World Heritage in Texas!

July 5, 2015 Global Heritage, History, Texas Comments (0) 277

This is the time of year new World Heritage sites are inscribed by UNESCO.  The total number passed 1000 last year, after over 40 years of the program.  As I have noted before, the United States has not taken advantage of World Heritage status in many years, partly due to a political funding dispute.  Absurdly, the U.S. has refused to pay its UNESCO dues for many years, so even though we can arguably afford to take care of our sites, at World Heritage level, we are deadbeats.

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The Alamo.  Remember?

Many developing nations sought WH inscription to promote sites for tourism and development, but lacked the resources it takes to produce a verifiably management plan for each site, hence groups like Global Heritage Fund.

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Sacro Monte, Ossola valley, Italy

I had the honor of speaking on the subject of architecture and heritage at this World Heritage site in Italy on my birthday last week.  Italy has more WH sites inscribed than any other country, which is not surprising given the influence of its histories and designs on the rest of the world.  Still, it is good to finally see U.S. sites attaining this status and it is especially exciting for me that a site a few hundred yards from my birthplace now has been recognized for its outstanding universal value.  Plus, many of my dear friends, like Shanon Shea Miller, have worked on this project for several years, and many other friends, like Andrew Potts, were on hand in Bonn, Germany, for the inscription.

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Now I guess the rest of the world has to remember the Alamo too…

The five Franciscan missions that include the Alamo were inscribed yesterday and they represent not only a very interesting period in world history, they also are an important chapter in the history of heritage conservation (historic preservation) in America.  After the fledgling preservationists of San Antonio were formed to fight a plan to pave the river downtown and insert a new street grid – hence creating the famous Riverwalk – they next turned their attention to saving the four missions that run in a line from the Alamo south.   The San Antonio Conservation Society remains one of the most important heritage groups in the country.

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Mission San Jose, built 1768

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And its famous rose window….

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Mission Espada

Five years ago I made a point of visiting each of the missions (and blogged about it) and was struck by the consistency of their conservation, style, and rich interpretation, which is key.  The California missions – mostly founded by another Franciscan friar, Junipero Serra – form a much longer chain along El Camino Real but their history is more diverse, and you certainly can’t visit them all in a day.

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Mission Concepcion

While the history of the Alamo has always focused more on its role as a bastion for Anglo Texan settlers against the Mexican Army in 1836, the other missions present the rich – and complicated – history of how these missions were founded to convert and economically exploit native populations.  They were not churches as much as Indian towns centered on churches that functioned like haciendas or plantations.

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Interpretive panels at Mission Concepcion

It is not a simple or moralizing history, and we might say the same for their initial preservation 90 years ago, when heritage sites tended toward the saccharine and idealized in their stories.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano

Several San Antonio dignitaries were on hand in Bonn to celebrate the inscription, including Mayor Ivy Collins.  They feel the inscription will bring as much as $100 million in new tourism and development investment to the city and area.  Certainly these are fascinating sites, both visually and historically, and they make a trip to this excellent city more valuable.

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Foundations of church at Mission Espada

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Church interior, Mission Espada

One of the interesting facts about the inscription is that many of the missions are still active churches, or have been reactivated, and thus present over 250 years of human use.  At several of them you can see remnants of the other buildings that made up these towns/plantations, and there has been an active and effective archaeological investigation at the sites for a long time,  They predate the California missions by a few years, and their ongoing conservation and interpretation (four are part of a National Historic Park created over 30 years ago) has been of high quality.

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Arch and ornamental entrance, Mission San Jose

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Stone entrance detail, Mission Concepcion

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Gate at Mission Espada

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Courtyard area with stove, Mission San Jose

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Mission Concepcion

So Remember not only the Alamo, but the five San Antonio missions that together describe centuries of history, settlement, belief and community in a unique North American cultural place!

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