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Arts & Culture

How the Tobin Center will transform performance — and San Antonio’s Museum Reach

Photo: Courtesy image, License: N/A

Courtesy image

Artist’s rendering of Tobin Center, view from the river. Image courtesy BCPACF.

Photo: Graphic by Molly Austad, License: N/A

Graphic by Molly Austad

Schematic reduction of Tobin Center floor plan.

A concrete crater remains where seats have been stripped away in the belly of the old Municipal Auditorium; the room is cavernous, like an old rock quarry. For now, the hulking stage that has hosted concerts, boxing matches, and high school graduations since the auditorium was built in 1926 still stands. But it too will fall as construction continues to radically reconfigure this city landmark into the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, a new home for San Antonio’s symphony, ballet, and opera.

As recent attempts to halt the project, originally made possible by a $100-million county bond election in 2008, have floundered in the courts, architect’s renderings of the new center have appeared in the press. The most prominent shows the Municipal Auditorium’s Spanish Colonial Revival columned front façade, surmounted by a towering box-like eruption that reminds us of the veiled Ka’aba in Mecca. But what will the interior be like, how much of the original building will be saved, and why was this particular design chosen?

I sought to answer those questions by joining J. Bruce Bugg, Jr., chairman and president of the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation, at the construction site last week. Decked out in hard hats, reflective vests, and goggles, the two of us looked like poster kids for OSHA as we entered the building. Peering out into the immense empty space, Bugg recalled a comment that captures the experience of being in the hole. “When I brought Tommy Lee Jones here the first time, he asked me, ‘Bruce, what are you going to do with this airplane hanger?’”

Jones, along with a host of local notables, including Peter Holt and Tom Frost III, is on the Foundation’s board of directors helping guide its development. But Bugg also heads up the Tobin Endowment, a grant-making institution that won naming rights to the performing arts center when they made the first bequest of $15 million to the project. Before being asked in 2007 to form and lead the foundation that will manage the center by then-Mayor Phil Hardberger and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Bugg served as the vice chairman of the capital campaign at the McNay Art Museum, raising $50.8 million for the Jane and Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions, the new wing that opened in 2008.

As we walked through the construction site, he recalled the history of the old building. Originally built as a memorial to WWI veterans, the Municipal Auditorium served as the city’s main location for events until Freeman Coliseum was built in 1949. The auditorium was gutted by fire in 1979, losing its distinctive domed roof. But it reopened six years later after a massive restoration effort.

Entering from the side of the auditorium, we walked to the front where sections of the building survived the ’79 fire, including the original lobby (more like a foyer), and the round copulas on each side. In today’s transformation, both are being preserved. Also being kept intact are the walls that arc along each side of the original front, though the old stage house in back will be demolished to accommodate the improvements. Blocks have been removed from the façade to allow reinforcement of the walls. They sit in stacked rows, numbered to ensure their proper reintegration. A new lobby will occupy the space behind the original interior wall. It will be a center for socializing during intermissions and after concerts, and provide a location for community events.

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