The original entry of the Atkinson-McNay home, which fused Spanish Colonial and Mexican design elements. – photo courtesy McNay Art Museum

I have lived within a mile of the McNay Art Museum for most of the two decades I have called San Antonio home. I lived on a street that led to the museum’s back service entrance when I first moved to town in 2002. A few years later, I got married and moved into a larger apartment. From our second-floor dining room window, my wife and I could look down into a portion of the museum grounds that were overgrown and unused, a description that applied to much of the site’s landscaping. Although the McNay sat at the prominent intersection of North New Braunfels Avenue and Austin Highway, its perimeter consisted of dense hedges that offered few hints of the incredible museum located within. 

When we decided to start a family, we moved again, into a house less than a mile north of our apartment. I would often drive past the gates of the McNay, and in early 2020, the arrival of construction fencing announced that work had begun on improvements to that entrance. My curiosity was piqued, but the arrival of the pandemic soon occupied all my attention.

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The story of the McNay Art Museum is curiously intertwined with the pandemic — or at least a pandemic. Jessie Marion Koogler was in her mid-30s in 1917 when she married a newly enlisted Army sergeant by the name of Don Denton McNay. The marriage was in many ways unconventional (the groom was nearly a decade younger than the bride, who was both an accomplished artist and a wealthy heiress), but by all accounts, the union was an incredibly happy one. McNay’s Army service brought the newlyweds to Texas, and they spent their final nights together at the Menger Hotel across from the Alamo before the sergeant shipped off to Florida. There he contracted and died of what was then known as the Spanish flu. The two were married for less than a year.

Koogler would eventually remarry, to Donald T. Atkinson, the renowned San Antonio ophthalmologist. In early 1926, the couple received an unsolicited letter from Atlee B. Ayres, a well-respected San Antonio architect. He offered to design a new home for the couple, and the proactive marketing effort worked. Construction began the following year on an expansive 24-room mansion on what was then the northeastern edge of town. Unlike other Ayers-designed homes in more suburban neighborhoods, the site of this house was huge: It consisted of over 23 acres, including the hilltop upon which the house was to be built. 

Although the home was rendered in a Spanish Colonial Revival style, Ayres drew upon his familiarity with the architecture of Mexico to create a design that responded to the warm, humid climate of San Antonio. The width of the house was limited to a single room, and it was oriented to allow prevailing breezes to cool its interior. The home’s U-shaped plan wrapped around a landscaped patio, while an assortment of loggias, balconies, and sleeping porches provided its occupants with respite from the South Texas heat. The entry was announced by an octagonal tower with a ground-level terrace that directed visitors toward an arched entry portal. Plaster walls, tile floors, and ornamented wood beams gave the interior a warm, handcrafted feel. 

In the years following the 1929 completion of the home, Koogler used her inherited fortune to begin collecting modern works of art. She also began collecting ex-husbands (she would marry a total of five times but ultimately reverted to using her first husband’s surname). Over the next two decades, her art collection would grow to over 700 works by such early modernist painters as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, and Diego Rivera.

As her health declined in the late 1940s, McNay made arrangements to bequeath her home and the artwork it contained to her adopted city of San Antonio. She died in 1950, and four years after her death, the Marion Koogler McNay Museum of Art opened to the public as the first museum in Texas dedicated to modern art. 

Ayres returned to the project to turn the home into a museum, a conversion that consisted mainly of integrating updated mechanical systems. Keeping the house mostly unchanged created a unique museum experience. Rather than navigating a series of generic galleries — the “white cube” approach to art exhibition in vogue at the time and still in use today — a visitor to the museum viewed art in a sequence of distinctive but intimately scaled rooms, reminiscent of the Paris salons of the 18th century. 

The richly landscaped, expansive grounds surrounding the house that became the Marion Koogler McNay Museum of Art in 1954. – photo courtesy McNay Art Museum Archives, Carlos C. Rios Collection

As the McNay continued to acquire new work from prominent mid-century painters, it struggled to display the larger-scale works favored by these artists. The museum adapted to this trend by building a series of single-story additions beginning in 1973. Designed by Ford, Powell & Carson, these pavilion-like galleries were sympathetic to the original house in terms of material and scale, and their interiors maintained a residential feel. Whereas the original collection was experienced by passing through the home’s former dining room, library, and reception hall, the growing collection would be experienced by passing through the museum’s new Lang, Frost, and Lawson galleries.

By the end of the 1970s, gallery additions had fully encircled the home’s original patio to create an enclosed courtyard. The 1980s saw the addition of storage and library facilities, and the museum built a large auditorium space in the 1990s. Designed by Overland Partners, this multiuse facility incorporated more overt historical references than earlier additions but still allowed the overall character of the museum to remain cohesive.

Even as the McNay grew, it still occupied only a small portion of the overall site. As a private residence, the grounds had included board lawns, a Japanese-themed fishpond, and a private aviary. The latter enclosure was converted into an educational facility in the 1940s, when it became home to the San Antonio Art Institute. In 1974, the institute moved into a purpose-built educational facility located to the north of the museum, and in the following decade it initiated an ambitious plan to become a degree-granting art college. After investing $7.2 million to construct a 47,000-sf facility designed by Moore Ruble Yudell Architects, the institute ran into financial difficulties and failed to secure accreditation. It declared bankruptcy and closed in 1992.

After sitting unused for a decade, the institute’s education facility was demolished to make way for what would become the most significant addition to the museum to date. The Jane and Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions opened in 2008 and featured large, flexible exhibition spaces as well as an auditorium and support spaces (see the May/June 2009 issue of Texas Architect). Designed by the French architect Jean-Paul Viguier in association with Ford, Powell & Carson, the Stieren Center represented a radically different approach than earlier additions. With its multilayered glass ceiling and stone cladding imported from China, the addition’s low, dark, horizontal form did not have much in common with the McNay that existed before. This departure was intentional and reflected an evolution in how museums approached the display of art. As large traveling exhibits became an important way for museums to increase attendance (and help bottom lines), the scale of the McNay’s gallery spaces limited the kinds of shows it could host. And as the museum continued to acquire new works, an ever-smaller portion of its permanent collection could be put on display. 

The 2008 Stieren Center represented a new direction for the McNay and provided the museum with flexible gallery space and a new courtesy McNay Art Museum

The Stieren Center also incorporated a new main entrance for the museum. Although the 1929 home’s entry reception hall was grand for a house, it was undersized for what the McNay had become. That said, the original entry’s tower and arched portal remained far more seductive than the subtle void of the new entrance. The museum’s parking situation reinforced this confusion: While a small lot was built in front of the new entrance, the museum’s larger existing parking lot still sat adjacent to the original entry.

In 2014, Machado Silvetti joined forces with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates to address these and other issues in a comprehensive master plan for the McNay. In addition to providing a strategy for improving and expanding its built facilities, it also called for a two-phased series of landscape improvements. Work on the first phase began in early 2020 and was completed in November of last year. Enlarged vehicular entrances offered safer, more inviting paths to the museum. Planting material, including 142 new trees and several thousand shrubs, ornamental grasses, and perennials, created a cohesive, park-like setting for the museum and several large outdoor sculptures. The total acreage of the museum was also increased. Once the site of a gas station, an isolated triangle of land at the corner of North New Braunfels Avenue and Austin Highway was integrated into the overall landscape composition and now serves as the setting for “Ascent,” a large painted steel sculpture by Alexander Liberman.

During the McNay’s first 50 years, a series of incremental additions preserved its unique spatial character. – image by Machado Silvetti

The 2008 Stieren Center represented a new direction for the McNay and provided the museum with flexible gallery space and a new entry. – image by Machado Silvetti

The most significant change to the museum’s landscape was the removal of the dense hedges that once demarcated the perimeter. Although they created a secluded setting for the McNay, they held the outside world at arm’s length. This was at odds with the stated mission of the museum, which included that it was to engage with “a diverse community in the discovery and enjoyment of art.” If the McNay was to fulfill that mission, the community needed to at least be able to see the museum. A new fence of vertical stainless steel pipes now permits views of the McNay and the landscape that surrounds it.

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My first post-pandemic visit to the McNay took place on a Saturday afternoon earlier this year. Even though many of the new plantings remained in their dormant winter state, the entry sequence was appreciably better. I could take issue with some of the choices that were made (a new donor wall bears an unfortunate resemblance to a highway Jersey barrier, and the parking situation will have to wait until a later phase to be resolved), but just as the McNay has evolved during its time in San Antonio, I have evolved during my time here as well. For one, I no longer visit museums as just a judgmental architect; I also visit them as a father. 

Whereas I once may have been annoyed to walk an additional 500 feet from the old parking lot to the new entrance, my nine-year-old daughter found magic in the experience. She was delighted to come upon several “princesses” (local women in wedding or quinceañera gowns) posing for photographs around the home’s original entry. She lost her mind when she saw the giant, 12-foot-tall sculpture of a white-tailed deer (appropriately titled “Deer”) by Tony Tasset. And when we finally did make our way through the new entry and into the museum itself, she was charmed by the works of Georgia O’Keeffe that were featured in a special exhibition displayed in one of the museum’s gallery additions.

In other words, the McNay Art Museum and its grounds, with all its many additions, alterations, and evolutions, continues to do exactly what Marion McNay hoped it would do: It beckons the community to experience for themselves the joy and the power of art.

Brantley Hightower, AIA, is an architect in San Antonio, where his younger daughter recently completed third grade.

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