Mid Century Modern Demolition Derby

July 3, 2024 Blog, Sustainability, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 24

The latest raft of demolition plans in San Antonio is rendering an already hot summer unbearable. And for some reason, it is the Mid Century Modern gems that are bearing the brunt of it. San Antonio College’s Early Childhood Development building, designed by local architect William Dukes as an Osteopathic Hospital in 1958. The long, elegant building has a cellular quality softened by edges that bow in plan, and nice big windows that would be ideal for an architecture school.

Oh, and it is in great shape.

Now, you add the ongoing one-sided discussion about the Summer 2025 demolition of the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures, and…

The just-approved (conceptually) demolition of the Badge and ID Building at San Antonio airport with its wave-like folded plates and poured-in-place Y-shaped columns, and you would think everything built from Eisenhower to Nixon was under attack.

It was designed by Clarence W. W. Mayhew in 1968 according to Roadside Architecture’s article on Texas Mid-Century Modern roofs. Mayhew is well known for residential designs in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a super cool building, and immeasurably tiny for the size of the project. Still, you know how highway and airport engineers are!*

We also have ongoing concerns about this building on Main Street, a little too far south for San Antonio College to go after, but still surrounded by parking lots. (Developed by Kallison, architect Henry L. Fox, 1962.)

Now, in San Antonio, the Mid-Century Modern master was O’Neil Ford, who came here to restore La Villita in 1939 and ended up creating some of our greatest landmarks, like Trinity University ans the Tower of the Americas. He also did the Villita Assembly Building in 1959, which serves as Sauerkraut Bend and storage during A Night In Old San Antonio(R). The building is not threatened but will be extensively renovated, with more riverside access, a big glass wall and a new clerestory for the essentially windowless circular building.

Also it has a flower on top.

It is not all death and dismantlement for Mid-Century Mods in SA – we did save this 1950s house by Harvey Smith, who restored the Spanish Governor’s Palace and Mission San Jose in the 1930s. He built it for himself and even though it is in Alamo Heights, the Architectural Review Board’s unanimous denial of a permit somehow got the owner to reconsider, which is a win!

Nice to end on a positive note

*Old joke:

Q: What is the difference between a terrorist and a highway/airport engineer?

A: You can negotiate with a terrorist!

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Castroville Survey

June 14, 2024 Texas Comments (0) 48

Two summers ago I was out in Castroville presenting on historic districts and design guidelines, one of several speakers helping Castroville citizens determine how best to deal with the rapid growth of their very historic community. This summer I am helping five student interns survey the early houses of Castroville, thanks to the support of the Conservation Society, and the University of Notre Dame, Texas Historical Foundation and a lot of technical help from the City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation and the Texas Historical Commission.

History Center, Castroville

Castroville has one of the oldest National Register historic districts in the state, dating to 1970, but unfortunately that means the nomination is very sparse. It is high time that the historic district is surveyed and inventoried. In fact, the local effort led by Joshua Kempf and Shari Biediger has been looking at ALL of the Castro Colonies, including not only Castroville itself, but Quihi, D’Hanis, Yancey, Saus Creek, Vandenburg, Fort Lincoln and Hondo. The original Castroville district had about 120 homes in it but almost 300 “pioneer homes” exist throughout Medina County.

Steinle House, Castroville

The history is fascinating. In 1842 Henri Castro, in the service of the King of France, became an Empresario charged with bringing 2000 settlers to Texas. Just as the Spanish had a hard time settling the area until they converted the natives in the 18th century and enticed some settlers from the Canary Islands, so the young Republic of Texas was handing out tracts of land hoping to secure European settlers. Castro was the most successful of the lot, although like the Adel Verein that settled New Braunfels, the immigrants arrived in Texas to find that their land grants were many miles away, and as in New Braunfels, they ended up settling closer to San Antonio.

Also like the Adel Verein settlers brought by Prince Solm, the Castro settlers spoke German. But they were French, from the Alsace. Hence, the church is dedicated to St. Louis (another King of France) and there is still an annual festival celebrating the saint 180 years later. The architecture of the Castro colonies tracks with the Texas Vernacular of Central and South Texas – many simple rectangular houses with gable roofs that extend into porches and saltboxes at a different pitch. Mostly 1 or 1 1/2 stories, there are a few examples of commercial architecture and the occasional industrial building – after all, part of the reason they chose the Castroville site was the Medina River, where they could construct mills.

Yesterday I worked with the students on techniques for architectural description as they survey the pioneer houses. Dr. Jenny Hay of the City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation provided the survey forms – digital – and the five students from University of Notre Dame and Western University got useful research guidance from Rebecca Wallisch prior to the presentations from Jenny and I. We then walked around Castroville bit testing out survey techniques.

Jungmann House, 1855, Castroville

I am very excited about this project and will be checking in on the students’ progress weekly. They are having a four course Alsatian dinner next Tuesday to welcome the students so that should be great! Guten Apetit, y’all!

UPDATE: Alles war ganz lecker!

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San Antonio Roundup May 2024

May 30, 2024 Blog, Technology, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (1) 76

Tomorrow is the last day of May and the last time the Institute of Texan Cultures will be open in their original 1968 home, a Brutalist landmark that is the only downtown building by a Mexican-American architect, as I detailed recently here.

What else is happening in San Antonio (not counting endless evidence-free speculation about a downtown Spurs stadium)?

This is a 1920s bungalow at 800 W Russell Place in Alta Vista, which is not a landmark district. As you can see, it is getting a new roof. Here is a view from North Flores:

Much of the original clapboard is being preserved. Here is what the house looked like three years ago after its second fire…

In most towns this building is demolished.

In San Antonio, where preservation is more ingrained into the local psyche than elsewhere, this building is coming back three years later in its original form, most of which will be new material. That is how we roll (with the exception of the Institute of Texan Cultures above). I have seen buildings with massive holes in the roof and collapsed porches and chimneys brought back from the dead here. It is not unusual. It is an ethic.

Three years ago Sue Ann Pemberton’s Main Street Architects brought this Monte Vista house back from the dead. Heck, over 30 years ago the Harnisch House in King William was completely gutted by a fire, nothing left but masonry walls. So here it is a few years ago:

But the threats that came up in May 2024 were of a different sort. First, there was a proposal for a 200-foot high Ferris Wheel three blocks behind the Alamo. The Conservation Society was the first to oppose it when it went for rezoning, but we were quickly joined by the Alamo Trust, Centro and others and the matter has been deferred, perhaps indefinitely. The proponents didn’t want to call it a Ferris Wheel but an “observation wheel”. I suppose it isn’t the 1893 wheel by Ferris (which was a riposte to Eiffel’s tower of four years earlier) and it was to be a bit smaller.

The bigger question was why downtown?

Six years ago, the Alamo Reimagined Plan was all about bringing a sense of reverence to Alamo Plaza, pushing out the populist entertainments for a more refined atmosphere. Now they are back? Tomb Raider replaced by Observation Wheel? Even the World Heritage folks got wind of it and were not pleased.

To top it off, a second tawdry proposal emerged. A group called Outfront Media proposed “Urban Entertainment Districts” a la Denver and Atlanta, with a host of digital billboards flying right in the face of the recently adopted Sign Code. Times Square, anyone? Reverence?

Now, Ferris Wheels and digital signs are all well and good. They make sense in Times Square and La Vegas and Pudong and Akhibara. Heck, they would make sense at Port San Antonio or out on 1604. Just not downtown.

And what makes sense for Pudong does not make sense for the Bund it faces.

The digital billboard trial balloon is getting a lot of flak (and for once that metaphor makes sense).

So what else is happening? A five-time building permit violator finally opened his restaurant, presumably treating the health code better than the building code. Here are some before and after photos of how this Lavaca gas station building had all of its proportions changed. How did he do it? He just got a permit for something and did something else. Five times! Mejor pedir perdón que permiso I guess.

Three years ago.

A few months ago. The parapet changed, the walls changed, thje proportions changed. Not only did he violate five permits, he used the nastiest low-quality finish there is (EIFS!!!) and just kept globbing stuff on top of stuff. Poor building’s life just got a lot shorter.

What else? Unlike San Antonio, which has a robust preservation ordinance and department, the city of Alamo Heights does not. They at least have an Architectural Review Board, which recently voted 6-0 to disallow the demolition of Harvey Smith’s own house. Smith was the architect who restored the Spanish Governor’s Palace and Mission San Jose in the 1930s.

Earlier this year they also managed to save a century-old house in Alamo Heights thanks to community uproar. So, kudos to Alamo Heights – at least you have your landmark-free neighbors Olmos Park and Terrell Hills beat! See below – it is still there!

On the other hand, we are probably going to lose the Sisson House, which has been deteriorating for over a decade next to the San Juan acequia, not far from the mission complex. Owned by the National Park Service, there will be Section 106 review. Unlike our burned friends above, this one may not make it, as the city has already proposed making it a training site for the Deconstruction ordinance, which requires older buildings to be pulled apart by hand and the irreplaceable materials re-used.

It has a really cool limestone basement also.

That’s all for now – see you in June!

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Heritage Narratives

April 30, 2024 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 73

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) 133

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) 102

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) 100

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) 166

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) 261

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) 195

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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