A New Era for a Military School

A new fine arts and athletic facility revives the gateway to an aging military school in San Antonio and addresses many pressing campus needs.

With roots dating to 1886, the San Antonio Academy of Texas is dedicated to educating boys “to succeed in life — scholastically, emotionally and physically — with a focus on kindness and integrity.”

Fulfilling the mission has long been a challenge, given the aging facilities in the nondenominational military school in the heart of San Antonio, Texas. The original gym, from the 1950s, was compact and poorly lit and suffered from a swelling floor. The academy’s art teachers had been operating out of close-quarters portable classrooms for 22 years, two decades longer than expected.

San Antonio Academy 02
The historical buildings on the campus directly shaped the materials and articulation of the new project.

The need for roomy, updated facilities was met with a 19,500-square-foot, combination fine arts and athletics facility — with three classrooms (two for art, one for music) and a gym — that LPA designers created as a gateway to the campus. The academy, with 345 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, begins each school day with morning chapel, to which parents are invited, in an assembly area in the new building. The facility also includes two spacious art rooms and the music room, which have enhanced teachers’ ability to instruct energetic students.

Alcide M. Longoria, a trustee on the buildings and grounds committee whose two sons attend the academy, praised the new building’s clean lines and functionality, as well as the buffering techniques that LPA engineered to keep sounds from the gym from penetrating into the second-floor art spaces and the ground-floor music room.

San Antonio Academy 03
South-facing porches and deep overhangs allow for substantial natural daylight.

“The building definitely fits in scale-wise as well as design-wise with the rest of the campus,” Longoria says. “It is beautiful, utilitarian and functional. The old gym’s basketball court was so compact that we could not play games there. We were always the away team.”

LPA’s informed design approach focused on the academy’s long-term goals, as well as the needs of educators. That included exploration of what the teachers have learned about their students.

“The educators observed that boys learn best when they have space to physically move while they’re learning,” says LPA Project Architect Federico Cavazos. “We focused on finding new ways to add space on a very limited site.”

The old gym’s basketball court was so compact that we could not play games there. We were always the away team.

San Antonio Academy 04
With maple walls and structural steel trusses supporting a wood roof deck, the gymnasium interior meets the academy’s request for timeless materials.

The school is situated within the historical neighborhood of Monte Vista, which has been a source of architectural pride for the south-central Texas city since the late 19th century. LPA came on board in May 2017, after another firm had designed a facility that went beyond the school’s desires and budget. The school spent two years raising $9-million to fund the construction, which kicked off as the COVID-19 pandemic was getting underway.

Throughout the design phase, LPA professionals worked closely with educators, parents, the board of trustees and exacting members of the Monte Vista Historical Association. The design was completed in early 2018, and the historical association took the lead on presenting the project to San Antonio’s Historic and Design Review Commission.

School officials emphasized to LPA’s integrated team of architects, engineers, landscape architects and interior designers that they sought to plan for a time horizon of 75 to 100 years. LPA embraced that mission and the need to honor the historic character of both the neighborhood and the academy.

San Antonio Academy 05
The second-floor art room activates every surface, with movable furniture to support its many uses.

“We were trying to be very contextual and create something that fit in with the campus in this historic neighborhood,” says LPA Principal Mickey Conrad. “We were not trying to do hero architecture.”

As soon as workers demolished the old gym and geotechnical engineers were able to bore the site, the team discovered that the original building straddled a fault line that runs through the city. The design team redesigned the entire foundation in a month, repriced it and kept the building schedule on track. The solution involved increasing the width of the suspended foundation’s concrete piers to as much as 60 inches.

Close collaboration with the contractor mitigated pandemic-related issues related to the price and availability of materials. The contractor had an allowance built in for the foundation, and the guaranteed maximum price was honored.

The building is made of honest materials with permanence — stucco, wood, concrete and steel.

San Antonio Academy 06
The lobby space greets its visitors with a restrained, intentional material palette.

“The contractor was on board from the beginning of the design process,” Cavazos says. “We were able to develop strong expectations about the quality of the construction and develop a highly constructable facility that overcame the possibility of scheduling delays.”

As for keeping the building on track, it helped that the design called for a simple and timeless palette inside and out. The gym’s interior focuses on materials with permanence: maple floors, maple wood wall panels and structural tongue and groove wood roof decking on long-span steel joists. The remainder of the building limits its materials, with polished concrete and white walls allowing the wood roof deck to be the highlight. The exterior stucco uses embedded color, which over time will create a beautiful patina.

San Antonio Academy 07
An enlarged music classroom allows the students to have enough space to “learn while physically moving” – a tenet of the academy’s curriculum.

“The building is made of honest materials with permanence — stucco, wood, concrete and steel,” Cavazos says.

To improve the building’s performance, designers used timeless strategies to mitigate the harsh sun, including south-facing porches, horizontal louvers on many windows, raked eave overhangs and proximity to nearby mature shade trees. Each art room is equipped with clerestory windows that bring in natural light from three directions to provide balanced light and to reduce glare.

To ensure a more pedestrian feel for the grounds, landscape designers used heavy-duty grass pavers around the new building for bus pickup and drop-off lanes and a fire lane. The design team worked with a botanical expert from Texas A&M University to select “hyper-local” plants specific to that part of San Antonio.

The result is a high-performing facility that exceeds its many demanding needs and blends old and new to meet the academy’s high standards.