A backhoe guards the entrance of the Witte Museum. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A backhoe guards the main entrance of the Witte Museum in February 2015. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Just past the backhoe parked on the front steps of the Witte Museum, the lobby is now almost unrecognizable.

The main reception and gift shop is gutted, the three-horned, frilled triceratops that greeted guests at the Dinosaurs Unearthed: Bigger. Better. Feathered exhibit has wandered off (metaphorically), and the smell of dust mixes with freshly-spackled walls.

The dinosaurs will return with a vengeance in due time, after the Witte completes the $60 million second phase of its capital campaign in 2017 – part of a $100 million master plan that will modernize and expand the museum’s facilities, connecting it more closely to the San Antonio River and Broadway Street.

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There still will be millions of years of history on display at the Witte, including dinosaurs, indigenous people, wars, and art – but the master plan adds advanced technology and more than 65,000 sq. ft. of new display space.  It will be a whole new museum.

Ground breaking for Phase II happens Monday, Feb. 9, with City leaders and museum supporters in attendance. Guests will enjoy a full run-down of the renovations, which – according to renderings from local firm Lake/Flato Architects (see gallery above) – will completely transform the 89-year-old institution.

Even more compelling is the flyover animation.

Construction crews have been working since September on the main building, but the Witte has not closed and will not close.

The H-E-B Body Adventure, Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center, and the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center are still open and hosting school tours and guests during normal hours. The Body Adventure, powered by the University Health System, and Heritage Center were part of the $20 million Phase I of the master plan.

Once renovations are complete on the main building’s Kathleen and Curtis Gunn Gallery, the Witte’s Fiesta exhibition, “Jewels of the Court: A Journey through Fiesta’s Coronation,” will open March 7 and run through May 3.

Discover the Ice Age” then opens in the Gunn Gallery on May 23. “Bodies Revealed” opens Oct. 3. Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott has already begun looking into more exhibit contracts, even as  she manages the most ambitious expansion in the Witte’s history.

McDermott quickly lights up when talking about the renovation while pointing to maps and renderings of what the “New Witte” will become. Yes, it’s almost unrecognizable, but what will always be recognizable is the Witte’s dedication to telling “the story of the land, the story of the sea, and the sky,” McDermott said. “That has been the theme since the founding of the Witte … with the new Witte, it will be clearer.”

Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott poses for a photo in her office. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott poses for a photo in her office. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Included in that natural history is the human body. The Witte has taken an unprecedented role in public health education – you don’t think “healthy eating and exercise” when you think “museum.”

The H-E-B Body Adventure at the Witte is a national model and testament to how  museums can become catalysts for a community conversation about our shared health and welfare.

We’re looking into prehistoric, historic, contemporary (times) – but also into the future,” McDermott said.

Water and energy are a critically important part of that future and the new Witte will include a $10 million water and energy center, the centerpiece of Phase III.

The Center for Rivers and Aquifers was originally planned for Phase I, but a San Antonio Water System (SAWS) sewer project in 2005 on the site made other renovations and additions a priority (this utility work continues today). The center, which will be LEED certified, will emphasize both water and energy conservation and supply management.

“There’s a universe of work in the last 10 years that has been done on aquifers and water and energy,” McDermott said, adding that the Edwards Aquifer Protection expansion and Eagle Ford Shale play developments can now be explored. “We just started to hear about horizontal drilling (in 2005).”

Once Phase II is well underway, McDermott and her team will undertake the final planning of the water/energy center. Once SAWS’ work is completed, a more established connection will be made from the Witte’s main building to the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center, a treasure trove of more than 300,000 artifacts collected over the Witte’s 87 years from donors, estates, and friends of the Witte.

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Current construction and traffic in and out of Brackenridge Park and the Witte’s parking lot creates a physical and psychological barrier. (To be honest, I thought the building was for storage. I had no idea it was part of general admission or that the Texas Art Gallery exists.) While construction continues, some administrative offices have been located in the Research and Collections Center.

The most visible additions from Broadway Street will be the new Mays Family Center and H-E-B Lantern entranceway that extends out towards the street. The latter will be the permanent home to a life-size Quetzalcoatlus (“The Texas Pterosaurs“) model.

The H-E-B Lantern entrance and Quetzalcoatlus ("The Texas Pterosaurs") will welcome guests to the Valero Great Hall and Orientation Gallery at the new Witte Museum. Rendering courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.
The H-E-B Lantern entrance and Quetzalcoatlus (“The Texas Pterosaurs”) will welcome guests to the Valero Great Hall and Orientation Gallery at the new Witte Museum. Rendering courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.

“Everybody’s reaching their arms out to Broadway,” she said, citing the new children’s museum, the Do Seum, also designed by Lake/Flato.

The Mays Family Center will be a space for events, exhibitions, and educational displays and activities.

“We ran out of exhibition and event space,” McDermott said of the need for the $100 million capital campaign. “We could not have booked the (“Maya: Hidden World Revealed” exhibit) in 2016 without it.”

The traveling exhibit, the largest of its kind in the United States, requires considerable space to accommodate Mayan Temple recreations. Its stay at the museum will be its first in Texas.

Mays Family Center for Special Exhibitions and Events at the new Witte Museum. Rendering courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.
Mays Family Center for Special Exhibitions and Events at the new Witte Museum. Rendering courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.

On the other side of the museum, the San Antonio River meanders between the Witte and Brackenridge Park – a waterway rich in indigenous and early Spanish settler history that the Witte will incorporate into the story it tells.

The new Texas Wild Garden will further enhance the Witte’s existing outdoor garden area with interactive features, while the acequia and diversion dam further ties the land back to its Spanish Colonial period – yet another educational opportunity.

“Even our new Witte logo is the arches with water over it,” McDermott said. “The sense of land, water, and sky is important to us.”

The Witte may be dusty at the moment, but this renovation promises a far more ambitious museum worthy of a growing city. McDermott the master plan envisions a space and story as dynamic and changing as the natural history it celebrates and the future it imagines.

“Our (goal is) to engage children and empower adults,” she said. “It has to be ever-growing and ever-dynamic.”

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Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...