The official reason for gathering at Texas A&M University-San Antonio Wednesday morning was the grand opening of the new Central Academic Building, a handsome four-story structure constructed of San Saba sandstone, "the same stone as the Missions.'' With its open plaza, commanding central arch, shimmering white dome, and tall copper-clad doors, the building conveys the same feeling as entering a basilica.
A festive ribbon-cutting and balloon release turned into an enthusiastic and heartfelt homage to President Maria Hernandez Ferrier, one of the most prominent women education leaders in Texas, who will step down from her position as the university's founding president at year's end. Enrollment has grown by 215% since 2008, and A&M-SA is now the fastest growing campus, on a per capita basis, in the state.
The new 420-seat auditorium inside the Central Academic Building featured a stage packed with elected officials, A&M System leaders, including Chancellor John Sharp, Henry Muñoz III, CEO of Muñoz & Company, and Randy Pawelek, chairman and CEO of Bartlett-Cocke General Contractors.
Sen. Carlos Uresti served as master of ceremonies. Other featured speakers included Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, Rep. Jose Farias, Regent Elaine Mendoza, District 3 Councilmember Rebecca Viagran and District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg acting as Mayor Pro-Tem.
University Voices, the school's choral group, sang the National Anthem and, later in the program, the university anthem. Three clergy, Rabbi Peter Tarlow, Pastor Ruben Duarte, and Father Jimmy Drennan, offered spiritual words and prayers during the program.
Wooden panels featuring a Rose Window motif adorn the auditorium and lobby walls. Stained concrete floor tiles imported from Mexico accent the building's hallways. Various design elements link the campus buildings to the Spanish colonial missions several miles away. University officials also unveiled a new logo Wednesday that shows the new building's dome set inside a Rose Window.
"I was given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help build a new university," Ferrier told the audience. "I was very aware something precious was put in my hands."
Uresti, a Southside native whose son, Carlos, graduated from A&M-San Antonio, said, "For so long, this university was an elusive dream for the underserved population here on the Southside of this city, but today, I can say with pride, 'We have arrived!'...These beautiful buildings are indeed changing the landscape of our city. "
Whitmire, who Uresti introduced as "the Dean of the Texas Senate," said he was happy to come from Houston for the occasion.
"On an average day, we deal with problems, so we need days like these today," Whitmire said. 'That's why I drove here from Houston."
Whitmire said Sen. Frank Madla, the driving force behind A&M-San Antonio's founding, was one of his his mentors in the Senate.
"Bob Bullock mentored young senators like me and he taught us it's amazing what you can get done if you don't worry about who gets the credit...Ladies and gentlemen, double down on A&M-San Antonio, it's a great bet."
Farias echoed a common sentiment heard these days on the Southside.
"I can't help but think: Look how far we've come," Farias said. He called Ferrier "an amazing lady."
Viagran called the new building "just one step" in the university's development.
"I am proud to say I'm a native of the Southside and when I graduated from high school there was no A&M-SA, no four-year university on the Southside," said Viagran, a Texas State University graduate.
Mendoza said many doubted the Southside could sustain a four-year university.
"All of you guys drove down University Way," she said."Does this look like a campus that's distressed?"
For Muñoz and his colleagues, the A&M campus is arguably the most important design project the firm has undertaken in San Antonio, even if most people have not yet seen it. Other projects, including the Convention Center expansion, have offered less opportunity to design something as distinctive and enduring or as coherently planned as the university campus and its buildings. The three buildings and landscaped gardens and plazas have risen out of South Texas brush country as dramatic symbols of a Southside undergoing a long overdue transformation. Only a small portion of the university's 694-acre campus has been developed.
“It is a once in a lifetime experience to be involved in the design of a new public university and all of us at Muñoz and Company feel honored by this chance to create an architecture that changes people’s lives," Muñoz said in a statement. "Today, Texas A&M University-San Antonio opens the doors to a new academic building and with it, the doors of educational opportunity swing wide open for new generations of Texans in search of the American dream.
“The character of the new Central Academic Building at A&M-San Antonio reflects the rich cultural heritage and traditions of South Texas," he continued. "This building embodies an architecture of cultural identity that is a national model for Hispanic-serving institutions.”
Sharp and Ferrier have always displayed a strong personal connection. He's made frequent trips to the San Antonio campus to demonstrate his commitment to its growth as a free-standing institution. Ferrier said A&M-SA had a positive SACS accreditation visit and hopes accreditation is granted before she leaves office in December.
"I asked Maria, what do you want me to talk about," Sharp quipped. "She looked at me and said, 'Jefe, about two minutes.' "
Sharp said the day would come when San Antonio is home to two of the state's biggest university campuses.
"When I come back here in 30 years, when I'm 100," Sharp said, "This university will either be the second largest or the largest in the system."
Sharp then called on San Antonio artist Lionel Sosa, telling the audience he had asked Sosa earlier if the portrait of Ferrier he had commissioned was finished on time.
"Did you finish the portrait, is it big?" Sharp said he asked Sosa.
"It's big, it's life-size," Sosa said.
"That's not big," Sharp said, a reference to Ferrier's diminutive physical stature.
Sharp and Sosa, whose paintings of South Texans are prominently displayed in both the Sen. Frank Madla and Central Academic Buildings, then unveiled a life-size portrait of Ferrier that will hang in the new building.
Two landscapes, titled "Sunrise" and "Sunset," painted by San Antonio artist Bryson Brooks, both a gift from Henry Muñoz to the university, were hung Monday in the Central Academic building lobby, one dedicated to Ferrier and her family, the other to Sharp and and his administration.
After the ceremonies in the new building, the group gathered outside under dark storm clouds to cut a ceremonial ribbon and release biodegradable balloons containing wildflower seeds. Even the rain waited until the event concluded and then began to fall.
Ferrier, whose long career has focused on elevating inner-city education outcomes and taken her from San Antonio to Washington and back, will become the first director of the A&M System's new Department of Development and Mexico Relations. She will oversee relations with Mexico for all 11 A&M System campuses and seven System Agencies. Her offices will be located at the University's Educational & Cultural Arts Center, the former Museo Alameda, in downtown San Antonio.
Many people in San Antonio still have not seen the A&M campus, located a mile south of the Zarzamora Street exit on Loop 410, only a few miles from the Toyota Texas Manufacturing Plant.
The new Mission Revival building dominates the landscape as visitors approach the campus from Loop 410 and proceed up University Way. At 170,750 sq. ft, it is nearly double the size of the 90,000-sq.-ft. Sen. Frank L. Madla Building, the first building on the four-year-old A&M Campus. The smaller, white-washed Patriots' Casa is nearly ready for use.
Ground will be broken soon on a fourth major building. A large bronze statue of Sen. Madla, who led the years-long drive to bring a four-year university to the Southside, has been commissioned and will be erected in front of the Sen. Madla Building on Nov. 1.