Originally, the 4,500-seat Municipal Auditorium was the site of high school graduations, citizenship ceremonies, concerts and the Fiesta Coronation. The beautiful, classically designed structure of stacked limestone was nevertheless outdated and underutilized, despite its plum location in the heart of downtown and on the banks of the San Antonio River. The old building suffered through a fire in the 1970’s and didn’t meet current safety or ADA standards. Despite a large number of seats, the stage house didn’t meet current dimensions or acoustical requirements for performances. It was large, beloved and fairly obsolete.
The City assigned the task of transforming the property into a world-class performing arts center to an architectural partnership between LMN Architects of Seattle, a firm with extensive experience in theater design, and San Antonio’s Marmon Mok Architecture. The team included a large engineering and technical team as well.
Mary Bartlett, a partner at Marmon Mok, was a project manager. “The design began with an extensive evaluation to see what could be saved and reused,” she shared. “Keeping the historic front of the auditorium was crucial. Keeping that history intact was very important and we knew that many people loved the original facade.” Ultimately, the team decided to scoop out the middle while preserving the front of the building. Another challenge was creating a connection to the San Antonio River. At the time, the site had a 20-foot sheer wall that disconnected the two entities to such a degree that the building wasn’t visible from the River Walk. “A lot of planning and design went into creating a functional connection to the river,” says Bartlett. The team created an urban park, originally called the Veterans Memorial Portal, and now the park creates a peaceful pedestrian connection from the river up to the street level, where the Veteran’s Memorial Park is located. The open-air venue invites visitors to enjoy and participate in Tobin Center events like free concerts and movies under the stars, and utilizes stacked limestone pieces from the original building.
The team left no stone unturned in their quest to create unique and customized experiences in the interior spaces. “This project was intended to be a gift to the entire city, and it really is,” says Bartlett. “People can explore three different theater spaces and have an entirely different experience each time.” The HEB Hall is the largest, with just over 1,700 seats and 27 boxes. LED lighting on the wall is customizable, and an especially unique feature of the space is the flat-floor system — the only one in the country. This system basically enables the staff to flip the seats over and create different configurations, like dance floors, seated dinner receptions or standing room only concerts. The integration of this system, along with a full-service kitchen, allows the building to operate and be fully functional for banquets and multiple events each day.
Another fascinating aspect of the design process was acoustical planning. “There is a lot about the Tobin Center that is highly technical,” said Mary. “We needed to create a space where you can hear every instrument with clarity during a Symphony performance — but during a Ballet performance, the sounds of the dancers’ shoes shouldn’t travel.” To achieve such acoustic excellence, the HEB Hall needed tremendous height, while the more intimate studio theater, with 250-seats, required a different volume. The architects were challenged with fitting a main theater, a community theater and an outdoor venue that could schedule events concurrently. They united the disparate parts of the building with the dramatic (and bird proof!) metal curtain. Their acoustic wizardry was successful, as all three venues can have a show running simultaneously without creating interruptions. Additionally, the Tobin often simulcasts performances on the outdoor video wall so that the community can enjoy a show, free of charge.
With the addition of the Tobin Center, art and cultural opportunities have flourished. Now that the Symphony has moved from the Majestic Theatre to the Tobin, they are better able to offer more Broadway performances, while the Symphony benefits from the state-of-the-art acoustics. The development of River North now puts the Tobin at the geographic center of the River Walk and encourages visitors and locals to further explore downtown.
To accommodate additional traffic, the firm was tasked with the design of a new parking garage to serve the Tobin Center and adjacent businesses. The design challenge was to create a functional building on an unusual triangular site and respect the aesthetics of the surrounding historic buildings. The result is masonry at the pedestrian level including inlaid decorative tile panels – rising to a metal screen enclosure of the parking floors that emulates the metal “veil” of the Tobin Center expansion. An outdoor plaza provides space for proposed commercial properties.
“The Tobin Center has really put San Antonio on the map when it comes to performing arts,” says Bartlett. “It is a badge of honor for performers, and is getting global attention — yet it’s right here in our backyard as a community resource.”
ARCHITECT Marmon Mok Architecture
210-223-9492 | www.marmonmok.com