When AIA San Antonio announced “City Hall for All,” a design contest seeking an accessible solution for the east elevation of San Antonio’s City Hall, it had been 90 years since the 1891 building was substantially renovated. The 1927 renovation changed the style of the building from Romanesque Revival to Spanish Revival and created an additional floor.
“It was the saddest rabbit warren of offices you’ve ever seen in your life,” says Allison Chambers, AIA, of Ford, Powell & Carson Architects & Planners. Over the years, open spaces with high ceilings had been divided into smaller and smaller office spaces as needs arose, with many of them lacking windows. Ceilings were dropped to eight feet, and there was a hodgepodge of finishes from minor aesthetic updates in the 1980s and ’90s. City functions like “B session” City Council meetings had been moved off site.
The 2017 contest, which sought to balance the standards of preservation with the goal of supporting equal opportunity and self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities, was just the first step in a series of changes meant to allow the building to better represent the city of San Antonio and serve all of its citizens.
San Antonio-based Beaty Palmer Architects won the contest with an elegantly simple design. They called for the addition of two diagonal ramps that would preserve the look of the front of the building while allowing easy access for all. “We found a way to make it look seamless to an extent — I don’t want to say invisible — but that was the idea,” says Michael Beaty, AIA, a founding principal at the firm.
“With our own trips to City Hall, everyone seems to arrive at the corners,” says Beaty. By building the ramps with the natural flow of site traffic, the team was able to propose a universal design — one that would work equally well for people with and without disabilities.
Winning the contest was no guarantee that the project would be built. “It was dormant for a good long while,” says Beaty. But in parallel, in 2018, the city put out an RFQ for a design-build project to undertake the daunting task of renovating City Hall to make it function as a modern office and community hub while preserving its historic features.
Ford, Powell & Carson, in partnership with Guido Construction, won that job, and the team appreciated the challenge that lay ahead of them. “Our preservation department loves having buildings be functional, but we’re preservationists too,” says Chambers. “The fun part is blending those.”
On the preservation side, the team discovered the original plaster ceilings, a treasure that had gone unseen for decades. Highlighting the historic architecture required creative work by the firm’s engineering team, who cleverly hid ductwork and other systems.
By allowing the building and its historic features to serve as a kind of canvas, the architects were able to inject touches of modern office design through the furniture and finishings. Their efforts were aided by the city’s extensive art collection, which helped to make the building come alive.
Another goal? To give everyone in the building access to views and daylight, allowing elected representatives to actually see the city they serve — right outside their office windows.
Meanwhile, Ford, Powell & Carson and Guido Construction reached out to Beaty Palmer, proposing that their design be incorporated into the project. The firm was hired as a sub-consultant to FPC but served as architect of record on their own portion of the project. “Their work stopped at the front door, and ours was the rest of the site,” says Beaty. “It worked out well.”
In addition to constructing the new diagonal ramps, Beaty Palmer rebuilt the building’s deteriorating front steps and worked closely with the landscape architecture team to raise the grade around the site’s many mature trees.
“There’s an awful lot of speech-making and gathering that we wanted to preserve,” says Beaty. Indeed, along with the expected renovations required in a building that had barely been touched in nearly a century, both firms needed to incorporate the community and its needs into their work.
On the Ford, Powell & Carson side, this meant balancing the security needs of elected officials with their wish to interface with the public. The program called for offices on the second, third, and fourth floors, while the first floor and lower level would be public-facing spaces, with room for large public meetings and media briefings.
The renovation was completed in May 2021, more than a year after it was scheduled to be completed. Delays were primarily driven by pandemic-related challenges with the labor force and supply chains.
The result is a building that is as beautiful and functional inside as it already was on the outside — architecture that represents the best that San Antonio has to offer.
“Our goal is not to have these buildings be restored and sit as monuments to the past,” says Chambers. “We want them to be occupied and inhabited and used. That’s what prolongs the life of the building.”
Alyssa Morris is a freelance writer based in Austin.