In the 1950s, Colonial Williamsburg was the number one tourist attraction in the United States. Its “living history” displays within the carefully curated town landscape were a novel attraction, and many other sites across the U.S. from Mystic Seaport to Lincoln’s New Salem followed their lead. It was the dawn of television and big-finned automobiles: living history was hot.
That was seventy years ago. Last year, Colonial Williamsburg reported it had lost $277 million in five years, laid off 71 staff and sold properties to avoid further hits against its endowment. This summer it celebrated avoiding layoffs and reducing its debt to $317 million. Conner Prairie in Indiana boasts of 11 years of breaking even after an economic debacle in the early 2000s. Old Sturbridge Village brings in $2 million in admissions but breaks even on a $12 million budget thanks to investments, property sales, and major gifts. Plimoth Plantation has seen ticket sales drop 30% in the last 30 years and now has a labor dispute with its suddenly unionized interpreters. Civil War reenactments draw a fraction of the spectators they did in their 1990s heyday. Living history is no longer hot.
Don’t get me started on the coureurs de bois
Sound management is helping Colonial Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village and Conner Prairie survive, but are they thriving? Clever programming has some sites increasing attendance, but none are approaching the quantities of visitors found in the heyday of living history in the 20th century. Premier sites like Colonial Williamsburg or Ironbridge Gorge in England draw half a million visitors a year. But they used to draw twice that. $20 million in admissions might seem like a lot until you compare it to an annual operating deficit of $50 million.
good old days in New Jersey
The advent of the Millennial generation, whose interactions with the physical world are mediated through smartphones, raises the question: Is there a future for living history? The demographics are worrying: In 2012 20.5% of Americans 18-24 visited a historic site, down 8 percentage points since 2002.
with Inn four miles of Denver
Many sites have raised ticket prices to overcome declining attendance and Colonial Williamsburg is considering building a fence around the site to capture more ticket sales. Some sites excel with school groups, but school groups rarely pay, exacerbating the economic challenge.
There are positive reports from some sites about developing more “immersive” experiences that appeal to more people. This runs counter to the trend in house museums, where the guided tour and costumed interpreter have given place to the self-guided tour.
It isn’t simply generational – it is also technology. For 30 years, technology has been giving individuals more control (at whatever quality) over printing, photography, navigation, communication, and determining how you spend your day. Most tourists today expect to control their experience in a way unimaginable 30 years ago.
In the next five years we will learn whether a new generation wants to witness and interact with costumed interpreters or just keep their finger on the pulse of their smartphone.
Does Living History have a future? And how much will it cost?
Sources and Further Reading:
“Historic Sites Face Modern Day Pressures” Virginia Gazette, September 16, 2018
“The Decline of the Civil War Re-enactor” New York Times Magazine, July 28, 2018
“Americans Declining Interest in History is Hitting Museums Like Colonial Williamsburg Hard” The Federalist, August 22, 2017.
“Colonial Williamsburg is still $317 million in debt, but things are looking up” The Virginian Pilot September 15, 2018
“CEO: Colonial Williamsburg’s financial outlook improves; no layoffs planned.” Daily Express, September 16, 2018
Old Sturbridge Village 2016 Annual Report
Conner Prairie 2016 Annual Report
66 people a day are moving to San Antonio. That is a higher number than any other city in the U.S. There are less than a dozen cranes downtown, but that is more than San Antonians are used to, and there have been various flare-ups over developments in neighborhoods.
So an opinion piece dived in on the side of top-down planning in the Rivard Report, claiming that San Antonio has a movement against New Urbanism and is in danger of sprawling even further by restricting density.
Check out this sentence: “Zoning decisions shouldn’t be based upon answering the singular question of whether an infill project fits in with the neighborhood.”
Cellars at the Pearl
Zoning decisions are never based on answering singular questions. The whole point of zoning is that it is a site of negotiation of complicated, multiple questions. The author references the debate over the Dean Steel site along San Pedro Creek west of the King William area. Perfect example of the multiple questions being answered by zoning, like, should it be residential (yes), how should it address the street, the creek and the nearby neighborhood, and how dense should it be?
Big Tex on Mission Reach near Blue Star
The Oden Hughes project he cited was a perfect example: Developer asks for 400+ units, neighbors push back, he settles for 340. That is how zoning works as a site of negotiation. Developer probably anticipated the negotiation. I expect to see something similar at Dean Steel.
The disturbing thing about the article is it seems to want to give more power to the planners and blame the neighbors for causing sprawl. There are always those people who will oppose any change. There are always those who will oppose more density. And there are always those who will ask for more than they need. But NONE of them get to decide, And neither does Baron Hausmann or Le Corbusier or their 21st century wannabes.
Corbu to you, too
San Antonio is not a commodity, it is a place. Of course the downtown will grow more dense and newbie urbanistique. You can start by building on the 40% of downtown that is surface parking. Then you have your industrial sites like Dean Steel and Oden Hughes and Lone Star that can add thousands of new residents without displacing any old ones since they were industrial sites. You have office buildings that can be converted to dense residential, like these are right now:
You also have Hemisfair, soon to be a new residential neighborhood downtown. Greenwich Village hasn’t stifled the density of Manhattan, and King William and Dignowity Hill won’t stifle the new residential downtown. On the contrary, they will complement and economically enhance the new residential downtown just as the Museum Reach and Mission Reach have done for their geographies. Historic districts preserve and enhance a character that attracts human and financial investment.
San Antonio is not a commodity, it is a place with character. Planning is not a math problem and people aren’t simply decanted into towers and corridors. There are multiple reasons 464 people arrive each week and there are multiple components to San Antonio’s character.
Planning and zoning are negotiations between multiple stakeholders that – at the end of the process – answer the manifold question of whether a project fits into a place.
Not long ago I did a blog about the myriad examples of preserved, adapted historic gas stations. Today let’s look at schools. I remember schools rehabbed into homes from the beginning of my career over 34 years ago.
The Lemont School – front half 1896, rear piece 1869 – converted into residences c. 1980.
The Lemont School above shows how even two generations of school design are easily adapted, since they needed large windows to allow enough light in for instruction – a feature suited well to conversion into apartments or condos. Offices are another easy rehabilitation goal, as seen in this 1874 school in Georgetown, Colorado. (This is from a decade ago – it is rehabbed now)
Schools are a more straightforward rehab prospect than other community-defining buildings like churches and theaters, which tend to have a massive open space inside, although of course more modern schools will themselves include assembly halls and theaters, along with gymnasia. Still, most classrooms are easily made into offices, condos or even retail spaces.
This one is for the birds. I mean The Birds (Bodega Bay, California).
Which brings us to this lovely 1916 school by local architect Leo Dielmann, which was “saved,” or rather “not demolished” 20 years ago when they tore off various additions and built a new school. And then let this one rot. Despite a sturdy concrete frame, the roof was the only wood portion and it turned into a sponge in the last decade. But the walls are there and it is beautiful.
Still the owners – the School District – have pulled a fast one, or more accurately, a really SLOW one. Demolition by neglect. Over more than two decades. Makes it look almost…natural.
Councilman Treviño has been fighting for the school, and our friends over at Ford Powell Carson architects even did some renderings to show how it could be rehabbed.
Many neighbors want to save it, but others have been convinced by the long con that the eyesore is too far gone and must be removed. The real crime here is that no one gets dunned for demolition by neglect – the most common way to deliberately destroy a perfectly usable building. There is also lack of vision – seeing older buildings as obstacles rather than opportunities.
Treviño is fighting a Principal and Superintendent who want to see the building go away, which was perhaps the plan 20-odd years ago. That would be a shame. For the neighborhood, the city, and future resources subjected to the mistreatment of the long con.
Now all the parents are upset because the School District added another fence around the landmark, closing off all open space on the block. This was not due to an incident but the occasion of a structural report that doubted the building’s ability to withstand a tornado.
Yes, really. Can’t make this stuff up! To the long con of demolition by neglect they have added structural scare-everybody-ism. As the first con was strategic, so is the second, because now we have upset children and parents demanding that something be done. Those allies are key, because the structural report itself was a bit of a laugher – it is not clear he even accessed the building! He claimed his report was based on his experience over 40 years. I have to remember that one.
Another structural engineer is taking a look at it through actual inspection and soon we will know what it costs and whether we can find all of the money. Stay tuned.
The parents, pressured by the unnecessary closing of the playground, called for demolition this summer and the owner finally filed for a demolition permit. Sadly, it seems the long con is working.
My favorite bugaboo about heritage conservation rose its head this Easter/April Fool’s morning in the form of an editorial in the Rivard Report. The bugaboo goes like this, and has for over a century: If we focus too much on saving the past we won’t have a future or any new development.
Ed Glaeser made this argument regarding Manhattan in his book Triumph of the City earlier in the decade. I loved the book, which had a myriad of brilliant insights and then this bugaboo which was so simplistic it required no response. Manhattan has been saving TONS of its building inventory for three generations with no ill effect to its vibrancy or economy. Just visit Times Square.
Prisoner of the past abandoned by development
No United States city has designated as landmarks more than about 3 or 4 percent of its buildings. So the argument basically is that development is such a precarious and precious business that it can’t survive on a free-fire zone that covers 96 percent of the landscape. Really?
San Antonio from the Tower of the Americas, 2014.
The really fascinating thing about this statistic is that it hasn’t changed in 30 years. Yes, more sites and districts get designated as historic (and keep developing, BTW) but plenty more new stuff gets added. The whole reason Glaeser went after Manhattan is that the statistic there is much higher, although when you include all five boroughs it is back to normal.
That’s the Triborough Bridge
So here is the bugaboo in its unadulterated form from today’s : “it could reach a tipping point where just about anything and everything is accorded historic status. In a world where everything is historic, nothing is historic.”
So where is that? Where did that happen? And if it didn’t happen anywhere, why is it a valid argument? Where is it ABOUT to happen?
Chicago designated ONE MILE of downtown building frontage 15 years ago. Contrary to our favorite bugaboo, this has actually inspired development (including a supertall on a vacant lot) and investment. Once San Antonio covers the 40% of its downtown that is currently surface parking, we might begin to worry about a slippery slope.
View from King William (designated 1967) to Tower of the Americas.
Now, to be fair to my friend Bob Rivard, the impetus for the piece was the proposed viewshed ordinance, inspired by the development near the Hays Street Bridge, to protect iconic views. This would seem to potentially thwart projects that aren’t designated. Interestingly, Austin – not a town known for preservation – has one of the most complicated viewshed protections in place for the Capitol.
The reality is that any protection system functions not as a prohibition but as a site of negotiation. This already happens with the Historic and Design Review Commission, which considered viewsheds of the Tower Life Building in reviewing a new development at St. Mary’s and Cesar Chavez. Good planning is buttressed by landmark laws and viewshed laws, not because they prohibit, but because they provide a review platform that integrates development into the urban fabric.
Disclosure: I serve on the Viewshed Technical Advisory Panel, so I am well acquainted with the specifics of how viewshed ordinances work. This information, like all knowledge, dispels fear, especially of this bugaboo.
This is Bliss, a restaurant in San Antonio. The upscale American cuisine focuses on fresh ingredients, has superior service and is consistently ranked one of the best restaurants in the nation’s seventh largest city. It is housed in a historic Humble Oil gas station.
This is the Station Cafe, across from our office, a more modest sandwich shop that is filled to the brink every lunchtime and offers evening beers from its historic Texaco gas station.
At Austin Highway and Broadway this former Mobil gas station is an upscale women’s boutique described as a “must-visit for anyone who is in the mood to indulge in some retail therapy.” sloan/hall is high-end adaptive re-use.
This is another historic gas station on St. Mary’s Street just north of downtown that is about to be converted into a restaurant.
I could go on with many more examples, but the bottom line is that historic gas stations are adaptive re-use GOLD. Like everything in the entirely externalized world of real estate value, location is key, which brings us to the city’s newest trail, along San Pedro and Apache Creeks. I have ridden it a half-dozen times already.
The trail was just completed in the last year and connects to the famous Mission Reach trail that runs 12 miles through the World Heritage area.
Pictured above is a trailhead near Nogalitos Street. Which brings us to this 1936 Pure Oil gas station at this very trailhead.
Pure Oil was a San Antonio company that adopted the half-timbered Tudor Revival for their stations, which can be found in a dozen states. This is the only one left in San Antonio. It features steeply pitched roofs on both the “house” and “canopy”.
The same station in 2012, detail of the half-timbering on the canopy.
And here it is in 1983 when the San Antonio Conservation Society surveyed it. We surveyed more than 1,500 gas stations over the years, and this was one of the 30 best, proposed as city landmarks last year. Having looked at 1500 stations, we can tell you with confidence that the Tudor Style is quite unusual and the station is quite intact.
2012 polychrome view
But then the station was quietly pulled from the designation list at the behest of the out-of-town owner. So the San Antonio Conservation Society filed a Request for Review of Significance, which the Historic and Design Review Commission agreed to.
We also learned at that time that the site was quite large and the little gem of a gas station only occupies about one-eighth of the land. The Office of Historic Preservation ruled that ONLY the gas station had historic significance, so the other buildings on site do not need to be re-used.
An acre of land along the trail and a cell phone tower to boot!
A map showing construction of the site. Only Area 1 is proposed landmark.
The owner hired the best real estate attorneys to prevent designation. Why? Because it would be worth more demolished? That argument doesn’t hold up too well in this town – gas stations are constantly turned into successful businesses. Here’s a few more:
The Conservation Society met with attorneys for the owners and Councilwoman Gonzales moments before the item came up at City Council. All parties agreed to put designation on hold for 60 days.
Re-use the gas station on the right (corner of Nogalitos and Ralph). SPLACH is optional, as are the other buildings.
A restored Pure Oil station in McMinnville, TN in case you wanted to see an example. One also became a BANK in Geneva, Illinois.
We are trying to find the right buyer for all or part of the site before the DEADLINE of March 18. For more information, contact me at email@example.com,
Now for a few more of the successfully rehabbed gas stations in San Antonio:
APRIL 2018 UPDATE
The gas station got another reprieve, this time for six months, although it is still not officially for sale. If interested in this, please contact me!
AUGUST 2018 UPDATE
The San Antonio Conservation Society made a significant financial offer for the Nogalitos Pure Oil gas station and the land it is on, commissioning Alamo Architects to draw up plans showing a restored gas station and new housing along San Pedro Creek. The owners declined to sell. Now the gas station must be landmarked.
I always enjoy the Urban Land Institute’s analysis of Emerging Real Estate Trends (by pwc) and this year was no exception. What made it especially interesting was the demographic foundation of much of the analysis: the Millennial/Generation Z groups that will define the future of space. As usual, the punks have it all over the hippies.
The next generation is not interested in your 6,000 square foot McMansion or even your 3,200 square foot suburban gem. I recall Doug Farr about seven years ago describing a potential tenant for a retrofitted Lathrop Homes unit: Has a $5,000 bicycle and an iPad. Probably only wants 700 square feet. Will not be collecting furniture.
Let them eat cupcakes.
They are here and they are happy with small space. People collect information and experiences now, and while vinyl and books and even mid-century modern furniture are all hipster now, most of what we collect fits on a device smaller than your thumb.
There will be a lot of obsolete McMansions soon.
2. NO AUTO MOTIVE
All the talk of driverless cars plays right into the next generation. They are getting their driving licenses later or not at all. They Uber everywhere. The autonomous vehicle already exists for them as a choice consumer product. The countryside the hippies wanted to escape to in the 1970s became the suburbia these kids grew up in in the 1990s. There is nowhere to drive to anymore. The car no longer symbolizes freedom.
As it turns out there are more comfortable places to have sex. Who knew?
For real estate, the more radical transformation is not the autonomous car but the autonomous truck. Self-driving trucks will have a much bigger impact on the real estate landscape than cars. This was also true with the advent of the truck and car a century ago. That’s why we have zoning.
Soon all traffic will be stage managed.
The evolution of the internet of things has also meant that technology is now shifting away from the cloud and onto the edge – where cars and trucks and houses have enough computing power to learn and manage data. I read in the Economist that one theory about why Amazon bought Whole Foods was to have enough physical footprint to implement edge computing nationwide.
And Canada, I assume
3. PRIVATE COLLABORATION
Back to those Millennials/Generation Z. About five years ago I toured Bloomberg headquarters in New York City and it was the ultimate open office. Fish tanks and food kiosks everywhere, ridiculously bright colors, and desks sprawled across an open floor plan. The CEO occupied just another desk. No corner offices. Open space encourages collaboration, so offices followed the open plan. Hippie Paradise.
Architects love this stuff..(Wikimedia Commons Miller Thomson Vancouver)
Millennials LOVE to collaborate. They collaborate more than any other generation ever.
By smart phone. Alone. Behind a closed door. ULI explained that the old office door is making a big comeback. The Millennials and Generation Z demand amenities like rooftop gardens, food options and gyms, but they also really, really want to be able to close the door.
Turns out the physical and mental world aren’t perfect analogues. Who knew?
According to ULI “Over half (of employees) reported that ambient noise reduces their satisfaction at work.” The open space plan is still there, but the pushback is growing. Coworking spaces, which are like multiplayer live-work lofts, are also a thing now – one such company in New York now leases more space than Goldman Sachs.
4. RETAIL IN THE AMAZON AGE
The death of retail is painfully obvious in America, because even though online retailing has ONLY taken 10% of the market, the U.S. retail market was grossly overbuilt, with 10 times the capacity per capita of Germany. So it is REALLY visible and we will have plenty of malls to go with those McMansions in the 2030 fire sale.
Perhaps some will be converted into fulfillment centers, where massive physical space is needed to keep the online retail world humming as they send and receive and repair in million-square-foot tilt-up panel behemoths. Buildings are getting bigger and smaller at the same time.
5. OLD FOR NEW
What does all this mean for historic buildings? My own Millennial offspring seem to love the Jane Jacobs idea that new ideas need old buildings. They have doors. They have character and patina and a story or two. They are often smaller. They are greener than new buildings because they are already there, and as the last 70 years have shown us, they are endlessly adaptable.
Last summer I was visiting my daughter in Kalispell, Montana, a lovely historic town. One day we toured nearby Whitefish, which has a small history museum but was quite the contrast, as I mentioned in a blog HERE. The one highlight was our discovery of a late Frank Lloyd Wright building, even labeled as such – completed as a medical office in 1961.
I am on the Board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and at the time I remembered the controversy and concern for the building. Modest, it still echoed the Marin County complex in its rolling sculpted eave and horizontal emphasis.
But this week it looks like this
Why? The pat answer is greed, but the real answer is hidden behind a seeming expression of greed: $1.7 million. The blatantly unreasonable request almost sounds like “$1.7 million or I kill the building!” And he followed through, which may have been the intention all along. The piles of rubble remind me of the 1972 piles of the old Chicago Stock Exchange, which was similarly flipped up until it had a price it could not sustain, because real estate is the only asset class whose value is fully externalized.
It is usually a con. Those silly preservationists think it is valuable, so I will ask them for too much money and then blame them when I demolish it. Which is exactly, in every aspect, how a kidnapping for ransom works.
This was the trade Chicago made in 1972 after the Adler & Sullivan Chicago Stock Exchange was flipped by promoters to an unsustainable value. To be replaced by a physical absence, a building that you can’t even look at for more than a second if you try.
So, that is the greed angle and the ransom angle, but what about The Vacant Lot Myth: that a cleared site is worth more for an owner? I covered this a couple years back HERE. It is like The Beige – what realtors tell you to paint your walls to appeal to the widest possible audience. Not the best audience, not the best price, but the largest potential market. Which leads to absences.
Here is your tradeoff!
Sadly, the absence in Whitefish builds on a local legacy of absence. There is a plaque where they tore down their oldest building about five years ago. Tourists may still come through on their way to Glacier Park but they will have less reason to linger, less to see, and less to remember.