This is Bliss, a restaurant in San Antonio. The upscale American cuisine focuses on fresh ingredients, has superior service and is consistently ranked one of the best restaurants in the nation’s seventh largest city. It is housed in a historic Humble Oil gas station.
This is the Station Cafe, across from our office, a more modest sandwich shop that is filled to the brink every lunchtime and offers evening beers from its historic Texaco gas station.
At Austin Highway and Broadway this former Mobil gas station is an upscale women’s boutique described as a “must-visit for anyone who is in the mood to indulge in some retail therapy.” sloan/hall is high-end adaptive re-use.
This is another historic gas station on St. Mary’s Street just north of downtown that is about to be converted into a restaurant.
I could go on with many more examples, but the bottom line is that historic gas stations are adaptive re-use GOLD. Like everything in the entirely externalized world of real estate value, location is key, which brings us to the city’s newest trail, along San Pedro and Apache Creeks. I have ridden it a half-dozen times already.
The trail was just completed in the last year and connects to the famous Mission Reach trail that runs 12 miles through the World Heritage area.
Pictured above is a trailhead near Nogalitos Street. Which brings us to this 1936 Pure Oil gas station at this very trailhead.
Pure Oil was a San Antonio company that adopted the half-timbered Tudor Revival for their stations, which can be found in a dozen states. This is the only one left in San Antonio. It features steeply pitched roofs on both the “house” and “canopy”.
The same station in 2012, detail of the half-timbering on the canopy.
And here it is in 1983 when the San Antonio Conservation Society surveyed it. We surveyed more than 1,500 gas stations over the years, and this was one of the 30 best, proposed as city landmarks last year. Having looked at 1500 stations, we can tell you with confidence that the Tudor Style is quite unusual and the station is quite intact.
2012 polychrome view
But then the station was quietly pulled from the designation list at the behest of the out-of-town owner. So the San Antonio Conservation Society filed a Request for Review of Significance, which the Historic and Design Review Commission agreed to.
We also learned at that time that the site was quite large and the little gem of a gas station only occupies about one-eighth of the land. The Office of Historic Preservation ruled that ONLY the gas station had historic significance, so the other buildings on site do not need to be re-used.
An acre of land along the trail and a cell phone tower to boot!
A map showing construction of the site. Only Area 1 is proposed landmark.
The owner hired the best real estate attorneys to prevent designation. Why? Because it would be worth more demolished? That argument doesn’t hold up too well in this town – gas stations are constantly turned into successful businesses. Here’s a few more:
The Conservation Society met with attorneys for the owners and Councilwoman Gonzales moments before the item came up at City Council. All parties agreed to put designation on hold for 60 days.
Re-use the gas station on the right (corner of Nogalitos and Ralph). SPLACH is optional, as are the other buildings.
A restored Pure Oil station in McMinnville, TN in case you wanted to see an example. One also became a BANK in Geneva, Illinois.
We are trying to find the right buyer for all or part of the site before the DEADLINE of March 18. For more information, contact me at email@example.com,
Now for a few more of the successfully rehabbed gas stations in San Antonio:
I always enjoy the Urban Land Institute’s analysis of Emerging Real Estate Trends (by pwc) and this year was no exception. What made it especially interesting was the demographic foundation of much of the analysis: the Millennial/Generation Z groups that will define the future of space. As usual, the punks have it all over the hippies.
The next generation is not interested in your 6,000 square foot McMansion or even your 3,200 square foot suburban gem. I recall Doug Farr about seven years ago describing a potential tenant for a retrofitted Lathrop Homes unit: Has a $5,000 bicycle and an iPad. Probably only wants 700 square feet. Will not be collecting furniture.
Let them eat cupcakes.
They are here and they are happy with small space. People collect information and experiences now, and while vinyl and books and even mid-century modern furniture are all hipster now, most of what we collect fits on a device smaller than your thumb.
There will be a lot of obsolete McMansions soon.
2. NO AUTO MOTIVE
All the talk of driverless cars plays right into the next generation. They are getting their driving licenses later or not at all. They Uber everywhere. The autonomous vehicle already exists for them as a choice consumer product. The countryside the hippies wanted to escape to in the 1970s became the suburbia these kids grew up in in the 1990s. There is nowhere to drive to anymore. The car no longer symbolizes freedom.
As it turns out there are more comfortable places to have sex. Who knew?
For real estate, the more radical transformation is not the autonomous car but the autonomous truck. Self-driving trucks will have a much bigger impact on the real estate landscape than cars. This was also true with the advent of the truck and car a century ago. That’s why we have zoning.
Soon all traffic will be stage managed.
The evolution of the internet of things has also meant that technology is now shifting away from the cloud and onto the edge – where cars and trucks and houses have enough computing power to learn and manage data. I read in the Economist that one theory about why Amazon bought Whole Foods was to have enough physical footprint to implement edge computing nationwide.
And Canada, I assume
3. PRIVATE COLLABORATION
Back to those Millennials/Generation Z. About five years ago I toured Bloomberg headquarters in New York City and it was the ultimate open office. Fish tanks and food kiosks everywhere, ridiculously bright colors, and desks sprawled across an open floor plan. The CEO occupied just another desk. No corner offices. Open space encourages collaboration, so offices followed the open plan. Hippie Paradise.
Architects love this stuff..(Wikimedia Commons Miller Thomson Vancouver)
Millennials LOVE to collaborate. They collaborate more than any other generation ever.
By smart phone. Alone. Behind a closed door. ULI explained that the old office door is making a big comeback. The Millennials and Generation Z demand amenities like rooftop gardens, food options and gyms, but they also really, really want to be able to close the door.
Turns out the physical and mental world aren’t perfect analogues. Who knew?
According to ULI “Over half (of employees) reported that ambient noise reduces their satisfaction at work.” The open space plan is still there, but the pushback is growing. Coworking spaces, which are like multiplayer live-work lofts, are also a thing now – one such company in New York now leases more space than Goldman Sachs.
4. RETAIL IN THE AMAZON AGE
The death of retail is painfully obvious in America, because even though online retailing has ONLY taken 10% of the market, the U.S. retail market was grossly overbuilt, with 10 times the capacity per capita of Germany. So it is REALLY visible and we will have plenty of malls to go with those McMansions in the 2030 fire sale.
Perhaps some will be converted into fulfillment centers, where massive physical space is needed to keep the online retail world humming as they send and receive and repair in million-square-foot tilt-up panel behemoths. Buildings are getting bigger and smaller at the same time.
5. OLD FOR NEW
What does all this mean for historic buildings? My own Millennial offspring seem to love the Jane Jacobs idea that new ideas need old buildings. They have doors. They have character and patina and a story or two. They are often smaller. They are greener than new buildings because they are already there, and as the last 70 years have shown us, they are endlessly adaptable.
Last summer I was visiting my daughter in Kalispell, Montana, a lovely historic town. One day we toured nearby Whitefish, which has a small history museum but was quite the contrast, as I mentioned in a blog HERE. The one highlight was our discovery of a late Frank Lloyd Wright building, even labeled as such – completed as a medical office in 1961.
I am on the Board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and at the time I remembered the controversy and concern for the building. Modest, it still echoed the Marin County complex in its rolling sculpted eave and horizontal emphasis.
But this week it looks like this
Why? The pat answer is greed, but the real answer is hidden behind a seeming expression of greed: $1.7 million. The blatantly unreasonable request almost sounds like “$1.7 million or I kill the building!” And he followed through, which may have been the intention all along. The piles of rubble remind me of the 1972 piles of the old Chicago Stock Exchange, which was similarly flipped up until it had a price it could not sustain, because real estate is the only asset class whose value is fully externalized.
It is usually a con. Those silly preservationists think it is valuable, so I will ask them for too much money and then blame them when I demolish it. Which is exactly, in every aspect, how a kidnapping for ransom works.
This was the trade Chicago made in 1972 after the Adler & Sullivan Chicago Stock Exchange was flipped by promoters to an unsustainable value. To be replaced by a physical absence, a building that you can’t even look at for more than a second if you try.
So, that is the greed angle and the ransom angle, but what about The Vacant Lot Myth: that a cleared site is worth more for an owner? I covered this a couple years back HERE. It is like The Beige – what realtors tell you to paint your walls to appeal to the widest possible audience. Not the best audience, not the best price, but the largest potential market. Which leads to absences.
Sadly, the absence in Whitefish builds on a local legacy of absence. There is a plaque where they tore down their oldest building about five years ago. Tourists may still come through on their way to Glacier Park but they will have less reason to linger, less to see, and less to remember.
This year at PastForward, the National Preservation Conference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation focused on People Saving Places. “People” is operative, because for many – notably wonky architectural historians like myself – it had often been about buildings. Even for those in the planning profession, it had been a technical question rather than a human one. That is wrong.
So here is the photo I posted on my first day at work nearly a year and a half ago.
This is the main office of the San Antonio Conservation Society, and has been so since 1974, when the organization was already 50 years old. It is the Anton Wulff House, built in 1870 and described as Italianate style. This is reasonable since it has that Tuscan tower, those paired windows and doors and other hallmarks of the most popular style in America from 1850 to 1880.
After the tower and the main front-facing gabled mass, there is a half-gable mass that almost reads like an addition, but everyone assured me the building was built this way.
Maybe it is the nature of the slightly irregular limestone blocks, but that last mass (which contains my office) seemed less designed, reflective perhaps of the isolated and emergent city some seven years before the railroad arrived.
What did seem clear was a complete absence of any influence from Anton Wulff’s home country, Germany, and specifically the Alsace region adjacent to France. Alsatians had clearly brought European architecture to nearby Castroville at the same time.
Huth House, Castroville, 1846.
But I was wrong because I did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of early 19th century high style European architecture. If I had, I would have recognized a homage to the MOST famous German architect of the 19th century, Friedrich Schinkel, he of the Altes Museum. In 1829, Schinkel designed the Römische Bäder, an expressionistic complex at Potsdam for the romantic Prussian Friedrich Wilhelm IV. This is what it looked like:
Credit for this discovery goes to Michael Guarino, who left me a stack of images of the structure. All of a sudden the Wulff House had a fairly grand legacy, and that half-gabled section made sense for the first time.
The San Antonio Conservation Society was at the cutting edge of heritage conservation in 1924, focusing not only on buildings but the cultural landscape, including “customs” that we now call intangible heritage. This week, San Antonio remains at the cutting edge of the heritage conservation field.
Over the dozen years of this blog I have sprinkled in historical facts about how old certain ideas and institutions are. This is because these things are so fundamental to our way of seeing and interacting with the world that we assume them to be eternal, not a few decades or a couple centuries old.