The San Antonio Woman’s Pavilion was built to showcase
women’s worldly contributions to the crowds at HemisFair ’68. Some 40 years after its construction, the landmark sits vacant in HemisFair Park, its clean, horizontal lines and ceramic light fixtures emitting the faintest echo of its groundbreaking past. Today, several well-respected local women leaders have come together to revive the building, which they’ve renamed the San Antonio Women’s Pavilion at HemisFair Park.
“We just wanted a place where women were acknowledged,” said Sherry Kafka Wagner, president of the Women’s Pavilion Board and founding executive director of the original pavilion project. At the time of the grassroots movement to add the building to the fairground structures — which included the U.S. Pavilion (now the soon-to-be-former Federal courthouse on Durango) — and the still-standing Institute of Texan Cultures, “there was nothing in the city that spoke about women.”
Wagner and other prominent San Antonio women, including Nellie Connally, wife of Governor John Connally, Edith McAllister, Mary Denman, Patricia Galt Steves, and Bertha Gonzalez, wife of Congressman Henry B., organized a bottom-up campaign with the intention of showcasing women’s achievements in art, science, business, and government. They hosted coffee parties to finance the exhibition. One coffee klatch seeded hundreds, and soon, more than 8,000 women from 49 states and 14 countries became members by donating funds — as little as $1 apiece — to build the pavilion. What began as plans for a temporary exhibition space soon flourished with an organized wave of support. The word-of-mouth movement attracted other organizations, which donated thousands of dollars in grants to build a permanent structure.
“You have to remember, this was before the women’s movement,” said Wagner, “this was huge.”
After the fair came to a close in October that year, the founders thought the building, which also houses a recording studio, would become a student center for UTSA, but the university used it as a storage warehouse, said Ginger Purdy, founder and president emeritus of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and co-director of the Women’s Pavilion Board. Years later, in a land swap, the City claimed ownership, but the building has remained vacant, slowly succumbing to wear and tear. Wagner, who left San Antonio in 1974, was astonished when she returned in 2003 to find the city’s tourism market booming while the Woman’s Pavilion slowly decayed in the shadow of the Tower of the Americas.
Purdy had worked to reestablish the pavilion for years before Wagner returned. After co-chairing HemisFair’s 25th anniversary celebration in 1993, she was asked to help resurrect the space and its purpose. Some years later, in a chance meeting, she found Wagner and the two devised a restoration plan.
“Before I leave this planet, I am going to bring that building back to life,” said Purdy. Because the women’s hard-fought campaign to fund the pavilion had tapped into a network of international enthusiasm, Purdy said her first glance at the abandoned pavilion made her heartsick. “It’s going to be incredible when everyone sees all the things we have planned,” she said, “and we want every woman in San Antonio to be a part of it; we want to show what women can do.”
Purdy, Wagner, and their supporters hope to restore the building for public events and
women-focused exhibits. They also envision an environmentally friendly atmosphere, which includes building a green rooftop, harvesting rainwater, and blanketing the landscape surrounding the multi-level building with gardens and terraces.
“It will be a tribute to the women who set it up,” said Bonnie Ayer, vice-chair of the Women’s Pavilion Board. “The idea is that we can work with women’s organizations, museums, and just be able to be collaborative.”
The board and the City are negotiating a nominal lease that will allow the group to restore and operate the pavilion.
Cyrus Wagner, whose signature Spanish influence informed by Wright-era architectural theory is also responsible for the Paseo del Rio, designed the peculiar structure. Sherry Wagner later married the architect. The 12,000-square-foot, four-level building’s most eye-catching traits include the city’s tradition of masonry infused with ’60s-inpired open spaces, Mexican brick, hand-carved doors by Lynn Ford, and modulated lighting that includes skylights, clerestories, wooden grills, and Martha Mood ceramic fixtures. One can squeeze into any nook of the building and still have a view of all of its levels. Eighty cement handprints of the women who conceived and realized the pavilion are set in a mosaic on the back wall of the building.
The pavilion needs a major facelift, but the women see potential behind the boarded-up windows. According to Purdy, some notable donations from the city and other private corporations such as AT&T have been vital to the building’s cleanup.
On May 18 from 2-5 p.m., the Women’s Pavilion Board will host a public garden party at the Women’s Pavilion to celebrate its reopening. Check sacurrent.com for details and updates.