Witte Museum Part 2: The Timeline For Renovations

Jul 28, 2014

The Witte Museum is undergoing a massive transformation. On the last report I detailed the Witte’s huge re-imagining, but any look at the future is made more interesting by looking at the past. I spoke with Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott about the museum’s history.

"The Witte Museum was founded in 1926, on city property, as the third entrance to Brackenridge Park actually," she said. "It was Mayor Tobin who chose this property. Mr. Alfred Witte left $75,000 as a bequest in 1925, and then the mayor, Mayor Tobin, matched that with $75,000, and chose this property for the Witte Museum."

$150,000 doesn’t sound like much these days, but that sum in 1926 dollars would be more than $1 million in 2014. The area’s history doesn’t just go back a century or two, though, as McDermott explained.

"Very thrilling to know that, in fact, the 1719 Acequia Madre and diversion dam were here — were here and used for 300 years on this property that’s now the Witte Museum," McDermott said. "So now that we know exactly where it was, we’re creating a feature that will show what it would’ve looked like. That diversion dam came across the bend of the river, down though our property right through the bald cypress trees, down through what is now Broadway, and a straight shot right down to the Alamo."

What’s now Broadway, a busy city street, was once a life-giving flow of water. The Acequia Madre routed water from the San Antonio River, which runs a meandering parallel to Broadway on Witte’s west side, for irrigation by farmers. McDermott explained why almost 300 years ago the Acequia was dug.

"You know, the key to an acequia is using a source of gravity and using the force of the water that comes around the bend," she said. "Remember, the headwaters are right up here, so this is very bountiful artesian springs here and then the bend, so to use the force of the water, funneling it into a diversion dam. And then a straight shot — that’s the key, right? — straight shot down to the Alamo as opposed to our beautiful, windy river that looks like a serpent."

Witte history is fascinating; it’s also ongoing. The history they are looking to create soon is still being conceived. The phase three portion of the Museum re-design will build their only Platinum LEED certified building. Platinum LEED certification is the highest level of green building best practices.

"It’s going to be the Center for Rivers and Aquifers. So that’ll be really fun to put a live roof and so on" said McDermott.

I had to ask  "What’s a live roof?"

"Live roof is a roof with plants on top. We actually will have a small live roof in phase two, on top of a little storage area. We’d love to have a live roof everywhere, but we can’t," she said.

The Center for Rivers and Aquifers' purpose will be to explain in detail the role and value of water in South Texas.

The changes the Witte is going through are not superficial, and therefore will take quite a while, and be fairly disruptive.

"The temporary entrance for two years will be at the HEB Body Adventure, on the river side," explained McDermott.

That eventual new entrance will still be on the Broadway side, but further north than current one. As to when that big entryway change happens, McDermott says soon!  

"The front part of the Witte main museum building  will close September 2. The river side of the main building will still be open and then we’d really like to re-open the front two years hence," she said.  "So that would be the end of 2016 or more likely the beginning of 2017."

The second big portion of construction is the Mays Family Center, the large hall that can be used both for galas and traveling museum exhibitions.

"Mays Family Center; we’re hoping it’ll be about a year," McDermott said. "We’ll start construction in January, and open the next winter sometime. So it’s very exciting times."

I’ll keep you updated as the changes happen.