“A Little Learning…

December 29, 2023 Blog, Economics, Texas Comments (1) 207

is a dangerous thing” said Alexander Pope, and he recommended going whole hog (until Alps on Alps arise) or abstaining. Heritage conservation/Historic preservation is a specialized field, and like many specialized fields, the wider world has misapprehensions or misunderstandings about it. We can try to impart a little learning. There are pitfalls though, because misapprehension often rings truer than fact.

A case in point is the National Register of Historic Places. Its name is often misapprehended as “The National Registry” just because that sounds, well, classier. When a building, site, district or structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places that means it can’t be torn down, right?

Wrong. Also, Wrong. And Wrong again. The list has been around since 1966 and provides no protection against demolition. It DOES provide a review process that MIGHT make demolition less likely, but that is only if it is literally a federal case. It is kept by the Secretary of the Interior, who will have no idea if anyone is going to tear it down unless a federal agency tells the Secretary they are going to. And they can still tear it down, but only after going through the process.

310 W Polk, Chicago, demolished 1991 by the Postal Service because they knew that the National Register doesn’t prevent demolition.

Now, you can explain that time and time again, but it won’t stick, because the misapprehension is so much more plausible. That’s what it SHOULD mean, right? What really amazes me is that people in high positions dealing with real estate and so forth not only don’t get this, but they suspect there is some weird detail of the National Register that is going to somehow – magically – thwart them. Because it is a specialized field. Fear is always based on lack of knowledge.

Even though the National Register can’t prevent anyone from tearing down anything (there I said it again, but you still don’t believe it, right?) it can provide – since 1976 – preservation tax incentives that can be used to restore the resource. Part of the reason we have so many buildings on the National Register is that real estate developers put them there in order to get a 20% investment tax credit. $2 million off your taxes for a $10 million rehab. Not bad.

But wait, there’s more! In Texas, you can get an additional 25% tax credit ON TOP of the federal one, so your $10 million rehab only costs you $5.5 million. Or, in the case of the St. Anthony above, more than $24 million in tax credits. So who wouldn’t want the National Register – it can finance your rehab or, you can ignore it and tear it down! No downside, right?

Another historic tax credit project, right across the street.

And another, across the street again. Not rocket science.

No downside unless you are a victim of misapprehension, or magical thinking. Case in point: the Conservation Society of San Antonio has nominated of the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building (1968, Caudill, Rowlett & Scott) to the National Register of Historic Places. Its owner, the University of Texas at San Antonio, is going to oppose the nomination because they want to “monetize the site.”

Okay. Site. Money. Weren’t we just talking about a tax incentives worth 45% of rehab cost? That would be an attraction to someone buying it. BUT, they assume it will be torn down so Spurs Stadium IV (A New Hope) can be built on a smaller site than the Spurs II and III. So? You are the UT System, you can do what you want. In fact, the State and the UT system don’t even have to ask the city for a demolition permit like the rest of us.

As they proved with the Sutton Building in 2019.

So why would you oppose National Register listing if it adds potential incentives and doesn’t prevent demolition? How could you be so powerful and not understand your power? You don’t quite believe that truth because it doesn’t feel true – this is the National Registry (sic) after all!

Civilization and the current moment are saturated with people following courses of action that contradict their fiduciary responsibilities because they have a better storyline. This National Register thing has got to be a big green dragon – it can’t be as innocuous as they say, right?

Oh look, another historic tax credit project!

A good storyline beats the bottom line any day.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

JANUARY UPDATE: We got a unanimous vote from the State Review Board so now it is up to the State Historic Preservation Office to forward the nomination to the Keeper of the National Register (or not). We had 9 speakers in favor at the hearing in Galveston and they also received 47 letters of support and many more online expressions of support. UTSA provided the sole opposition to the listing.

FEBRUARY UPDATE: University of Texas Board of Regents voted in secret to either lease or sell the ITC to the City for a new Spurs arena. No one is talking, though.

The Spurs probably have enough tax liability that they could use the historic preservation tax credits themselves, avoiding a syndication!

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Selling House Museums

December 14, 2023 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums Comments (0) 152

The Historic Charleston Foundation has decided to sell the 1808 Nathaniel Russell House, which the Foundation has owned and operated as a house museum since 1955. The news has sparked a backlash from those who want it to stay open to the public. Yet many, including house museum expert Donna Harris, have lauded the Foundation’s decision as a way to bring preservation into the 21st century.

I get it. Last year the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation sold the 1876 Steves Homestead, which it had owned for 70 years and operated as a house museum. As we removed furniture from the house, someone asked if I was sad that it would not be open to the public. I said: “No, my goal is to preserve buildings. Will it be preserved better by having four people live in it or having 40,000 people tromp through it each year?”

Unlike the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Conservation Society Foundation did not decide to market the house museum we sold. We responded to an unsolicited offer and now it is being returned to its original use as a home. That is in line with #1 of the 10 Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which states that a building should be used for its original purpose. No house museum can, by definition, meet this standard.

That bit of petty legalism aside, it is important to remember the basic facts of house museums over the last twelve decades. First, they lose money. Typically, visitation can cover no more than 20-25% of operating costs. That was true in 1910 and 1930 and 1950 and 1980 and it is still true. William Sumner Appleton was subsidizing 80% of his house museum costs in the 1920s. The Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings – also in Charleston – learned the pitfalls of the house museum solution in the 1920s and 30s when they bought and saved the Manigault House three times. That’s why Charleston created the first historic district in the United States – because house museums don’t work.

The house museums that thrive make up that 75% operating deficit one of three ways:

  1. An endowment (Glass House, Gaylord Building, Villa Finale)
  2. Very high ticket price (Biltmore, Taliesin)
  3. A gift shop/merch operation that can add a $35 book or handkerchief to every $12 ticket (Frank Lloyd Wright sites).

For the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation, which has almost a century of its own history to look back upon, we can see that our mission – saving buildings – is not best served by owning everything. We bought Casa Navarro in 1959 and sold it to the state in 1974. We bought the Aztec Theatre in 1988 and sold it to a private owner in 1993. We have bought another dozen buildings in the heart of San Antonio and turned them over to forever owners with a preservation easement on each to insure their long-term conservation. That’s how you do it.

I served many years as Vice Chair of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Sites Committee. The Trust was created by Congress in 1949 to receive house museums. But by the early 2000s it was already clear that the house museum model was not functional, as I blogged about in 2008 and 2012. When Stephanie Meeks became National Trust CEO her first question to me was “Would you ever consider selling one of our historic sites?” and my answer was “In a New York minute, if it was better for the preservation of the building.”

Cooper-Molera Adobe, Monterey, California. One of the National Trust Sites we helped evolve from traditional house museum. I blogged about it in 2011 and then again in 2013. 95% of preservation is adaptive re-use and as that 2013 blog explains, new productive uses do not necessarily impede the learning mission of a site. In fact, they can enhance it and bring it to more people.

To quote from my own blog ten years ago: “The only way to preserve something over the long term is to make it useful and productive for its community. Then the community will preserve it sustainably over the long term. There is no amount of money that can save a building forever – none, even if you put it indoors somehow and encase it in amber. Everything deteriorates. The only way to truly save something is to make it vital and central to enough people that they will keep investing in it forever.”

JANUARY UPDATE: Well, the backlash was so strong that HCF reversed its decision. Enough people showed up with enough “investment” of one kind or another. Check back in twenty years.

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Brutal Choices, or, running away to join the circus?

October 31, 2023 Blog, Economics, History, Texas Comments (1) 144

For the first time in six years, the University of Texas at San Antonio revealed what it really wants to do with the Institute of Texan Cultures, which was radically defunded a few years ago and is a shell of its former self. Located in the 1968 Texas pavilion from Hemisfair, designed by Caudill, Rowlett and Scott, the Brutalist building is now in the position of being “monetized” by its owner.

Last Friday UTSA announced that they would be evaluating a series of potential sites to move the museum exhibits and presumably the archives of the ITC. The archives included the largest historic photographic collection in the city, with over 3 million images. They also include a massive amount of architectural drawings and a lot of historic artifacts. The permanent exhibits on dozens of cultures that contributed to the creation of modern Texas were a prize project of state government, which still allocates a $1 million per year to the museum. Despite that provision, the museum has been underfunded for more than six years.

Folklife Festival 2019. Most of the historic buildings on “The Back 40” are not actual antiques.

“Monetizing” the 14 acres that include the Texas Pavilion building will not be simple. There is a lot of concrete and who knows what other lovely 1968 materials to transfer into other parts of our biome, and given the Brutalist architecture, that will be a significant discount to the monetization. Interestingly, UTSA released some statistics about how much money they will lose if they stay in their current location versus moving into a new facility behind the Alamo. They actually lose money in both scenarios, but they lose LESS behind the Alamo.

I did dissect the fallacy of the rehabilitation cost argument nearly a year ago in this blog. Basically, a big building needs to be treated like a city block, not like a house. You don’t rehab it all in one go – you spread it out and let the market develop organically. But, most folks generally don’t have that patience.

The more curious preference UTSA described in their article (and it is theirs – no byline) yesterday is their preferred site. So, the scenario for the last couple of years has been that they are analyzing three scenarios – stay where they are; move to another location in Hemisfair Park, or move to another location entirely. Now, it would make sense if that other location were on one of the UTSA campuses, ideally the one on the west side of downtown. So I can’t figure why they said they preferred the “Crockett lot,” a parking lot next to the Crockett Hotel just behind the Alamo.

If you haven’t been to Alamo Plaza lately, you should go, because they have added a lot of stuff – an “interpretation” of the South Gate (1724-1871) and Lunette (1835-36) added this year following the re-creation of the palisade (1836) and Southwest Rampart (1740-1836) and a fair amount of cannon. There is also the red information booth that moves around the plaza and the various statues of defenders that are sometimes in the plaza and sometimes back in the garden.

Interestingly, the “Crockett lot” was one of the locations the City proposed for the “Entertainment Zone.” You see, back in 2014-2018, part of the goal was to move the sensationalist/tacky amusements out of Alamo Plaza to reclaim a sense of “reverence.” You can judge for yourself whether the many recent installations are succeeding at that. But the Entertainment Zone land is still there.

Recent photo – you can see the green neon of “Crockett Hotel” just to the right of the Alamo chapel.

So why does UTSA prefer behind the Alamo for ITC? Certainly they will get more foot traffic than they do in Hemisfair. Still it is an odd preference, given that UTSA has simultaneously announced the re-integration of the ITC into the academic and library program. Why isn’t it on campus, especially since that campus now includes buildings on the San Pedro Creek Culture Park? That seems like better synergy. Perhaps the public outreach and the research archives will be in different places?

The Conservation Society and others will be promoting the re-use of the building. If it receives its National Register of Historic Places status on January 13 in Galveston it will be eligible for 20% federal investment tax credits for historic rehab and 25% Texas historic tax credits, meaning a $100 million rehab only costs $55 million. Stay tuned!

NOVEMBER 5 UPDATE, OR

DO YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT NOTHINGBURGER?

The Sunday Express-News headline was Exclusive: Hemisfair emerges as possible site for new Spurs arena followed by another sourceless, breathless screed of “likely” and “appears” without any actual quotes from the Spurs or the city or the county. We went through this in August, when newspapers cost less. Still trying to find a scrap of something real here, folks.

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Zoning, housing and preservation

March 20, 2023 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Economics, Historic Districts, History Comments (0) 349

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.

Georgetown, DC

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.

ADU (casita) in King William, San Antonio

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.

Ansonborough, Charleston

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)

They included the one on the left but not the one on the right

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.

409 Edgecombe, Harlem, New York. The apex of Sugar Hill. Thurgood Marshall, Walter White and W.E. B. DuBois among its many illustrious residents in the 20th century.

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.

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New Construction

February 17, 2023 Economics, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 249

I ride past this every morning on my bike. Here is the progress of a new construction townhome “in the 400s”. Note dates for each iteration.

June 2021
October 2021
November 2021 – getting there??

Then it kinda came to a standstill for a year and a half. This is normal. Then all of a sudden, as the housing market tanked…..

February 2023. He finally has a friend under construction.

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Baguettes and Zoom

December 2, 2022 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Economics, Global Heritage, Intangible Heritage Comments (0) 334

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.

Did someone say beer?

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.

World Heritage Old City of Lijiang – kind of a problem child.

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 helps to have World Heritage in your backyard.

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.

Like indigo dying in Guizhou

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.

Pilsen, Chicago, a decade ago

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.

just another 5000 year old World Heritage site

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History is about Everything

July 25, 2022 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Economics, History, Texas Comments (0) 728

“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.

Crockett (1882), Palace (1926) and Woolworth (1921) buildings on Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, 2022

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.

Alamo with reconstructed palisade and latest cannon addition (fifth one in last four years!)

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.

Cooper-Molera Adobe – a National Trust site where they tell the stories of both the Coopers and the Moleras!

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.

Montpelier under restoration

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.

This was the huge gift shop where I bought a $10 pen celebrating the Constitution.

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.

I’ve been doing this for 39 years and i’m still learning
Ten years ago

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.

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The Good, the Bad and the Interesting

June 9, 2022 Blog, Economics, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 422

A child characterizes the world in broad strokes to make it understandable. There are good guys and bad guys. If we mature, we see more nuance. We see the good and bad in many people, and while some remain largely good or bad actors, most are more interesting than the simple dichotomy because we are able to see them as a bundle of interests. That is more interesting.

The Hughes House, 1912

Here is the Hughes House on Courtland Avenue, an absolutely beautiful 1912 Prairie Style home here in San Antonio (by a St. Louis architect) that was threatened by demolition last fall. A demolition permit had been applied for by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which had owned the property for 50 years. The obvious purchaser was San Antonio College, which owned the adjacent parking lots.

They have a cool MCM building – and lots of parking lots.

A lot of neighborhood activists and the Conservation Society of San Antonio opposed the demolition and asked that it be considered as a landmark. Ricki Kushner of the Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association and Michael Carroll put together a detailed history of the house. In addition to its lovely architecture, it was where Russell Hughes grew up, a famous international dancer who was celebrated for her skills.

A papel picado portrait by the incomparable San Antonio artist Kathleen Trenchard of Russell Hughes- known as “La Meri” – dressed in Chinese costume.

So, depending on your point of view, you could say there were good guys (preservationists, or the two institutions) and bad guys (the two institutions, or the preservationists). But that view requires some kind of obliteration of one side or the other. That’s not how you save a building.

Don’t shoot the messenger.

You save a building by finding where the various actors’ interests lie, and seeing if there isn’t a way to ally those interests into a solution. So, in this case, the preservation folks asked San Antonio College to NOT purchase the property for demolition since the site was valued by the community. We distributed yard signs saying “SAVE THE HUGHES HOUSE”. San Antonio College agreed not to pursue acquisition of the site because good community relations is in their financial and public relations interest. Then we asked the Archdiocese to consider selling the property on the market, since their interest was to make money off the deal.

They did that and found a buyer who is interested in preservation. Now, everyone gets to be the good guy, because all interests have all been considered and the landmark lives on.

Many thanks the May Chu and Andrew Weissman for teaming up to save this landmark! Look for a new venue that will allow you to see the fabulous interiors – like these fireplaces! The Conservation Society introduced May to our local legendary chef Andrew and the whole community is excited about the possibility!

Thank you Andrew and May!

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The Mischief of Modernism and the Hubris of Scale

February 17, 2022 Economics, Sustainability, Vision and Style Comments (0) 457

“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram, once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”

The famous quote of Daniel Burnham two years before his death is a rousing bugle call to think big and build big. A half century later in the apotheosis of postwar optimism, planners and architects in the richest economy ever found their blood stirred by magic and found that for once big bold visions could actually be built.

One of my two favorite modernist big plans – IIM, Ahmedabad.

And they screwed up, because as the architect Jack Hartray noted, the mischief of High Modernism was that they felt they knew everything and could predict all future needs. Hence the full-floor air conditioners in Mies van der Rohe’s 1971 IBM Building, now a hotel. No one is good at futurism, even the recorders of noble diagrams. Circumstances change.

We know what computers will look like in 50 years?

Modernist plans like University of Illinois at Chicago or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs have suffered similar alterations as the all-encompassing original designs proved too specific for the passage of time or human patterns of use.

I actually like the buildings but I also remember the aerial walkways which didn’t make it 30 years.
This is my other favorite – same architect as above.

Every real place that is built and exists for a couple of decades evolves through patterns of use, changing technology, changing needs, tastes and a mountainside of externalities. I argue that iterative design is more efficient and practical, despite lacking the magic and well-stirred blood.

Behold the taco truck

The food truck is a great example of iterative design that starts small and then gets bigger, stirring a little more blood as it gets a sense of what works and what doesn’t and as films and life have shown us, the lowly food truck may well become a Michelin-starred restaurant one day.

Gorgeous.

I was thinking about this as I read through the final report of the Facility and Land Stewardship Task Force for the Institute of Texan Cultures, which I served on. This Institute was created a half century ago as a re-use of the Texas Pavilion from the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio, Hemisfair. The huge Brutalist structure is aging, and it sits two miles distant from the rest of the downtown campus of University of Texas San Antonio.

This is not a building people naturally love. It looks like neither a puppy nor a kitty.

Of course, the original big plan in 1970 was to have the whole UTSA campus right next to the ITC in Hemisfair, but it went out to Sprawlland instead. The Institute of Texan Cultures is basically an ethnographic museum supplemented with rotating exhibits on a variety of subjects and gets half of its admissions during the annual Texas Folklife Festival.

Wood Courthouse/Confluence Theater – also from Hemisfair ’68.

Now, our Task Force was told we were not talking about the future of the building but rather the institution. To contradict that point, they opened with a review of various studies of the ITC building which illustrated that it could never reach American Association of Museum (AAM) standards and would cost $50 million* to fix up anyway – not that we were talking about it.

This architecture however, is not disingenuous.

The Task Force actually ended up talking about how they would like to preserve the building, although that thought was mangled in the final report. It was clear from our several meetings that the Institute itself needed to be smaller and more connected to campus, and we accepted the premise that we weren’t talking about the future of this particular building.

Can we accuse the architects of waffling?

I raised the food truck analogy in our second meeting and specifically asked if there was an iterative design process possible. Maybe restore the Institute bit by bit instead of all at once like a mischievous Modernist. The question got lip service but again, is absent in the report.

SO, a High Modernist building designed to become a museum during the era of big bold plans is now threatened because 1. It needs to be smaller and elsewhere; and 2. It would cost a fortune to upgrade something that big and bold. Dissonance, anyone?

This is where Daniel Burnham actually made his big plans.

But it isn’t just modernism. Every 19th century opera house and 1920s vaudeville movie palace was overwrought. Beauvais Cathedral collapsed like a Gothic Babel. There is a hubris in going huge. World’s Fairs and Olympics and even sports stadia are exemplars of the Sunk Cost Fallacy and Loss Leaders of civic investment. They only “work” in the biggest possible picture.

Foreground: ITC during Folk Life Festival. Background: The Spurs forever home after they left Hemisfair.

A new AR and VR based Institute of Texan Cultures in a downtown location near the campus makes sense. Building it up through iterative design makes sense, and the same approach applies to the old Brutalist landmark up against the highway – do it one bit at a time for a collection of different uses.

This is especially true in the world of museums and interpretation – physicality is being replaced by virtuality. The next generation will tour and learn like this, as I noted a few years back.

Don’t repeat the mischief of thinking you know where everything is going, even if that thought stirs your blood.

  • The $50 million figure is, as always in these cases, inflated by requiring the entire 182,000 square feet of the building to meet contemporary AAM museum standards. To just rehab it for regular people uses would obviously cost a lot less.

UPDATE: One of the ULI members who evaluated the Institute of Texan Cultures (remotely) was on David Martin Davies’ The Source on TPR today February 24. She said the building was not built to last and was no longer serviceable. She also said the land value was not being optimized. Davies pushed back and asked if it was a “knockdown”. She responded with the great cost of rehab of the entire building, (the mischief of modernism again) and a dig at its style (“it’s in a hole.”).

“A very large, hard to use, expensive building”

Yeah, and I have a large, hard to use expensive city right here – too bad it can’t be redeveloped piece by piece.

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Fetishizing preservation

January 14, 2022 Blog, Economics, Sustainability, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (2) 562

There is an article from The Atlantic making the social media rounds titled “Stop Fetishizing Old Homes” written by a planning professor from UCLA. He claims we are fetishizing the aesthetics of old houses when new houses are better in every way. Several people have asked what I make of this. I have a few thoughts:

I think better in the bath.

First, he is mostly deriding construction built in the 1950s and 60s. Being in southern California, he talks a lot about dingbats and how he can hear his neighbors through the walls, etc. Here is the problem of taking 25 years of postwar architecture and making it speak for all historic buildings:

This was the brief window when energy was cheap and windows were single-paned. Yes, the walls were thin and no one cared. Like they cared in 2000. Like they cared in 1928. Like they cared in 1890.

SoCal bungalow 1920s.

The biggest mistake non-historians make is missing out on the ups and downs of history. They consider history one big bucket with one set of characteristics. When you are talking about old buildings, there are significant shifts in construction technique after 1930 and again in the current century. Heck, there were big shifts in construction in the 1840s.

Buildings considered their thermal qualities very carefully up until 1945, got a little careless in the 60s, and by 1980 they started caring again.

Victorian double glazing. The 3-4 inch gap between panes increased the thermal properties.

Every Victorian and bungalow had double paned windows. They were called storm windows. Government studies show that pre-1930 buildings thermally outperform those built up to about 2000. Dude should spend a week in Cleveland or Chicago. Oddly, he calls out the Chicago graystone as being the dingbat of its era. I owned a 1906 Chicago graystone for six years and spent the decade afterwards dreaming about it because it was so damn good. Couldn’t hear the neighbors. Steam radiators worked. Built in ice boxes, nice hardwood floors, real plaster everywhere. You CANNOT buy the materials that was made out of. They aren’t for sale anywhere.

Yes there were many of them so they were aesthetically “cheap”, but, Dude – THIS IS NOT ABOUT AESTHETICS!

His main complaints are lead paint, asbestos and accessibility. We have had three decades of mandated accessibility, nearly five of lead-free paint, and even more since we used asbestos. I am in the process of researching another house, also 1906, which remediated those things in 1990. I remediated those things from my 1898 house. Now they are equivalent to the Dude’s precious new construction except mine has plaster walls that retain their structural stability when they are 75% wet and your piece of contemporary chicanery is made of drywall that fails at 6% wet.

This one was 1908 with later additions.

The most interesting aspect of the lead paint, asbestos and accessibility argument is that it is never thought through. Okay – how y’all gettin’ rid of those bad things? See Lead Paint, Asbestos, and Other Excuses here.

A whole section of the article reads like the old “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” advert, which is neither a sales technique nor a rhetorical strategy you want to emulate.

Adobe brick construction 1722. FYI most buildings are earthen.

But even making the argument above might not get through to this guy because, to him, it is all aesthetic. That’s what bothers me most, the idea of fetishization. To me preservation is about history and sustainability. I am not precious. I get bothered by the fetishists. Here are some of my blogs that illustrate that. I get sick up and fed with the idea that what preservation is doing is first of all aesthetic.

Well it has some details.

It was once, yes, but that was a lifetime ago. Dude considers preservation an aesthetic pursuit either because he is unaware of the last 35 years of the discipline or because he is into zoning, where there are no individuals. (Another blog on that subject here.)

He also resurrects the 12-year old Ed Glaeser canard that preservation and regulation inhibit new development. This argument seems to have logic. It would be better if it had EVIDENCE. Like the 96% of every city in North America that is not affected by landmarks laws???

Yes, even New York if you include all the boroughs.

Plus, how can he call for millions of new buildings? He advocates for an extinction level new construction event. He ignores the environmental cost of new construction, not to mention demolition.

We need to understand that the author is a professor of zoning. In zoning everything is a commodity and houses are like the grains of wheat in a grain elevator – you don’t care where they came from or where they are going. Just how many there are and what grade they are.

Understanding land use like you understand corn.

Finally, the subhead is about how new construction is better but even he admits what every developer I have every talked to admits easily. New homes are only built to last as long as a mortgage – 30-40 years. I hope you like your carbon diet, Dude!

Hey we might make it 50 years until landfill!

February 2 UPDATE: I was being generous about saying they would last 30 to 50 years. Look what happened to these NOLA houses in about a dozen years:

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