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Arts & Culture

How many stories does San Antonio's 'enchilada red' public library have?

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Courtesy San Antonio Public Library, Texana/Genealogy Collections
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Central Library opening day ceremonies in May of 1995

It’s only appropriate that the place with more than half a million stories contained therein has a fascinating story behind it, itself. San Antonio’s big Central Library downtown and its backstory are as quirky as its architecture.

In 1991 after several years of planning, a bond issue and site selection, there was a juried competition to determine who would build it. Three of the four entries were fairly conventional. Then there was the fourth.

“This one was totally different!” Nelson Wolff laughed.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff was mayor back then and knows the library history well. He chose the late Marie Swartz to run its board, and they both had an idea about what they were looking for.

“And we both wanted to do something strikingly different that had not been seen in San Antonio,” Wolff said.

Downtown San Antonio was, more than not, limestone and brick, largely built on European traditions imported by German immigrants.

Aerial with Library Center by Clem Spalding.jpg
Clem Spalding
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An aerial shot of the San Antonio Public Library.

“Nothing wrong with that, but quite frankly, over the years, the city had become more and more Hispanic,” he said.

Wolff felt that reality should be reflected in new architecture. So the library board was presented with four visuals to choose from. Again, three fairly conventional ones.

“But then there was the plan by Legoretta, and it would knock your socks off,” said Nancy Gandara.

Gandara was the Assistant Director for the city’s library system back then and had a front row seat for the process. Ricardo Legoretta was the winning architect, and Gandara said she really liked the design.

“It was going to be red with yellow and purple accents. And six stories tall. With terraces, and it was just very, very striking,” she said. “And very controversial, I might say.”

The local newspaper ran a contest once the brightly-colored building was complete. What to name that unusual red color?

The Express-News garnered almost 1,000 entries, and some of them, as they said in the newspaper, were unprintable,” Gandara said.

The winning entry wasn’t unprintable, but it was tasty: Enchilada Red.

“At one time, there was a rumor that Maybelline was going to create a color lipstick called Enchilada Red, but I don't know that it ever actually happened,” she said.

But back to that Mexican architect. That, too, is a curious story, as told by local architect Davis Sprinkle. In 1991, Sprinkle was looking to make a name for himself and his firm, Sprinkle Robey. The city call went out for entries.

“They encouraged the local architects to team with world-renowned or nationally known architects,” Sprinkle said.

That teaming would increase the quality of entries, while at the same time, encourage young firms to learn from the veterans.

Sprinkle was a fan of Legoretta’s work and took a gamble by just picking up the phone and giving him a call.

“When I called his office, they actually put him on the line,” Sprinkle said. “And so I told him about the project and he said that he loved San Antonio, and he said he would do the competition with us under one condition: he wanted us to do a design that we thought would be good for the city, and not a design that we thought would win the competition.”

From an original group of 15 firms applying, it had been pared down to four firms. Now came the hard part: the actual designing.

“We disappeared for, I guess it was about six or eight weeks. And in my case, I went down to Mexico City for a week or so and worked with Legoretta,” Sprinkle said.

That this young architect was able to spend that much time creating with Legoretta was a real privilege, according to San Antonio Report columnist Rick Casey.

“He was considered at that time the best architect in Mexico. And he was on the world stage,“ he said.

Casey has stayed at a couple of Mexican hotels that Legoretta designed, and talked about Legoretta’s choices.

“They use the bright colors. They use the water features. They open up space. They know how to deal with the sun,” Casey said. “They manage to use bright colors and combination with water to make a space feel even cooler, where you would think it would be the opposite.”

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Arts & Culture News Desk including The Guillermo Nicolas & Jim Foster Art Fund, Patricia Pratchett, and the V.H. McNutt Memorial Foundation.

Casey recalled being there when the four competing designs were revealed, and he stood next to City Councilwoman Helen Dutmer.

“And she pointed to the Ford, Powell and Carson model, which was a perfectly good model of the traditional library. If you look at the ones in Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, New York, they look like castle fortresses that are designed to keep any knowledge from escaping,” Casey said. “Whereas the Legoretta one was bright and open and just a whole new concept.”

But Dutmer’s tastes ran toward the much more traditional.

“She said, ‘Now this, this looks like a library to me,’ pointing to the Ford/Powell Carson one. ‘And this doesn't look like any library to me’ pointing obviously at the Legoretta one. I remember thinking, ‘I'm sure glad that weird charter of ours doesn't give you a say in this,’” he said.

Scroll to the third page on the PDF below to see the other proposed designs:

Because the library board’s selection was binding, the city councilwoman didn’t get a say. Sprinkle said the five jurors selecting the design were from locations coast-to-coast, none with local ties. This ensured a fair process.

“And the decision on this project was unanimous for Legoretta’s design," he said.

In being selected, Sprinkle pulled off the very unlikely feat, aligning his young firm with one of international reputation and, in the process, creating a very risky and innovative design.

So now that the competition had been won, the library had to be built with Ricardo Legoretta. Sprinkle said the architect had charisma.

“Just getting to know him then after working with him on the competition and then we won…I mean, the guy was…everybody wanted to be around him,” Sprinkle said. “He was about 6’ 3 and was so charming. Very handsome.”

If you’ve not been there, you may be wondering what the library itself looks like.

“If you look at the building, it's sort of a big cube almost,” Sprinkle said. “But then it's been eroded on the sides where you have these roof terraces that cascade onto each other.

Nelson Wolff recalled he and wife Tracy were delighted by it.

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Courtesy San Antonio Public Library
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Texana/Genealogy Collections
From left to right: Ricardo Legoretta, Tracy Wolff, then-Mayor Nelson Wolff and former City Manager Alex Briseño.

“We liked the colors and, of course, the way they were designed with triangles and squares and circles, and I just thought it was really cool.”

Nancy Gandara notes one of the design’s most attention-getting attributes.

“Then there are the balls,” she said.

Those 4-foot spheres seem to be descending down a long courtyard wall on the library’s east side.

“And they serve no purpose except being artistic, and that they are,” Gandara said.

A May 1995 parade from the old library at Market and St. Mary’s Streets was the grand opening for the new one at Soledad at Navarro.

“The parade was a ceremonial opportunity for certain books to be brought from the main library to the Central Library,” she said.

The last book moved was a children’s book called, “The Alphabet From Z to A.” A library archive picture shows the oversize book in a wagon with three children in it, the center one is Mike Dunbar-Rodney.

Twenty-seven years later, we tracked him down. He remembered the day fondly.

“I was six, so my memory is a little patchy, but I was included as part of a group of children in the parade on the opening day of the library,” he said.

This wasn’t his last visit to the Central Library.

“No, I was a regular at the library, especially the central branch,” Dunbar-Rodney said.

He continued library visits all the way through high school, then college at the University of Texas School of Information Studies, which is to say that he became a librarian.

“I actually ended up getting my first-ever official library job as a librarian at the Central Library,” he said.

And while Michael has moved on — he’s now Assistant Branch Manager at San Antonio's Cody Branch — the Central Library has a special place in his heart. We asked if he could tell the 6-year-old Michael something, what would it be?

“I probably would have pointed at the library and told him, ‘No matter where you go or where you are, you will always have a home here,’” Dunbar-Rodney said.

That’s a sentiment no doubt held by hundreds of thousands of San Antonians who love their wildly quirky enchilada red library. 

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Heather Ferguson and Scott Williams with the Central Library provided archival photos for this story.