Project ArchiTX: South Texas Heritage Center

Ford, Powell, & Carson elegantly bridges the past and future with the restoration of The Witte Museum's Pioneer Hall and the creation of a glassy addition.

Project Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center, San Antonio
Client The Witte Museum 
Architect Ford, Powell, & Carson
Photographer Dror Baldinger

The South Texas Heritage Center Museum combines a historic Beaux-Arts meeting hall with a transparent modern addition by Ford, Powell, & Carson. In 1936, Ayers & Ayers constructed the original building, Pioneer Hall, which commemorated Texas’ Centennial Celebration, on the banks of the San Antonio River. This classical Texas building adorned with terracotta-roofed tile and a limestone-clad facade served as a meeting hall for over 70 years to three groups whose history intertwines with the founding of Texas: the pioneers, trail drivers, and Texas Rangers.

In the early 2000s, plans for a restoration of the historic Pioneer Hall and the addition of a modern wing were conceived with the intent to breathe new life into the existing building and establish the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center.

The challenge was to design a sensitive addition that would enhance the beauty of this important Beaux-Arts building. The architects also strove to have the addition continue the original founder’s mission of teaching the stories of South Texas settlers through the use of historic artifacts, paintings, and photographs from the Witte Museum’s vast collection and utilizing the latest interactive displays to engage and educate both children and adults about the history of the region.

Inspired by the building’s Brackenridge Park setting, the architect developed a design concept for the addition reminiscent of a 1930s-era park pavilion that would be full of light with sweeping views of the river. It was important to design an addition with scale and proportions relating to and reflecting architectural elements of the existing landmark building, while at the same time avoiding the construction of its mirror image.

The new Center was completed in 2012. Fitted with a steel-framed curtain wall, the addition encloses a new, grand 30-foot-tall atrium space, which serves not only as a magnificent entrance but also as a wonderful place for receptions and fundraising events. The renovation preserved the west exterior facade of Pioneer Hall, providing a beautiful backdrop to the glass-covered atrium and a physical link between the past and the future.

Sustainable features were incorporated in the design from the very beginning; these include deep overhangs, insulated UV-filtered glass, locally sourced materials, and a grey water drip irrigation system. The foundation of the addition is predominantly suspended slab, which was designed to have as little impact on the undisturbed natural grade as possible while allowing river floodwater to flow beneath it during heavy rains.

The highlight of the new landscape surrounding the South Texas Heritage Center is the riverside amphitheater, which uses cut stone benches and natural boulders woven beneath the canopies of existing trees to minimize its impact on the park setting.

Set against the visual gravity of limestone walls, the glass curtain wall lends transparency to the building and allows for sweeping views of the Texas landscape. 

The glass atrium's expansive vertical space makes it an idyllic setting for large gatherings and special events.

The architects preserved the eastern facade of the historic Pioneer Hall, maintaining the historical integrity of the structure.

Site plan of the South Texas Heritage Center – courtesy Ford, Powell, & Carson

First floor plan – courtesy Ford, Powell, & Carson

Second floor plan – courtesy Ford, Powell, & Carson

"Project ArchiTX" is a column on the Texas Society of Architects blog that highlights outstanding architectural projects in Texas, as well as projects designed by Texas architects. The series combines an architectural narrative written by the architect with a photographic essay illustrating the features and techniques demonstrated in the design process. Is there a project you'd like to see featured in "Project ArchiTX"? Email communications@texasarchitects.org to let us know.