Adding a Contemporary Backdrop to a Municipal Landmark

A flood control project eliminating some of the bends of the San Antonio River as it snaked through downtown created a new plot of land enabling the City of San Antonio to cobble together the real estate needed for the Municipal Auditorium, with a distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival profile designed by architects Atlee B. Ayres, Emmett Jackson and George Willis. The $1.2-million Municipal Auditorium opened, lit “from pillar to post” according to the San Antonio Express, on April 19, 1926, with the Texas Pioneers’ Ball:

The result is an auditorium which Mayor Tobin declares without reservation is the finest in the country. Every sort of modern, practicable device has been installed to make the building the last word in structures of its kind….

Since its doors opened, the Municipal Auditorium hosted a huge variety of events – high school graduations, political rallies, boxing matches, concerts, Elvis, Fiesta coronations and even “midget women’s” wrestling – meaning many San Antonians have strong sentimental attachments to it. Which translated to emotional opposition when architects returned with recommendations that demolition of almost all but the distinctive façade would be required to create a facility appropriate for theatrical and musical productions of today. Layered atop the normal historical concerns was sensitivity over its prominent River Walk location.

But the stunning, contemporary solutions presented by the architectural team of LMN of Seattle and Marmon Mok of San Antonio won over many and secured approval.

Was fortunate enough to take a tour guided by Steve Souter and Morgan Williams of Marmon Mok this past week, and the transformation is amazing. Wood paneling the color of a Stradivarius violin is combined with cutting-edge programmable lighting around the upper decks of seating.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When the Municipal Auditorium opened in 1926, the Express bragged about its seating; although it doesn’t sound as though fire codes on the number of people who could be stuffed into a room were quite as rigid as today:

The capacity of the auditorium is 6,000 persons who can be seated in the comfortable opera chairs. In event of an extra large attraction, more than 3,000 persons could be seated in extra chairs in the auditorium and on the stage. The stage alone can accommodate 500 people seated in chairs of 1,000 standing. The opera chairs in the auditorium alone represent an investment of $60,000. They are all extra large chairs, 20 inches across the seat. There are 18 oversize chairs for extra large persons. Such big people can find chairs that will accommodate them comfortably if they ask especially for them.

Seating on the ground floor in what will be the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts easily will top that, although not numerically. The main theatre will accommodate 1,750. The wooden ground floor in the photos represents a $12-million investment. But it’s a rather magical floor. Each segment contains seating on its flip side and can be individually rotated and/or elevated to allow for a multitude of configurations. Found a handy-dandy video of this online (Don’t be misled by the video heading; the operation of the Tobin seating will closely resemble that of this theatre in British Columbia.).

For a more intellectual analysis of the Tobin Center’s assets, turn to Mike Greenberg.

The first year’s bookings for the Tobin are as diverse as the Municipal Auditorium entertained and can be found here. The doors will swing open for the first events in September.

(Thanks for providing some of the interior shots, Janet and Allison.)



1 thought on “Adding a Contemporary Backdrop to a Municipal Landmark”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.