Trinity University to Seek Historic Designation

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Trinity University.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Trinity Tower at Trinity University.

The Trinity Tower is an iconic feature of the midtown San Antonio skyline, and soon it – along with the rest of the university – may be protected for posterity. Trinity University will pursue designation as a registered Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We are heirs to a historic mid-century modern masterpiece,” Trinity President Danny Anderson wrote in the announcement of the university’s initiative.

Renowned local architect O’Neil Ford created a master plan for the campus in the mid-1940s, and subsequently designed many of the buildings as the plan came to fruition throughout the ’50s and ’60s. The cohesive red-brick environment, a color now known as “Trinity red,” and clean lines of Ford’s buildings have stood up to decades of trends and changes in higher education. As renovation becomes necessary, the university’s new master plan, Trinity Tomorrow, calls for the exteriors to be preserved as interiors are updated to accommodate the latest technology and learning environments.

University Librarian Diane Graves, who chaired the master plan committee, said Ford’s original vision inspired Trinity Tomorrow. The historic designation is a way to preserve and highlight that inspiration.

“In some way the historic district recommendation is sort of the centerpiece of the master plan,” Graves said.

As Anderson visited with various alumni chapters during his first years at Trinity, he noted three themes continually raised by the graduates. First, alumni spoke about their connection to the physical environment of the campus. Some described an emotional “click” when they walked onto the campus for the first time, as well as the intimate social environment and the rigorous academics.

“O’Neil Ford really got something right when he designed this campus,” Anderson said. He has noticed, and other architects have confirmed, that Trinity’s campus is designed to facilitate connections. Courtyards, porches, and plazas encourage students and faculty to stop and talk, or even to stroll together. Alumni credit their academic success to those connections, encouraged by the space.

At the same time, each turn reveals new views and vantages that encourage constant exploration, another distinct aspect of the Trinity experience. Even the construction of the buildings was innovative in its time, from the lift-slab engineering to the way the buildings channel natural light, breeze, and shade to reduce energy consumption.

“We believe O’Neil Ford would have embraced what we are doing,” Anderson said.

Trinity enlisted the help of Page, a multidisciplinary engineering and architecture firm based in Austin, in crafting Trinity Tomorrow. Page’s Larry Speck has done extensive research on Ford and encouraged the university to seek the historic designation. Not only would it signal the priorities of the university, but it would allow them access to more grants and funding streams in the future.

Ford’s work at Trinity is unique in two respects, Graves said. It is rare for one architect to deliver such a comprehensive design on a campus. Ford also dared to use a modern aesthetic when Gothic and Georgian were more the style. Among the campuses that did embrace modernism, Trinity is one of the few that remains broadly appealing, Graves said.

Anderson praised Ford’s design for fostering “the power of connection” in an academic environment. The historic designation would not create a “static museum,” but a continuing commitment to use the space as intended, he said.

“We want to carry that energy of innovation into the future and let that be seen as a foundational feature of the campus,” Anderson added.

The administration sees Trinity Tomorrow as an amplification of the seeds of connection and innovation Ford planted. To enhance the campus’ connection to its surroundings, the master plan also includes:

  • Establishing a main entrance on Hildebrand Avenue to serve as the university’s “front door.” This gateway project proposes a new building that could serve as an admissions or alumni “welcome center.”
  • The plan highlights the “living/learning corridor” that runs north to south through our campus. This corridor strengthens the connections between upper and lower campus, improves pedestrian navigation, and activates activity nodes to strengthen the campus’ east-west connections. This corridor makes the center of our campus a more inviting public space for community life.
  • Re-imaging the Coates University Center as the central dining facility on campus. This is one “activity node” along the corridor that brings us together as a community. A proposed 500-person ballroom could amplify the impact of this “activity node.”
  • Improvements to existing student housing and the addition of independent living options for juniors and seniors. The plan identifies the need for more single rooms, kitchens, and common space in residence halls. The recent purchase of City Vista apartments, which will begin housing juniors, seniors, and graduate students this fall, helped the university leap ahead on one of the residential initiatives – to provide an apartment-style living option.
  • A new wayfinding program to provide signage for better navigation of the campus.
  • Activating the linkage among a renovated Chapman Center and Halsell Administrative Studies with Coates Library. Academic activities are at the heart of this connection, and building design can enhance them. One possible strategy is a structure connecting these buildings, expanding space, and fostering interaction across disciplines.

The university’s deadline to submit the application to the Texas Historical Commission will be in the late spring, Graves said. The Historical Commission will then make the recommendation to the National Parks Service. Graves expects an answer in the fall, around the time the university celebrates its 75th anniversary in San Antonio. As for the Historical Commission, Ford’s legacy gives her confidence.

“As a state we’re pretty proud of O’Neil Ford,” Graves said.

If Trinity succeeds in obtaining the designation, it will join the almost 90,000 properties already on the National Register of Historic Places, representing more than 1 million individual structures. San Antonio and Bexar County have 143 designated historic districts, places, or buildings. The university’s immediate surroundings include the Monte Vista neighborhood, Alamo Stadium, and Brackenridge Park, all of which are included in the National Register. Monte Vista includes several homes designed by Ford as well.

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