Museums in Old Buildings

September 11, 2020 Blog, History, Technology, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 30

For the last five years, the Conservation Society had advocated for the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings and their re-use as the new Alamo museum. Without every saying so, the Alamo has favored a new building, partly because they want to reveal where part of the western wall was, which I discussed at length last month here. I ended that blog noting that the Woolworth Building was to be a museum of airplanes a little over 20 years ago.

And why not?

The San Antonio Museum of Art, the Briscoe and almost every other museum in San Antonio is in a historic building. Some, like the McNay and the Witte, have new additions, which is what we proposed for the Woolworth and Crockett.

How are world class museums made? Perhaps you recognize some of these.

The Louvre
The Uffizzi, Florence. The name literally describes what the building used to be.
Another world class museum in Paris. In a former train station.

You can throw in the Prado, the Alhambra and the Hermitage as well. Locally, we have….

San Antonio Museum of Art
McNay Museum

The Alamo museum intends to focus its interpretation on the famed 1836 battle. So, their illustrations have lots of cannons, which, while smaller than airplanes, do need a little space.

Like this one they added last year. The carriage color was meant to show the patina after being out in the sun for a couple years. They then displayed it out in the sun.

Some of the unpublished museum images show the cannons safely indoors and many of the outdoors one will be replicas. In the absence of imagery, perhaps the museum will look like this?

Hmm. What does the outside of this museum look like?

Oh! It’s a historic building! How about this display replete with conquistador astride a horse:

What does this museum look like on the outside?

Kinda looks a lot like the Woolworth Building. Except in both of these cases the column spacing is not as flexible as the Woolworth Building.

Don’t get me started on the City Museum in St. Louis, proof you can do absolutely anything with an historic commercial loft building. It has airplanes and multistory chutes and ladders.

The Alamo is warning that it is do or die time for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. The next hurdle? Texas Historical Commission will decide whether the 1940 Cenotaph can be moved a few hundred feet to the south.

Stay tuned…..

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Efficiency and Excess

September 10, 2020 Blog, History, Technology Comments (0) 26

There is an odd relationship in human nature between efficiency and its seeming polar opposite: excess. I was riding my bike this morning and I was thinking about roads as an example of efficiency and excess.

My favorite bas-relief dedicated to hard roads, c.. 1928

I wasn’t just thinking about the first hard roads in the 1910s and 20s, nor even the ginormous roller-coaster-like interstate interchanges I regularly drive here in San Antonio.

Bedecked with bas-reliefs of our beloved barbed quatrefoil.

No, what I was actually thinking of were ancient MesoAmerican roads, like the stone staircases in Ciudad Perdida where the Tayrona (in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, present-day Colombia) made high wet jungle efficient and interconnected beginning in the 7th century.

Main platforms with many many staircases

Which was efficient but then they just kept building more and more way beyond the point of efficiency. A little further north, I recalled Richard Hansen in Guatemala’s Mirador Basin declaring that the Maya collapsed because they kept building these lime pathways through their jungle, depleting their resources in the process as the paths grew deeper and deeper. I thought he was overstating the case, but I thought differently this morning.

Looking down from the largest pyramid by volume in Central America

Roads are very efficient until they aren’t. Like the paradox of building more roads and traffic getting worse, elements of efficiency in the course of human history can indeed become elements of excess until eventually the muscle memory of the efficiency carries the idea of efficiency along like a legend even as you sit two hours to travel thirty miles.

“All roads lead to Rome” and indeed the Pax Romana was based on the efficiency of trade and movement in the ancient world at a level it would not see again for a millennium. I saw a video recently that charged that the road’s led to Rome’s demise by bringing the barbarian armies in more efficiently. Did they turn to excess? Were they status symbols?

I didn’t have a picture of a Roman road (well, a slide I would have to scan) so we will make do with this 1st century Sun Temple in Roldo, Ossola Valley, Italy.

In Mechanization Takes Command, Siegfried Giedion talked about guns as the first single-stroke combustion engine, and indeed here is a tool we have proliferated beyond proliferation. From efficiency to excess and from utility to status symbol.

Well, how did I get from roads to guns? How did we get from tools to totems? How does efficiency turn into excess?

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Remember all of the Alamo

August 21, 2020 Blog, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 159

The north wall of the Alamo

Here are three very nicely designed highrises one after the next. They are the Gibbs Hotel (1909) in a Renaissance/Chicago Commercial style, the Classical 1937 Courthouse and Post Office, and the Deco Gothic verticality of the Emily Morgan hotel (1926). This is in the heart of town just north of the Alamo.

In fact, these three buildings cover the north wall of the fabled mission and fortress. The famous 1836 battle began when Santa Anna successfully stormed the north wall, breaking in roughly between the Courthouse and the Emily Morgan. Commander Lt. Wm. Travis fell but a minute and a half into the battle, also on the north wall, to the left of where the streetlights are in the lower center of the photo.

The chapel, which everyone knows as the Alamo, was the first building preserved by the public west of the Mississippi, in 1883, less than fifty years after the battle. Already this had become the center of town and the large commercial Crockett Block was in place facing the chapel.

Crockett Block, (Alfred Giles, 1882)

The Conservation Society began advocating for the re-use of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings when the state purchased them nearly five years ago for a new Alamo Museum. This was part of the larger reimagining of the Alamo that began in 2014. Sixteen months ago we presented a concept showing how the buildings could be added onto to make the new museum.

Conservation Society Alamo Museum concept with Crockett and Woolworth buildings

All this is preface to a curious push right now by the Save the Alamo Foundation to garner public support for their Alamo Plan. The most curious aspect of this push is that they don’t have a final design for the plaza. Nor even a preliminary design for the museum. How do you sell that?

1940 WPA mural in Post Office, showing Travis drawing the line in the sand with his sword. This mural is located very close to where he died in the battle.

Well, they are selling the idea that they will reclaim the footprint of the battlefield/mission walls. A portion of where the west wall was is 10 feet under the Crockett and Woolworth buildings. WHERE IT WAS – these buildings have 15 foot basements so there is NO remnant of the wall.

Courthouse and Post Office – you can see the restored mural in the lobby.

But let’s go back to the north wall, where all the action happened. Are they planning to take down the Gibbs Hotel and the Courthouse? No.

Just south of the chapel looking north.

So what are they selling? An invisible museum? It seems they are selling the idea that the famed 1836 battle will – by itself – attract all sorts of tourists. Calmer heads, like CM Roberto Trevino, are arguing that the 110 years of history before the battle need to be interpreted as well. After all, it is the mission era that made the Alamo part of a World Heritage Site.

And the chapel never had a roof nor a campanulate facade.

The Alamo spent 80 years as a mission, 50 as a fort, and 170 as the commercial heart of a growing city.

Thanks to Ron Bauml

The most curious thing of all about the Alamo Plan is not the absence of a design, nor the decision to expose some wall sites rather than others, but the fact that it is driven by an interpretive message that appears to be scripted by a 10-year old boy in 1950.* I visited as a 15-year old a couple decades later and thoroughly enjoyed the tales of heroism and sacrifice. But that is a small demographic.

And that was then.

The 1836 battle is just the starting point for a much richer tale with stories relevant to all peoples and all times. Why don’t they sell that? The more you include, the more money you make – what am I missing here?

*Thanks to Evan Thompson for this quip.

AUGUST 25 UPDATE:

Well, they have a drawing now! The drawing shows the plaza reconstructed as a reenactment of the 1836 battle, with a second story on the Long Barracks, a rebuilt southwest rampart, and lots of cannon and palisades. The drawing, from their Facebook page and in the news, is rendered from a position above the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings, so no news on the museum.

While still clearly aimed at that 10-year-old, it is the first new illustration of the plan in two years, so that is something. The drawing shows reconstruction of the second story of the Long Barracks as well as an earthen rampart at the southwest corner with cannon. I have dealt with the folly of reconstruction in the digital age previously. The drawing also shows lots of living history reenactors, making the whole thing a curiously large investment in a moribund industry.

In a month the Texas Historical Commission will make a decision about moving the Cenotaph, which is a publicly funded portion of the project. No news yet on the museum or other privately funded projects.

FUN FACT: The reason Clara Driscoll insisted on taking down the second story of the Long Barracks in 1913 was that it dominated the plaza and overshadowed the shrine – the same argument for moving the Cenotaph today!

FUN FACT: Do you know that in 1997 when it closed, the proposal was to turn the Woolworth Building into an aviation museum? True!

If it has room for airplanes, it can handle Alamo artifacts.

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Quantity and Quality

July 31, 2020 Blog, Economics, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 72

The developers of a much-maligned project in River Road have once again been denied permission to build on a vacant area in the historic district. This time they managed to get a feature article written around their failure, morphing from a case to a cause. The subhead calls it an “unpredictable process.”

Being an expert in the field, I don’t find it “unpredictable” but it has a quality that makes it difficult for the average developer. And that quality is literally Quality. Historic Design Review is a qualitative process, and most developers are used only to zoning, which is quantitative.

So what number is this?
And this?
And this?

The first problem is that the qualities of projects like this case – design, landscaping, setbacks, and massing – are overwhelmed by the quantity. The goal seems to be to cram as much building as you can into whatever space you have available. You can add gables and porches and board-and-batten siding but it is still a big hulk. Over the last year, the 23-townhome project has changed design elements that we objected to, like front-loading garages (snout houses) and heavy lot line massing.

They would likely have been approved if they removed one more unit, but after 18 months of carrying costs and redesigns, they probably felt they couldn’t afford to. Curiously, they basically got approval from the Office of Historic Preservation staff, but could not get enough votes from the volunteer Historic and Design Review Commission.

But now that it is a feature article, let’s look at the bigger picture, which is quantity and quality and who is good at what they do.

Starting to see a pattern here….

See, the beauty of historic districts and historic landmarks is that they treat every resource individually. It is not a commodity that can be alienated. It is not a grain that can be graded and put in a grain elevator. There is not a solution from another district or another landmark that can be applied, because that would be a different individual with different needs.

Average developers do not have a good handle on qualitative issues. They are in the business of grading grain and selling it by the container load. Their business model has no room or capital for individuals.

I love your house!

Above-average developers, on the other hand, get the qualitative issues. They may even seek out historic buildings because they know they can get a 45% investment tax credit between the state and federal laws. And they are practiced, so the process is less unpredictable for them. They know the rules but more importantly they know that they have to approach each project with an eye open for its inimitable qualities.

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And here we go again

July 21, 2020 Blog, Global Heritage, History, Sustainability, Technology Comments (0) 101

Well, it is once again time to win the “I canceled it first” race as the headless response to COVID-19 coronavirus spends its fifth month in the fifty random states of America. Here in Texas we are in a severe situation, outgunned only by Florida, Arizona and Southern California.

Pearl Farmers Market Saturday. Masks and social distancing. Ahh, civil society.

Something of this scale has not happened in a century, and a virus this virile and multidextrous has not been seen in modern times. Ebola was tons deadlier, but it killed fast, whereas the novel coronavirus doesn’t even let you know you are spreading it until you have.

Leadership, versed only in the news cycle, has failed badly in response to the longer cycle of the disease. The needless and childish politicization of masks and social distancing has led to the ONLY POSSIBLE OUTCOME it could, and the former USA no longer has the respect of other nations. Pity, perhaps, from a few. Schadenfreude, likely, from the majority.

Recently the Fiesta Commission, in concert with the Mayor, canceled the November Fiesta. Back in March it had been rescheduled from April to November. Now November is gone. The action followed both a spike in cases and hospitalizations, although what it really followed was the news cycle, beginning with an editorial telling the Mayor to do it on Sunday and the cancellation of Austin City Limits and the Texas State Fair. The original decision date was six weeks away.

It is amazing how well things go when you operate with a few basic protocols. Masks. Temperature scans. Sanitizing and hand washing. Over the last ten weeks in my company we have done these things and we have had no spread. Just like Hong Kong and Vietnam and South Korea.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), 2012.

But at the end of the day we are not on lockdown anymore – certain businesses like bars and hotels are being ruined – but you can still hold events, like the farmer’s market where everyone follows the rules and it is pretty much the same density and diversity it was before COVID. We will have to live like this for longer – we could take a cue from the countries that have been doing it for a full generation.

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Think A Minute

June 30, 2020 Blog, Interpretation Comments (0) 171

“Tradition is not worshiping the ashes but preserving the fire.” Mahler

I never mastered German (Ich versuche immer noch) but I always liked the German word for landmark Denkmal because it sounded like a contraction of “Think a minute” or “Think once” and I thought that is what a good landmark did, it made you think about some element of the past and wonder why it was here in the present.

Munich, 1982

If you want more German words for landmarks, check out my “Monuments, Memorials and Erasure” blog from 2017, written during the last bout of iconoclasm. Here we are again. In response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, hundreds of thousands of people on six continents have protested in the streets against systemic racism, police brutality and the legacy of disenfranchisement.

These protests have defaced or destroyed memorials perceived as celebrating racist hegemony. Indeed, many of them did. Confederate monuments erected a generation or more after the end of the Confederacy were an attempt to solidify Jim Crow. In Bristol, England, they chucked the statue of a slaver into the ocean, and in Richmond at least four Confederate statues have been pulled down by protestors, many after the Governor’s decision to remove the massive 1895 statue of Robert E. Lee, although that is held up in court right now.

Lee never wanted statues or memorial to what became known as “The Lost Cause” and was dead a quarter-century before his image went up in Richmond.

Prior to current decoration.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation came out with a stronger statement than it did during the 2017 iconoclasm, while still leaving the door open to local communities who decide to contextualize their monuments rather than remove them. In any case, they were clear that any symbol or statue designed to stigmatize or terrorize any segment of the population should go. Duh.

That doesn’t stop those uncomfortable with the iconoclasm from driveling out the “you can’t erase history” pablum, as if history texts would somehow vanish with the statues. Besides, in almost every case the statue is to be preserved in a history museum, not valorizing public space.

Like this Northern Wei stele in the Pingyao Museum

Iconoclasm exists across human societies. Buddhist icons scratched out in Angkor for Hindu ones, Jain and Hindu temples smashed to create mosques in the Deccan, and of course the anti-idolatry of Mao’s Red Guards. Heck, even the Orthodox Christians who do icons better than anyone have had periods of iconoclasm in their history.

Shuanglin temple outside of Pingyao. The building was filled with grain during the Cultural Revolution to save these sculptures. That’s Guanyin in the position of royal ease.

My friend Joseph McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project, who has dedicated his life to Black Lives past and present, tends to support keeping monuments and contextualizing them. He worries about the “slippery slope” between tearing down some to tearing down all statues.

The momentum right now has gone from Confederate to Union and plenty of other statues as well, from Francis Scott Key to Teddy Roosevelt to U.S. Grant, Cervantes, Christopher Columbus and even Mount Rushmore. In fact, even the great Augustus St. Gaudens memorial to the 54th Massachusetts (Black Union Soldiers) got tagged in Boston Common because when people are rioting, ALL statues are The Man.

In 1968 student protestors in Chicago clambered up this statue of Union General Logan mostly because it was a statue, a high point, and martial

Christopher Columbus just went down here in San Antonio. Only a couple years older than me, the statue was put up in the late 1950s, and it reminds me of the various statues in public parks in Chicago. These were often placed by various ethnic associations to mark their neighborhood space through the media of national heroes.

Chicago’s Humboldt Park had, in addition to Baron von Humboldt and Fritz Reiner for the Germans, Leif Ericson for the Norwegians and a Miner holding his daughter for the working class in general. The park previously had Thaddeus Koszciusko, but the Poles moved him out to Solidarity Drive on the lakefront in 1980, because by then the neighborhood was Puerto Rican. The Puerto Ricans in turn tried to erect a statue of Pedro Albizu Campos but the park rejected it because Albizu Campos had advocated violence against the government (less successfully than the Confederacy) He ended up across the street on private land.

Here’s the Baron overlooking the Humboldt Park boathouse

We don’t write history with statues, but we do write power relationships with them. The examples in Humboldt Park show how immigrant groups asserted their presence and power. Robert E. Lee in Richmond demonstrated how those in power intimidated a portion of the population.

Preservation is a process that treats each site based on its individual significance. This is why Joe McGill calls for contextualization and this is why the National Trust leaves the final decision to the individual place. We have a recently installed statue of Theodore Roosevelt in San Antonio but they are removing one in New York because it is a very different statue that is clearly problematic. There are statues of people we actually might want to valorize (like Lincoln) that produce a cringe because of the racist way they were composed a century or more ago.

Everyone keeps asking me for a simple answer. Are they going to tear down all the statues of Washington and Jefferson because they were enslavers? No, but that is the wrong question. That is a reductio ad absurdum betraying a fear of understanding our history in a new way.

The questions are simply: Who is this in public space? Why and when was it put here? What does it mean to this community today?

And perhaps you might also ask: How comfortable are we with this as a Denkmal, Mahnmal, Ehrenmal or Gedenkstätte?

UPDATE July 8, 2020

Lonnie Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian, said it best:

“What is crucially important about this is that removing statues is not about erasing history. Removing statues in many ways is about finding a more accurate history, a history that is more in keeping with the best scholarship we have out there. So for me, it is about making sure we don’t forget what those statues symbolize. It’s about pruning them, removing some, contextualizing others and recognizing that there is nothing wrong with a country recognizing that its identity is evolving over time.”

JULY 24 update: Chicago just removed two Columbus statues on the same day!

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AME Church foundation – a discovery and an opportunity

June 12, 2020 Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 274

Foundation of 1875 St. James AME Church, San Pedro Creek, this month.

The ongoing San Pedro Creek Cultural Park project has already added a lot to San Antonio, with marvelous public artworks, a pleasant walking path, and lovely plantings, all in the name of flood control.

Last week I participated in a panel discussing a very exciting archaeological discovery – the foundations of an 1875 African Methodist Episcopal Church just across from the Alameda Theater.

The design team had know of the site of the church and planned to interpret it, but they did not expect to find the full 40 by 60 foot foundation of the building, and the original 1875 cornerstone. According to newspapers, a “time capsule” celebrating the event was put into the cornerstone!

I participated in the focus group organized by the San Antonio River Authority because the original design for this section created a semicircular amphitheatre stepping down 6 feet from Camaron Street to the creek. This would eliminate all but the front fourth of the foundation, hence the need for the focus group. We are pushing for more.

The 1875 foundation stone is right of center in this image.

In a time when people are marching to redress the injustices done to African-Americans then and now, it is more pressing that we save and interpret this significant historic cultural site in San Antonio. As Everett Fly has said, San Antonio does not have a strong record of preserving African-American history. This remains true in our ongoing efforts to save the Woolworth Building.

View looking north toward foundation with San Pedro Creek and Alameda Theatre/Texas Public Radio to the left.

The AME Church site is a shining opportunity to conserve and commemorate a vital but underrepresented aspect of San Antonio’s cultural inheritance.

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San Antonio and Civil Rights

June 3, 2020 Economics, History, Intangible Heritage, Texas Comments (0) 216

The protests last night (June 2) ended up violent again, as they had on Saturday, both times unusual for San Antonio. As commentator Rick Casey said “We don’t do riots in the streets.” The last significant one was at Municipal Auditorium in 1939. Now he realizes he can’t be so categorical, because we have just doubled our riot total for the last century.

The contrast to other cities remains significant, and the wise words of both Police Chief McManus and Sheriff Salazar have reinforced the sense of community that has always defined San Antonio.

These are the most challenging times I have experienced and the contrast to something that happened three months before and three blocks away from my birth is significant.

On March 16, 1960, seven lunch counters on Alamo and Houston Streets desegregated voluntarily and peacefully, without protest. It happened in the same place as the unrest Saturday night, as Scott Huddleston of the Express-News noted. An amazing college freshman, Mary Andrews, had written the lunch counters asking them to allow blacks to sit and eat.

The sit-in movement had started at a Woolworth’s in North Carolina only a month before. A meeting was held and a sit-in was planned. Then, the community of San Antonio kicked in. Religious and civic leaders got together with the businesses and they integrated a day before the planned sit-in.

Windows were broken here on Saturday.

The story of Mary Andrews is puro San Antonio, which makes the events of the last few days even more disheartening. At the Conservation Society of San Antonio, we have been fighting to save the heart of that peaceful integration – the Woolworth Building – since 2015. This month we will celebrate Juneteenth with testimonials from residents regarding the importance of the Woolworth Building and San Antonio’s unique role in Civil Rights history.

In times of fear and violence, it is even more important to remember the triumphs of peace and community.

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Designing the New Abnormal

May 21, 2020 Blog, Economics, Global Heritage, Sustainability, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 218

Earlier in the shutdown/pause/lockdown I wrote a blog that argued that the virus would NOT cause urban planners to rethink their propensity for density. My evidence was basically every pandemic in history, with a fun side trip to the history of telegraphy and telephony.

Domodossola, Italy, 2015

There was a hint at the end of that blog about how the viral pandemic is actually accelerating previous trends in urban planning. The pandemic has slowed traffic dramatically, encouraging a tendency to eliminate cars from center cities. Many towns and cities around the world are planning on closing streets to traffic in order to encourage biking, walking and outdoor dining as areas move to reopen and adjust to the new abnormal. Turns out it is TONS safer to eat outside than inside.

Prague, 2005

The historian in me says that our cities and our dense human activities have survived a hundred plagues and only come back denser and busier. The historian in me also says beware of those who says “everything will change – these are unprecedented times” because they always say that. They said it after World War I definitively, and even more definitively after World War II and the atom bomb. They said it during plagues and pogroms, during fires and famines and today is always different from yesterday and that itself is the same old story.

Tokyo, first city to hit 20 million inhabitants (1965) Now 37 million. 2016 photo.

Sure, there are paradigm shifts and we may be experiencing one. But the COVID-19 pandemic will not cause that shift. Such events only accelerate trends already underway (closing streets to cars) or illuminate factors that would play out with or without the current crisis (collapse of US hegemony).

big city lights bright

I still hear – from respectable professionals – that pandemics change planning. That is partly true. Chicago had typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the 1860s that caused it to raise the entire city in order to build a sewer system.

Well, most of the city.

Paris’s famed rebuilding under Baron Hausmann was cited as an example of city planning driven by pandemic, although in addition to sewage and some hospitals with fresh air, there was a social control/military aspect to the slum clearance as well. Wide boulevards are better for the army.

No more street barricades!

I would venture that major epidemiological crises are more likely to influence infrastructure than super structure and thus be somewhat invisible. They also influence social practices, and indeed our current pandemic has rewritten many social norms, but again this is not something you can necessarily see in the larger built environment.

Socially distanced fusbol, Milano, 2015

But what WILL change?

Leaving the macro level of urban planning, we have seen changes at the micro level. You already have plastic sheeting at the checkout counters of grocery stores and we have seen everything from shower curtains to cubicle-sized sneeze guards going up at restaurants.

UV carpets may sanitize your shoes and mounted temperature scans have already spread way beyond their original habitat, the Chinese airport of two decades ago.

Pudong (Shanghai) airport, 2007

HVAC systems may well be overhauled, and sanitation procedures will be much more extensive for a while. Anyplace you sit still inside for long periods, like airplanes or restaurants are more susceptible to viral load than places you wander through, like museums.

Mask it or casket. Especially if you were born in the 18th century.

If anything, like the closing of streets to automobile traffic, there will be a tendency to offer less-dense public spaces, while maintaining urban density. There will be renewed interest in public parks, beaches and open spaces which are lower risk for viral spread.

Like our Bier Garten at Beethoven Maennerchor, San Antonio

We may well see changes as elements of our architectural landscape that encourage clustering of people for extended periods become endangered, like churches and theaters. Churches and theaters have always been more difficult to preserve due to their large spaces and relatively high costs. Now they have the added problem of people emitting nanodroplets.

St. Francis Xavier church, Kansas City (1950, Barry Byrne)

With all the working and learning and teaching from home in the last two months we may start to see changes in interior architecture more than anywhere else. The open floor plan office beloved by designers for more than 50 years may give way to private offices or at least much more substantial barriers between workspaces.

Architects especially love the open space plan
Wulff House, 1870. Yes, its a knockoff of Schinkel’s Römischer Bäder of 1819.

Our own office at the Conservation Society is in fact the opposite, which allows us to maintain distance because in our converted 19th century mansion, everyone has an office with a door and no one is within 15 feet of anyone else.

Home office from the 1960s (Frank Lloyd Wright)

With everyone living and working and doing almost everything from home, there have been spate of articles (like this one) on demand for better home office furniture, home gyms, more clearly defined spaces both within and without, and decluttering services.

People spent more time in their homes in the last two months than ever before, and that will ultimately have an impact on interior design. The open floor plan made possible by central heating and popular by Frank Lloyd Wright may retreat a bit in the coming years as commutes shift from highway to hallway.

Also Frank Lloyd Wright

The pandemic caused the global economy to calve like an Antarctic ice sheet and expose massive inequalities. Like The Economist, I worry that one policy result of the pandemic will be a renewed isolationism from the teetering old nation states, fostering a decline in productivity, innovation and the promise of a just society. (It will also make it more expensive and difficult for people to collect the photos I have displayed in this blog!)

Fresh vegetables, Weishan

Here’s hoping we learn a few lessons, if not from history then from our own everyday within the new abnormal.

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Spanish Governor’s Palace, San Antonio: preserving an interpretation

May 12, 2020 House Museums, Interpretation, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 598

I am helping the City of San Antonio with a virtual tour of the Spanish Governor’s Palace, which is both the only remaining residential structure of the 18th century city and a fascinating document of how historic preservation was practiced 90 years ago.

When you look at this building, you may think of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and that was a big inspiration. The Santa Fe building was restored right about the time that Adina de Zavala started lobbying for the preservation of this San Antonio building in 1915. By 1930 the city had purchased and restored it and the Conservation Society was operating it.

1749 Salon/Living Room, Spanish Governor’s Palace

The building is a rare and singular survivor, but it was never really a palace, and while one Spanish Governor did visit San Antonio in 1720, the building dates to 1722 as the comandancia, or home and office of the military commander of the presidio garrison.

Original 1722 comandancia with adobe brick wall

Restored by architect Harvey Smith, he took numerous liberties we would not countenance 90 years later. Despite finding no evidence, he built a fountain and a walled back garden that even he knew never existed because it would convey a romantic sense of refined 18th century life.

It would also be an attractive place to rent for weddings and events – and it still is!

This romantic vision of “The Spanish Governor’s Palace” cause Smith to add two rooms that never existed, and interpret other rooms with these elaborate plaques that described a courtly life that also didn’t exist. Each interpretive plaque is then explained by a contemporary plaque below explaining Smith’s romantic embellishments!

An interpretive plaque for an interpretive plaque

Old telephone poles became ceiling beams and old flagstone sidewalks became floors in the restored “Palace” and the whole was filled with period furnishings. The century that the building spent as a tinsmith shop, pawn shop, hide dealer, clothing store and saloon was not interpreted.

Late 18th century dining room with working original fireplace

This was an era of nostalgic appropriation of historical styles, from the Spanish Colonial to the Georgian, Tudor and Renaissance Revival. This was the time when architect R.H.H. Hugman proposed “The Shops of Aragon and Romula” that would become the San Antonio River Walk.

It was a different aesthetic and a different goal for preservation. Smith did lots of research, but there was precious little to go on for an 18th century building that had been changed a hundred times. No international guidelines for preservation existed yet (they would come in 1932.)

Even this doorway is a 1930 invention – never existed.

A similar approach was taken by O’Neil Ford when he restored La Villita in 1939-41. There was so little documentary or forensic evidence about the vernacular buildings he was restoring that he simply tried to create “a mood.” Like Smith, he added lots of walls to enhance that mood.

Guadalupe and Hessler Houses, La Villita
The cannon is even sillier (removed last year to Alamo)

I suppose the goal was to really demonstrate the importance of the historic building by giving it a more glamorous pedigree. There was one reference to a fandango or party in the salon of the Governor’s Palace, so like the 1930s Riverwalk tile mural by Ethel Wilson Harris, a singular incident became a chronic intepretation.

One sniper, one Texan (Ben Milam) shot during Siege of Bejar 1835.

What is really fascinating about the Governor’s Palace – and other sites “restored” in the 1930s is that those acts of poetic license are now themselves historic, and they have added another layer of history.

To me history – basically the same word as “story” – is made richer by more layers of interpretation, by more stories. The primary story you get from the Spanish Governor’s Palace is a sense of 18th century life on the Spanish frontier. But you also learn about the civic life of the 1920s that sought to bolster civic pride with romantic tales of civic origin.

This is the “Child’s Bedroom” that Smith invented out of whole cloth in 1930. His impulse was to illustrate the luxury and gentility of the “Governor’s” lives with some creative construction. Like Adina de Zavala or the Conservation Society at the time, they wanted to glorify their forbears.

The Commander’s office built 1749, restored 1930

My favorite room is the Commander’s Office, not only because it reveals the original rubble stone construction, but because it also reveals the true nature of the building. The Commander used this space to command, but much more to sell household goods and necessities to his soldiers and the general public. Business was so brisk that he added a storeroom behind in the late 18th century, although if you go there today you see religious artifacts and other antiques in vitrine displays.

The keystone with the Hapsburg arms of Ferdinand VI is original (1749) while the carved door is a 1930 work by Swiss woodcarver Peter Mansbendel

In the 21st century we understand heritage conservation as more than an architectural design problem, and are careful to find evidence for both the stories we tell and the physical fabric we restore – or choose not to. If somehow this last residential building of the Spanish city had survived until today, it might look very different. It would tell the stories of the presidio commanders with a little less embellishment, focusing perhaps on how the 19th century shops and saloons were a continuation of the comandancia rather than a rejection of it. It would perhaps be called the Presidio Captain’s Residence and it would be without its 1930 additions.

I like telling both stories – the true story of the presidio and its capitans, along with the equally true story of 1920s San Antonians puffing their chests and inflating their history just a bit.

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