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Witte Museum Soon To Be Unrecognizable

One of the city’s oldest institutions is changing, and in a very big way.

"We’re adding 65,000 sq. ft., some of which is renovated space, some of which is new space," said Marise McDermott, president and CEO of the Witte Museum.

“The Witte is going through a major transformation, we’re very excited," she said. "It’s so radical, or so dramatic, that we are calling it the new Witte.”

And really, that’s not an exaggeration. The grounds will change dramatically, the entrance to the museum will change location, and the architecture will be completely unlike the old Main building. The Witte has quietly been doing phase one of a three-phase renovation.

"Now, we are about to embark on phase two, which is a major transformation of the main building, the main historic building, and also building a new special events center called the Mays Family Center,” McDermott said.

Phase two is the phase where most of what you now see from Broadway will disappear.  

“The Broadway side will be under renovation or under construction," said McDermott.  "The idea is to build the museum out toward Broadway. And really, embracing that whole Broadway revitalization that we’re seeing all along this great cultural corridor — the Broadway Reach.”

The Broadway explosion of development starting down at the Pearl has extended far north and the Witte has just outgrown its old skeleton.

"Our events have grown, our exhibitions have grown, our programs have grown, so having larger spaces for our exhibitions and our programs is really needed and exciting," McDermott said.

With the museum being built out a little bit toward Broadway, the parking lot and road in the front will be removed.

"So the road in front of the Witte will go away, and instead there will be an adventure walk, that will get you to the new entrance of the Witte," McDermott said. "And there will be a giant quetzalcoatlus, or the largest pterosaur ever found."

The massive bird-like flying dinosaur will greet visitors at the front door.

"And so you’ll enter into the Valero Great Hall, the dinosaur hall and Texas Wild, and upstairs to Lower Pecos, our prehistoric people."

The style of architecture is a little old, and a lot new. McDermott explained the reasoning behind the re-design.

"The whole idea of this renovation is to open up the interior of the museum, get to the highest point that we can with the ceilings and create a more modern space, so we’ll be taking down as many walls as possible."

Architects are Lake Flato, and as is often the case with them, there is a lot of stone, glass and steel. Arches designed into the façade tip the architectural hat to another important building on the San Antonio River.

"The front of the new Witte is inspired by Mission Espada and the aqueduct," McDermott said. "And so we will have an aqueduct — a stylized aqueduct in front of the Witte -- and that triggers this idea of bookends. So the Witte Museum at one end, at the headwaters area, and then Mission Espada at the other end of the river improvement projects."

Also in phase two is the Mays Family Center. The famous broadcast family has donated $5 million and the Witte is raising a matching five to create the building. McDermott said their current exhibition halls just aren’t big enough.

"We just can’t fit the major, blockbuster exhibitions into it so we’ll be able to do that in the summers with the Mays Family Center, and in the winters we’ll be able to put the large events that we all love so much, some of the galas," McDermott said. "The Witte has grown so much that we’re really squished, particularly in the main building."

Looking at the design pictures that the Witte has provided, the new Witte is almost unrecognizable as the old.

In my next piece: a little history

"The Witte Museum was founded in 1926, on city property, as the third entrance to Brackenridge Park actually," McDermott said. "It was Mayor Tobin who chose this property."

And more on the changes, including a timeline for what you can expect.

"The front part of the Witte main museum building will close September 2."

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii