“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”
- Mark Twain
I have always loved history because it contains everything. It is full of contradictions, replete with exceptions that prove the rule, and layered with conflicting motivations, unintended consequences, and outright paradoxes. Those of us who promote history by preserving historic sites revel in this depth and complexity. It isn’t simply that more stories can be told from each place. You can also attract more visitors, and thus complexity adds money as well.
This was one of the big arguments we made about preserving the Woolworth Building with its important Civil Rights history across from the Alamo (see this blog for example). Under the old plan, you would get Alamo battle tourists only. By adding another layer to the depth of history told, you get more tourists. That means more money. That’s why everyone was so excited when the Alamo and the other San Antonio Missions became a World Heritage Site in 2015 (my blog at the time).* Because that adds another story – the story of the missions, the Franciscans, soldiers and indigenous people who first populated the city in the 18th century. More stories = more tourists = more money.
I bring this up because some tabloids and their online siblings have been attacking various National Trust historic sites for being “w*ke” or adopting “CRT” or some other cryptohistoric political claptrap they invented. Being tabloids, they strive to paint sites onto one side of the political spectrum by outright lying that they are only interpreting these sites one way.
Wrong. Also stupid. Also you lose money because you shut out stories that attract more and different people. Diversity is always going to be economically richer. One of those maligned by the knuckle-draggers was Montpelier, which I visited as a Trustee of the National Trust some years ago.
The main point of interpretation was James Madison and the Constitution, which it still is. So don’t believe the tabloidiots who said otherwise. Another story being told is that James Madison could not maintain 100 buildings all by himself and had enslaved people do it. That story is also told. I saw the preparations for both of those stories – and many more about nature and gardens and decorative arts and lifestyles. That’s how successful sites work – they have depth. Otherwise people would see them once for an hour and never have to return.
The problem with “culture wars” is that they are driven by ideology. Ideologies, as I explained before (and despite their verifiable agency) are always wrong BECAUSE they are static and thus ignore history. History is dynamic, diverse, complex and contradictory. That’s why it is so fun. You can’t get it all in an hour. Or a day. Or a week. Or a lifetime.
When the mouth-breathing tabloidiots is that when they say “w*ke” or “CRT” they are making it up. These house museums and historical societies are about preserving and interpreting history, and the more the better. Their agenda is telling a deep, rich and complete story of everything that happened over time.
Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
*FUN FACT: The 1836 Battle for the Alamo is not part of the World Heritage nomination for the missions.
I don’t wake up every morning pissed off about the dominant lingering effect of Cartesian dualism on American society, but then I open Facebook and it is hard to think of anything else. Thank the commodification of politicofragilistic clickbait in emergent cryptocapitalism for this morass.
We complain about the polarization of political opinion and wish there was a middle ground. But that is phrasing the problem in terms of a dualism that is imaginary.
And powerful. Americans are crafted from ideas more than most nations, which has made us do a lot of crazy shit, from Salem witch trials to Jim Crow, from race-based enslavement to Prohibition. We happily cut off our nose to spite our face. The political trajectory of the last forty years is indeed reminiscent of Prohibition, which spread from state to state for two generations before becoming federal law.
I remember an Irish colleague asking how on earth Prohibition could have happened, and to me the answer is we were founded by a religious cult (Pilgrims) that was too wacky even for Holland. Americans see things in moral terms, hopelessly dualistic, and profoundly Cartesian.
This is not fundamentally different from how fundamentalists worldwide witness the world. Dualism is inherent in most religions, although not necessarily in most religious texts. Indeed, Descartes himself was struggling mightily to reconcile evidence-based knowledge with his own religious convictions. He needed two vessels, so he became them.
But Americans carry dualism and categories much farther, unfettered by chains dating to the Age of Reason like experimentation, synthesis, history, and the common.1 As I have said before, history is an Enlightenment Project, like museums and ultimately, heritage conservation. Our dualisms and categories push us back further, into a medieval mind that is both timeless and provincial, safe in simplicity but fearful of nuance and the unintended consequence.
- And the Oxford Comma. There, I said it.
A child characterizes the world in broad strokes to make it understandable. There are good guys and bad guys. If we mature, we see more nuance. We see the good and bad in many people, and while some remain largely good or bad actors, most are more interesting than the simple dichotomy because we are able to see them as a bundle of interests. That is more interesting.
Here is the Hughes House on Courtland Avenue, an absolutely beautiful 1912 Prairie Style home here in San Antonio (by a St. Louis architect) that was threatened by demolition last fall. A demolition permit had been applied for by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which had owned the property for 50 years. The obvious purchaser was San Antonio College, which owned the adjacent parking lots.
A lot of neighborhood activists and the Conservation Society of San Antonio opposed the demolition and asked that it be considered as a landmark. Ricki Kushner of the Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association and Michael Carroll put together a detailed history of the house. In addition to its lovely architecture, it was where Russell Hughes grew up, a famous international dancer who was celebrated for her skills.
So, depending on your point of view, you could say there were good guys (preservationists, or the two institutions) and bad guys (the two institutions, or the preservationists). But that view requires some kind of obliteration of one side or the other. That’s not how you save a building.
You save a building by finding where the various actors’ interests lie, and seeing if there isn’t a way to ally those interests into a solution. So, in this case, the preservation folks asked San Antonio College to NOT purchase the property for demolition since the site was valued by the community. We distributed yard signs saying “SAVE THE HUGHES HOUSE”. San Antonio College agreed not to pursue acquisition of the site because good community relations is in their financial and public relations interest. Then we asked the Archdiocese to consider selling the property on the market, since their interest was to make money off the deal.
They did that and found a buyer who is interested in preservation. Now, everyone gets to be the good guy, because all interests have all been considered and the landmark lives on.
Many thanks the May Chu and Andrew Weissman for teaming up to save this landmark! Look for a new venue that will allow you to see the fabulous interiors – like these fireplaces! The Conservation Society introduced May to our local legendary chef Andrew and the whole community is excited about the possibility!
A week ago I joined the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s tour of the Hill Country, and it was replete with fachwerkbau, which is the German word for a type of building construction called half-timbered in English. Basically it is heavy timber joinery infilled in the wall plane with a local masonry material. In the Hill Country, that material is often local limestone.
This Old World technique came naturally to region settled in the mid-19th century by German farmers. Often they might begin, as at the 1856 Faltin House in Comfort, with a log structure, adding fachwerk sections over time.
The Klingelhoeffer House in Fredericksburg was originally built as a fachwerkbau “dogtrot” with a covered open passage between two rooms. The passage was later filled in and more rooms added to the rear.
One amazing little building was this fachwerkbau Chapel in Fredericksburg, which appeared to have been made entirely of extremely unruly curved logs.
A real cool feature here and in another house about a block away were the visible joiner’s marks, which told the builders which pieces of heavy timber fit next to which others. They were generally done in Roman numerals, although with “VIIII” substituting for “IX”!
Here is a view of the whole chapel
Most of these are not generally open, but you can visit the Pioneer Village in Fredericksburg and see the excellent Kammlah House and store, where you are treated to many view of heavy timber and fachwerkbau.
The area also has many of the rock houses, and I have to give props to Baylor’s Kenneth Hafertepe, who wrote the excellent The Material Culture of German Texas, which I wish I had read prior to working on a National Register nomination for one such rock house. They are ubiquitous in the area.
The Tatsch House in Fredericksburg has an amazing large hearth that appears to have been added after initial construction. This is a classic Hill Country “rock house” which often started with a single cubical rock room, with sections added over the years.
Well, it has been over a month since my last blog, and that month has included all of Fiesta here in San Antonio, the first real Fiesta in two years and it was a blockbuster! A Night In Old San Antonio(R) our four-night event, was packed as usual for the food, drink, music and more celebrating San Antonio’s diverse cultural inheritance. This was our 73rd presentation of this event, which means it is itself a cultural expression worthy of preservation!
In addition to our signature Fiesta traditions, we also have a strong preservation ethic. So here are some buildings that might not make it in another city.
March 2022 and all of a sudden I am doing tours again – Alamo, Missions, the Conservation Society’s historic house museums (Steves Homestead in King William and the Yturri-Edmunds House and Mill) and sites in between. I did a talk and walk with a Houston arts group, and all-day tour with a Houston boys school and a tour with Preservation Action auction winners this week.
The 186th anniversary of the Alamo battle is in a few days, just as the world watches another hopelessly overmatched people try to repel an invading army, a parallel not lost on the speakers who celebrated the Texas Revolution at the Alamo yesterday.
On March 16 at lunchtime we will be screening our videos on San Antonio’s historic 1960 lunch counter integration at the Instituto Cultural de Mexico in Hemisfair, followed by a panel discussion led by Sarah Zenaida Gould, PhD, of the Mexican American Civil Rights Initiative. Please join us for this free event!
This will be followed the very next night by our biannual Historic Preservation Awards honoring projects and people in and around San Antonio. This paid event has several highlights, including the restoration of City Hall and the incredible dome at Temple Beth-El. Also Texas Preservation Heroes!
This is followed by a blizzard of galas the final week of the month, including our own Capital Club event on the 22nd, the Brackenridge Park Conservancy Gala on the 23rd, and the Make It Your Mission gala on the 24th. And then it is less than a week to Fiesta!
NIOSA is April 5-8 this year, so order your tickets now!
It was a cold night, dipping below freezing, and the morning saw another fire at the landmark site 503 Urban Loop, which had suffered a small one in December attributed to repeated infiltrations by homeless. This time it looks like a total loss, just two weeks after the owners asked the Conservation Society, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the Westside Preservation Alliance for another delay of our Request for Review of Significance to landmark the site. We submitted the request last August.
An important visual link to important history has been destroyed. This history includes the only reminder of the city’s Red Light District as it was built originally in 1883 as a brothel by Aurelia Dashiell and hosted Fanny Porter and the Wild Bunch of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the turn of the last century. It also had a much longer history as an orphanage and day dare center for the bustling Mexican-American Laredito district for over a century. Bishop John Shaw purchased and rehabbed the building in 1913 and the next year the Carmelite Sisters opened a day care and orphanage to serve refugees from the Mexican Revolution.
The new orphanage and day care center brought Reverend Mother Mary Teresa to San Antonio and Mother Mary Felicitas took charge. The noted midwife Ramona Ramos ran the nearby Casa de Maternidad and was likely involved. Most importantly, the building was one of the ONLY sites associated with the Laredito community that survived. The other is Casa Navarro, which the Conservation Society saved in 1959.
The erasure of Laredito is nearly complete now, thanks to this fire. It is always fire, and it is always gut-wrenching to lose these visceral, haptic connections to our shared history. I remember walking the dog in Humboldt Park Chicago in 1992 and seeing that the stunning Humboldt Park Stables had burned in what turned out to be an arson fire.
I remember 2006, when three Louis Sullivan buildings were lost to fire during the 150th anniversary of his birth, two by careless rehab contractors.
What makes this conflagration at 503 Urban Loop in San Antonio so disturbing is that it removes an important connection to a community that has seen far more than its share of erasure – deliberate and otherwise – for more than half a century.
“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram, once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”
The famous quote of Daniel Burnham two years before his death is a rousing bugle call to think big and build big. A half century later in the apotheosis of postwar optimism, planners and architects in the richest economy ever found their blood stirred by magic and found that for once big bold visions could actually be built.
And they screwed up, because as the architect Jack Hartray noted, the mischief of High Modernism was that they felt they knew everything and could predict all future needs. Hence the full-floor air conditioners in Mies van der Rohe’s 1971 IBM Building, now a hotel. No one is good at futurism, even the recorders of noble diagrams. Circumstances change.
Modernist plans like University of Illinois at Chicago or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs have suffered similar alterations as the all-encompassing original designs proved too specific for the passage of time or human patterns of use.
Every real place that is built and exists for a couple of decades evolves through patterns of use, changing technology, changing needs, tastes and a mountainside of externalities. I argue that iterative design is more efficient and practical, despite lacking the magic and well-stirred blood.
The food truck is a great example of iterative design that starts small and then gets bigger, stirring a little more blood as it gets a sense of what works and what doesn’t and as films and life have shown us, the lowly food truck may well become a Michelin-starred restaurant one day.
I was thinking about this as I read through the final report of the Facility and Land Stewardship Task Force for the Institute of Texan Cultures, which I served on. This Institute was created a half century ago as a re-use of the Texas Pavilion from the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio, Hemisfair. The huge Brutalist structure is aging, and it sits two miles distant from the rest of the downtown campus of University of Texas San Antonio.
Of course, the original big plan in 1970 was to have the whole UTSA campus right next to the ITC in Hemisfair, but it went out to Sprawlland instead. The Institute of Texan Cultures is basically an ethnographic museum supplemented with rotating exhibits on a variety of subjects and gets half of its admissions during the annual Texas Folklife Festival.
Now, our Task Force was told we were not talking about the future of the building but rather the institution. To contradict that point, they opened with a review of various studies of the ITC building which illustrated that it could never reach American Association of Museum (AAM) standards and would cost $50 million* to fix up anyway – not that we were talking about it.
The Task Force actually ended up talking about how they would like to preserve the building, although that thought was mangled in the final report. It was clear from our several meetings that the Institute itself needed to be smaller and more connected to campus, and we accepted the premise that we weren’t talking about the future of this particular building.
I raised the food truck analogy in our second meeting and specifically asked if there was an iterative design process possible. Maybe restore the Institute bit by bit instead of all at once like a mischievous Modernist. The question got lip service but again, is absent in the report.
SO, a High Modernist building designed to become a museum during the era of big bold plans is now threatened because 1. It needs to be smaller and elsewhere; and 2. It would cost a fortune to upgrade something that big and bold. Dissonance, anyone?
But it isn’t just modernism. Every 19th century opera house and 1920s vaudeville movie palace was overwrought. Beauvais Cathedral collapsed like a Gothic Babel. There is a hubris in going huge. World’s Fairs and Olympics and even sports stadia are exemplars of the Sunk Cost Fallacy and Loss Leaders of civic investment. They only “work” in the biggest possible picture.
A new AR and VR based Institute of Texan Cultures in a downtown location near the campus makes sense. Building it up through iterative design makes sense, and the same approach applies to the old Brutalist landmark up against the highway – do it one bit at a time for a collection of different uses.
This is especially true in the world of museums and interpretation – physicality is being replaced by virtuality. The next generation will tour and learn like this, as I noted a few years back.
Don’t repeat the mischief of thinking you know where everything is going, even if that thought stirs your blood.
- The $50 million figure is, as always in these cases, inflated by requiring the entire 182,000 square feet of the building to meet contemporary AAM museum standards. To just rehab it for regular people uses would obviously cost a lot less.
UPDATE: One of the ULI members who evaluated the Institute of Texan Cultures (remotely) was on David Martin Davies’ The Source on TPR today February 24. She said the building was not built to last and was no longer serviceable. She also said the land value was not being optimized. Davies pushed back and asked if it was a “knockdown”. She responded with the great cost of rehab of the entire building, (the mischief of modernism again) and a dig at its style (“it’s in a hole.”).
“A very large, hard to use, expensive building”
Yeah, and I have a large, hard to use expensive city right here – too bad it can’t be redeveloped piece by piece.
Big news last week was the weather, which was a paler shade of last year’s Soviet-style winter, lasting only a day and closing a few roads due to ice. Big news the week before was the State reneging on 7 years of cooperation to steal Broadway back from the City just as it attempted to make it a pedestrian and bicycle friendly thoroughfare. Scuppering a plan approved by over 70% of the voters, the Governor took State Loop 368 back. The buggery of Broadway is just plain cruelty – the “reasons” wouldn’t pass elementary school muster – “97% of Texans drive cars” and “we need to keep as many lanes as possible” which are fictive, flippant, and factually false.
Even the Governor’s big business supporters wrote him a letter saying PLEASE DON’T but the guy can’t pass up a chance to bash a city, especially one that understands how traffic actually works. Adding lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to deal with obesity.
This is a little like our discussion last time about how the argument that land use regulations suppress housing construction. It kind of makes logical sense. Unless you test it. Or look for EVIDENCE. It seems to make sense that if you add lanes you reduce congestion, but if you test “road diets” they work. If you give people options, they take them. I have ridden my bike up Broadway – sorry, State Loop 368 – faster than driving. If a trip is a mile or a mile and a half, it’s faster on a bike once you factor in parking.
WHAT ELSE? Well, there has been a hullabaloo about tree removal in Brackenridge Park, including nie or ten heritage trees, which are the bigger ones protected by ordinance – which the Governor spent 2017 trying to remove. But this is not about him, it is about trees and the public desire to keep them versus projects – like the restoration of the 1776 acequia and 1877 Pump House No. 1 – that threaten them. Some of the trees are undermining our historic structures, so it becomes a classic tradeoff.
WHAT ELSE? San Antonio College backed off any interest in acquiring the Hughes House on Courtland, owned by the Archdiocese, which thanks to a 2019 law, can demolish it despite any landmarking attempts. They are still taking offers for it. Meanwhile, the erstwhile developers of the 503 Urban Loop building promised a design this week and then did not deliver one, instead offering a legal agreement to document the thing, put up a plaque and then presumably smoke Pall Malls while watching Gunsmoke because how could you get more 1965? I mean, my whole blog two months ago was called “Alternativeless demolition” because the one thing you need to convince people that you should demolish it is A DESIGN.
Dunno what y’all were doing all that time, but it shows.
There is an article from The Atlantic making the social media rounds titled “Stop Fetishizing Old Homes” written by a planning professor from UCLA. He claims we are fetishizing the aesthetics of old houses when new houses are better in every way. Several people have asked what I make of this. I have a few thoughts:
First, he is mostly deriding construction built in the 1950s and 60s. Being in southern California, he talks a lot about dingbats and how he can hear his neighbors through the walls, etc. Here is the problem of taking 25 years of postwar architecture and making it speak for all historic buildings:
This was the brief window when energy was cheap and windows were single-paned. Yes, the walls were thin and no one cared. Like they cared in 2000. Like they cared in 1928. Like they cared in 1890.
The biggest mistake non-historians make is missing out on the ups and downs of history. They consider history one big bucket with one set of characteristics. When you are talking about old buildings, there are significant shifts in construction technique after 1930 and again in the current century. Heck, there were big shifts in construction in the 1840s.
Buildings considered their thermal qualities very carefully up until 1945, got a little careless in the 60s, and by 1980 they started caring again.
Every Victorian and bungalow had double paned windows. They were called storm windows. Government studies show that pre-1930 buildings thermally outperform those built up to about 2000. Dude should spend a week in Cleveland or Chicago. Oddly, he calls out the Chicago graystone as being the dingbat of its era. I owned a 1906 Chicago graystone for six years and spent the decade afterwards dreaming about it because it was so damn good. Couldn’t hear the neighbors. Steam radiators worked. Built in ice boxes, nice hardwood floors, real plaster everywhere. You CANNOT buy the materials that was made out of. They aren’t for sale anywhere.
His main complaints are lead paint, asbestos and accessibility. We have had three decades of mandated accessibility, nearly five of lead-free paint, and even more since we used asbestos. I am in the process of researching another house, also 1906, which remediated those things in 1990. I remediated those things from my 1898 house. Now they are equivalent to the Dude’s precious new construction except mine has plaster walls that retain their structural stability when they are 75% wet and your piece of contemporary chicanery is made of drywall that fails at 6% wet.
The most interesting aspect of the lead paint, asbestos and accessibility argument is that it is never thought through. Okay – how y’all gettin’ rid of those bad things? See Lead Paint, Asbestos, and Other Excuses here.
A whole section of the article reads like the old “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” advert, which is neither a sales technique nor a rhetorical strategy you want to emulate.
But even making the argument above might not get through to this guy because, to him, it is all aesthetic. That’s what bothers me most, the idea of fetishization. To me preservation is about history and sustainability. I am not precious. I get bothered by the fetishists. Here are some of my blogs that illustrate that. I get sick up and fed with the idea that what preservation is doing is first of all aesthetic.
It was once, yes, but that was a lifetime ago. Dude considers preservation an aesthetic pursuit either because he is unaware of the last 35 years of the discipline or because he is into zoning, where there are no individuals. (Another blog on that subject here.)
He also resurrects the 12-year old Ed Glaeser canard that preservation and regulation inhibit new development. This argument seems to have logic. It would be better if it had EVIDENCE. Like the 96% of every city in North America that is not affected by landmarks laws???
Plus, how can he call for millions of new buildings? He advocates for an extinction level new construction event. He ignores the environmental cost of new construction, not to mention demolition.
We need to understand that the author is a professor of zoning. In zoning everything is a commodity and houses are like the grains of wheat in a grain elevator – you don’t care where they came from or where they are going. Just how many there are and what grade they are.
Finally, the subhead is about how new construction is better but even he admits what every developer I have every talked to admits easily. New homes are only built to last as long as a mortgage – 30-40 years. I hope you like your carbon diet, Dude!
February 2 UPDATE: I was being generous about saying they would last 30 to 50 years. Look what happened to these NOLA houses in about a dozen years: