- Associated Press - Friday, December 4, 2015

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - Dating to 1880, the complex of interconnected buildings known as Plaza de Armas, situated between City Hall and San Pedro Creek, next door to the Spanish Governor’s Palace, has served a variety of businesses, from the Fashion Theater to Edward Steves’ lumber warehouse to Vogel Belts.

The San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1Qk5FeH ) reports the historic complex has also housed saloons, pawn shops, hardware stores, and a wagon and buggy repair shop.

“Since the buildings were built as warehouses, there were not any ornate finishes,” said Allison Chambers, project manager for Ford, Powell & Carson’s massive $12.9-million, 58,000-square-foot rehabilitation of the historic landmark, which took 21 months, working under the design-build contractor of Byrne Construction Services. “So we thought, ‘What can we do to make this interesting?’ And we came to the conclusion that we’d highlight the construction techniques. That’s why you see so many exposed ceiling joists and masonry walls.”

Those joists in the 16-foot ceilings were made from longleaf pine, a Steves specialty, and some of that old-growth wood was salvaged from other sections of the building to repair original wood floors, which now have a soothing golden glow.

The renovated building is home to the San Antonio Community Access Network Studios, the Department for Culture & Creative Development and the Department of Government and Public Affairs. The city-leased O’liva, a cafe offering international cuisine, occupies the Dolorosa Street corner.

“Plaza de Armas has undergone a drastic transformation to become a welcoming space where people will be inspired to create,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said in a statement.

The airy, open spaces, full of natural light, are a far cry from the Plaza de Armas that housed the city’s Human Resources Department when it evacuated the building in 2011, in part because of water leaking into the basement from the nearby creek.

“It was not real … healthy,” said Chambers. “It was a rat’s maze of desks and offices.”

Sheetrock covered old brick and limestone walls, now exposed, and carpet covered century-old hardwood floors. In some areas, drop ceilings cut off tall windows looking out onto what was once the plaza where the Presidio (Fort) of Béjar was located in 1722, where a great oak tree saw lynchings in the Mexican Rebellion of 1813, and where chili queens sold fiery bowls of their beefy concoctions beginning in the 1880s, alongside cattle brokers and vegetable stands.

There’s a lot of history here. During construction, the Texas Historical Commission identified artifacts - American Indian and Spanish colonial ceramics, gun flints, rosary beads from the Spanish Colonial occupations - dating back to the early 18th century.

While the upstairs offices for the two city departments offer inviting spaces to conduct municipal business, some of the improvements are invisible.

The two TV studios, both 2,500 square feet, for public and government access channels are supported by steel structures within the masonry to damper vibration and sound from street traffic. It’s a far cry from the city’s former studios, which encompassed about 200 square feet.

“It’s very state-of-the-art,” said Chambers, the project manager. “We collaborated with a consultant out of Dallas who has worked with ESPN and the NFL Network.”

What is visible are old brick blocks in the wall that supported a floor - dropped four feet to make more headroom in the studios.

“It’s a pretty modern use for such an old building,” said Melissa Sparks, spokeswoman for the city’s Transportation & Capital Improvements department, which managed the renovation.

The city has more than 200 registered producers for public access, from music shows to religious broadcasts. The studios are open to all San Antonians, who can make their own programs with city staff’s help in production and editing for broadcast. More than 160 local shows run on public access.

“A lot of it is talking heads,” said Frank Burns, television programming coordinator. “We also have a lot of religious programming, activists, music shows. And a lot of it is people on their soap boxes, which is what public access is meant for.”

Fourteen city departments have regular broadcasts on the government access channel, said Di Galvan, assistant director of government and public affairs.

“It’s really about transparency when it comes to the government channel,” she said.

The two studios are separated by a soundproof accordion “Skyfold” wall that stacks up into the ceiling.

“So we could utilize the entire space and have town meetings in here and broadcast them,” Galvan said.

The first floor also features an art gallery, which recently hosted “Resymbol,” a public art project highlighting San Antonio-based artists, and the 2,400-square-foot multipurpose Culture Commons space, which can be rented by arts and cultural groups for meetings, workshops and performances.

Historic photographs of the plaza embellish the walls, reminding visitors of what was once here, while artwork by San Antonio artists bring them back to the present.

A lobby wall is dominated by a giant vinyl mesh reproduction of the plaza’s original 1716 plan hand-drawn by a Spanish captain.

“We saw this building as a community space, a space for collecting and communicating ideas,” said Jimmy LeFlore, the city’s public art manager. “We want this to be a gathering place, which harkens back to this area’s history as a commons, a plaza space.”

The historic marker for Plaza de Armas reads, in part: “The present City Hall was completed in 1892, and the old market was moved several blocks west. Although no longer a military or commercial center, the ancient plaza remains the municipal heart of San Antonio.”

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Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

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