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The Father Emil Wesselsky Collection - Construction of the Hilton Palacio del Rio (1967)

Emil Wesselsky

Silent | 1967

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  •  A closer look at the construction site 
  •  A group of women wave hello to the camera 
 
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This home movie captures the construction of the Hilton Palacio del Rio along the San Antonio River Walk, paying particular attention to the technique of stacking large concrete units with a crane. The Hilton Palacio del Rio was built for the 1968 HemisFair and is a city landmark with a construction story as interesting as its cubist facade. Read more in the tab below!
Located on San Antonio's famous River Walk and easily recognized by its unusual geometric look, the Hilton Palacio del Rio is a city landmark with a construction story as interesting as its cubist facade.
 
In an effort to accommodate the influx of visitors to the 1968 World's Fair, the HemisFair, Cerna & Garza Architects announced the design of a 21-story, 500-room luxury hotel in the summer of 1967. However, they explained that traditional construction methods would not have the hotel completed in time for the fair's opening on April 6. Consequently, the engineers at the building's construction outfit, H.B. Zachry Company, devised a more efficient method. Not only did they develop an impressive alternative modular construction plan, but they then went on to execute it in a record 202 days. 
 
The hotel's first four floors were built traditionally, then the remaining floors were comprised of modules, stacked together, and connected by welded steel embedments. These remarkable, 35-ton room modules were manufactured at a plant eight miles from the construction site and were delivered fully furnished, down to the bottle openers and ash trays. Amazingly, while a crane was used to lift and stack them, each room was also fitted with a stabilizing helicopter tail and controls so that it could be flown directly into place without dangling or turning around. It was originally projected that the construction crews would be able to stack 10 units per day, but as the project progressed they reached an extraordinary record high of 35 rooms stacked in a single work day. For a bit of televised promotional fun, H.B. Zachry and his wife "checked in" to a hotel room and rode it, waving from the balcony, as it flew into place in the building! 
 
The Palacio del Rio construction saw other feats of efficiency and scale as well. For example, construction was in motion 24 hours a day, performed by three rotating crews of 400 men. The elevator tower, built in conjunction with the first four floors, was constructed at a rate of over a foot per hour, which means it reached completion in just over 13 days.  Over at the room fabrication site, work was conducted on a large-scale assembly line, taking up over 17 acres, as 16 sets of casting forms and two cranes were used to help move through the stages of room construction at a rapid pace. These and other innovations were still novel when the H.B. Zachry Company employed them back in 1967.
 
On April 1, 1968, the Palacio Del Rio received its first guests, opening five days ahead of schedule. Still situated on the River Walk today, the hotel stands as a monument not only to hospitality, but also to human ingenuity.