Here is the Sommers saloon as it looked 2 months ago, then a month ago, and now.
Which is kinda sad, but also puro San Antonio, because this is a place where preservation 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 a 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 four things:
- Archaeological investigation of whole site
- Preservation of any items recovered at a local museum
- Permanent interpretation visible from the public ROW.
Will they do it? 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.
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).
There are some basic principles of heritage conservation/historic preservation you will always hear from me. The first is that preservation is not a series of rules or standards but a PROCESS. It is a better process than zoning or building codes because it treats every property as an individual with its own character and history. Zoning and building treat properties as alienated commodities, one-size-fits-all.
Fortified Saxon village, Transylvania. I guess these two pictured structures are the same. Both are made of the same material and designed for both commerce and fortification. They must be identical.
Which is why preservation folks often bump up against zoning attorneys, because the whole treating-resources-based-on-their-actual-characteristics thing is especially annoying to them. After all, their expertise is commodification. You don’t have a house, you have a residential unit.
3-2 $2400 a month ignore the picture.
I taught Historic Preservation Planning for almost twenty years and one of the two final paper assignments was ALWAYS developing design guidelines for a specific historic district. The principle, which was clear since the advent of historic districts, was that you can’t really have design guidelines that apply to all historic districts in a city. Some are Victorian. Some are bungalows. Some are Mid-Century Modern. Any design guidelines that applied to such diverse districts would have to be so bland as to be useless.
This is a San Antonio historic district, so it should follow the same rules as….
this San Antonio historic district, or this one (they all look the same, right?)
I would show my students the Mid-North Historic District Design Guidelines from 1973, created at the time the historic district in Chicago was designated, because EVERYONE KNEW that each district had its own characteristics and needed its own, specifically tailored design guidelines. But that did not happen due to money. So, a perennial Master’s student assignment was born.
Mid-North historic district, Chicago
Fast forward thirty years and the Conservation Society of San Antonio gives a grant to the River Road neighborhood to craft design guidelines. I also helped them from the technical side, since my dissertation was on the history of historic districts and I have a lot of experience with design guidelines.
This is River Road. Some commonalities with bungalow districts, although with more Revival Style and fair amount of Moderne influence, especially in windows, unlike other districts from that period.
Those are the windows on the right – very particular to this area.
And they came up with an excellent document. It was set to be adopted by the Historic and Design Review Commission today but some people in the neighborhood (attorneys probably, or some other commodifiers) raised a last-minute stink so they pulled this thoughtful document from the agenda. Apparently they think that the citywide guidelines are enough, which means they missed the entire point.
Which means they think that River Road looks the same as everywhere else.
Quod erat demonstratum.
If you need a primer on how historic districts work, here’s one of mine from 2009.
In the last installment of Time Tells we learned about how elevators are older than bicycles and we restrained ourselves from commenting on fixies (unlike this time).
What other strange bits of technology trivia can we find in the backward lens? There are always reversed technologies, like the “introduction” of concrete in the late 19th century only to learn 120 years later that the Romans actually did it better 2000 years earlier. Or the case of Qinshihuangdi’s chromed blades predating the 1930s discovery of the chrome process, again by 2000 years. But I am looking for either things that seem old but aren’t – like the bicycle – or things that seem new but aren’t – like hydraulics.
Acequia flowing right now in an aqueduct above a stream – since 1745.
The reason this is interesting is because we tend to organize things in a progressive manner – x begets y begets z – so when we find things that happen in a transgressive manner – z happened before x or y happened and then everyone forgot about it – it is interesting to us. Because it is differently patterned. Like the fact that the first bread toaster predates sliced bread by 35 years. Yes, there was a toaster patented in 1893, the same year we got the zipper, the dishwasher, the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Pabst Blue Ribbon, spray paint and diet soda. And to think that Coca-Cola was only 7 years old at the time.
Then there are the things that go away and come back – like the electric car, which was all the rage up to about 1910, but then got squeezed out until the 21st century where it is hitting back with a vengeance. I guess the oil companies were pissed off about losing the battle for indoor lighting to the electric folks, also around 1910. We often forget that John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil made their money off indoor lighting. Cars had nothing to do with it up to the point where his trust got busted in 1911 (which made Rockefeller even richer, because capitalism).
Oooh look at that truck – it just caused zoning!
Fun Fact; Rockefeller’s Standard Oil made its money off of kerosene, which is what everyone was making out of petroleum. Standard Oil was the first oil company to NOT throw the gasoline (an unwanted byproduct) into the river.
You have probably seen those lists where things that seem to be separated by great chasms of history are actually closer in time to each other than you think. Or farther, like the fun fact that Cleopatra (VII) lived closer to the invention of Snapchat than the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. My favorite is the 66 years between the first powered flight and landing on the moon.
But what really amazes me are the things that seem to be backwards in our lens. Take these two human inventions. On the one hand we have the bicycle, a ubiquitous form of transportation and amusement that is deceptively simple but also strikingly modern. Our contemporary bicycles with chains and gears and rubber tires are basically the same age as the first automobiles, starting in the 1880s. There were velocipedes in the early 19th century, and some form of pedal locomotion emerging in the mid-1800s, but even the term bicycle dates to at best 1860, and the modern “safety” bicycle that begat beer guts in lycra is pretty much contemporary with the first automobile around 1885-86.
Now contrast that with an invention that is a good two generations older – the elevator. The first counter-weighted elevators emerged in the 18th century and were steam-powered by the early 19th century. Elishu Otis patented his “safety” elevator in 1853 over thirty years before the “safety” bicycle.
So, when you get off your bicycle and get into an elevator, do you feel like you are going back in time? Because you are.
“The goals of the preservation movement have evolved. The methods, for the most part, have not.”
Rast, Raymond W.1
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recently asked for comments on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. These standards have not been redone in over 30 years, and I have been involved in the effort to improve the National Register of Historic Places – and by extension – the Secretary’s Standards – for about fifteen years, including a 2013 panel at the National Trust conference in Indianapolis that included Ray Rast, quoted above.
Rast provided one of the first “Eureka” moments in our efforts to modernize the National Register when he suggested a sliding scale for Integrity. Charged with finding historic sites associated with Cesar Chavez, he was frustrated that State Historic Preservation Offices kept saying that the buildings had no integrity, like the example above where Chavez first organized workers. It has lost historic integrity but can it still tell the story? It happened in this building, in this place, even if windows and walls have been altered.
I have written blogs and a book chapter about this subject many times, including here in 2016. At that time Donna Graves and Shayne Watson provided the next “Eureka” moment by proposing that Integrity – in the context of LGBTQ history in San Francisco – focus on only four of the seven aspects of integrity. In the last year, an eighth aspect of Integrity – Use – has appeared. Eureka!
Alazan-Apache Courts (Los Courts) San Antonio. Many alterations since 1940 but USE is unchanged and they made the 2021 National Trust list of 11 Most Endangered Properties.
All of these efforts derived more from the INPUT side of the National Register – how do we get landmarks of most people listed when the standards are designed for fancy folk and their fancy architecture? But the focus of the Advisory Council right now is on the OUTPUT side – how do we judge and approve treatments for historic properties? Is it all about wood windows? (HINT: No. Here’s my take)
Tell me what the angels are made of.
More importantly, the effort is driven not simply by the ancient nature of the existing standards, but by the great variety of interpretations of those standards by State and Tribal Preservation Offices, the National Park Service, and local landmark commissions. Part of this variety is generational. For some Boomers it IS all about wood windows. When I first proposed revisions to Integrity, the old guard (literally – they are called the “Keeper of the National Register”) were furious.
It’s not always about architecture. Malt House, San Antonio (demolished)
The National Register falls under the Department of the Interior, and new guidances are slowly opening the doors to new types of landmarks and new types of treatments. Take one example that we are very comfortable with in San Antonio – Trex replacement floorboards for porches. We have approved these for landmark grant projects. The Office of Historic Preservation also has, although they will approve them UNLESS they have a faux-grain finish that makes them look like wood. That is a bit too precious for me. (HINT: Skeumorphs)
But I know where it comes from, and this is probably the biggest issue in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – internal conflicts. Back in 2006 the National Trust commissioned me to assess a particular situation where interpretations of Standards #3 and #9 came into conflict.
Standard #3 says “Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or elements from other historic properties, will not be undertaken.” while Standard #9 says “new work will be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing” So new work should look new but also it should fit in. If it fits in too well, Standard #9 defeats Standard #3. Or it whacks it on the head, as in the case above. And the historical fact is that right about the time the Standards were rewritten in 1990, people started creating all sorts of new buildings indistinguishable from the old.
1903 and 1993. Joliet, Illinois
But the real problem is not one of architectural style. The real problem is that architecture and real estate development have their own rules and interactions that don’t really apply when you are dealing with sites that are important because of their history and associations. How do they convey those histories and associations? By architecture, yes, but more by place. And by intentionally conveying that information.
Underground railroad site at a McDonald’s, Maywood, Illinois
Here is where OUTPUT returns to INPUT, because while many organizations like my own are working to nominate more diverse historic sites to the National Register, one of the biggest drivers of nominations (INPUT) are developers who are trying to get tax credits (OUTPUT) and of course their goal is to keep it as simple as possible. If you just focus on architecture, historic preservation is as easy as zoning! No inherent or unique qualities to worry about! It’s just a commodity like all others!
In my writings on this subject, I suggested new standards for sites that met Criterion A or B, namely sites that had historic rather than architectural significance. Rather than meet high architectural standards, the treatment for these sites should focus on an interpretive plan. In some ways, my extensive experience with World Heritage sites with their management plans informed this suggestion. If World Heritage sites have management plans, couldn’t National Register sites that are important for who they are associated with or what happened there have interpretive plans? Heck, you could even make the tax credits dependent on effective interpretive plans.
The other aspect of World Heritage that is useful is the Burra Charter, which is my north star for the whole heritage conservation field. The Burra Charter basically requires community input from the moment of inception to the final treatment – a contrast to the old world where the landmarks get picked by the professionals alone. The basic idea is again, the opposite of zoning. Every site has a unique history and form that cannot be commodified. Its treatments – how we fix it up – have no analogues. They are determined by the site itself, its history and cultural continuity, and by the community that wants it in their future. No two sites are treated the same because no two are identical.
I can’t remember if it is in the fridge or the basement…
Heritage conservation is PROCESS, not FORM. The process is IDENTIFY – EVALUATE – REGISTER – TREAT. That four-step process is defined in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and Section 106 basically follows the same four steps for reviewing federal undertakings. The Burra Charter essentially defines the same PROCESS but insists that the community be involved at every step. Those who wrote the NHPA is ’66 or the Standards in the 70s and 80s likely envisioned professionals doing that work. Professionals are needed of course, but they cannot do it without community, since community are the ultimate stewards of whatever structure, site, landscape or traditional practice is being conserved.
Matachines at Mission Concepcion, 2017.
Naturally, developers and public officials dealing with historic buildings want a simple form-based checklist of what they need to do, not a process. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards are broad principles, and while the National Park Service publishes detailed Guidelines for the use of the Standards. The “checklist” so to speak is not really prescriptive – it is categorized in terms of “Recommended” and “Not Recommended”. The process should yield a different formal result for each site.
At the end of the day, the issue is more the INTERPRETATION of the Standards than the Standards themselves. During my forty years in this field, I have always been aware of how certain State Historic Preservation Offices or certain local landmark commissions had their own tendencies in review of historic projects. Developers using the tax credits want consistency and predictability, but is that reasonable? Are ground soils consistent and predictable? Are building contractors? Are zoning variations? Are interest rates? Climate? Market conditions?
- “A Matter of Alignment: Methods to Match the Goals of the Preservation Movement,” forum journal, Spring 2014, p. 13. See also Michael, Vincent L, “Addressing the Diversity Deficit: Reform the National Register of Historic Places” in Creating Historic Preservation in the 21st Century, Wagner and Tiller, Eds. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018
I would always tell my students that you don’t save buildings once. You have to do it again and again. Back in the 1980s and 90s when I worked for Landmarks Illinois (it had a longer name then) we helped save the Hotel St. Benedict Flats (James Egan, 1882) four times in six years – with a National Register nomination, appeals to zoning changes, and finally a landmark designation followed by a phone call from a developer who ended up buying and restoring it using the historic tax credits and an easement donation.
Last year here at the Conservation Society of San Antonio, we lobbied San Antonio College and the Archdiocese – then the owner – to offer the building for sale. We collaborated with the Tobin Hill neighborhood group and even with this blog, which led to two persons purchasing the building for rehabilitation as a wine bar. You can see my blogs on it here and here. Now, a year later, it needs to be saved again as the owners have put it up for sale following a little rehab and some damage from intruders.
I actually discovered that people had broken in back in February when I was taking Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Chair Sarah Bronin on whirlwind tour of San Antonio preservation. I immediately alerted one of the owners, but some damage had been done and now there is a protective fence and several boarded up windows.
Damage does not always mean the end of an historic landmark, and at least the Hughes House was officially landmarked by the City Council in the interim. It also got a zoning change for the wine bar, no mean feat given its location near schools and houses of worship. Still, the process starts again, the building is a bit banged up and the future is uncertain….
In other news, a landmark I drive past every day had a fire recently, again courtesy of the obdachlos, who also tried to block firefighters from responding. Fortunately the firefighters succeeded and only a portion of the rear of the house was damaged. We were interviewed by a tv station about the house, since it is a Texas Historical Landmark and associated with Venustiano Carranza, one of the big four of the Mexican Revolution along with Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Carranza was President for most of 1915-20 (and actually got rid of Zapata). The house was built by his niece 1913-14. Both Madero and Carranza spent significant time in San Antonio early in the decade, although the houses they visited before 1913 are all demolished now. There is a statue of Madero on the River Walk near King William. So the Carranza house is our only physical connection to this history.
Fortunately the house has been secured, but thanks to the KSAT reporters, we learned that there is another building associated with this important chapter in San Antonio history, and it is right across the street. And it is being rehabbed. Now we have two buildings, whose history is intertwined!
Turns out this simple industrial structure was the publication site of La Prensa, an important Spanish language newspaper in San Antonio for a century. La Prensa was front and center during the Mexican Revolution, and having it right across the street doubles down on the value of this landmark. Here are two buildings that hosted important visitors central to a defining moment in Mexican history. They had discussions and strategized here, and the press put their words into action.
If these walls could talk……. The good news is the building is secured, so perhaps it will not suffer the fate of so many others – perhaps a dozen a year – lost to demolition by neglect.
The issue raises the larger question of why the city can’t do more to prevent the loss of vacant buildings, especially since San Antonio passed a Vacant Building Ordinance nearly a decade ago. According to KSAT News, over 250 vacant historic buildings exist in the city, and we have certainly seen many of them succumb to fire after squatters take up residence. We had the sad story of 503 Urban Loop last year, the Lone Star Brewery before that. Heck, 800 W. Russell in my neighborhood (pictured above) burned twice. Like many of the others, the owners were neither local nor attentive.
Above: Site of 212 W. Dewey owned by an Austin developer who bought like 8 houses in the Tobin Hill area which are all subject to demolition by neglect. This neglect is not a lack of capital or supply chains or anything – it is a business model, one that harms neighborhoods.
So why doesn’t the Vacant Building ordinance solve the problem? Representatives of historic neighborhoods have been asking the city that very question in recent days. If neighborhoods alert the Office of Historic Preservation about a vacant building and get it on the Vacant Building list, shouldn’t Development Services be enforcing code violations? Or, is it because it is on the list that everyone thinks someone else is taking care of it? Stay tuned!
Fiesta is over, the IPW international travel network just completed a lovely visit to the Alamo City, and the State Legislature has almost completed its biennial shenanigans, one bit of which just hit the press and could have a negative impact on one of our treasured landmarks, the Institute of Texan Cultures, built in 1968 and a unique celebration of Texan diversity in a unique Brutalist building.
I wrote about this not long ago – the Conservation Society has been working to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, its owner, University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) completed a series of working groups looking at the future of the institute and insists it is looking at three possible options – keeping it where it is, keeping it in the Hemisfair area, and moving it elsewhere. The building – the focus of the Conservation Society – has long been rumored to be a potential site for a new highrise (as illustrated in an issue of Urban Land a few years back) or sports stadium.
Two things happened this week that bode ill for the building. First, the popular Asian Festival was moved from the site to the main downtown UTSA campus. This is a classic predemolition move akin to dozens I have witnessed since the 80s. Remove a beloved event/store/use from a building. Ideally replace it with something crappy that people want to get rid of, and then …poof – no one objects to demolition!
This was the classic example from 40 years ago. A beloved downtown grocery in Chicago where you could get apple-sized strawberries (this was before those became normal – GO GMO!) dipped in chocolate was closed first. Then the retail space became a shop selling two pairs of vinyl men’s pants for $9.99. Within a year or two everyone forgot about Stop N Shop and the exquisite 1930 Hillman’s building was demolished.
Eventually they did building something there. It was only vacant like this for 19 years. See my 2012 post here.
The second thing that happened is that the State Legislature passed a bill that basically gives a couple hundred million in tax revenues to the convention center and downtown sports stadiums. Given that the site of the Institute of Texan Cultures has long been rumored for a baseball (or basketball?) stadium, having a handy government funding source sure could help if it comes to undoing a big Brutalist landmark.
I understand the populist dislike for Brutalism, and even more I understand the Mischief of Modernism that made these amazing buildings in 1968, a Hubris of Scale that engenders an equally skewed approach to redevelopment in our own time.
Meanwhile, at the Alamo temporary constructions are EVERYWHERE. This is the South Gate, which is not a reconstruction but a modern interpretation of a feature that existed from the Mission era (1724) all the way until 1871. It is built atop the actual archaeological remains of the south gate, no easy feat. Just beyond it is the temporary Lunette, a palisaded fortification that exists for maybe 18 months in 1835-36, but since that includes the famous battle of the Alamo, there it is.
And cannon. The Alamo has gained an average of one cannon per year over the last seven years. You have been warned.
These are in addition to the also “temporary” Southwest rampart, with its massive 18-pounder cannon which went in a year ago. Oh, and they just got permission to build a “shade structure” just south of the Lunette in Plaza de Valero. The Conservation Society objected that this will obscure views of the Alamo.
I have a natural concern about “temporary” structures, with specific examples from the last 40 years. Sticking with Chicago, back in 1977 they wanted to build a bandshell in Grant Park, but thanks to a 1912 ruling, no buildings can be added to Grant Park (except the ones already there) which is why the Museum Campus is just south of the park. Now, if this had been the 21st century, they would have done what they did with Millennium Park – just build the buildings and then put the park on top of them! Problem solved!
Alas, this was the 1970s when people were wearing vinyl pants so they decided to build a “demountable structure” for the new bandshell. It was basically a fold-up tent they could erect and disassemble each year, thus not “building” in Grant Park. I remember seeing it the first year it went up. I have seen it since, because it has been demounted exactly 0 times in my lifetime. So, I tend to be suspicious.
More staying power than a traditional mortgage.
The shrine of Texas liberty. Never mind the bollards.
I would like to correct my perspective. In the 17 plus years of this blog I have occasionally gone a little Luddite with some anti-technology rants, like this one back in 2007 or this one a few months ago. When you can remember rotary phones, priming carburetors and rolling your own slide film, you will occasionally become an old grouch. On the flip side, I get massively impatient at slow internet and the horrible jumping up and down on websites caused, I assume, by the damn cookies or whatever. I will join your revolution if I must, but please don’t have it at 17 miles an hour. – even I am not that slow.
Most pickup trucks are not to my taste but I found this one palette able.
I grumble about how external hard drives have special connectors designed to slip out of place if there is any percussive motion within three feet, such as typing on a keyboard; or how those same drives always have to be Force Ejected; or how Google needs me to login six times a day. I whine about how “Check Engine” lights are always on no matter what; and how whatever app you are in you will be forced to sign into another app in order to complete your business. But I admit readily that mostly it is progress, even if I have to call my daughter in to talk to the refrigerator. I don’t want to be the stereotypical grouch, especially as a student of history. We’ve been down this road before.
he stereotype of the old person grumbling about how things were better in their day is at least as old as recorded history. One of the things I could grumble about today is how the craft beer revolution that I was part of 30 years ago is now succumbing to hard seltzers and mango white claws – the offspring of Zima and grandchildren of wine coolers and “alcopops”. They have taken over 2-4 more coolers in the grocery store, squeezing out my beloved IPAs in favor of this flavored nonsense.
There is a Sumerian tablet from 2600 BC where the author – in perfect cuneiform – complains about how the coffee today (2600 BC) is watered down and everyone adds cream and spices (mango? chelada?) and it is no longer “like coffee” was back in my day. Harumph. The same tropes of the generationally challenged can be found in most all surviving literature – Greek comedies two thousand years younger than our grumpy old coffee man have identical characters, and Shakespeare in particular can be set in any time period and place without loss of authentically Harumphian stereotypes. Your generation is not special. All the other ones said the same thing. That’s how history works.
Fashion forward. Imagine what the Gibson girl connoted in 1910.
The other night at the Beethoven Männerchor Halle und Garten the choir came out to read a poem in German and English and sing briefly to a tree. The large pecan tree will be cut down on Friday because it is cracked and a hazard. Meanwhile, a major project for Brackenridge Park was heard by the Historic and Design Review Commission following a couple of years of protests to “Stop the Chop” of older trees in the park. While the number of trees to be cut down has been halved since the protest began, the protestors remain at full strength and more than two dozen crammed the hearing room.
Why do trees have this power over people? They lie at the center of most religious traditions, not just the Germanic ones. There are sacred trees throughout Asia and Africa. Trees are oracles, places to expiate illness or sin, gods and goddesses and even human souls. You would find a similar spoken homage to the tree about to be cut along the Irrawaddy River as we saw last night along the San Antonio River. And one protestor at the hearing interrupted with “they are sacred,” voicing a human perception that dates back tens of thousands of years.
Not technically a tree but a centuries-old camelia flower, Weiboashan, Yunnan, China.
No wonder it has always been easier to landmark trees than buildings, such as I often experienced in China, where trees were tagged red and green for how old they were and more zealously preserved than any building. Same in the U.S. where real estate developers are only happy to tell you they will save trees on the site but the buildings have to go.
I am also reminded of the pisog trees of Ireland, where ribbons, articles of clothing, glasses or other objects are tied to a tree as a prayer for healing. This is also found in many other cultures, for examples Arab folklore and Greek mythology.
So is it the religious associations, the idea of a world tree, or the idea of human transference into and out of trees that causes this level of worship and attachment? Perhaps it is simply the basic environmental impulse, the mythology of the Avatar movies. Trees symbolize our entire environment, tended by avatars of our better selves, wrapped in a harmony myth.
Naiju tree gods, Ise, Japan, 2004.
Trees were symbolic to ancient Egyptians and African farmers. They are pretty darn near universal, on par with kittens and puppies. Like kittens and puppies, they symbolize “nature” but are generally farmed and thus a part of human culture. In parks especially the vast majority of trees were planted. The goal of great landscape designers was to make these places feel that they were natural even though they were designed. Parks are designed just like a Shinto temple or the Parthenon, but we tend to categorize them as “nature” because they are alive. And of course, trees breed new trees which are unplanned – like the ones now subject to removal in Brackenridge Park. Volunteers, they are called.
Framed. Farmed. Symbolic.
Frederick Law Olmsted designed the landscape above in great detail. He curated our experience and manipulated our views. Brackenridge Park was similarly designed, and the pecan tree at the Beethoven was curated and planted in the early 20th century. Yet unlike other human designs, these living things embody a mythology and passion that buildings do not.
Mural at Weibaoshan, Yunnan “Dancing under the Pine Trees”
There are of course natural areas, some great forests where the trees aren’t farmed. Occasionally burned, yes. And yes, the indigenous like the Ohlone would burn other species to focus on the oak.
Note how the forest burned here in modern times is described: “fuels had been building up for 117 years”. That is because normally (whatever that means) fires occurred every 8-10 years. Tree lovers tap into a long human tradition of tree worship, but there is an equally long human tradition of tree farming. The advocacy arguments are made in moral terms, but the moral realities are ambiguous. We have a preference for human-designed species, like dogs and cats, and we have made similar selections of our arboreal friends.
No one designs trees like the Japanese.
What I used to call “weed trees” up North are called “trash trees” here, but in either appellation the hate is great and the implication is that we humans did not design these trees into our environment. They were, as we say, “volunteers.” The lack architectural or historical value. We tend to curate our trees as we curate our cats and dogs.
I guess the Chinese crested is considered uglier than the Mexican hairless. This one is Peruvian.
Kittens, puppies, trees. In Brackenridge Park they have signs warning against the dumping of animals. They also have had a massive feral cat problem slowly being solved by humane spaying. Feral. That’s what you call your designed creatures when they escape the farm.
Christmas Tree farm, Los Gatos, California, ten years ago.
But why the zero-tolerance policy? That’s what I don’t get. Not a single speaker who protested last night admitted to the need to remove even one tree. Maybe that would violate the moral imperative. All or nothing. Asceticism. Not my vibe – heck I compromise on historic buildings all the time.
They were concerned about moving a large old live oak. I was not concerned about moving this 1880 limestone house across the street and rotating it 90 degrees. I’m crap at asceticism.
I sang the revised lyrics of Der Lindebaum to our Beethoven tree the other night and I will happily sing it to those park trees that are being removed because they are breaking down walls and threatening historic buildings. I can’t make more historic buildings.
Oldest industrial building in San Antonio. Note the volunteer trees, which are younger than me.
My students always chided me for handing out thick reams of readings and assignments, telling me I was “killing trees”. The implication was that I should do things digitally and save trees. My response? “I can plant more trees. I can’t plant the coal, uranium and lithium powering your digital device.” *
We planted all of these trees. You wait 20 years and there they are. I remember when the river birch on the right was in the back seat of the car.
Man kann den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen
- – I guess the proponents would imbue each tree with its own identity and personality, be it volunteer, trash, designed, or sculpted. They might say we can always build more houses, and just to add a layer of overlapping irony, I would respond that the new houses won’t be made of old growth wood, which is straighter, denser, and more disease-resistant than any modern farmed wood. So, there is that.