As the Witte Museum‘s $100 million transformation nears completion, museum officials Wednesday honored its most generous private benefactor by naming its new main building after her.
Susan Naylor, the namesake of the newly renovated and expanded Susan Naylor Center, is part of a family that has “committed so mightily to the museum,” said Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott at a ceremony where officials revealed the name of the new center. It will officially open on March 4.
Naylor, who is a Witte trustee, declined to say how much she has donated to the museum over the years. She also asked Witte staff not to disclose donation figures, but a March 2016 San Antonio Magazine article reported that she has given $7 million out of her family’s estate to the institution that she and her family love so dearly.
Naylor said she frequented the museum as a child, just as her late father, prominent rancher B. Naylor Morton, did as boy. Before losing her two children, Will, 8, in 2007 and Charlie, 28, in 2016, Naylor kept with family tradition and often took them to the museum.
Naylor said contributing to the Witte, which just turned 90 years old, is at the heart of what her family was all about – sharing South Texas heritage and the institution with the community. It also was Naylor’s way of honoring her loved ones who have passed.
“[Naylor] is the most incredibly generous woman I’ve ever known,” said Peggy Walker, Witte Museum capital campaign co-chair. “For decades I’ve known her, and I’ve watched her work hard in her career, and then the blessings of God came in such a way that she’s able to give back.”
Those familiar with the museum may have already noticed the Naylor family’s influence across the 10-acre campus. Naylor’s gifts have led to the construction of the Will Smith Amphitheater and the Will Smith classroom in the South Texas Heritage Center (2012), the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center (2015), the Charles Naylor Moulton Serenity Floor inside the H-E-B Body Adventure (2015), and the Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery (2017), which is located in the Susan Naylor Center.
“Every area has been touched by Susan,” McDermott said. “… Each space has been truly emboldened by her support.”
Giving has been a large part of Naylor’s life for many years. Some of the most tragic moments in her life inspired her mission: After her son Will died in a car accident, she started the Will Smith Foundation, which supports a variety of children’s causes across the world. She lost her eldest son, Charlie, unexpectedly last November.
“This is what saved my life – to be a part of leaving a legacy for [my family],” Naylor said after the ceremony. “… It feels so good to give back.”
Wednesday was special for Naylor in more ways than one. Along with the ceremony in her honor, it also was the third birthday of her dog Leeu, who joined her in front of the audience as they sang “Happy Birthday” at Naylor’s request.
“Let’s keep that [positive] spirit in the Witte,” Naylor said after the song.
The “New Witte” endeavor is a public-private project that includes a facility expansion on the campus and an additional 100,000 sq. ft. in renovations. Museum officials told the Rivard Report that they’ve raised more than $93 million to date and are getting ready to launch the public campaign to raise the remaining funds.
Curators and construction crews are still putting the final touches on the Susan Naylor Center, but a brief tour of the facility Wednesday afternoon revealed a sleek, 21st-century museum with tall ceilings, exhibits, lab spaces for school groups, and touch-screen devices to navigate throughout the campus and read about the museum’s offerings. An abundance of natural light pours into the main entrance that leads into the dinosaur gallery, one of Naylor’s favorite areas of the Witte.
Once the center is completed, visitors can learn about the history of various populations and geographic areas throughout Texas in immersive, interactive environments. The People of the Pecos Gallery, for instance, features interactive rock shelters, rock art, stone flooring, and even dirt from the Pecos region in the various dioramas.
Overall, the revamped Witte will feature more interactive, high-tech galleries to educate children and adult visitors alike.
Aside from the interior galleries and lab spaces, the Witte also is working on a $8.2 million riparian, or riverside, habitat project along a stretch of the San Antonio River that is located behind the facility. The project is part of the museum’s overall transformation effort and will restore the 18th-century acequia – the Alamo’s water source – and diversion dam that remain on the Witte’s campus.
The renovated museum’s official debut will be on Saturday, March 4. The ribbon-cutting event in front of the Susan Naylor Center is open to the public and will take place at 9:30 a.m.