• The iconic Lucile Halsell Conservatory playfully peeks through the framing of the Halsell Welcome Building, calling visitors to find and explore the geometric structures. - photo by Bill Timmerman

An expansion to the San Antonio Botanical Garden ushers in a new era for the beloved public venue.

Project San Antonio Botanical Garden Phase II
Location San Antonio
Client San Antonio Botanical Garden
Architect Weddle Gilmore Architects
Design Team Philip Weddle, FAIA, Cody Deike, Taylor Townsend, AIA, Danny Gault, AIA
Contractor Kopplow Construction
Landscape Architect Ten Eyck Landscape Architects
Civil Engineer Pape-Dawson Engineers
Structural Engineer Datum Engineers
Mechanical Engineer Associated Mechanical Engineers
Electrical Engineer Woodward Engineering
Lighting Designer Studio Lumina
Photographer Bill Timmerman

On a hilltop where the South meets the Southwest, a gleaming 38-acre botanical garden is fulfilling its mission to connect people with the world of plants, aiding them in understanding the importance of flora in their daily lives. The garden was first conceived in the 1940s by two daring women—Mrs. R.R. Witt and Mrs. Joseph Murphy—who believed that their growing city deserved a botanical garden. After nearly four decades of planning, partnerships, and funding, the San Antonio Botanical Garden was opened to the public on May 3, 1980, on the former site of the Brackenridge Waterworks. It has since become one of the most noteworthy horticultural sites in the state, known for its formal gardens and collection of native state plants. 

The city of San Antonio sits at a nexus of geographical regions: grand prairies to the north, marshlands to the east, coastal plains to the south, and desert to the west. It is positioned at the edge of the Balcones Escarpment, with an elevation ranging from one hundred to 2,000 feet above sea level. The soils in this area transition from poor-draining clay to clay loam with striations of gravel sediment over limestone—what San Antonians refer to as “good soil.” The variety of natural terrain enables the botanical garden to nurture an expansive sampling of Texas flora and fauna. It provides an ideal microecosystem to support an array of native plants. 

Recently, the San Antonio Botanical Garden completed two iconic additions. Weddle Gilmore Architects and Ten Eyck Landscape Architects were commissioned to expand the existing program and create a cohesive identity for the garden. The project was accomplished in two phases to mitigate the environmental impact on the site and to allow the garden to remain open to visitors throughout the entire construction phase. Phase I, completed in 2017, focused on creating a new entry into the garden, while Phase II, which was completed in 2021 and is LEED certified, focused on the design of an event center. Project architect Philip Weddle, FAIA , a partner at Weddle Gilmore, explains that the design team’s focus was to “envision how education, interpretation, and  recreation connect with nature.” He adds, “The goal is to make nature the center of everything.” The team carefully considered the balance between technology and nature, and between the built and natural environments, throughout the process. This central concept shaped both phases of the project.

Phase I sought to create a meaningful entrance to the garden by referencing the local landscape while harvesting rainwater adjacent to the new entry plaza. The scope of work included a new visitors’ entrance, gift shop, Welcome and Discovery Complex, outdoor teaching kitchen, culinary garden, and 2-acre family adventure garden. The introduction of cast-in-place concrete walls, limestone seating blocks, a water feature, copious native and adapted plantings, and winding paths invites visitors to take a step back from the fast-paced outside world. This entrance presents the garden’s motifs and recalls the site’s rich industrial history of quarrying and waterworks. The garden’s “front door,” between the welcome and discovery buildings, feels less like a formal entry and more like an opening within a cavernous landscape. Excavation conducted during this phase created varying spaces for rest, exploration, and gathering.

Phase II envisioned a large gathering space that could be enjoyed by a wide variety of visitors. The scope of work included a new education and event center, an administration building, an event lawn, and a prominent water feature. For the Betty Kelso Center, the design team took advantage of the 25-foot grade change between the drop-off area and the entry to create a winding accessible pathway through the trees. The building has become one of San Antonio’s premier indoor-outdoor venues. Its thoughtful design successfully supports weddings, quinceañeras, galas, conferences, luncheons, and large corporate events. Upon arrival at the outdoor “front porch,” horizontal slats create a feeling of compression as they channel visitors toward the main entrance. The juxtaposition of the compressed entry and the airy interior space astonishes many guests. The event center blends the interior and exterior through operable glass walls and a striking angular wooden ceiling that mimics the surrounding oak tree canopy and appears to be an extension of it into the building. When the building is illuminated at night, the whimsical glow further adds to its splendor—a fitting glimmer to match the center’s LEED Gold certification.

The event center’s concrete floors were installed for durability, while acoustical treatments behind wooden slats in ceilings and walls guarantee high acoustical absorption. The slats are reclaimed Sinker Cypress sourced from Louisiana and East Texas swamps—a nod to another type of Texas landscape. The wood’s previous life submerged underwater gives it a varied greenish color. Weddle shares that the carpenters who worked on the faceted wood ceiling were eager to build such a unique project and were so proud of the outcome that on weekends they brought their families to see the finished work.

The Betty Kelso Center was thoughtfully sited to achieve a low-impact, effortless connection to the original gardens. Weddle noted that each tree was carefully documented—sans lidar scan technology—to ensure that its structure and branches were not disturbed. A curving limestone wall creates a barrier between the Sensory Garden and the Greehey Lawn while connecting them to the event center. Below this monolithic wall, grade beams span to protect existing tree roots. The event lawn integrates new design elements with the much-loved original garden structures and trees. Many of the existing trees were encompassed by steel ring retaining walls varying from one to thirty inches in height, enabling each root zone to remain undisturbed and at its original elevation while the topography was adjusted to meet accessibility needs. Close coordination with local arborists during construction ensured the longevity of the trees. Now, the rings playfully dot the lawn and pathway.

The educational intent of the project shines brightest in Phase I, where visitors are encouraged to learn and explore through hands-on experiences. Recreation is best displayed in Phase II, which facilitates socialization and the celebration of life events. Education and recreation are tied together by perpetuation—the continual preservation of the garden. The growing success of the San Antonio Botanical Garden is due to the love and support that has been continually invested in this project. Everyone involved in the process—the stakeholders, project team, subcontractors, and end users—is filled with pride and excitement about its future. That efficacious energy is evident in the soul of the finished product. 

Stephanie Aranda, Assoc. AIA, is a San Antonio native. She was named a Texas Society of Architects 2023 Associate Member of the Year.

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