Coalition for the Woolworth Building

January 29, 2019 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (1) 2172

San Antonio Woolworth Building, built 1921. The first voluntary, peaceful integration of a Woolworth’s lunch counter happened here March 16, 1960.

San Antonio has a unique history in the Civil Rights movement, but it is not known because it is characterized not by conflict, but by its absence. The tradition continues to this day with the nation’s largest Martin Luther King Day March. Approximately 300,000 participants annually.

They even saw our sign in Hawaii!!!

This year, a new Coalition for the Woolworth Building participated in the march and had an information booth in the park afterwards. The Conservation Society is a member along with the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, among others.

As the banner notes, what happened in San Antonio in 1960 was different.

The most prominent corner in San Antonio – the intersection of Alamo and Houston Streets.
  • February 1, 1960 – four students stage a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Protests and violent reactions pepper the nation in the following weeks.
  • March, 1960 – OLLU student and NAACP member Mary Andrews sends letters to downtown lunch counters requesting equal service. NAACP holds rally Sunday March 13 and asks for desegregation by Thursday March 17.
  • On Tuesday, March 15 civic, religious and business leaders meet and agree to desegregate Woolworth’s and six other lunch counters.
  • Wednesday, March 16, 1960. Photographers descend on Woolworth’s in San Antonio as blacks and whites are served equally at the basement cafeteria and lunch counter
  • March 19, 1960. Jackie Robinson calls the voluntary integration “a story that should be told around the world” and compares it to his integration of Major League baseball in a Page 1 New York Times story
Integration at Woolworth’s, March 16, 1960. Courtesy UTSA Special Collections.

There were places – Corpus Christi, Oklahoma City, that integrated their ,lunch counters earlier, but only following protests and confict. San Antonio proceeded differently.

Susan Beavin and Nettie Hinton of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, 2019.

Woolworth’s location gave it special significance. Nettie Hinton recalls buying the “big donuts” at Woolworth’s prior to catching the bus to the African-American East Side. Indeed, the corner of Alamo and Houston was where the cultures of San Antonio met and separated – Hispanics to the west, African Americans to the east, and Anglos to the north.

The story is not well known, despite Jackie Robinson and the front page of the New York Times because there was no violence. The old news media saying “If it bleeds, it leads” could find no purchase in the soil of San Antonio, so the story was not “told around the world” as Robinson pleaded.

San Antonio Woolworth’s Houston Street entrance, 2019

Although it could be still! In fact, Civil Rights sites are one of the few growth areas in tourism, as reported recently. This Civil Rights site is an opportunity for San Antonio.

What’s Not There

Now, the threat to the Woolworth’s Building since 2015 has been that it sits atop the site of the west wall of the Alamo compound, potentially the site of Travis’ quarters during the epochal 1836 battle.

See the area to the left where the soldiers are swarming in? That is under the building below.
This is on top of the site of the north wall, where Travis fell and where Santa Ana broke through. A more significant location, but apparently is wasn’t for sale.

Yesterday someone said to me: “But the lunch counter is gone – there is no remnant of it.”

The same is true of the western wall and Travis’ quarters. Nothing left of them. The buildings there have basements, so it’s all gone. No remnant.

So which do you interpret?

Both, obviously. And you have tons of room inside the Woolworth Building to do that.

See my 2018 blog on the Woolworth Building here.

FEBRUARY UPDATE:

The Woolworth Building has been nominated as a State Antiquities Landmark, to be heard by the Texas Historical Commission on April 16. You can voice your support by contacting Mark Wolfe, Executive Director, Texas Historical Commission, P.O. Box 12276, Austin, TX 78711, Mark.Wolfe@thc.texas.gov

Also, check the Conservation Society website for updates!

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Alamo Plaza October 2018

October 23, 2018 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 1699

If you want to see what the Alamo Plaza plan was like exactly four months ago prior to a series of public meetings, check out my blog from June 20 here.  If you want to see what the City Council approved last week, check out my blog from June 20 here.  Not much changed, although a booklet called Alamo Plan August 2018 did address a series of the questions that came up during the public meetings and explained why things pretty much had to stay the way they were.  Like the website, the book starts on the negative, decrying all of the icky things that happen in front of the Alamo.

Always best to start with the negative..

We don’t get the POSITIVE vision for the site until after the City hands over control.  It is curious that we only are presented what Alamo Plaza shouldn’t be – the few images in the booklet are generic and uninspiring.

The Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings that we have been advocating for for the last three years.  These face the Alamo chapel.  In the August 2018 book they announce they will “assess the significance and integrity according to national standards” and “assess opportunities for reuse, including how to connect multiple floor plates”.  This is the equivalent of Henry II’s plaintive wail “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

The City Council voted to lease the plaza and streets to the State of Texas for 50 years (with two 25-year extensions).  The main changes over the four months were not changes to the plan as much as changes to those opposed to the plan.  The two main parades (Battle of Flowers and Fiesta Flambeau) agreed to the new parade routes, the Citizens Advisory Committee publically approved the plan, and the Historic and Design Review Committee approved the moving of the Cenotaph, which raised the most controversy over the summer.

The new location of the Cenotaph within the plaza area was arguably the only change made to the plan itself.  They did add some new drawings commemorating the Payaya Indians who first inhabited the 1718 mission to the final presentation and book.  These added illustrations received significant commendation from the Council members for interpreting more than just the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.  So… they included the 18th century, but what about the 20th???

The Phil Collins-sponsored metal model plaques that were installed this year start with 1744, and then march to 1785, 1793, 1836, 1846, 1861 and … then stop marching at 1900.  This is the problem:  They claim to interpret 300 years of history but actually stop halfway, prior to the 20th century.  Which is when Adina de Zavala and Claire Driscoll actually saved the Alamo.  And a city happened.

Despite the casting of this summer’s plan as an “interpretive plan,” the only hints at interpretation were images of costumed interpreters and the recent hiring of a living history director.  Although they have assured me there will be 21st century museum staples like augmented reality, there is a curious fondness for the unpopular and unprofitable world of 20th century living history, which I surveyed in another recent blog.

In fairness to our city leaders, we raised a big stink about the importance of the Woolworth’s Building in Civil Rights history (see my blog here) and this was referenced in the City’s lease agreement, if not into the Alamo Plan publication.  But it can still be demolished.

That would be a missed opportunity to make money.

A recent study shows that Civil Rights tourism is one of the few categories of tourism that is growing – a new Green Book movie is coming out and the National Museum of African-American History with 2.4 million tourists has kicked off a boom in the sector.

Fine looking building – would be worth saving for architecture.  But the Civil Rights history is even more epic.

The other big issue this summer was access, a subject of our petition.  The new museum which will occupy the space (and hopefully the facades) of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings will be open 9-5 and during that time only one access point to the plaza – next to the museum – will be open to the public.

No sneaking in!!!!!

Up to six gates in the new fences surrounding the plaza will be open at other times, so that vital midnight selfie in front of the Alamo will be only a bit less convenient than today.  This element of the plan upset most of the architects and planners in town, and again, there was minimal change – more off-hours access points were added, but daytime stayed at one.

My normal time is 7 AM, although I will probably have to leave my bike outside.

So, now all the decisions will be taken by the state.  The Citizens Advisory Committee and the Historic and Design Review Commission will comment on the results of the architectural assessments, but the power lies with the General Land Office of the State of Texas.

Icky!

We can hope.  Our focus at San Antonio Conservation Society remains on the buildings.  Roads can be closed and opened.  Gates can be added and subtracted,  Fences can be erected and deconstructed.  But once you tear down these historic buildings, they are gone forever.

 

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Alamo Plaza and Diversity

August 30, 2018 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (2) 3541

This year I published a chapter called “Addressing the Diversity Deficit: Reform the National Register of Historic Places” in a book called Creating Historic Preservation in the 21st Century.  This is a topic I have been working on for many years.  You can see some of my writing on it here and here.

The National Register and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment are not culturally neutral tools.  For historical and pragmatic reasons, they privilege architecture and white male history.  Worse, those cultures oppressed in the past are forced to relive that oppression when told that their historic sites lack “integrity.”

Where “Invisible Man” was written in the 1940s, Manhattan.

Those who were second-class citizens had to make do with second-class facilities and now second-class landmarks.  Second-class status is perpetuated when we make minority landmarks live up to rules designed by and for the dominating culture.

Woolworth’s, designed by Adams and Adams in 1921.

The relevance of this struck me in regard to the State of Texas plan to demolish the Woolworth’s Building on Alamo Plaza, which emerged three months ago (see my blog about it here.)

This was a major building by a national chain at the major intersection of Alamo and Houston Streets.  The interior is heavily altered, but the exterior looks much as it did when built in 1921.  It is on the National Register and a local landmark.  But wait.  There’s more.

The San Antonio Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counter on March 16, 1960, peacefully and without demonstration.  This was a first for the South.  The Greensboro, N.C. sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter had been only six weeks earlier.  It was a first for Woolworth’s, a national chain that was still being picketed nationwide and would not officially adopt an integrated lunch counter policy for months.

A few days later Jackie Robinson, in San Antonio, compared the event to his entry into Major League Baseball and said “It is a story that should be told around the world,” according to the New York Times.

Five other stores also integrated peacefully on that day, and none wanted to be called out.  The San Antonio Express and News reported:

“Speculation was that the flat refusal by the group to name the stores may stem from recent reports that some of the larger chain stores have ordered their managers not to integrate.

Also, a spokesman from one store said earlier that most of the businesses are for integration, but none of them want to be named as the first to make the move.”

Kress, one of the other stores.

Photos of the Woolworth’s store ran in the San Antonio News that day, and Kress was mentioned in the Light.  While some of the other stores’ locations survive, thanks to Greensboro, Woolworth’s remains forever front-and-center in civil rights history.

SO – what happens now?  Three months after they released their initial plan to demolish the Woolworth’s building, the Alamo is now hiring an architect to evaluate the buildings based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and their significance at the national state and local levels.

If you have experience with minority culture sites, you can see where this is going.

They have already released an illustration showing how the three building’s interior floors don’t line up.  That will be Reason 1, although it will be wrong, because in this particular case you could gut the interiors so they do line up – just like Joske’s did – and still have the exterior where the young African-American boy peering into the store was photographed on March 16, 1960.

Joske’s, November 2014.

And you can still interpret the long-lost mission wall and buildings inside – in the shade.

Reason 2 will be that the building does not have sufficient integrity on the interior.  This conclusion would require ignoring both the minority cultural context and current directives on evaluating interior integrity.  Recognizing its deficiencies in addressing cultural and historical sites, in December 2016 the National Park Service issued new guidance that encourages conserving “a space’s historic associations even though its component features and materials may be themselves so highly deteriorated that their integrity is irretrievably lost.”

Woolworth’s storefront on Houston Street – the markings on the ground show where mission buildings were.  Also where Travis lived during the siege.  Probably his slave Joe as well.  

Reason 3 will be this: If you demolish Woolworth’s you will still have other sites that witnessed peaceful integration in March, 1960.  That is true, and incredibly insulting.

It says your history can make do with fewer landmarks.  It says because you have Neisner’s, Kress’ and Green’s then you don’t need the only one people have heard of.

Erasing an authentic place for a reconstruction?

Whose history would be erased for whose?

Photo:  UTSA Special Collections Courtesy San Antonio Express News

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Villita Shall Not Be A Dead Museum for Mincing Scholars

August 16, 2018 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Historic Districts, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 1864

In October, 1939, San Antonio passed the La Villita ordinance to preserve its oldest neighborhood, stating boldly:

RE-CREATING “LA VILLITA” AS A PROJECT OF SAN ANTONIO:  PROVIDING FOR ITS RESTORATION, PRESERVATION AND CONTINUATION; ENUMERATING CERTAIN IDEALS, HOPES, AND PURPOSES: SETTING FORTH IN NARRATIVE FORM SOME OF ITS INTERESTING HISTORY; AT THE SAME TIME ORDAINING THAT VILLITA SHALL NOT BE A DEAD MUSEUM FOR MINCING SCHOLARS, BUT A PLACE FOR THE LIVING, AND THOSE NOT YET BORN.

Whoa.  They actually repeated the line about mincing scholars in the ordinance itself, with an illustration comparing the mincing scholar to a jitterbugging couple, adding “Moreover, there are more jitter-bugs than scholars.”

The Cos House, one of the first seven La Villita buildings restored 1939-41.

La Villita was and is to be a collection of historic buildings selling crafts, thus preserving handcraft traditions as well as buildings.  Nearly 80 years ago San Antonio was trying to save its intangible heritage through legislation – for the people, not scholars!  The ordinance said it was “always aiming to meet the needs of TODAY and TOMORROW, ”

Bolivar Hall – they also named all of the 1941 sites after Latin American heroes – Bolivar, Juarez and Hidalgo, to promote peace and trade.  “Promotion of World Peace” was a stated purpose of the ordinance.

The San Antonio Conservation Society had a key role in all of this.  After the WPA money ran out, the City implored the private Conservation Society to purchase more buildings, extending the crafts village another block to the east with the purchase of the Dashiell and Bombach houses in 1942 and 1949.  We still own these.

Dashiell House today

Otto Bombach House, home to Little Rhein Steakhouse since 1967.

The crafts village had working tile kilns and even today you can see soap made there, along with other handmade items, since that jitterbugging 1939 ordinance is still in effect. (As a scholar, I try to limit my mincing when in La Villita.)

Entrance to Plaza Juarez, La Villita.  The cannon may help discourage mincers.

The City also asked the Conservation Society to move its harvest festival from Fall to Spring and from the River to La Villita to help bolster the craft village.   So we did that in 1948.  And again the next year and the year after.  This year we celebrated our 70th A Night In Old San Antonio®, the signature event of Fiesta, in La Villita.

NIOSA opening parade, 2017. 

With as many as 15,000 volunteers and over 80,000 attendees, NIOSA® is huge by any standard, and it explicitly hearkens to the variety of cultural inheritances of the city, from Native American and Spanish to African-American, Asian, Mexican, German, French and more.  It is appropriately decked out with paper flowers and cascarones made by yet more volunteers.  After 70 years, it is itself an important cultural tradition and inheritance.

NIOSA volunteers meet every Thursday morning.  Year round.  50,000 cascarones don’t make themselves.

The event itself has to be experienced to be believed.  Crowded.  Colorful.  Steamy.  Fun-loving.  Every kind of meat on a stick.  Standing in line for tortillas.  Music and crazy hats.  Not a mincing scholar in sight.

The final quadrant of La Villita, Maverick Plaza did not come into being until various commercial and industrial buildings there were demolished in the 1960s.  This is the biggest part of NIOSA and it is also the site for 3 new restaurants in the coming years. The economics of the craft village have been challenging, and now the City is asking Chef Johnny Hernandez to help make it a culinary destination.

This approach – and the whole history of La Villita, will make for an interesting discussion at the second Living Heritage Symposium being held by the Office of Historic Preservation on September 5-7, 2018.

The first symposium last September brought international experts from around the world and country to discuss new approaches to preserving culture that have little, if anything to do with architecture.  The Office of Historic Preservation, led by my longtime friend Shanon Miller, has already jumped in to these new approaches with its Legacy Business program.

Del Bravo Records on Old Highway 90 – a Legacy Business.

Susan West Montgomery of the National Trust for Historic Preservation told us today that San Antonio and San Francisco are the only cities really dealing with the issue of living heritage.

That is cool to hear.  Those are the places I’ve been living the last six years.

One of them has weather.  The other does not.

It’s great that San Antonio is on the cutting edge of preservation in 2018, but as we saw above, that was equally true in 1939, when they already saw the end of living history re-enactors and urged not simply preservation of buildings, but the “continuation” of building and craft traditions that would engage the next generation.

It is enough to make this mincing scholar break into a jitterbug.

 

 

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People And Places And People

December 6, 2017 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 2052

This year at PastForward, the National Preservation Conference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation focused on People Saving Places.  “People” is operative, because for many – notably wonky architectural historians like myself – it had often been about buildings. Even for those in the planning profession, it had been a technical question rather than a human one.  That is wrong.

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Evidence and Storytelling

October 26, 2017 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Interpretation Comments (0) 1878

I wrote a blog inspired by Don Rypkema’s presentation at the Living Heritage Symposium in September.  Here is one inspired by Donna Graves at the same event, who urged the audience to embrace storytelling.  This is why we save places, because of the stories they tell.

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The Future of Heritage Conservation

November 20, 2016 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 2152

Project Row Houses by Rick Lowe – I finally saw it 20 years after I met the man.

Well, it finally started to happen, and in Houston of all places.  PastForward, the National Preservation Conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, witnessed the emergence of the next generation of “preservation” practitioners and highlighted the future of the movement.  Featuring inner-city artists who save places like Houston native Rick Lowe and Chicagoan Theaster Gates, it felt to many of us like the movement had finally turned the corner and embraced the future. Continue Reading

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What is the Fabric of Cultural History?

September 24, 2016 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation Comments (2) 2027

This is the Malt House in San Antonio.  Dating to 1949, it is the classic car-service restaurant, known for its malted milkshakes.  Generations experienced their localized version of American Graffiti with Mexican and American comfort food and the best malts in town. Continue Reading

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Integrity and Authenticity

March 16, 2016 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation Comments (0) 1589

My favorite example:  where Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man.  Authenticity?  Integrity?

I will presenting at the 7th National Symposium on Historic Preservation Practice this weekend at Goucher College, on the Diversity Deficit and the National Register of Historic Places.  I have written often about this subject over the last five years, but lately my recommendations are getting more specific.  One of those has to do with the concept of Integrity, which I have previously proposed needs to be replaced with Authenticity. Continue Reading

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