Alamo Architects, a San Antonio firm synonymous with the rebirth of the San Antonio River, the relocation of the historic Fairmount Hotel, and contemporary projects such as the Shops at la Cantera and Cevallos Lofts, was named the recipient of the 2014 Architecture Firm Award by the Texas Society of Architects (TSA).
News of the award was made public Thursday after several days of buzz that Alamo Architects was about to make some big news.
"The Firm Award is recognition of meaningful work done over many years, and it its recognition of every employee in the firm, said Mike McGlone, one of the firm's founders and principals. "People think of individual architects or buildings, but this is the highest honor in the state by our peers and one that recognizes that architecture is a team effort."
The TSA included this brief note about Alamo Architects in its award announcement:
"Born out of a friendship dating back to architecture school, Alamo Architects is now a thriving firm of 50 in its 30th year that continues to produce outstanding projects reflective of its founding principles of innovation, invention and fearlessness. The firm, its principals, and employees have exhibited an extraordinary dedication to the San Antonio community and the profession and demonstrate leadership at every level. Notable work includes the firm's involvement with the San Antonio River Improvements Project, the history-making relocation of the Fairmount Hotel building, the internationally recognized Shops at La Cantera, and the Northwest Vista College Master Plan & Capital Improvements."
Readers can view the submission by Alamo Architects by clicking here.
Alamo Architects was formed in 1984 by four friends who attended the University of Texas School of Architecture together. Irby Hightower, Mike Lanford, Billy Lawrence, and Mike McGlone all embarked for New York after graduation in the late 1970s, but returned to Texas after five years on the East Coast. After a brief existence as Arrow Architects, the firm became Alamo Architects in 1984, the first listed in the Yellow Pages with a name that unmistakably identified it with San Antonio. Partners tell stories of lean years at the outset, though one memorable project was designing the "papel picado" outdoor space for the Mass celebrated before 350,000 people in San Antonio by Pope John Paul II in 1987.
The firm's first signature project and one of its most enduring was the 1985 relocation of the historic Fairmount Hotel, the heaviest building ever moved, a feat that won the firm and project a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Downtown came to a stop for four days as the 1,600-ton, three-story masonry and cast iron structure was moved from its original location on Commerce and Bowie Streets to its present location at 401 S. Alamo St.
It cost $1 million in 1985 dollars to complete the move, but it also saved the 1906 building, designed by noted San Antonio architect Leo M.K. Dielmann, from certain demolition. The Fairmount had faded by the Great Depression, and was no longer listed as a hotel (according to the Rivard Report's 1954 San Antonio Telephone Directory). By World War II it was a rundown rooming house in a declining downtown long past its turn-of-the-century heyday. Today it's an upscale boutique hotel fronting Hemisfair Park, the only such venue that isn't part of a larger chain.
Dielmann's name isn't widely mentioned anymore, but he also designed the Pearl Brewery and oversaw early restoration of the city's Spanish colonial missions.
Recent arrivals to San Antonio who are unfamiliar with the project that drew international media attention can watch this entertaining film of the Fairmount move. It offers a visual glimpse of a very different downtown and describes San Antonio in 1985 as a "city on the move."
Alamo Architect's website recalls the project as "a crazy, daring, magnificent adventure" that also marked the beginning of the firm's now considerable reputation for historic reuse and adaptation work. Its own offices are located at 1512 South Flores Street in a converted 1944 industrial space that once housed a trailer manufacturing facility. The building is set on two acres of property that Alamo shares with OCO Architects.
Not everything the firm does involves adaptive reuse or historic preservation. Alamo is increasingly known for its contemporary work. It designed the Cevallos Lofts and a number of other multifamily projects for the NRP Group. Outside the urban core, the Shops at la Cantera have become the epicenter of San Antonio's upscale retail economy and number one shopping destination for the city's growing community of Mexican nationals. Many doubted that stores such as Neiman-Marcus and Nordstrom's would last in San Antonio, but the Shops have thrived.
The project's unique design contrasts with other suburban retail developments where patrons drive in their vehicles from store to store with little opportunity to walk or seek shaded shelter. The Shops are set amid a Hill Country wildscape with multiple elevations, lots of shaded walkways, cooling fountains and gathering places for pedestrians to sit and rest. Shoppers arrive in their vehicles and after parking walk from shop to shop.
A noted Alamo project was built in 2002 for San Antonio's many homeless animals. The Humane Society/SPCA of San Antonio and Bexar County at 4804 Fredericksburg Rd. just outside Loop 410, is further proof that superb design and craftsmanship can be extended beyond the urban core into parts of the city more synonymous with sprawl and strip centers.
Many animal shelters are bleak, concrete detention centers that are depressing to visit. Alamo's team reimagined the animal shelter as a destination for animal lovers and a truly humane home for animals awaiting adoption. The complex of buildings in a campus-like setting is infused with natural light and high ceilings. Indoor spaces give way to outdoor pocket parks where humans and animals can be introduced to one another in a cage-free environment. It's a model other cities have since embraced.
For all its visibility with such projects, no San Antonio firm is more associated with community service than Alamo Architects and another of its founding principals, Irby Hightower. He's been especially instrumental in the rebirth of the San Antonio River, serving for more than 17 years as the co-chairman of the River Oversight Committee, which labored long before there were funds to undertake the Museum Reach and the Mission Reach restoration projects. Hightower also helped lead the Midtown-Brackenridge master plan initiative that opened the door to redevelopment of the Broadway corridor before the first multifamily project came out of the ground.
"Architects are extremely good at community service because we are good at thinking about problems broadly and finding solutions, and the San Antonio River was a commitment by the entire firm to help a lot of different people in the city find a path to achieve what we enjoy today," Hightower said.
"Irby has this talent to lead people and community leaders in a direction where they take ownership of an idea not necessarily their own and allow big projects to be realized," McGlone said.
Alamo Architects is listed as the local firm working with Weston Urban on its proposed redevelopment of several downtown blocks that includes a new office tower for Frost Bank, at least 300 new residential units in separate buildings, and adaptive reuse of several historic buildings now owned by the City of San Antonio. If realized, the project could lead to the transformation of multiple blocks of western downtown, suggesting Alamo Architect's most significant work might be realized in the coming years.
*Featured/top image: Alamo Architects office at 1512 S. Flores St. Photo courtesy of Alamo Architects.
Originally published on Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014.