Along busy Broadway Avenue in midtown San Antonio, Texas, rests a sublime limestone temple that transcends time and offers a respite from the rush and roar of 21st-century urban life.
Spring House, which was designed by Don B. McDonald Architects, is nestled quietly in a pedestrian plaza between the city’s Credit Human and Oxbow buildings. “It’s meant to engage people in the civic life of the city,” says Don McDonald, whose namesake firm is based in San Antonio. “It’s designed to offer a moment of repose between the garage and building entrance.”
The restrained Neo-Classical structure, on the site of a former parking lot, was originally intended to be a coffee house. When that idea did not prove logistically viable, there was a joint decision to retain the structure as a place for meditation.
“The architecture was inspired by the work of architect John Fries, who established the nearby limestone quarry in Brackenridge Park in the late 19th century and created some of San Antonio’s most endearing Classical structures,” McDonald says, adding that the project is a key component of the ongoing urban renewal of the area.
The solid-limestone cube-shaped building, which has a wisteria-entwined trellis roof and a water feature, is meant to respond to its urban context, namely the headwaters of the San Antonio River with its famous River Walk; Blue Hole, the source of the river’s celebrated springs; and the nearby limestone buildings of Fort Sam Houston constructed in the late 19th century.
McDonald’s team had three goals: to mediate the scale between large neighbors and the street; to celebrate and reinforce the architectural character of the neighborhood; and to create a moment of repose within a dense urban context.
“The structure sits only 20 feet from the street,” he says. “So it engages the sidewalk, streetscape, and plaza around it, mediating the pedestrian world with the vehicular world as well as the scale of the mid-rise buildings around it.”
Spring House is made of solid 24-inch-thick load-bearing limestone blocks so that it literally stands the test of time.
“San Antonio is a limestone city,” McDonald says. “Stone was used to build on the existing urban context. We enjoy working with masons and have completed a half-dozen solid-stone buildings in the last few years, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised that the building codes and the engineers have embraced the endeavor.”
The centerpiece of Spring House is a moss- and fern-covered sculpture by Curt Gretzel that’s fashioned from a rock formation found in the Hill Country. Its softly trickling water, representative of the area’s springs, empties into an adjacent reflecting pool that has a limestone surround. Flowering cross vines, along with bistro tables and chairs, create a casual spot for relaxation.
“The idea is that the flow of water is calibrated to allow the pitch and frequency to mitigate the noise from the traffic,” McDonald says.
Spring House, which is technically part of the new Pearl Brewery shopping-dining-events campus, has, according to McDonald, spurred major development along Broadway Avenue. Although Spring House is designed specifically for pedestrians, he notes that it’s equally appealing and intriguing to drivers.
“It’s a pleasant surprise to encounter something like this in an urban district,” he says. “When people catch a glimpse of it, it makes them curious enough to walk through and explore it. The same thing happens when you ride by.”
It is the combination of elements—the structure, the sculpture, and the sound of the water—that makes the Spring House such as special site.
“A good building will get better the closer you look,” McDonald says. “And this is one that should stand the test of time.”
Don B. McDonald Architect, AIA, Ltd. www.donbmcdonald.com
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