The John H. Wood, Jr. Federal Courthouse in Hemisfair Park, now vacated, awaits an uncertain future.
The John H. Wood, Jr. Federal Courthouse in Hemisfair Park, now vacated, awaits an uncertain future. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Here is what I have learned in the last month as the federal judiciary vacated the John H. Wood Jr. Federal Courthouse, originally built as the 1,200 seat Confluence Theatre for HemisFair ’68, a triplex cinema and one of two buildings making up the U.S. Pavilion.

I still receive emails and encounter people on the street with strong feelings about the building after my column about the building earlier this month.

The groundbreaking ceremony at Civic Park on Wednesday drew an impressive crowd despite the blustery weather, and several people I spoke with looked south toward the circular building and expressed support for or opposition to its preservation.

Some thoughtful people oppose the steep expense of renovating a problematic period building. They propose a teardown and the construction of something smartly designed that helps to link Southtown with downtown.

Most people, it seems, want the Confluence Theatre to live on. They simply don’t know what it should become in its third life. Circular buildings are unusual, but they are distinctive. Readers have suggested I put my finger on the community pulse to solicit creative reuse ideas.

As I previously reported, small groups organized by Hemisfair CEO Andres Andujar came up with four distinct possibilities for repurposing the building: housing, offices, a museum and an aquarium. So far, no single idea is supported by a significant public groundswell.

In contrast, there seems to be little or no love for the second, smaller building, the former Confluence Exhibition Hall, now known as the Adrian Spears Judicial Training Center, also recently vacated.

Perhaps old and new can live alongside one another here, with one building preserved, the other making way for something new.

For readers too young or too new to San Antonio to have developed an appreciation of the Confluence Theatre and its history, listen to San Antonio architect Brantley Hightower‘s engaging podcast.

One particular reader, Mary Fisher, a Maverick by descent and half of the celebrated couple who co-founded the North San Antonio Times newspaper, and later, Maverick Publishing Co., suggested I look to Zagreb, Croatia, for inspiration.

The Fishers, it would appear, have undertaken more adventurous travel amid the pandemic than my family. I have been to Zagreb and it, like San Antonio, guards and cherishes its history, which as a city dates back to the 13th century.

There, a 1938 building known as the Meštrović Pavilion, or the Home of Croatian Artists, is set atop a concrete base in a public square in that country’s capital city. It, too, has enjoyed multiple lives. It was built to house an art museum, but was converted to a mosque after World War II. It became the Museum of Revolution in postwar Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and then in 2006 became a space for artist exhibitions and concerts.

A public space hosting arts and culture would fit nicely in the larger Hemisfair picture and give the urban park a venue that reconfigured could easily host seated audiences of 500 people or more. It could complement the nearby Mexican Cultural Institute.

I remember as a young boy visiting the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and the Avenue of Progress, a circular peek into the future of aerospace travel in the General Motors Futurama Pavilion. A Futura II ride in movie theater chairs that glided through the pavilion and into an engineer’s vision of the future completed the experience.

Nostalgia plays a key role in city identity, I believe, and preserving familiar landmarks is an essential part of that experience. The debate underway now over the proposed rebirth of the Sunken Garden Theater evokes the same emotional responses among people who equate its existence to how physical spaces help define the city and preserve its unique qualities and amenities.

One other takeaway from the current Sunken Garden debate and the overall effort to invest in the preservation of Brackenridge Park: People need to be offered multiple opportunities to participate publicly in the process, more than most of us imagine. I’ve been writing about the efforts to invest in long-neglected Brackenridge Park for at least five years, yet I heard more than one person in a recent virtual town hall meeting complain that citizens have been kept in the dark with no opportunity to engage in the process.

One can look much closer to home than Zagreb for finding iconic circular buildings. The original Martin Building at the Denver Art Museum, since expanded and reimagined, is a multistory, circular building dating to 1971. A visitor today does not feel they are in a 50-year-old building.

Perhaps as the pandemic eases and the City of San Antonio takes official ownership of the former federal courthouse, the San Antonio Report can join the team at Hemisfair to host a happy hour gathering there. Let the creative process begin.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.