restaurant, San Antonio
Earl Abel's Restaurant
Photo courtesy Walt Lockley
It doesn't matter, really, whether Urrutia was an innocent exile or a war criminal or something in between. (Oh, I should have told you, somewhere in here, that as a full-blood Indian, with charisma, Urrutia would have provoked an extra edge of fear and respect from some of his countrymen. It's wrong to say that all Mexicans are superstitious, of course, but it's right to say many Mexicans would still go a long way out of their way to avoid the kind of personal bad Indian medicine that Dr. U would have dripped with.) It doesn't matter. The two gates on Hildebrand have been taken apart and carted off to SAMA. All that remains of his medical empire is a strange, off-limits garden behind that early 60's-style office building across the street.
Mexican tiled  bench  on Dr. Aureliano Urrutia former estate San Antionio Texas
Tiled bench on the grounds of the former estate.
Dr. Urrutia's story is a great example of San Antonio's untold backstory. I had to dig for this one, but you won't have to go this far to find out why there's deer kept in the Quadrangle at Fort Sam Houston (for Geronimo's lunch, when he was captive there in 1886), or who Clara Driscoll wanted to piss on and why, or the uncomfortable medical news about the defenders of the Alamo, or two hundred other San Antonio stories. Of course every city, even Cincinnati, has a backstory, but the ones around here seem more sensual, more dramatic, human, tied to the landscape. You'll enjoy this city so much more if you have somebody weave it for you.

For another thing, the career of Dr. Urrutia also speaks volumes about the relationship of San Antonio to Mexico, and San Antonio's curious double political nature, and what happens when people weave their complicated histories back and forth across this semi-tropical shadowland frontier. Stand in front of the Alamo, and you're standing closer to Mexico City than you may realize. A crime there isn't the same crime here. Some things are talked about, some aren't.
Frederick Funston

Major General Frederick Funston

Was he killed by Dr. Urrutia's application of the"evil eye"?

Funston as a Captain in the 20th Kansas.

Photo courtesy Kansas State Historical Society

And there's one more fatality to insert. Three years after Urrutia established himself here, in 1917, he crossed paths with that General Frederick Funston in the lobby of the St. Anthony Hotel. You know, the American who ran him down. As the story goes, Urrutia froze, stood his ground - you can practically see him clutching the panels of his black cape - and shot Funston el mal de ojo, the evil eye. It's a matter of public record that Funston died of a heart attack on that spot.

If San Antonio is half-Mexican, and it is, and always balanced on the edge of the spiritual border, then you do well to understand that Mexico has its own unseen sources of emotional power, its own rules, blood and dust, its own thing. You're allowed to be a tourist and smile at bad medicine and el mal de ojo and the Day of the Dead if you want to. But the moment you're willing to admit that such a thing is possible, is the same moment San Antonio will ease into focus and open like a flower.

(How was your pie?)
Dr. Aureliano Urrutia 1921 Gates Mexican tiles San Antionio Texas
Postscript: in the summer of 2004 I received a message that Dr. Aureliano Urrutia of San Antonio wanted to talk to me.

Luckily the man on the other end of the phone was Dr. Aurreliano 'Bud' Urrutia, the 70-year-old grandson of the original Dr. U, and he couldn't have been more gracious. Bud is, as I understand, the sitting patriarch of a whole dynasty of medical Urrutias in SAT, three generations of large families, and is himself still practicing out of the Nix Bldg on Navarro Street downtown, where my grandmother was in the first nursing class around 1900. Some of the fun of talking to Bud was that his gently authoritative Texan verbal cadence reminds me of my own father.

Bud knew his grandfather. He confirmed that everything you read above was accurate, and added some other details. Was he upset that I refered to his grandfather in less-than-flattering ways? Not at all. He said that was old family business, and brushed it aside.

He said some of the dates in my piece were about a year late, and said that Dr. Urrutia entered the US through Galveston, not New Orleans.

Of the two former Urrutia properties on Broadway, Miraflores is the more southern property, where the car dealership is/was. The property across from Earl Able's had no mansion, it had one structure in the middle, something like a windmill. Interestingly there is no clear title to Miraflores. Dr. Urrutia did not buy the property, he ‘acquired’ it in some unknown way. In the context of contemporary Texas land law, he said, this is not necessarily as sinister as it may sound.

Family lore confirms the Funston mal de ojo. Bud had spoken to his father about it, and his father was there in the lobby of the St. Anthony at the time. "Oh, this son-of-a-bitch again." (I’d forgotten about the south Texas use of 'son-of-a-bitch', not as a heated insult, but as a simple act of categorization which is many times worse.) And yes, Funston died on the spot.

Bud’s father would not discuss the murder of Senator Dominguez, saying only that it was a rough time in the history of Mexico.

Did Dr. U invent medical procedures? Yes. Maybe not the first to separate Siamese twins, but certainly an early procedure, in 1917. Also developed a method of prostate removal through the perineum. And Dr. U was responsible for bringing the San Antonio cult craftsman Dionicio Rodríguez to the city to work on one of his houses.

And Bud described Madero as an early hippie. He’d been to school in Berkeley, which can change a fella’s outlook, and was a old-school spiritualist who received governmental instructions on letters from his dead brother Raul, who’d died in a fire at the age of four.

© Walt Lockley. All rights reserved.
September 29, 2007
Published with permission

Texan Walt Lockley (San Augustine, 1963) and his collaborator Einar Einarsson Kvaran are compiling a book on architectural sculpture in America, to be investigated in a future issue of Texas Escapes. They're an unexpected wealth of integrated sculpture in the state, from sculptors including Pompeo Coppini, Raoul Josset, Herring Coe, and whoever did all that work for Lang and Witchell in Dallas. If these names mean anything to you, or even if they don't, please pay them a visit at www.archsculptbooks.com

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