Heritage Narratives

April 30, 2024 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 25

Thanks to the intergalactic webernet, we live in a time of narratives. Stories. Mostly these are short form: Reels and memes and Tik Toks and brief videos, but narratives nevertheless. Stories. A good story does not need to be true or follow rules of evidence like court cases or history books, i.e., they don’t have to be real. They are arguably better stories if they aren’t real. Humans are inherently story tellers and probably inherently fabulists. When friends and colleagues express frustration at the preponderance of blatantly untrue narratives, I try to explain that the solution cannot be provided by evidence. You need a narrative. But that does not mean you have to be a fabulist and fabricate.

History is rife with examples of massacres and conquests carried out in the name of unproveable religious or ideological narratives. Sure, those narratives may have been window dressing for underlying economic or political realities, but they worked their fabulism on the participants.

What does that have to do with heritage conservation? Well, in her important new report The Relevancy Guidebook, Bonnie McDonald of Landmarks Illinois talks about preservationists as storytellers. One of factors limiting preservation’s appeal and constituency has been an inherited focus on architecture. This has exacerbated the diversity deficit as I have written about here and here and elsewhere. Preservationists need to focus less on architecture and more on story.

Architecture became a default mechanism for preservation for a number of reasons. First, the earliest preservation laws coincided with the advent of architectural history in the early 20th century. Second, the introduction of historic preservation tax incentives brought in a slew of real estate developers who wanted their preservation as mechanistic as possible. Not the squishy world of stories. Third, we trained a generation of practitioners and bureaucrats on jalousie windows and jerkinhead roofs and like any profession, there is a frisson associated with the forced erudition of a secret language.

Just another duostyle Doric portico in antes

And this is already happening. When I did one of my early National Register nominations in the 1980s of the Kenwood United Church of Christ, I had all of this fascinating information about the important people who attended the church, including the famous poet Edgar Lee Masters. The State Historic Preservation Office made it clear that I could leave that information in, but it would have no bearing on the significance of a Romanesque church of Maryland granite by the city’s first professional architect.

In contrast, when our National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building went to the State Review Board in January, they specifically asked for more pictures with people in them! A formalist focus will appeal to some, but people and their stories appeal to everyone.

That’s my photo – Guilty of formalism!

Narrative is especially important if you are trying to conserve heritages that: 1. Did not or could not express their identity in architecture; 2. Had important historic things happen in everyday buildings without architectural integrity; or 3. Were actively erased by the dominant power structure. In these cases you need to gather the stories first, before you ever go out looking at buildings.

The Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building is a case in point – the only downtown building by a Mexican American architect (Willie Peña). San Antonio’s Mexican-American history is defined more by erasure than preservation, as I illustrated recently.

So many of the histories we are capturing in the 21st century are those of groups who were either erased, like the indigenous and ethnic/racial minorities; or hidden, like the LGBTQ community. In the dozen years I have been working on improving the diversity of the National Register of Historic Places, we have seen significant improvements in how to deal with these properties, and a bevy of historic context statements that have done a lot to uncover, rescue and record these formerly secreted histories. Today the National Register is actively working on updating guidance to capture more stories and to reflect the full spectrum of American history.

But much more needs to be done. One could say that the mainstream historians of the past overlooked these secret histories. “Secret histories” – now there is some branding that could spark the required frisson – the dopamine kick – that “insiders” get when they follow a fabulist narrative. But, like the work the National Register and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and us local preservationists – it would have evidence. Do you think it would work?

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Only downtown landmark by a Mexican-American architect to be demolished

April 19, 2024 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Sustainability, Texas Comments (1) 60

San Antonio, Texas has always been a majority Hispanic city, but for most of that history, Mexican-Americans faced legal and cultural discrimination and exclusion. Now, sadly, the only major downtown building designed by a Mexican-American architect is going to be demolished. The University of Texas at San Antonio recently announced its plans to demolish the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building designed for Hemisfair ’68 by William Peña of Caudill, Rowlett and Scott.

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but as smart people know, that is not enough to save it, despite the enticing prospect of 45% investment tax credits (see my recent blog here). The media speculation for the last decade has been that the site is ideal for a new Spurs stadium (Spurs IV – A New Hope) even though it is smaller than their current stadium site by a lot.

See below – that is the Texas Pavilion/ITC on the left and the current Frost Bank Center on right. Which has more parking???

The Spurs were asked to meet with the City a year ago, which has fed a bevy of speculative articles over the last year (Pro Tip: Read them carefully and see who is quoted.)

ITC in foreground, Spurs II (Alamodome) in background left.

Who was Willie Peña and why is he the only Mexican-American architect who designed a major building in downtown San Antonio?

Born in Laredo, Peña was a student at Texas A & M when World War II broke out. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and lost a leg, earning both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star medal. The French gave him the Croix de Guerre. Finishing his architecture degree in 1948, he became the first employee of the influential Houston architectural firm Caudill, Rowlett and Scott and became a partner the next year. He became a national pioneer in architectural programming, literally writing the book (Problem Seeking – now in its fifth edition) on it.

William Peña, Courtesy CRS Center, Texas A & M University

Many of our downtown landmarks were designed by Anglo architects like Alfred Giles, James Riely Gordon, Atlee Ayres, Ralph Cameron and O’Neil Ford. The Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta designed the Central Library, and the Conservation Society has honored Humberto Saldaña for his downtown restorations, but there are no downtown buildings designed by a Mexican-American architect except the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures.

So why does UTSA want to tear it down? Probably because it is easier for them. As a unit of the State, they don’t even need to ask for a demolition permit. The demolition is currently scheduled for Summer 2025.

They will need to get the demolition money, which could easily approach the $7 million they have deferred in maintenance on the structure. They plan to move some portion of the collections to the Frost Tower and hope to build a new museum behind the Alamo for $100 million.

That means they need to net over $107 million on the sale of the land, which I suppose is doable for a $1.2 billion stadium.

Casa Navarro

Sadly, the city has erased much of the history of its most numerous population. The famed Laredito neighborhood was destroyed in the 1950s and 60s, and only a last-minute effort by the Conservation Society saved Casa Navarro in 1959. It became a National Historic Landmark in 2017, yet even today Hispanic history and design is referenced in less than 4% of National Register of Historic Places listings, even with the recent inclusion of the Texas Pavilion. In 2014, the first Spanish language TV station – Univision – was demolished downtown.

It is time for this erasure of Latino history to end.

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Early 2024 photos

March 15, 2024 Blog, Historic Districts, Vision and Style Comments (0) 64

Old Naval Hospital, Washington, DC

Just a collection of images from the first 10 weeks of 2024, mostly in San Antonio.

Fachwerkbau details with a bit of Prussian Blue, New Braunfels

Cruise ship in Galveston, January

Addition to historic house, Roosevelt Park neighborhood, San Antonio

Landa Library, Monte Vista, San Antonio (1928)

Fireplace detail, also in Monte Vista

Five O’Clock Tea by Julius Stewartm 1894, San Antonio Museum of Art

The alley buildings of Capitol Hill, Washington, DC.

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San Antonio Roundup February 2024

February 21, 2024 Blog, Texas Comments (0) 65

It is February so the rodeo is in town. Here at The Conservation Society of San Antonio we have been trying to wrangle a month-long move of our offices from one historic building to another. Not easy to do when your organization has been around for 99 years and 11 months and everyone who ever served had their own set of files. It has been much bigger than the last time I blogged about moving, which I think was in 2008 here.

But, the preservation world marches on. In news this week, this lovely 1912-13 Prairie-influenced house got saved again for the second time in a couple years. It was the subject of my blog here in October 2021.

This blog helped save it the first time, because May Chu read the blog and wanted to save the building, as did local chef Andrew Weissman. The two teamed up and bought it in 2022 and made plans for a wine bar. They got the zoning change and it was landmarked as well, but then I brought the Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to see it in early 2023 and it had been vandalized.

Then the building was put back on the market and May Chu even called to say she was sorry. Fortunately, Chad Carey and Ed Byrne bought it recently and are following through on the zoning change and landmarking. It is right across the street from the really over-the-top Koehler mansion, which is also becoming a venue thanks to Weston Urban.

Meanwhile, the Alamo is a larger construction site than ever, with the Cenotaph scaffolded, the vast majority of the plaza fenced off (with very serious fences) and – good news – scaffolding going up on the Woolworth Building, which is now saved and will be home to both the Alamo Museum and the Civil Rights exhibit where the famous lunch counter stood.

And today the scrim on the scaffold has an image of the building!

More to come once we extricate ourselves from these boxes

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Brackenridge Park

January 18, 2024 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 108

I have been on the Brackenridge Park Stakeholders Advisory Committee for the last half year and was one of the facilitators at the public hearing January 8 which drew some 114 people for two hours of discussing what Guiding Principles should be used for evaluating future projects in Brackenridge Park. We will be having another public meeting January 30 where we will share the revised criteria. There is also an online survey you can fill out before then here.

Urban parks have inherently competing interests within them. They are designed to preserve and promote nature. They are also designed to promote recreation. Those two elements can be at odds. They are home to wildlife, but also part of human life and again, those two uses will be in conflict at times. The Guiding Principles are designed to help negotiate these inherent conflicts. Here is what I said at the meeting, according to the San Antonio Express-News: “When you are dealing with a place where people are doing things, and there’s also nature and wildlife, there will always be conflicts at some point. So, respect for compromise is one of our guiding principles.”

Here is a bird eating a fish in Brackenridge Park recently, so we have those conflicts as well.

Brackenridge Park is kind of unique. The Brackenridge Park Conservancy (founded by the Conservation Society of San Antonio in 2009) did a Cultural Landscape Report for the park a little over a year ago. See, unlike most parks – Central Park in Manhattan, or Jackson Park in Chicago – the park was not undevelopable land that was transformed by a landscape architect into a community amenity. That is how most urban parks are formed.

Central Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted AFTER he visited San Antonio.

Brackenridge Park is actually a natural area near the source of the San Antonio river that was preserved as a park. The largest part of it was donated to the city by George Washington Brackenridge in 1899. He owned it because he owned the first public water system in town, so it is kind of a real estate development story, but it is still unlike most urban parks in that many elements of the landscape are NOT designed.

The 1877 Pump House in Brackenridge Park, built for the first public water system.

Consequently, the Cultural Landscape Report and our Guiding Principles include reference to 12,000 years of human interaction with the park, long before it became part of New Spain. One of the reasons we are in this whole community process was the strong reaction to proposed tree cutting by citizens concerned with both the environment and traditional spiritual practices of indigenous people. I covered the tree issue, and my own participation in traditional cultural practice regarding trees here last year.

View from the river to the golf course. Like many urban park golf courses, it is one of the oldest in the area.

So, unlike most urban parks, there are portions of Brackenridge Park that are arguably “wilderness”. “Wilderness” is where both natural area conservation and historic preservation began 150 years ago.

Here. Well, also Yellowstone. 1872.

Today the wilderness model of natural area conservation is as outdated as the house museum model in historic preservation. Over a decade ago the two started coming together to create a new, more practical and less Puritanical approach to conservation as a whole, as I described here in 2013.

Goats in Brackenridge Park in 2023 to help clear undergrowth. Sheep – designed to eat grass and thus “mow” the lawn areas, were part of the original 19th century design of many large Chicago parks.

Brackenridge Park not only has 12,000 years of human history, but a lot of interesting cultural practices as well, such as Easter weekend, when many many families camp out in the park for three days.

So the whole exercise is setting up principles and criteria to help negotiate between natural, cultural and other environmental wants and needs. As I explained at the opening of the public meeting, these goals will be in conflict and the principles and criteria are a way to balance their competing interests.

Well, that is a lovely waterfall! But unlike some parts of the park, there is nothing natural about it. This is an industrial site – a quarry – that was transformed into a Japanese garden over a century ago. This part of Brackenridge Park was designed, and it was an adaptive re-use of an abandoned industrial quarry. Heck, there are even lime kilns surviving from when the dimension stone gave way to gravel.

The Japanese Tea Garden is one of the highlights of San Antonio I always bring visitors to see. I am a frequent user of the park and my bike rides through it at least once a week offer a variety of natural and cultural highlights. We begin coming up the concrete ditch along Avenue A next to the golf course, which again is not a very natural landscape.

We continue across the Mulberry bridge and past the Witte museum. Last year the egrets had taken over the next section of trees to the level of public health hazard.

We then stop to enjoy the river flowing over the Low Water Crossing, built in 1937 for automobiles to get from one side of the park to the other. Probably not ideal for water quality to have cars splashing through there, and it hasn’t been allowed in some years. We will often see the Zoo mini train in the distance at this point.

We then follow the river south through a portion of the park that is undesigned save for picnic tables and walkways and a road. In addition to dog walkers and picnickers we occasionally see trapeze artists and jugglers in a small meadow as we near Mulberry Avenue again.

We follow the river south of Mulberry along Avenue B between the golf course and the River Road neighborhood until we come to another 1937 crossing, scheduled to be replaced. Here the artificial waterfall attracts migratory waterfowl.

Soon we are back in the neighborhood reveling in the aftermath of the forest bath and commenting on what we may have seen – tents, jugglers, low riders, family picnics, fishers and historic buildings. It is a swirl of competing uses that is richer for its complexities and contradictions. One of the participants in the January 8 public meeting said, we should maintain the “romantic and quirky” character of the park.

Joske pavilion, 1920s.

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“A Little Learning…

December 29, 2023 Blog, Economics, Texas Comments (1) 207

is a dangerous thing” said Alexander Pope, and he recommended going whole hog (until Alps on Alps arise) or abstaining. Heritage conservation/Historic preservation is a specialized field, and like many specialized fields, the wider world has misapprehensions or misunderstandings about it. We can try to impart a little learning. There are pitfalls though, because misapprehension often rings truer than fact.

A case in point is the National Register of Historic Places. Its name is often misapprehended as “The National Registry” just because that sounds, well, classier. When a building, site, district or structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places that means it can’t be torn down, right?

Wrong. Also, Wrong. And Wrong again. The list has been around since 1966 and provides no protection against demolition. It DOES provide a review process that MIGHT make demolition less likely, but that is only if it is literally a federal case. It is kept by the Secretary of the Interior, who will have no idea if anyone is going to tear it down unless a federal agency tells the Secretary they are going to. And they can still tear it down, but only after going through the process.

310 W Polk, Chicago, demolished 1991 by the Postal Service because they knew that the National Register doesn’t prevent demolition.

Now, you can explain that time and time again, but it won’t stick, because the misapprehension is so much more plausible. That’s what it SHOULD mean, right? What really amazes me is that people in high positions dealing with real estate and so forth not only don’t get this, but they suspect there is some weird detail of the National Register that is going to somehow – magically – thwart them. Because it is a specialized field. Fear is always based on lack of knowledge.

Even though the National Register can’t prevent anyone from tearing down anything (there I said it again, but you still don’t believe it, right?) it can provide – since 1976 – preservation tax incentives that can be used to restore the resource. Part of the reason we have so many buildings on the National Register is that real estate developers put them there in order to get a 20% investment tax credit. $2 million off your taxes for a $10 million rehab. Not bad.

But wait, there’s more! In Texas, you can get an additional 25% tax credit ON TOP of the federal one, so your $10 million rehab only costs you $5.5 million. Or, in the case of the St. Anthony above, more than $24 million in tax credits. So who wouldn’t want the National Register – it can finance your rehab or, you can ignore it and tear it down! No downside, right?

Another historic tax credit project, right across the street.

And another, across the street again. Not rocket science.

No downside unless you are a victim of misapprehension, or magical thinking. Case in point: the Conservation Society of San Antonio has nominated of the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building (1968, Caudill, Rowlett & Scott) to the National Register of Historic Places. Its owner, the University of Texas at San Antonio, is going to oppose the nomination because they want to “monetize the site.”

Okay. Site. Money. Weren’t we just talking about a tax incentives worth 45% of rehab cost? That would be an attraction to someone buying it. BUT, they assume it will be torn down so Spurs Stadium IV (A New Hope) can be built on a smaller site than the Spurs II and III. So? You are the UT System, you can do what you want. In fact, the State and the UT system don’t even have to ask the city for a demolition permit like the rest of us.

As they proved with the Sutton Building in 2019.

So why would you oppose National Register listing if it adds potential incentives and doesn’t prevent demolition? How could you be so powerful and not understand your power? You don’t quite believe that truth because it doesn’t feel true – this is the National Registry (sic) after all!

Civilization and the current moment are saturated with people following courses of action that contradict their fiduciary responsibilities because they have a better storyline. This National Register thing has got to be a big green dragon – it can’t be as innocuous as they say, right?

Oh look, another historic tax credit project!

A good storyline beats the bottom line any day.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

JANUARY UPDATE: We got a unanimous vote from the State Review Board so now it is up to the State Historic Preservation Office to forward the nomination to the Keeper of the National Register (or not). We had 9 speakers in favor at the hearing in Galveston and they also received 47 letters of support and many more online expressions of support. UTSA provided the sole opposition to the listing.

FEBRUARY UPDATE: University of Texas Board of Regents voted in secret to either lease or sell the ITC to the City for a new Spurs arena. No one is talking, though.

The Spurs probably have enough tax liability that they could use the historic preservation tax credits themselves, avoiding a syndication!

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Selling House Museums

December 14, 2023 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums Comments (0) 152

The Historic Charleston Foundation has decided to sell the 1808 Nathaniel Russell House, which the Foundation has owned and operated as a house museum since 1955. The news has sparked a backlash from those who want it to stay open to the public. Yet many, including house museum expert Donna Harris, have lauded the Foundation’s decision as a way to bring preservation into the 21st century.

I get it. Last year the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation sold the 1876 Steves Homestead, which it had owned for 70 years and operated as a house museum. As we removed furniture from the house, someone asked if I was sad that it would not be open to the public. I said: “No, my goal is to preserve buildings. Will it be preserved better by having four people live in it or having 40,000 people tromp through it each year?”

Unlike the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Conservation Society Foundation did not decide to market the house museum we sold. We responded to an unsolicited offer and now it is being returned to its original use as a home. That is in line with #1 of the 10 Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which states that a building should be used for its original purpose. No house museum can, by definition, meet this standard.

That bit of petty legalism aside, it is important to remember the basic facts of house museums over the last twelve decades. First, they lose money. Typically, visitation can cover no more than 20-25% of operating costs. That was true in 1910 and 1930 and 1950 and 1980 and it is still true. William Sumner Appleton was subsidizing 80% of his house museum costs in the 1920s. The Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings – also in Charleston – learned the pitfalls of the house museum solution in the 1920s and 30s when they bought and saved the Manigault House three times. That’s why Charleston created the first historic district in the United States – because house museums don’t work.

The house museums that thrive make up that 75% operating deficit one of three ways:

  1. An endowment (Glass House, Gaylord Building, Villa Finale)
  2. Very high ticket price (Biltmore, Taliesin)
  3. A gift shop/merch operation that can add a $35 book or handkerchief to every $12 ticket (Frank Lloyd Wright sites).

For the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation, which has almost a century of its own history to look back upon, we can see that our mission – saving buildings – is not best served by owning everything. We bought Casa Navarro in 1959 and sold it to the state in 1974. We bought the Aztec Theatre in 1988 and sold it to a private owner in 1993. We have bought another dozen buildings in the heart of San Antonio and turned them over to forever owners with a preservation easement on each to insure their long-term conservation. That’s how you do it.

I served many years as Vice Chair of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Sites Committee. The Trust was created by Congress in 1949 to receive house museums. But by the early 2000s it was already clear that the house museum model was not functional, as I blogged about in 2008 and 2012. When Stephanie Meeks became National Trust CEO her first question to me was “Would you ever consider selling one of our historic sites?” and my answer was “In a New York minute, if it was better for the preservation of the building.”

Cooper-Molera Adobe, Monterey, California. One of the National Trust Sites we helped evolve from traditional house museum. I blogged about it in 2011 and then again in 2013. 95% of preservation is adaptive re-use and as that 2013 blog explains, new productive uses do not necessarily impede the learning mission of a site. In fact, they can enhance it and bring it to more people.

To quote from my own blog ten years ago: “The only way to preserve something over the long term is to make it useful and productive for its community. Then the community will preserve it sustainably over the long term. There is no amount of money that can save a building forever – none, even if you put it indoors somehow and encase it in amber. Everything deteriorates. The only way to truly save something is to make it vital and central to enough people that they will keep investing in it forever.”

JANUARY UPDATE: Well, the backlash was so strong that HCF reversed its decision. Enough people showed up with enough “investment” of one kind or another. Check back in twenty years.

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Traditional Architecture

December 8, 2023 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 185

I was just up at University of Notre Dame to participate in final reviews for their Historic Preservation Program, which is designed as an advanced degree for architects, thanks to the support of the Duda Center for Preservation, Resilience and Sustainability. My friend Steven Semes crafted the program and was kind enough to have me as an advisor. Notre Dame’s architecture and preservation program celebrate the Classical tradition while most architecture schools eschew it. This is a reverse of the situation a century ago, when most architectural schools only taught the Classical tradition.

I first saw Professor Semes in 2006, debating Paul Byard at a Traditional Building Conference. I even commented on it in a blog at the time and later joined him at a Congress for New Urbanism conference in Madison. I blogged again when his book The Future of the Past came out and he joined us at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago to talk about it. He has brought me up to Notre Dame twice since I moved to San Antonio, and I learn something each time.

The Stoa at the Walsh Family Hall at University of Notre Dame

In my blogs I admired his approach to preservation as a way to understand how we built before. Humanity has forgotten more building techniques than it knows – Roman concrete, Chinese chrome, Mayan limewalks, Persian passive air conditioning, the alternating stones and wood lintels of earthquake-resistant Nepalese houses, etc.

Or the natural thermal qualities of the Shaanxi yaodong!

What really struck me this time was something he said about traditional architecture as a whole – not simply the Greek-Roman-Byzantine Classicism of orders and temples and stoas but also traditional Chinese architecture and traditional Indian architecture and traditional African architecture and traditional Incan architecture. Traditional architecture is not a style but a practice that is handed down over generations. Semes quotes Hannah Arendt about the “loving care” of tradition – the bridge between the past and present.

Semes made the point at some time during our discussion Monday that “traditional building” is actually quite catholic in its easy incorporation of motifs and principles from other traditions. This is why the orders have spread from the Mediterranean to the rest of the world and in the other direction, why Saracenic architecture spread into Europe to help birth the Gothic. “Traditional building” is about building traditions, process, and continuity. Every society has its building traditions, which are in the realm of process and practice, not “Style.”

The students in the program – all degreed architects – are from Kenya, Costa Rica, Syria and Iran. They produce exquisite hand drawings, just like my students did during my 16 years at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Why? Because the gesture of a hand drawing teaches something a click cannot. Just like building a dry stone wall rewires your brain to see dry stone walls in a way you never could before.

Actually dry stone walls are a wonderful example of the diversity of traditional building. I was just reading about the dry stone walls of Japan. I have experienced the dry stone walls of Ireland and the north of England, and I am aware of the tradition in Kentucky. I am sure I have encountered them in South America as well.

Marcahuamachuco, Peru

Another universal is of course the earthen building. We call them adobes here, and Professor Sue Ann Pemberton recently made a presentation about earthen architecture at our own adobe brick Yturri-Edmunds house in San Antonio. The World Heritage site of Bam, Iran is earthen. In fact, the majority of buildings in all of human history are earthen.

One of the most famous landmarks in the world is earthen architecture (with a veneer of stone in some places)

Speaking of veneers – Here in San Antonio we have caliche block – the South Texas version of laterite, which is what is beneath the stone veneers of Angkor. A muddy clay with enough calcium carbonate that it hardens into an artificial limestone when you dry it in the sun.

South Texas caliche – losing its protective plaster layer

Southeast Asian laterite losing its Angkorian stone veneer.

On the way back from Notre Dame, I read one of those marvelously complex articles in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, all about a Stoa (hey – I was in one in Notre Dame! See photo above) from Samothrace that had evidence of the use of a flat arch in the metope/triglyph section of the Doric entablature a century or two before it appeared in Rome. Now this is the third century BCE and the triglyphs themselves are already skeuomorphs of wooden antecedents, carved from the same stone as the metope and then cut at an angle to create the flat arch.

Non nova sed nove

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Brutal Choices, or, running away to join the circus?

October 31, 2023 Blog, Economics, History, Texas Comments (1) 145

For the first time in six years, the University of Texas at San Antonio revealed what it really wants to do with the Institute of Texan Cultures, which was radically defunded a few years ago and is a shell of its former self. Located in the 1968 Texas pavilion from Hemisfair, designed by Caudill, Rowlett and Scott, the Brutalist building is now in the position of being “monetized” by its owner.

Last Friday UTSA announced that they would be evaluating a series of potential sites to move the museum exhibits and presumably the archives of the ITC. The archives included the largest historic photographic collection in the city, with over 3 million images. They also include a massive amount of architectural drawings and a lot of historic artifacts. The permanent exhibits on dozens of cultures that contributed to the creation of modern Texas were a prize project of state government, which still allocates a $1 million per year to the museum. Despite that provision, the museum has been underfunded for more than six years.

Folklife Festival 2019. Most of the historic buildings on “The Back 40” are not actual antiques.

“Monetizing” the 14 acres that include the Texas Pavilion building will not be simple. There is a lot of concrete and who knows what other lovely 1968 materials to transfer into other parts of our biome, and given the Brutalist architecture, that will be a significant discount to the monetization. Interestingly, UTSA released some statistics about how much money they will lose if they stay in their current location versus moving into a new facility behind the Alamo. They actually lose money in both scenarios, but they lose LESS behind the Alamo.

I did dissect the fallacy of the rehabilitation cost argument nearly a year ago in this blog. Basically, a big building needs to be treated like a city block, not like a house. You don’t rehab it all in one go – you spread it out and let the market develop organically. But, most folks generally don’t have that patience.

The more curious preference UTSA described in their article (and it is theirs – no byline) yesterday is their preferred site. So, the scenario for the last couple of years has been that they are analyzing three scenarios – stay where they are; move to another location in Hemisfair Park, or move to another location entirely. Now, it would make sense if that other location were on one of the UTSA campuses, ideally the one on the west side of downtown. So I can’t figure why they said they preferred the “Crockett lot,” a parking lot next to the Crockett Hotel just behind the Alamo.

If you haven’t been to Alamo Plaza lately, you should go, because they have added a lot of stuff – an “interpretation” of the South Gate (1724-1871) and Lunette (1835-36) added this year following the re-creation of the palisade (1836) and Southwest Rampart (1740-1836) and a fair amount of cannon. There is also the red information booth that moves around the plaza and the various statues of defenders that are sometimes in the plaza and sometimes back in the garden.

Interestingly, the “Crockett lot” was one of the locations the City proposed for the “Entertainment Zone.” You see, back in 2014-2018, part of the goal was to move the sensationalist/tacky amusements out of Alamo Plaza to reclaim a sense of “reverence.” You can judge for yourself whether the many recent installations are succeeding at that. But the Entertainment Zone land is still there.

Recent photo – you can see the green neon of “Crockett Hotel” just to the right of the Alamo chapel.

So why does UTSA prefer behind the Alamo for ITC? Certainly they will get more foot traffic than they do in Hemisfair. Still it is an odd preference, given that UTSA has simultaneously announced the re-integration of the ITC into the academic and library program. Why isn’t it on campus, especially since that campus now includes buildings on the San Pedro Creek Culture Park? That seems like better synergy. Perhaps the public outreach and the research archives will be in different places?

The Conservation Society and others will be promoting the re-use of the building. If it receives its National Register of Historic Places status on January 13 in Galveston it will be eligible for 20% federal investment tax credits for historic rehab and 25% Texas historic tax credits, meaning a $100 million rehab only costs $55 million. Stay tuned!

NOVEMBER 5 UPDATE, OR

DO YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT NOTHINGBURGER?

The Sunday Express-News headline was Exclusive: Hemisfair emerges as possible site for new Spurs arena followed by another sourceless, breathless screed of “likely” and “appears” without any actual quotes from the Spurs or the city or the county. We went through this in August, when newspapers cost less. Still trying to find a scrap of something real here, folks.

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San Antonio Update September 2023

September 22, 2023 Blog, Global Heritage, Intangible Heritage, Texas Comments (0) 159

Here is the Sommers saloon as it looked 2 months ago, then a month ago, and now.

Which is sad, and saving the stones is not true preservation. But it is puro San Antonio, because this is a place where preservation of something is the first thought, even if that is preservation by relocation or reconstitution. You can argue that those are not true preservation solutions, and you would be right. But in this city, landfill is never the first option. The plan is to have some of the best architects in town re-use the old limestone and caliche for a new development.

I continue to worry about the Hughes House, 312 W Courtland. We worked to save it and found two willing buyers a year ago. They did landmark it and get a zoning change for a wine bar, but vandals/obdachlos broke in last winter and now it is for sale again. In addition to its architectural beauty, it was the home of Russell Hughes, known as La Meri, whose dance was internationally known.

This is when 503 Urban Loop burned in February 2022 on the coldest night of the year. The building was a very famous brothel and then spent a century as Catholic institutions helping women and children in the impoverished Laredito district of San Antonio. We worked with Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and Westside Preservation Alliance to landmark it and were delayed again and again until it burned. Now, the purported developer of an 8-story building there is selling the site. The landmarking process is supposed to insure three things:

  1. Archaeological investigation of whole site
  2. Preservation of any items recovered at a local museum
  3. Permanent interpretation visible from the public ROW.

Will they do it? And who is they? The new owners or the ones when it was burning? Stay tuned!

To address the surfeit of accidentally burned buildings, the City Council yesterday expanded the Vacant Building program beyond historic districts and upped the fines to $500 a day. Now maybe those Austin developers will modify their tactics. But there is still a lot of charcoal in the landscape.

Much of the carnage happens in the area just north of downtown and west of the Pearl, including the Tobin Hill Historic District. Basically everything not in that district is a candidate for demolition. The latest attempt is an interesting ensemble of five Victorian buildings that feels like a little historic district. The trick is that only two are landmarked. Can you guess which?

If you guessed Numbers 1 and 3 you are right! But they really do look like a district. Let me show you the rear building that they also want to demolish.

So this is another interesting development strategy. Pick off the buildings one by one, so that the context is diminished and you can start arguing that there is no “there” there.

I think the Folk Victorians at Number 1 (210 Lewis – not landmarked and slated for demolition!) and Number 2 (215 Poplar, landmarked) are pretty cool, and 225 Poplar (not landmarked) has that impressive double porch with Classical details. Again – stay tuned!

It will be a busy fall – November 1-3 we are having a World Heritage Symposium which will not only recall our status as one of only 25 World Heritage sites in the US, but also recall the UNESCO San Antonio Declaration of 1996, which was the Americas’ response to the Nara document on Authenticity in 1994. Together these statements led to the community- and culture-focused approach to heritage conservation that has characterized all the advances in our field in the 21st century. It is called Affirming Cultural Identity: World Heritage in the 21st century (nice title if I do say so myself).

Read about it here!

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