San Antonio Museum of Art

The idea of converting a beer brewery into an art museum is tinged with an irresistible irony. The delicious antipathy of the two uses would, for most, render the idea of their sharing quarters improbable, even if the arrangement were to be sequential and not concurrent. San Antonio, thankfully, has never been a city to shy away from the improbable.

When existing quarters became unbearably tight at the eclectic Witte Museum in the summer of 1971, director Jack McGregor began beating the bushes in search of some way to gain new space for his expanding operation. Unlike many directors, who might have concentrated in such a situation on writing architectural programs and checking construction costs, McGregor took a broader view of his problem. “I know this doesn’t sound very professional,” he would confess later, “but I just wanted a beautiful building” ( San Antonio ExpressNews, March 1, 1981).

So when McGregor literally stumbled across the derelict Lone Star Brewery with its majestic arched facades, soaring interior spaces, and handsome brick detail, he saw the potential for a marriage between high and low culture which resulted, ten years later, in the enormously successful San Antonio Museum of Art.

The old brewery building began its first life in 1903, when Adolphus Busch, the proud new owner of the Lone Star Brewing Company of San Antonio, replaced the firm’s 1884 wooden brewhouse with a modern new masonry one. The solidly constructed, vaguely Romanesque fortress was designed by the St. Louis firm of Jugenfeld and Company, who made a specialty of brewery design. Newspaper reports at the time found it a “splendid building… No expense was spared in its architectural beauty” (quoted in the
San Antonio Light, February 22, 1981). And, indeed, the building, along with some ancillary structures, reportedly cost $1 million at the time.

Alas, the glory of the new “temple that beer built” was cut short when, a scant fifteen years later, the threat of prohibition forced its closing. Parts of the building were reopened as the Lone Star Cotton Mill and then the Lone Star Ice and Food Store in the 1920s, but neither of the operations could return the building to its former glory. For the next fifty years it would be parceled out to various enterprises, mostly as warehouse space.

Scarred, but still proud, the building offered other advantages besides its latent beauty to museum backers who viewed it in the early 1970s. Once considered remote from the city, the brewery building was now close to San Antonio’s expanding downtown. Even more important, the San Antonio River formed the rear boundary of the property, thereby creating the potential for future links to the city’s vital river system. The interiors were huge loft spaces with the long expanses of wall and high ceilings necessary for housing cereal cookers, mash tubs, fermenting tanks-and, coincidentally, works of art.

In 1972 the museum board purchased five of the old brewery buildings and asked a University of Texas architecture class to study their potential for adaptive re-use. The following year, the architectural firm Cambridge Seven Associates was hired as lead architects for the museum project. Peter Chermayeff, principal in charge of the design, was taken by the building’s “character, grandness, power, and yes, humor and whimsy.” He noted that “An architect today seldom has the opportunity to work with buildings of the scale of this one. The extravagance of space and volume is something you don’t ordinarily have” (San Antonio Express, March 2,1981).

The architects’ design approach was to conscientiously keep the building they were given, restoring its delicately castellated walls, its robust iron interior frame, and its concrete “washboard” vaults. But where interventions were necessary to make the facility a modern museum, no attempt was made to blend in with the original design. New stairtowers and “skywalk” on the exterior were rendered in a dark, sleek steel and smoked-glass vocabulary that sets them clearly apart from the rich brick texture and buff color of the original building. New skylights and penthouse pavilion got jagged saw-toothed forms which create a rather stark argument with the more sedate volumes on which they rest.

Inside, a crisp lining of plaster, glass, metal, wood, and slate creates a more sedate backdrop for art than the old exposed brick walls would have. But the eccentric original structural system is still there, admirably spared from camouflage by an ingenious air ducting system which runs in vertical chases between thick gallery walls.

Glamorous high-tech elevators are the tour de force of the interior, providing vertical circulation in each of the museum’s towers. These “moving rooms” with a view afford a unique and tantalizing preview of the museum’s contents as one moves through the building. Shaft and cab are glass-enclosed on three sides, with the fourth plane (the doors) being mirrored. The elevator workings – guidewheels and counterweights – are exposed and chrome finished. A grid of tiny lights above and below the cab announces its arrival and departure. The effect of the whole is that of a slow-moving kinetic sculpture which lumbers through the building bearing visitors to their desired destinations. It is beautiful and fun. It is an instant hit with new museum patrons.

The great virtue of the San Antonio Museum of Art lies in its appreciation of timeless values in architecture. It acknowledges those qualities in buildings, such as beauty, grace, and generosity of space, which transcend time and particular function. The building teaches the value of investment in these qualities in any generation, not only for immediate satisfaction, but also for the enrichment of generations to come.