The George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center is located in the heart of East Austin in a historically African American neighborhood. A cultural cornerstone and landmark for BIPOC artists in the city, the Carver celebrates the global contributions of all African Americans by telling the stories of the local community and connecting them to larger narratives about Blackness.
In 1998, the citizens of Austin passed a bond to expand the Carver Museum and Cultural Center and the neighboring Carver Branch Library, which resulted in a new, larger museum facility to the east that opened in 2005. A feasibility study from 2000 had proposed three phases of development, but only the first was ever completed. Over 20 years later, Austin residents voted to expand on the previously proposed Phase 2 and 3 improvements that were yet to be developed, and to update the plan to better align with the evolving needs of the community.
From 2019 to the spring of 2021, the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department worked with Smith & Company Architects, in partnership with Perkins&Will, to reinitiate the planning process for the Carver Museum. This remarkable undertaking of the two architecture firms is representative of their history of partnering together and with cultural facilities across the United States, and their well-developed process for remembrance through design. Given the depth of previous planning efforts, the team developed a strategic expansion plan update that considers the facility’s current uses as well as the needs and desires of the current and future community. The process also meets a stated goal of envisioning a multifacility campus for a “living museum” — one immersed in African American experience, culture, history, and traditions that will serve the community for generations to come.
The community engagement process, facilitated by the city of Austin, kicked off during the COVID-19 pandemic, moving a typically in-person process into an entirely virtual space. Engagement efforts started with small group discussions that included artists, Carver Museum staff and ambassadors, civic leaders, members of the African American Resource Advisory Commission, and the Carver Task Force. In describing the background of the original strategic planning process and its connection to the update, Terry Smith, AIA, NOMA, the president of Smith & Company Architects, says, “There were individuals who had been a part of the previous work and did not forget about the [initial] asks.” Stephen Coulston, AIA, a principal at Perkins&Will in Austin, adds: “While the project was conducted virtually due to the pandemic, the team was allowed socially distanced, limited site access.”
A critical observation that emerged from the discussions was the lack of wayfinding and signage on the campus, which contributed to an overall lack of cohesiveness. The community also stressed the need for improved outdoor amenities with a connection to nature, a stronger intergenerational experience in and around the facility, and addressing both present and future needs of the community and staff. Says Coulston: “[We had to ask,] what’s the big idea of the Carver? How do we qualify the programmatic needs on the horizon and create rich environments blending between the indoor and outdoor? We heard the community relay the needs from the facility plan 20 years ago and had to be sure we were getting to the heart of the process.” The team was charged with using all resources at hand to collaboratively build an intergenerational, safe space that is both welcoming and flexible.
The existing site context is rooted in a historically African American neighborhood decorated with markers that represent the resilience of the community within Austin. Prominent Black organizations, historic residences, commercial establishments, and even the first institute of higher learning in the city — what is now Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black institution — are located just blocks away. In addition to these historic facilities, the site is bordered by Austin ISD’s Kealing Middle School, which was the first junior high school for African American students in Austin. Given the rich history and background of the campus, it was invaluable to bring in an experienced team that would be able to grasp the significance of and work within this complex cultural tapestry. “There was an acute social awareness needed for this process,” says Coultson. “We had to be purposeful in meeting with the community. Words matter. The way we are communicating with our end users must speak in a language that is respectful and relevant to this history and context.”
Community-centric programs and maximal community use of the space were vital considerations in the evolution of the Carver. The proposed expansion respects the designs of the existing museum buildings and focuses on enhancing the user and staff experience. It proposes three new wings that will be built along the crescent geometry within the site. Each will house a different element of the building program: events, art and education, and theater. The space requirements for addressing the considerations shared in the community engagement process nearly triple the size of the existing plan.
The flow of interior to exterior space was a driving factor within the update. The intent of the plan is to improve both visual and physical connections to the exterior. The expansion also improves upon issues of access and circulation for different community programs and activities within the building. At the intersection of Angelina Street and Rosewood Avenue, the architects propose a landmark space, aptly named the Juneteenth Plaza. An extension of the entry plaza, this area will serve as the public face for celebrations and parades, and as a communal gathering space. In addition, the facility expansion plan proposes an event lawn and courtyard that will require an additional study to determine the best place to relocate existing Juneteenth sculptures impacted by the building expansion. Describing the intentionality of the outdoor space at the Carver, Coulston says: “The opportunity to celebrate the Carver community came with a level of gravitas and urgency. To me, it became so clear this project is about more than a space for an arts event — it’s the seat of culture and identity for much of Black Austin, which meant our design team really had to get it right.”
The community’s aspirations for the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center are that it will keep serving as the heart of Austin’s Black Cultural District and growing through the impact of the updated Facility Expansion Plan. Its aims are best stated by a local community member: “The Carver is a place for us to tell our stories in our own words. Others have told it for too long.” With the support of the Austin community and the stories of its patrons, the Carver will continue to be a cultural anchor making an intergenerational impact on the current African American community in Austin as well as its forthcoming generations.
Gabriella Bermea, AIA, is an associate and design architect with VLK Architects and the 2023 chair of the TxA Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee.