Walking Tour

Welcome to Southwest School of Art, a nationally recognized leader in visual arts education. We invite you to use this self-guided walking tour as a resource to explore the historic campus. Frequently referred to as an urban oasis, the campus has been a place for learning and growth for more than 165 years.  The buildings and campus of Southwest School of Art originally comprised the Ursuline Convent and Academy, established in1851.

In 1965 the Ursuline Academy moved and the complex fell into disrepair.  After a few years, a portion of the historic site was sold to the San Antonio Conservation Society, who had a heartfelt mission to save it from developers.  In 1971, Southwest School of Art was invited by the Society to use a portion of the property for arts education.  Eventually, the School purchased the entire site and with extensive renovation and restoration, has been able to create one of the most beautiful and successful examples of historic adaptive use in the nation.

The historic structures remain standing today because of the determination and generosity of the School’s founders, their friends, the San Antonio Conservation Society and donors that has been expressed over several decades. We are an officially recognized Texas Historic Landmark and we are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The addition of our BFA degree program in fall of 2013 established Southwest School of Art as the only independent college of art in Texas.

Getting Started on the Tour

The McNutt Welcome Center is typically the first stop for visitors to our campus.  In addition to information about the School, you'll find the Office of the Registrar, the Office of Admission and Student Support Services.  And, to learn more about the Ursuline Academy era, please visit the Ursuline History Center, located in the Administration Building and staffed by .

Zilker Courtyard

The Ursuline Academy opened in 1851 as the first school for girls in San Antonio. This complex of buildings reflects the French Gothic Style and was designed by Francois Giraud, a San Antonio architect who received his education in France. Giraud later became mayor of San Antonio. The craftsmen /builders were also San Antonians who inherited skills and techniques that can be traced back to pre-colonial Spain.

The campus is an architectural treasure, imbued with the charm of age and the dynamic energy of its location – along a section of river the Irish Nuns poetically dubbed “The Meander” referring to the curvaceous route unique to this section of the river’s journey.  The area now known as the Zilker Courtyard was commonly known as the Nun’s Garden during the Ursuline period of the campus before later being named in honor of the family of SSA founder Maggie Saunders Block. In 2002, the Ruth Johnson Memorial Fountain was dedicated to honor Johnson, the steward of the renovation project from 1970 to 1997.

McNutt Convent & River Garden

From the Zilker Courtyard, proceed through the First Academy breezeway to the Convent Garden. The grotto on the left enshrines a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Originally located along the river, it was moved to this location around 1914, when the city changed the route of the river to accommodate street improvements. The outbuildings behind the grotto served as laundry, kitchen, carriage house, and music building. In the early 1980s, these were converted into Club Giraud, a private club whose members contribute to the School.

Beyond the Convent Garden is the River Garden, which borders the San Antonio River. Throughout the grounds, you will see a variety of Texas native plants, such as Spanish Oak, Texas Live Oak, Pecan, Anaqua and Texas Mountain Laurel. Some plantings date back to the time of the Ursulines. Our grounds are maintained with support from the Amy Shelton McNutt Trust.

Negley Academy Building

The First Academy Building is the earliest structure on the site. It was erected between 1848-51 under the direction of Bishop Jean-Marie Odin, who worked to reestablish the Catholic Church in South Texas after years of neglect during the Texas revolution and Republic of Texas era.  In the beginning, classes were taught in four languages — French, English, Spanish and German — to accommodate the languages spoken by San Antonio’s population. Architect Giraud worked with a French mason, Jules Poinsard, to construct the building using the pisé de terre method. Pisé de terre is a rammed-earth construction method of packing layers of thick local clays, rock and straw into wooden forms. Once the forms are removed, a skin of plaster is applied to the surface.

The structure consisted of two (2) rooms downstairs and two (2) rooms upstairs, with a central hallway dividing the structure.   In 1854, an addition was made to the First Academy (the stone section to the left) to provide more dormitory space for boarding students on the second floor and a small chapel. The Academy Building currently houses the Office of Young Artist Programs, several painting studios, and the McNutt Welcome Center.

Coates Chapel

At the end of the courtyard is the Coates Chapel, which began construction in 1867, immediately after the Dormitory Building. François Giraud designed the Gothic, L-shaped layout of the Coates Chapel to accommodate the Ursuline Order, which was cloistered until the 20th century. Latticed grillework screened the choir and choir loft areas (upper chapel), as well as the section of the church devoted to students.

The public was seated in the perpendicular axis (lower chapel) with the altar in the central part of the L. The whole structure of hand-cut limestone blocks was “piled-up”, and was constructed without the use of brick. The limestone is held together with mortar made of caliche and lime. Several of the stained glass windows are original to the structure and were made in France. They each have a metal frame rather than one made of wood, which dates them to the 1880s. It is said that they arrived, packed in straw, from Galveston, Texas.

Tobin Priest's House

Across the Convent Garden and opposite the grotto is the Priest’s House. Built in 1883-84, this structure served as the Priest’s apartments and as parlor rooms and classrooms. The two-story building replaced an earlier one-story structure that had been quarters for a handyman. The Priest’s House is the current location of the Maxham Fibers Studio.  With over 50 looms, we have one of the largest weaving programs in the nation.

Turning to the right and passing between the Coates Chapel and the Priest’s House, you'll find yourself in a small enclosed patio with a doorway. To the left side of the door you'll notice a “turn around” that was used by the cloistered nuns for communicating with the outside world. Upon passing through the doorway, you'll arrive the original public entrance to the Coates Chapel.

Urschel Dormitory Building

The School continued to grow through the years of the Civil War, and in 1866, the academy expanded again. A large Dormitory Building, across from the First Academy, was designed by Giraud and constructed from locally quarried limestone. Bishop Claude Dubuis brought the three-faced clock on top of the Dormitory from France in 1868. Downstairs were classrooms, the dining room and other common use spaces. The upper story porches, or galleries, were added sometime after the 1870s.

On the second floor, along a wide central hallway, were the rooms for boarding students. Each girl slept in a spool bed that featured a tall frame with a white curtain that could be drawn on the side and along the aisle to form a private nook. Beside each bed stood a personal washstand, stool, a clothes hook, area rug and a white chamber pot underneath. In 1910, these rooms became the primary residence for the nuns.

The Dormitory Building is currently occupied by administrative offices, the Ursuline History Center, the student lounge, and the Copper Kitchen Café. Be sure to stop by the History Center during open hours to see displays and artifacts of the School’s past.

Santikos Building

The most recent expansion is the Santikos Building, which opened in 1998 and houses 33,000 square feet of classrooms, studios and exhibition spaces. The Santikos building is located across the street from the Ursuline campus and was former a tire store and automotive center.  This adaptive use project helped to stimulate other revitalization projects in the area.

Southwest School of Art is the site of more than a dozen exhibitions each year by prominent local, regional and national artists.  We are recognized by many as one of the best places in San Antonio to view art and as a key contributor to the San Antonio arts and culture scene and all exhibitions are free and open to the public.

Facility Rentals

Our lush, historic grounds provide a tranquil oasis within the vibrant heart of downtown San Antonio, and for many years has provided an unforgettable setting for many beautiful gatherings.  Located on the banks of the romantic San Antonio River, our historic buildings and lush grounds are an important part of the city’s rich culture, architectural past, and creative soul.  We offer a variety of space options suited to many types of events, ranging from fairytale weddings and receptions, to corporate events and high-energy cocktail parties.  Rental options are available on both our historic site and our Santikos campus, which allows us to easily accommodate parties ranging from 12 to 500 guests.

If you would like more information regarding our event spaces or to check available dates, please visit our Rentals  page. 

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