• The new 21-story boutique hotel incorporates reconstructed fragments of a historic 1860s building. - photo by Peter Molick

The Canopy Hotel San Antonio creates new ways of experiencing the River Walk.

Client Chilton Restoration
Design Architect Lake|Flato Architects
Architect of Record Gensler
Contractor Sundt
Structural Engineer Walter P Moore
MEP Engineer Blum Consulting Engineers
Landscape Architect TBG
Historic Consultant HSI Design Group
Lighting Scott Oldner Lighting Design
Civil Engineer Pape-Dawson Engineers
Interior Design Mark Zeff Design

Breakfast tacos, the Spurs, and the Alamo — these are things most people associate with San Antonio. But despite the cultural importance of the city’s delectable cuisine, the flawless fundamentals of the five-time National Champions (not that we’re counting), and the role of the famed Spanish Mission in our state’s history, perhaps nothing defines the city more than the meandering River Walk. There is something for everyone here, whether it be the colors, the music, or the simple joy of walking around in public with a margarita in hand. It is along this winding path, where North St. Mary’s Street crosses the river, that Canopy can be found. Designed by Lake|Flato Architects with the San Antonio office of Gensler serving as architect of record, this new hotel enhances the experience of both tourists and locals visiting the River Walk.

There is a distinct sense of entry regardless of how you approach: by vehicle on N. St. Mary’s or on foot at the level of the river. The success of the entry condition is the result of multiple design decisions, but two are most conspicuous. The first is the use of a strong concrete base set back from the river’s edge. In addition to respecting the pedestrian scale of the River Walk, the minimal concrete base creates an outdoor room between the river and the building that mitigates the programmatic speed of the public walkway and the private program of the hotel. By far the best view of this mixing chamber is through a large picture window on the north side of the hotel lobby. 

This interstitial space provides moments for speeding up, slowing down, or, if you are inclined to think about such things, reflecting on how architecture can act as an interface. There is also a place for eating: Arguably some of the more exciting moments for guests include their time spent at the hotel’s Domingo Restaurant. Sharing this space are a pair of columns that are massive in size yet light in the way they touch the ground. As Canopy’s closest architectural element to the river, these columns reveal how the overhang created by the hotel rooms above the base are structurally supported.

The second entry resolves the tectonic puzzle of the site’s corner condition. The two entries to Canopy are located on perpendicular facades, one faces north at the level of the River Walk and the other faces east at street level. This creates the opportunity for a spectacular corner as the north and east planes of the base collide. A balcony that cantilevers north toward the river articulates that collision while acting as a canopy. On the balcony is Otro Bar, the hotel’s second spot for grabbing a bite (or another Margarita). While occupying this built canopy, you also find yourself under the natural canopy of several cypress trees. Standing at the limit of the cantilevered balcony, you feel as if you are hovering above the water — especially if you have already finished that second margarita.

No doubt an early design sketch illustrated that sectional relationship to the river, but building out over the water would have been prohibited. Remember the concrete volume that was set back to create the mixing chamber? That same setback allows for the perception that the balcony is extending much further away from the building and closer to the river than it actually is. The rest of the building is heavily fenestrated on the north and east sides, while one of the fire stairs caps the southern end, offering some protection from the harsh southern sun.

The 21-story, 195-room, urban-conscious, and conceptually clear hotel is striking from its exterior, to be sure, but it is evocative at the scale of the detail as well. Light wooden elements adorn sensitive moments in the building that help link distinct experiences. For example, the evenly spaced wood panels that don’t terminate in the corner of the elevator match the doors to storage rooms, and even the bathrooms. Angular door handles used throughout the building may not match the faucet knobs in color or material, but they do feel the same in the hand. Even the fire egress stairs, which will be seen only by a small percentage of guests, sport an orange metal finish. Details that could easily have been overlooked were thoughtfully considered, creating a cohesive experience throughout the hotel.

The Canopy Hotel is a sensitive addition to the River Walk that engages the unique urban character of San Antonio while still creating something new. In a downtown filled with hotels of lesser refinement, one hopes it will serve as a precedent for such buildings moving forward as the Alamo City continues to develop, rethink, and rework its beloved River Walk.

Austen Kernodle, Assoc. AIA, graduated with a Master of Architecture from Princeton University in 2019 and currently teaches at San Antonio College.

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