I was just up at University of Notre Dame to participate in final reviews for their Historic Preservation Program, which is designed as an advanced degree for architects, thanks to the support of the Duda Center for Preservation, Resilience and Sustainability. My friend Steven Semes crafted the program and was kind enough to have me as an advisor. Notre Dame’s architecture and preservation program celebrate the Classical tradition while most architecture schools eschew it. This is a reverse of the situation a century ago, when most architectural schools only taught the Classical tradition.
I first saw Professor Semes in 2006, debating Paul Byard at a Traditional Building Conference. I even commented on it in a blog at the time and later joined him at a Congress for New Urbanism conference in Madison. I blogged again when his book The Future of the Past came out and he joined us at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago to talk about it. He has brought me up to Notre Dame twice since I moved to San Antonio, and I learn something each time.
The Stoa at the Walsh Family Hall at University of Notre Dame
In my blogs I admired his approach to preservation as a way to understand how we built before. Humanity has forgotten more building techniques than it knows – Roman concrete, Chinese chrome, Mayan limewalks, Persian passive air conditioning, the alternating stones and wood lintels of earthquake-resistant Nepalese houses, etc.
Or the natural thermal qualities of the Shaanxi yaodong!
What really struck me this time was something he said about traditional architecture as a whole – not simply the Greek-Roman-Byzantine Classicism of orders and temples and stoas but also traditional Chinese architecture and traditional Indian architecture and traditional African architecture and traditional Incan architecture. Traditional architecture is not a style but a practice that is handed down over generations. Semes quotes Hannah Arendt about the “loving care” of tradition – the bridge between the past and present.
Semes made the point at some time during our discussion Monday that “traditional building” is actually quite catholic in its easy incorporation of motifs and principles from other traditions. This is why the orders have spread from the Mediterranean to the rest of the world and in the other direction, why Saracenic architecture spread into Europe to help birth the Gothic. “Traditional building” is about building traditions, process, and continuity. Every society has its building traditions, which are in the realm of process and practice, not “Style.”
The students in the program – all degreed architects – are from Kenya, Costa Rica, Syria and Iran. They produce exquisite hand drawings, just like my students did during my 16 years at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Why? Because the gesture of a hand drawing teaches something a click cannot. Just like building a dry stone wall rewires your brain to see dry stone walls in a way you never could before.
Actually dry stone walls are a wonderful example of the diversity of traditional building. I was just reading about the dry stone walls of Japan. I have experienced the dry stone walls of Ireland and the north of England, and I am aware of the tradition in Kentucky. I am sure I have encountered them in South America as well.
Another universal is of course the earthen building. We call them adobes here, and Professor Sue Ann Pemberton recently made a presentation about earthen architecture at our own adobe brick Yturri-Edmunds house in San Antonio. The World Heritage site of Bam, Iran is earthen. In fact, the majority of buildings in all of human history are earthen.
One of the most famous landmarks in the world is earthen architecture (with a veneer of stone in some places)
Speaking of veneers – Here in San Antonio we have caliche block – the South Texas version of laterite, which is what is beneath the stone veneers of Angkor. A muddy clay with enough calcium carbonate that it hardens into an artificial limestone when you dry it in the sun.
South Texas caliche – losing its protective plaster layer
Southeast Asian laterite losing its Angkorian stone veneer.
On the way back from Notre Dame, I read one of those marvelously complex articles in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, all about a Stoa (hey – I was in one in Notre Dame! See photo above) from Samothrace that had evidence of the use of a flat arch in the metope/triglyph section of the Doric entablature a century or two before it appeared in Rome. Now this is the third century BCE and the triglyphs themselves are already skeuomorphs of wooden antecedents, carved from the same stone as the metope and then cut at an angle to create the flat arch.
Non nova sed nove
“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
One of the issues of the current decade is the push against single-family zoning, usually from the perspective of increasing the supply of affordable housing, but also arguably from a climate change perspective. In either case, more density is desired. So, how does preservation fit into this? Well, many of the YIMBY proponents of same accuse historic district preservation of being a cloaked kind of exclusionary zoning.
Like many such apprehensions of the historic preservation/heritage conservation field, there is truth in it — if you go far back enough in time. (Pro tip – you need to go back at least 30 years and ignore everything that has happened since).
In fact, historic preservationists have been advocating for ADUs (accessory dwelling units) in districts for the last 30 years – as a technique to insure preservation by offering additional income to owners. I remember it from the Oak Park Illinois Preservation Plan Lisa DiChiera wrote in 1993-94. We have long seen adding extra units as a way to increase density and HELP preserve beloved community fabric.
When I do my talk on the history of historic districts, I note that arguably the first modern historic district inspired by residents and not tourists was Georgetown in 1950. It literally took an act of Congress and was perceived – correctly – of causing gentrification and displacing African-Americans. Which it did. A similar thing happened a couple of years later with the first revolving fund in Charleston. Zoning itself emerges in California in the 19th century as a way to exclude the Chinese, and even the density-based New York City zoning of 1916 was adopted by hundreds of suburbs, in part as a way to exclude people.
Historic districts, however, took a different turn starting in the 1960s as they were tweaked by community activists to become something a museum curator would never recognize. This process itself also took 30 years, so that by the time I was fighting alongside community members in North Kenwood, Chicago in 1991-93 to create a historic district, the goal was quite the opposite in terms of race and income. (Race Against Renewal, Future Anterior, Winter 2005)
But it would take a little longer to push the preservation practice a little further in terms of building types. You see, in North Kenwood they refused to include any multi-family apartment buildings in the historic district. You could put in two-flats and three-flats but they excluded century-old architecturally intact six-flats and 12-flats. It would take a couple more years for the preservation community to accept the multi-family as worthy of preservation, even though I argued it in North Kenwood in 1991. When 409 Edgecombe in Harlem, New York became a landmark in the mid-90s, the whole scheme changed. Within a few years, the old Hamilton Heights historic district – which had excluded multi-family – had filled in and marched a dozen blocks up St. Nicholas with four separate additions. Multifamily was now decidedly historic.
So, if the YIMBYs accuse preservation of exclusionary zoning, you can let them know they were correct in 1915 and 1950 and there was a lingering effect into the early 1990s.
But they’ve been wrong since.
This week marks forty years since I began my career in heritage conservation, a journey over much time and vast space. I am incredibly blessed. Last week I got to take Sarah Bronin, the Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on a quick tour of preservation challenges and successes in San Antonio at her specific request. I recently visited by Zoom with my 7 roommates from the 2018 Harvard Business School Non Profit Management class and next week I will be in Washington DC lobbying for the Historic Preservation Fund, among other things.
Forty years is a long time, and a fun thought experiment is to take another 40 year chunk – for example the century before, 1883-1923 and see what changed. That period witnessed electrification, automobiles, movies, radio, analgesics, relativity, psychoanalysis and modern architecture. Mine witnessed personal computers, the internet, digital photography, smartphones, microbreweries, quantum entanglement, global warming and email. Both had global pandemics and both ended up with eight planets in the solar system.
The last forty years in heritage conservation/historic preservation have seen the rise of heritage areas in the 1980s, the expansion of historic tax credits in the 1990s, new approaches to intangible heritage and cultural history in the 2000s, to the current focus on affordable housing, climate change, diversity and historic trades. Some things persist, like the importance of public-private partnerships, public relations, and networking, and some things evolve, like architectural history and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards (we hope).
I am usually struck more by similarity than difference, but there has been some serious evolution in the field, even though you can find preservation initiatives dealing with trades, diversity, affordability and climate all the way back in the 1970s. To me the most significant shift has been the ongoing arc away from museum curation to community activism, and the attendant emphasis on the economic everyday.
In my dissertation, I traced the evolution of preservation from a museum-focused antiquarian enterprise in the early 20th century to a part of the neighborhood activist’s toolbox in the 1960s and 1970s. Historic districts, which were still a new thing in the 1960s (in the 1960s the Municipal Arts Society imagined there would be no more than three or four historic districts EVER in New York City). The next step came with the invention of Main Street in 1975 by Mary Means, where traditional architectural preservation was only 1/4 of the cocktail, combined with promotion, organization and economic restructuring. I arrived in the field in 1983 as the first heritage area was introduced in Congress, where again traditional preservation was only a 1/4 of the cocktail, combined now with natural area conservation, recreation and economic development.
I was asked in 1990 by Metropolitan Review to write an article about the coming decade of preservation and my answer was couched in terms of expanding audiences and expanding targets for preservation – more modern buildings, more diverse constituencies, and a greater focus on the community issues that had driven districts, Main Streets and heritage areas.
Architectural history had always lagged the community activists who had saved the Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1961 when all the experts hated High Victorian Queen Anne design. By the 1980s and 1990s the pesky public were not only fully on board with Victorian and 1920s bungalows, but they were already going after Mid-Century Modern and dragging the eggheads along reluctantly, as Richard Longstreth pointed out.
Probably the most dramatic fact of 40 years is that we are already trying to save buildings that were built during that period, some of which were decried at the time of construction, like the maligned and then beloved State of Illinois/Thompson Center in Chicago.
Diversity is perhaps the most important, and has been a leitmotif throughout my preservation career, from working for landmark designation of North Kenwood 1988-1993 to serving on no less than three diversity committees and task forces for the National Trust in the last 15 years. For the last ten years I have been leading panels and trying to find ways to bring more diversity to the National Register of Historic Places, efforts embraced by many that are starting to bear fruit. I am also very grateful to have been a part of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building here in San Antonio and today a part of the Alamo Museum Planning Civil Rights Exhibit Subcommittee planning that portion of the rehabilitated Woolworth Building. (See our video on the history here.)
Diversity is essential to the private sector for innovation and to the public sector for justice. It is essential to the heritage conservation field because our basic mission is not simply to save historic buildings, sites and places, but to save those places that will continue to have meaning to subsequent generations. After forty years in this fascinating field, I have seen many historic places “saved” more than once.
Since my first day I have understood that a key to heritage conservation is conveying the importance of a preservation ethic. Preservation is a process that a community uses to identify what elements of its past are essential to its future. Demographics have shifted significantly in 40 years, and the communities of today are measurably different than 1983.
Preservation is always a future oriented decision, and the diverse generations of the future are key. How do you insure that the next generation also believes in the importance of saving places? Listen to them and give them power.
The ubiquitous French baguette was inscribed as Intangible Cultural Heritage this week, and our reaction must be: Why did it take so long? It has been nearly 30 years since UNESCO adopted the Intangible Cultural Heritage convention and started cataloging music, dance, costume, food, crafts and other elements of cultural heritage from across the globe. One would think the baguette would be high on the list but at least it takes it rightful place next to couscous, Turkish coffee and Belgian beer. Oh! And slivovitz, the plum brandy often central to Passover, just got listed as well.
For the second Fall in a row, I have been teaching a Zoom course to UTSA Architecture students on World Heritage Management. I have had the good fortune to have some great guest speakers – Dr. Paul Ringenbach, who wrote the World Heritage nomination for the San Antonio Missions, Christine Jacobs, Superintendent of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and Nada Hosking, my former colleague and Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund.
It has been fun to teach again after a decade-long break, and I am impressed by how well the Zoom interface works. Of course, it began due to COVID but it continued because now I can teach from anywhere. I taught a course at UIC in Chicago in the Spring, and I taught two of my UTSA courses this Fall while I was on my Fulbright Specialist trip to Bogotá.
It also allows me to relive many sites I visited and worked at around the world, collecting and reflecting on how heritage conservation happens and what it means for a community’s growth and health. We focus mostly on the cultural World Heritage sites, although several students have done papers on the Natural World Heritage Sites and we did cover Intangible Cultural Heritage as well.
I am impressed with how attentive the students have been and how effective the medium actually is for a class like mine which is essentially a lecture class with a lot of powerpoints – the students presented their own powerpoints on three occasions. I try to keep it interesting and connected with some basic themes, like my bottom line: Heritage conservation is a process that a community used to determine what elements of its past it wants in its future. And how.
The semester comes to an end next week, and I have learned a lot as well as – I hope – shared a lot. You learn by teaching, seeing the connections and themes that emerge even from projects and examples that you worked on long ago. From new questions and old questions (gentrification?) asked again in a new year. The added Fulbright Specialist tour (see previous blogs) added more students and insights to the mix.
While in Bogotá I saw a news article about the Smithsonian Institute returning looted artifacts to Benin in West Africa, part of a growing trend to repatriate historic arts and crafts to the regions they were crafted in. This was of great interest to my students at Ean University, who asked me point blank what I thought about the repatriation of historic artifacts in museums. I said repatriate them. In a world of digital reproduction, museums can easily go back to the plaster casts from whence they came. Location is a key aspect of authenticity.
This reminded me of James Cuno’s book of a little over a decade ago, perhaps the last piece defending the ideal of the encyclopedic museum by arguing that antiquities belong to everyone, not a particular contemporary nation state. Cuno left the Getty this year and now I see that the Getty is hosting a symposium on “The Multiple Reinventions of the Americas in Context,” a critical look at how the “New World” has been conceived and reconceived over the last 500 years. Turns out, I could see much of that reinvention right in Bogotá.
Bogotá has some wonderful historic museums, but what really struck me was their interpretation, which is state of the art. My first visit was to the Museo Nacional, in a former panopticon prison. They have undertaken a reimagining of the museum by abandoning traditional chronology for juxtaposition, putting pre-Columbian artifacts next to telephones under the theme of communication, for example. Objects come alive as you see them simultaneously from the perspective of the colonizer, the colonized, the curator and the curious.
Colombia is a vast and diverse country in both people and geography. Like the U.S. it has Atlantic and Pacific coasts, a wide range of natural and mineral resources, a variety of indigenous groups, a history of African enslavement and a surprisingly long commitment to democracy. All of these themes were explored in the museum, with some clever interpolations by contemporary artists.
There was an exhibit on the history of the building, described as a 19C panopticon prison, and while it was not a true circular panopticon, the suggestion of Foucault and French structuralism was reinforced by the tiny gold exhibit in a literal safe across the way, which had this unexpected text on the wall.
Whoa! I have not seen McLuhan quoted in a museum before, but it makes perfect sense. Where is the medium the message more than in a museum? You are even invited to put your own self and your own culture in the museum.
MUSA, the Archaeological museum, was another example of interpretative elán, sited in one of the oldest surviving houses in Bogotá, from 1738. The collection is primarily ceramics from the many indigenous cultures that inhabited the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, the three ranges of Andes Mountains, the Amazon and various other regions.
Interpretive text asked us not to see these ceramics as the work of the Other but as human creations that contained foods and sounds. The text asked us further to empathize with each object, reimagining our relationship to our own foods and dolls and musical instruments. The text on the wall urged us yet further to imagine their uses for ourselves without the intervention of the archaeologist or curator. The text was not printed but projected, because the museum is not eternal but fugitive, an incomplete record of an incomplete conversation. The interpretation did not dictate but prodded us to think openly about what we take from the objects presented and how their makers may have experienced them.
The Colonial Museum has the largest task in a time of decolonization, and in many ways did it best. This one was busy, with a conference going on, a massive contemporary art display on the courtyard galleries, and school groups being led with laughter through the exhibitions. Again, there were deft insertions of contemporary art interpretations, but only a few, and their style deliberately played on historic forms and tropes. The best example took familiar 17C images defining racial categorizations resulting from the mixing of Europeans, Africans and Indigenous and then crafted modern ones playing on modern subcultures in a mirror of the antique style.
The opening exhibit sticks primarily to religious and art objects brought to the Americas from Europe as part of the conversion of the population to Catholicism, although almost immediately they give you the artist reimagining the retablo.
The arrangement produced an understanding of the massive effort it took to transport huge numbers of paintings and sculpture to reinforce European traditions and religion. The journey to Bogotá, administrative center of the complex Muisca people who likely numbered a million, took many months both on sea and land. That is a lot of work for a collection of religious items, many quite bulky. I suppose it was worth it to the Spanish crown if they ultimately succeeded in establishing control.
It often takes only a single contemporary image playing with the forms of the historic image to open them up. Here a couple, followed by an artistic interpretation that again plays with racial reversal to make a point and open an eye, not unlike the work of Kehinde Wiley.
They even linked the tradition of saints and martyrs to contemporary martyrs due to the various insurgent groups and narcotraficantes of the 20C. Again, juxtaposition of the old and new offered a view into parallel worlds of conflict, colony and conversion.
These museums were refreshing and interesting, because you looked at each piece longer and had a stronger sense of its purpose and intent than you would have 20 or 50 years ago when it was just another item that was supposed to be beautiful or persuasive. Contemporaneity and criticality opened up the items in new ways, exposing not simply the contradictions of colonialism, but the contradictions of cultural inheritance. You can return a piece from the museum, enacting social justice. Or you can recontextualize a piece, engendering understandings that will support the ongoing pursuit of that justice.
Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.
My two week Fulbright Specialist time at Universidad Ean in Bogotá, Colombia is coming to an end in a couple of days. This has been an excellent experience, thanks in large part to Ean faculty member Juan Camilo Chaves and over a dozen excellent students in Cultural Heritage Management. Thanks also go to Fulbright Colombia, celebrating 65 years, and Paola Basto Castro of Ean’s International program, Sergio Sanchez and Laura Hernandez of Fulbright Colombia and Alejandro Torres of Ean.
First off, Ean has a brand new building with an incredible facade-screen passive heating and cooling system, facial recognition technology to enter and exit the building, and a host of other high-tech items, including a nap room, study rooms with color matched to your study style, etc. Even the old (2012!) building has a green roof of the type we were designing with School of the Art Institute of Chicago students in Lima in 2012, complete with hydroponics, beehives and greenhouses.
My weeklong workshop of five lectures was called “Heritage As Process” and included lectures on the long history of heritage conservation in San Antonio; People and the Preservation Process; Conserving World Heritage; History of Historic Districts and of course the amazing story of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building. I was also asked to have a Q & A with a larger group of student last week, and guest lectured on the San Antonio World Heritage Missions for another class. Tomorrow I will do my Fulbright presentation summarizing this.
So what did I learn, aside from what a modern university looks like? First, I am again lucky to live in a city with a long heritage conservation tradition, because Bogotá seems a bit like Houston or Singapore with endless highrises backed up to the mountains and little concern for the few remaining historic buildings. The students are working on cultural districts, but the idea of historic districts or preservation zones seems to have little traction here.
I visited the house museum of Simon Bolivar, the father of South American independence. It is a well interpreted site set in a lush garden. Especially impressive was the dining room, done in a French style – indeed, due to the timing, the whole place has an Empire feel to it.
Of course the classic tourist visit is a ride up the funicular to Monserrate, the hill above the city. The whole city sits smack dab against the mountains, and of course Monserrate is a pilgrimage route as well, with its church featuring a Christ figure descended from the cross.
I am off this morning to report on my Fulbright Specialist experience! Stay tuned for the next blog on the wonderfully challenging approach to interpretation in the museums of Bogotá!
Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.
I wrote recently about The Institute of Texan Cultures, a unique museum created in the Texas Pavilion after the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio. The Conservation Society made Page 1 in the local paper with our announcement that we will be listing it on the National Register of Historic Places.
While the focus of the Conservation Society remains on reusing the building itself, the Institute, operated by the University of Texas at San Antonio, has over the years celebrated a diversity that most outside of the state – and many inside it – are unaware of.
For many Texas seems to be quintessential American (“Murican”) culture – pickup trucks, country music, ridiculously large portions, and of course oil fields and ranching. Many are also aware that Texas was Spain for over a hundred years and Mexico for another twenty, so there is an awareness of something called “Tex-Mex” and if you are in San Antonio, Fiesta – a 131-year old event that borrows heavily from Spanish and Mexican culture.
Then there are the Germans. If you came to San Antonio in 1850, Germans were almost a quarter of the population, just behind those of Mexican descent at 30% and well ahead of the American and French at 15% each. Many of the surrounding communities like Castroville, New Braunfels, Fredericksburg and Comfort were settled by Germans and have retained many cultural traditions to this day.
I remember Dominic Pacyga describing the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago where there was spatial integration but social segregation between the many (mostly European) ethnic groups that lived and worked there. In San Antonio, there is a culture of blending. This goes back to its founding as a series of missions designed to convert the indigenous people living here into Spaniards. Founded by syncretism, every major event in San Antonio history centers on the idea of a confluence of cultures, a mestizo blending inherent throughout the Western Hemisphere, but not always as celebrated as it is here.
This is not to paper over a long history of racism and oppression of people of color, that would be foolish. It happened here as it did throughout the state. San Antonio was quicker than other Texas towns to shed the worst trappings of segregation and racial oppression, as the Conservation Society explored in its videos on the 1960 lunch counter Sit-In movement.
When the Riverwalk was designed in 1929 and built a decade later, it’s goal was to capture the spirit of landmark cities along the Mediterranean, and the La Villita reconstruction undertaken at the same time (1939-41) had as its goal the unification of the countries of the Western hemisphere that had thrown off the European yoke, naming its principal places after Simon Bolivar, Benito Juarez and Miguel Hidalgo and promoting historic preservation of La Villita as a way to celebrate this shared heritage.
The Conservation Society’s event A Night In Old San Antonio(R) was created in 1948 and has over a dozen areas each representing part of the city’s cultural heritage, including Spanish, Mexican, African-American, Asian, French, German and even Cowboy.
Some other examples of the syncretic nature of culture in San Antonio include the Alameda Theatre, perhaps the premier Spanish language cinema of the postwar era, developed by an Italian immigrant known for cowboy boots and designed by a Russian Jewish architect.
The mestizo nature of San Antonio continued in the 1960s. The theme of HemisFair ’68 was literally A Confluence of Cultures in the Americas. That’s puro San Antonio. We still have two murals celebrating that.
There are so many other cultures that have become part of San Antonio it is dizzying. We have the largest Martin Luther King Day march in the country and the largest Diwali celebration. Don’t even get us started on Dia de los Muertos.
“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”
- Mark Twain
I have always loved history because it contains everything. It is full of contradictions, replete with exceptions that prove the rule, and layered with conflicting motivations, unintended consequences, and outright paradoxes. Those of us who promote history by preserving historic sites revel in this depth and complexity. It isn’t simply that more stories can be told from each place. You can also attract more visitors, and thus complexity adds money as well.
This was one of the big arguments we made about preserving the Woolworth Building with its important Civil Rights history across from the Alamo (see this blog for example). Under the old plan, you would get Alamo battle tourists only. By adding another layer to the depth of history told, you get more tourists. That means more money. That’s why everyone was so excited when the Alamo and the other San Antonio Missions became a World Heritage Site in 2015 (my blog at the time).* Because that adds another story – the story of the missions, the Franciscans, soldiers and indigenous people who first populated the city in the 18th century. More stories = more tourists = more money.
I bring this up because some tabloids and their online siblings have been attacking various National Trust historic sites for being “w*ke” or adopting “CRT” or some other cryptohistoric political claptrap they invented. Being tabloids, they strive to paint sites onto one side of the political spectrum by outright lying that they are only interpreting these sites one way.
Wrong. Also stupid. Also you lose money because you shut out stories that attract more and different people. Diversity is always going to be economically richer. One of those maligned by the knuckle-draggers was Montpelier, which I visited as a Trustee of the National Trust some years ago.
The main point of interpretation was James Madison and the Constitution, which it still is. So don’t believe the tabloidiots who said otherwise. Another story being told is that James Madison could not maintain 100 buildings all by himself and had enslaved people do it. That story is also told. I saw the preparations for both of those stories – and many more about nature and gardens and decorative arts and lifestyles. That’s how successful sites work – they have depth. Otherwise people would see them once for an hour and never have to return.
The problem with “culture wars” is that they are driven by ideology. Ideologies, as I explained before (and despite their verifiable agency) are always wrong BECAUSE they are static and thus ignore history. History is dynamic, diverse, complex and contradictory. That’s why it is so fun. You can’t get it all in an hour. Or a day. Or a week. Or a lifetime.
When the mouth-breathing tabloidiots is that when they say “w*ke” or “CRT” they are making it up. These house museums and historical societies are about preserving and interpreting history, and the more the better. Their agenda is telling a deep, rich and complete story of everything that happened over time.
Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
*FUN FACT: The 1836 Battle for the Alamo is not part of the World Heritage nomination for the missions.
Since late last year I have been Co-Chair of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice Working Group, one of four groups comprising the Preservation Priorities Task Force, a joint effort between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Preservation Partners Network. For most of my years (2006-2015) as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I was Vice Chair of the Diversity Committee and Diversity Task Force. This is an issue that is of profound importance to heritage conservation, especially in the United States.
Diversity is the need to represent the full heritage of a place for the full complement of its communities. Inclusion is the necessity of insuring that every member of every community has a hand in the decision-making of what gets saved, why it gets saved, and how it gets saved. Racial justice is the need to address an imbalance that the historic preservation field helped foster, beginning in the 19th century and continuing into recent memory.
It made matters worse that we focused historic preservation on architectural history, which was the white-manniest of professions until a week or two ago. Moreover, many of the early preservation organizations in the 1920s, including my own, engaged in cultural heritage preservation of minority cultures without any input or involvement from those cultures. Commemoration of the Other simply reinforced power and hegemony.
In June, James Madison’s Montpelier took it a step further and voted to share power with the descendants of those 3,000 American men, women and children who were enslaved at the sixth president’s sprawling home and plantation. You can read about it here. This is ultimately what it is about. When Juneteenth came to Texas 156 years ago, it was followed quickly by sharecropping, poll taxes, and a penal system designed to return recently emancipated slaves into a state of servitude. It is a testament to human resilience that so many rose above despite a multivalent and violent system designed to prevent them from doing so.
What Montpelier did is key, because the only way to achieve Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice is to hand power over. This is hard for any institution, any movement, any society. It is like the challenge I wrote about ten years ago as two of my preservation organizations struggled to figure out how to incorporate the next generation. The answer is simple. You hand them the steering wheel and get out of the way.
It has been very rewarding to make some progress in this arena in San Antonio, especially our recent success in saving the 1921 Woolworth Building on Alamo Plaza. It was listed on the World Monument Watch List 2020 in part due to the “underrepresented narrative” of Civil Rights history. That publicity resulted in our finding out that famed sculptor Richard Hunt ate at the Woolworth lunch counter that day.
Our Coalition for the Woolworth Building has been the subject of several presentations and an upcoming article and this fall the Conservation Society will be honored for its “important contributions to to civil rights history in the City of San Antonio” by the San Antonio Branch NAACP. Here is a recent National Trust blogspot on the Coalition.
It took centuries for us to get to this place, and the need for reckoning, for Truth and Reconciliation, is still apparent. Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert recently made an eloquent and personal plea to look to San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza as a place to begin that process in the U.S.
There is a long way to go for both society and the heritage conservation field, but at least we are facing in the appropriate direction.