While San Antonio has a vibrant historic preservation sector with regulatory support, the City of Olmos Park within our borders does not. The latest egregious evidence of this is the proposed demolition of the Esther Vexler house at 330 Park Hill Drive.
This lovely mid-century modern home was designed by Allison Peery, the architect who coordinated HemisFair ’68, Esther Vexler taught yoga in the home into her 90s but before that was part of the first White House conference on Women and Children in 1963, went back to get her master’s in urban planning from Trinity at age 55 and helped create the Community Housing Development Corporation. Her numerous volunteer positions included serving as the first female president of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio.
The house itself has the low-slung horizontal hallmarks of the mid-century modern, from the anchoring stone end walls to popup clerestories, exposed rafter ends and second helpings of plate glass.
It’s the same old story. Kids sell the house to a buyer who pretends they want to save it but immediately knocks the house and sells the property for more than twice what they just bought it for (including the demo). Nice “work” if you can get it, although in my view you can’t call it work unless there is some effort and intelligence. This is the classic lazy flip.
And it is sad, because by the time anyone notices, the value has been artificially inflated to the demolition point. The real estate ads say “house has no value” as if that was a natural condition and not a manipulated one. Sad!
Photos courtesy Jill Vexler
Here are three very nicely designed highrises one after the next. They are the Gibbs Hotel (1909) in a Renaissance/Chicago Commercial style, the Classical 1937 Courthouse and Post Office, and the Deco Gothic verticality of the Emily Morgan hotel (1926). This is in the heart of town just north of the Alamo.
In fact, these three buildings cover the north wall of the fabled mission and fortress. The famous 1836 battle began when Santa Anna successfully stormed the north wall, breaking in roughly between the Courthouse and the Emily Morgan. Commander Lt. Wm. Travis fell but a minute and a half into the battle, also on the north wall, to the left of where the streetlights are in the lower center of the photo.
The chapel, which everyone knows as the Alamo, was the first building preserved by the public west of the Mississippi, in 1883, less than fifty years after the battle. Already this had become the center of town and the large commercial Crockett Block was in place facing the chapel.
The Conservation Society began advocating for the re-use of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings when the state purchased them nearly five years ago for a new Alamo Museum. This was part of the larger reimagining of the Alamo that began in 2014. Sixteen months ago we presented a concept showing how the buildings could be added onto to make the new museum.
All this is preface to a curious push right now by the Save the Alamo Foundation to garner public support for their Alamo Plan. The most curious aspect of this push is that they don’t have a final design for the plaza. Nor even a preliminary design for the museum. How do you sell that?
Well, they are selling the idea that they will reclaim the footprint of the battlefield/mission walls. A portion of where the west wall was is 10 feet under the Crockett and Woolworth buildings. WHERE IT WAS – these buildings have 15 foot basements so there is NO remnant of the wall.
But let’s go back to the north wall, where all the action happened. Are they planning to take down the Gibbs Hotel and the Courthouse? No.
So what are they selling? An invisible museum? It seems they are selling the idea that the famed 1836 battle will – by itself – attract all sorts of tourists. Calmer heads, like CM Roberto Trevino, are arguing that the 110 years of history before the battle need to be interpreted as well. After all, it is the mission era that made the Alamo part of a World Heritage Site.
The Alamo spent 80 years as a mission, 50 as a fort, and 170 as the commercial heart of a growing city.
The most curious thing of all about the Alamo Plan is not the absence of a design, nor the decision to expose some wall sites rather than others, but the fact that it is driven by an interpretive message that appears to be scripted by a 10-year old boy in 1950.* I visited as a 15-year old and thoroughly enjoyed the tales of heroism and sacrifice. But that is a small demographic.
The 1836 battle is just the starting point for a much richer tale with stories relevant to all peoples and all times. Why don’t they sell that? The more you include, the more money you make – what am I missing here?
*Thanks to Evan Thompson for this quip.
AUGUST 25 UPDATE:
Well, they have a drawing now! The drawing shows the plaza reconstructed as a reenactment of the 1836 battle, with a second story on the Long Barracks, a rebuilt southwest rampart, and lots of cannon and palisades. The drawing, from their Facebook page and in the news, is rendered from a position above the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings, so no news on the museum.
While still clearly aimed at that 10-year-old, it is the first new illustration of the plan in two years, so that is something. The drawing shows reconstruction of the second story of the Long Barracks as well as an earthen rampart at the southwest corner with cannon. I have dealt with the folly of reconstruction in the digital age previously. The drawing also shows lots of living history reenactors, making the whole thing a curiously large investment in a moribund industry.
In a month the Texas Historical Commission will make a decision about moving the Cenotaph, which is a publicly funded portion of the project. No news yet on the museum or other privately funded projects.
FUN FACT: The reason Clara Driscoll insisted on taking down the second story of the Long Barracks in 1913 was that it dominated the plaza and overshadowed the shrine – the same argument for moving the Cenotaph today! So they move the Cenotaph and then overwhelm the Chapel with a reconstructed second story of the Long Barracks???
FUN FACT: Do you know that in 1997 when it closed, the proposal was to turn the Woolworth Building into an aviation museum? True!
The developers of a much-maligned project in River Road have once again been denied permission to build on a vacant area in the historic district. This time they managed to get a feature article written around their failure, morphing from a case to a cause. The subhead calls it an “unpredictable process.”
Being an expert in the field, I don’t find it “unpredictable” but it has a quality that makes it difficult for the average developer. And that quality is literally Quality. Historic Design Review is a qualitative process, and most developers are used only to zoning, which is quantitative.
The first problem is that the qualities of projects like this case – design, landscaping, setbacks, and massing – are overwhelmed by the quantity. The goal seems to be to cram as much building as you can into whatever space you have available. You can add gables and porches and board-and-batten siding but it is still a big hulk. Over the last year, the 23-townhome project has changed design elements that we objected to, like front-loading garages (snout houses) and heavy lot line massing.
They would likely have been approved if they removed one more unit, but after 18 months of carrying costs and redesigns, they probably felt they couldn’t afford to. Curiously, they basically got approval from the Office of Historic Preservation staff, but could not get enough votes from the volunteer Historic and Design Review Commission.
But now that it is a feature article, let’s look at the bigger picture, which is quantity and quality and who is good at what they do.
See, the beauty of historic districts and historic landmarks is that they treat every resource individually. It is not a commodity that can be alienated. It is not a grain that can be graded and put in a grain elevator. There is not a solution from another district or another landmark that can be applied, because that would be a different individual with different needs.
Average developers do not have a good handle on qualitative issues. They are in the business of grading grain and selling it by the container load. Their business model has no room or capital for individuals.
Above-average developers, on the other hand, get the qualitative issues. They may even seek out historic buildings because they know they can get a 45% investment tax credit between the state and federal laws. And they are practiced, so the process is less unpredictable for them. They know the rules but more importantly they know that they have to approach each project with an eye open for its inimitable qualities.
The protests last night (June 2) ended up violent again, as they had on Saturday, both times unusual for San Antonio. As commentator Rick Casey said “We don’t do riots in the streets.” The last significant one was at Municipal Auditorium in 1939. Now he realizes he can’t be so categorical, because we have just doubled our riot total for the last century.
The contrast to other cities remains significant, and the wise words of both Police Chief McManus and Sheriff Salazar have reinforced the sense of community that has always defined San Antonio.
These are the most challenging times I have experienced and the contrast to something that happened three months before and three blocks away from my birth is significant.
On March 16, 1960, seven lunch counters on Alamo and Houston Streets desegregated voluntarily and peacefully, without protest. It happened in the same place as the unrest Saturday night, as Scott Huddleston of the Express-News noted. An amazing college freshman, Mary Andrews, had written the lunch counters asking them to allow blacks to sit and eat.
The sit-in movement had started at a Woolworth’s in North Carolina only a month before. A meeting was held and a sit-in was planned. Then, the community of San Antonio kicked in. Religious and civic leaders got together with the businesses and they integrated a day before the planned sit-in.
The story of Mary Andrews is puro San Antonio, which makes the events of the last few days even more disheartening. At the Conservation Society of San Antonio, we have been fighting to save the heart of that peaceful integration – the Woolworth Building – since 2015. This month we will celebrate Juneteenth with testimonials from residents regarding the importance of the Woolworth Building and San Antonio’s unique role in Civil Rights history.
In times of fear and violence, it is even more important to remember the triumphs of peace and community.
Earlier in the shutdown/pause/lockdown I wrote a blog that argued that the virus would NOT cause urban planners to rethink their propensity for density. My evidence was basically every pandemic in history, with a fun side trip to the history of telegraphy and telephony.
There was a hint at the end of that blog about how the viral pandemic is actually accelerating previous trends in urban planning. The pandemic has slowed traffic dramatically, encouraging a tendency to eliminate cars from center cities. Many towns and cities around the world are planning on closing streets to traffic in order to encourage biking, walking and outdoor dining as areas move to reopen and adjust to the new abnormal. Turns out it is TONS safer to eat outside than inside.
The historian in me says that our cities and our dense human activities have survived a hundred plagues and only come back denser and busier. The historian in me also says beware of those who says “everything will change – these are unprecedented times” because they always say that. They said it after World War I definitively, and even more definitively after World War II and the atom bomb. They said it during plagues and pogroms, during fires and famines and today is always different from yesterday and that itself is the same old story.
Sure, there are paradigm shifts and we may be experiencing one. But the COVID-19 pandemic will not cause that shift. Such events only accelerate trends already underway (closing streets to cars) or illuminate factors that would play out with or without the current crisis (collapse of US hegemony).
I still hear – from respectable professionals – that pandemics change planning. That is partly true. Chicago had typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the 1860s that caused it to raise the entire city in order to build a sewer system.
Paris’s famed rebuilding under Baron Hausmann was cited as an example of city planning driven by pandemic, although in addition to sewage and some hospitals with fresh air, there was a social control/military aspect to the slum clearance as well. Wide boulevards are better for the army.
I would venture that major epidemiological crises are more likely to influence infrastructure than super structure and thus be somewhat invisible. They also influence social practices, and indeed our current pandemic has rewritten many social norms, but again this is not something you can necessarily see in the larger built environment.
But what WILL change?
Leaving the macro level of urban planning, we have seen changes at the micro level. You already have plastic sheeting at the checkout counters of grocery stores and we have seen everything from shower curtains to cubicle-sized sneeze guards going up at restaurants.
UV carpets may sanitize your shoes and mounted temperature scans have already spread way beyond their original habitat, the Chinese airport of two decades ago.
HVAC systems may well be overhauled, and sanitation procedures will be much more extensive for a while. Anyplace you sit still inside for long periods, like airplanes or restaurants are more susceptible to viral load than places you wander through, like museums.
If anything, like the closing of streets to automobile traffic, there will be a tendency to offer less-dense public spaces, while maintaining urban density. There will be renewed interest in public parks, beaches and open spaces which are lower risk for viral spread.
We may well see changes as elements of our architectural landscape that encourage clustering of people for extended periods become endangered, like churches and theaters. Churches and theaters have always been more difficult to preserve due to their large spaces and relatively high costs. Now they have the added problem of people emitting nanodroplets.
With all the working and learning and teaching from home in the last two months we may start to see changes in interior architecture more than anywhere else. The open floor plan office beloved by designers for more than 50 years may give way to private offices or at least much more substantial barriers between workspaces.
Our own office at the Conservation Society is in fact the opposite, which allows us to maintain distance because in our converted 19th century mansion, everyone has an office with a door and no one is within 15 feet of anyone else.
With everyone living and working and doing almost everything from home, there have been spate of articles (like this one) on demand for better home office furniture, home gyms, more clearly defined spaces both within and without, and decluttering services.
People spent more time in their homes in the last two months than ever before, and that will ultimately have an impact on interior design. The open floor plan made possible by central heating and popular by Frank Lloyd Wright may retreat a bit in the coming years as commutes shift from highway to hallway.
The pandemic caused the global economy to calve like an Antarctic ice sheet and expose massive inequalities. Like The Economist, I worry that one policy result of the pandemic will be a renewed isolationism from the teetering old nation states, fostering a decline in productivity, innovation and the promise of a just society. (It will also make it more expensive and difficult for people to collect the photos I have displayed in this blog!)
Here’s hoping we learn a few lessons, if not from history then from our own everyday within the new abnormal.
In the last couple of days I have heard or seen several people comment that due to the COVID-19 pandemic urban planners might rethink their approach to density. Cities are of course being hit the worst, and public transit and dense living conditions are ideal for viral spread. Will this cause them to rethink? History says no.
Ancient cities like Rome regularly fell prey to plaques whether viral or bacterial, and they just went right back to building insulae, stadia and other dense forms. The Justinian Plaque (bacterial) killed as much as 40% of Constantinople’s population in two years and recurred intermittently for two centuries, but the built form did not alter significantly. The Plague of Athens (possibly viral) hit in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars and took out Pericles, causing political repercussions but not architectural ones.
Medieval and Renaissance Paris and London were beset by the Black Death, and still built dense cities. Milan was hit by plague as late as 1630 but they are still building up.
But now we have the internet, and telephones and email and Zoom so we don’t need the density we needed a few hundred years ago, right?
Wrong. Time for another history lesson.
In 1842 a painter named Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, and all of the prognosticators saw a future of dispersed people, in touch with nature, able to communicate over long distances with no need to congregate together. The urban haters had their technological solution. Cities were OVER.
Except they weren’t. They were getting denser. We even added telephones but a decade after that there were skyscrapers and then more skyscrapers and electric streetcars and subways. The opportunity to work from anywhere did not translate into people working from anywhere. We are social creatures, after all. What are you craving right now, this minute? More Zoom meetings or more face-to-face contact?
That doesn’t mean the dream and the ideal of the sylvan suburban landscape went away. It started with the AJDs in the 1840s (Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing) and continued a century layer with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright disliked cities and his planning ethos was decidedly suburban. His 1930s Broadacre City embodied the low-slung suburban dream, as did his Usonian automatic houses.
Even though he didn’t like skyscrapers he designed one just a few years after the Spanish flu pandemic. He also drew up a mile-high skyscraper in his final decade of life, just to show he was best.
Density is more efficient, uses less energy and also fulfills another ideal which goes back to before the crowded Roman insulae. People like to be around other people. They are more productive around other people. The Black Deaths which killed a quarter or a third of medieval urban populations eventually led to better sanitary systems, but they did not lead to a rethinking of density. Indeed, the Justinian and later plaques significantly affected the countryside as well. Here is a not-so-short list of epidemics through history.
Dense urban forms were also prone to fire for much of their existence, as Chicago and San Francisco can relate, along with London and Rome itself. Each rebuilt as dense as it was or more so – the 1871 Chicago Fire paved the way for the first skyscrapers just over a decade later. The Great Fire of London (1666) resulted not in a newly planned place but the same place except in brick and stone instead of wood. In the 19th century Paris famously cleared its slums and built boulevards, but that was more defense minded than sanitary.
People like cities, and they are economically efficient. You can do a lot of work on the email and by telephone, but you will be geometrically more productive face-to-face. Plus, take a look at the current pandemic beyond the United States to places that are REALLY dense, like Hong Kong.
Right at the doorstep to China and they didn’t even have to do a lockdown against the virus. Restaurants have remained open. Then again, they have been practicing for almost 20 years.
So, I don’t think COVID-19 is going to affect how we build our cities.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, Milan, in the wake of COVID-19, just announced a plan to make even more of the city car-free. Paris is saying the same. The planning trends pre-pandemic seem to be accelerating rather than turning.
UPDATE: More North American cities are planning to close streets to automobile traffic as well, even car-centric San Antonio!
AUGUST UPDATE: Yes, we are still in the thick of it five months later! And now some researchers at Johns Hopkins have added contemporary evidence to the historic evidence I presented above. It turns out that in a study of 913 counties across the USA, dense or sprawling developments had no effect on COVID-19 infection rate, although sprawl areas had a higher death rate.
Turns out we tend to confuse density with crowding. Crowding anywhere produces more infections. Crowding can happen in dense or rural areas. The counterintuitive fact of higher morbidity in rural areas was explained by researchers through a stronger use of antiviral protocols in urban areas, and poorer access to healthcare in rural areas.
SEPTEMBER UPDATE: Six months later. Hong Kong has had less than 100 COVID deaths. It’s not about the density.
Less than a week ago I was part of a group planning the next national preservation conference and we were brainstorming what programs and indeed what formats should be employed to reflect our world in the COVID-19 crisis. One of the big concerns was whether “historic preservation” would be considered a luxury that we no longer could afford.
Man that’s dumb. The only business happening on my street besides mail delivery and garbage pickup is “historic preservation.” They are repairing the lovely bungalow on the corner, restoring the clapboard siding after leveling. Work is also going on next door in another bungalow that just sold, and there is a ton of interest in the one just fixed up on the other side of our house. There are at least 5 rehab projects on this one block, two for sale and another for lease.
You could quibble about some of the choices the owner/contractors made, but the bottom line is that century-old buildings are being rehabilitated and reused. Conserving well-made older buildings is a wise reuse of resources, a more affordable approach to housing, and a benefit for the community.
I live in a conservation district, not an historic district, but every building on my block is old and ninety percent of the work being done would be consistent with a historic district. Preserving building is not only environmentally friendlier than new construction, it is also an economic engine. Right now it is providing more than its share of jobs in an otherwise stalled economy.
2019 was a big year for the San Antonio Woolworth Building. In May, the Conservation Society and the Coalition for the Woolworth Building released a study showing how the historic Crockett and Woolworth Buildings could be incorporated into the new Alamo Museum.
Also in May, the Woolworth Building was named a State Antiquities Landmark. Then in October, the Conservation Society and the Coalition for the Woolworth Building constructed an ofrenda in honor of Mary Lilian Andrews, the 17-year old NAACP youth branch leader who initiated the sit-in movement’s first peaceful and voluntary lunch counter integration in the south on Wednesday, March 16, 1960.
Also in October, the San Antonio Woolworth Building was named to the 2020 World Monuments Fund Watch List, one of only 3 sites in the U.S. This led to a rash of publicity in favor of saving the building. So the question is – where are we today?
If you want to know the plan for the Woolworth Building, just look at my blog from August, 2018. It’s all there.
It’s 2019. You don’t change your plans just because the public doesn’t like them. The lack of public influence on the plan was one of the reasons that historian Bruce Winders left the Alamo in 2019 after 23 years.
In an effort to regain the PR momentum, the Alamo announced that it had studied the lunch counter integration and would fund a 5,000 square foot institute on Civil Rights history at the Kress Building, two blocks to the west on Houston Street. The institute – led by Dr. Carey Latimore of Trinity University – is a good thing.
But why can’t they interpret that history at the Alamo Museum? The museum is supposed to be 130,000 square feet. They can’t spare 5,000?
Follow The Money
Besides dealing with the Woolworth publicity, the Alamo is getting sued by Native American groups concerned about burials as well as Defender descendants concerned about the Cenotaph. To regain PR momentum, they announced that the Cenotaph restoration and relocation would begin in early 2020. The interesting fact about this announcement is that it is achieved not through the long-promised $300 million in private donations, but with $38 million in previously secured city bond money.
The new Alamo Museum design is not yet revealed, and you usually need that – plus half the money during the “silent phase” – in order to generate your centimillionaire donations. Here we are five years and well over $100 million of taxpayer money into the project and it is still being directed by private donors who haven’t chipped in yet.
Civil Rights History
Dr. Latimore was hired to prepare a study on the social history of the Alamo Plaza and nearby buildings for the Alamo. He has argued that the Kress was the first lunch counter integrated, not the Woolworth. Hence the institute there.
The whole point of the negotiated, voluntary, peaceful integration in San Antonio was that no one had to go first. And, as Dr, Gregory Hudspeth, President of the San Antonio branch of the NAACP said to Dr. Latimore – Woolworth’s was the most important site to San Antonians. It was where you grabbed a donut as you changed buses to the south, east or west sides of the city. It was where the sit-in movement started in Greensboro, N.C. As I noted four months ago, Woolworth’s was lamented when it closed – Kress was not.
The Express-News sent out photographers and reporters to Woolworth’s lunch counter on March 16, 1960. The photographer’s log clearly states F.W. Woolworth and says 12 photo negatives were used. The photo of the young man looking into the window (reproduced in the mural) is clearly Woolworth’s, but the interior shots look like Kress. It would not be normal procedure for the photographer to visit another location without making a correction, but we do know that the San Antonio Light called out Kress. The conclusion would be that photographers and reporters went to Woolworth’s, found no photo ops, and continued to Kress where they found black and white customers. You can see the photos here. Another photo appeared in the Greensboro, N.C. paper on the 17th.
The event was covered by the local papers on March 16 and 17, followed by positive editorials celebrating how San Antonio was setting an example of peace in an era of conflict. “San Antonio can set the example for the whole nation” said the San Antonio News on March 17, 1960. The day before it quoted Fr. Erwin Juraschek, one of the religious leaders who negotiated the agreement stating “This city can make a fine name for itself throughout the country and the world.” and of course there is Jackie Robinson’s quote in The New York Times on March 20: “This is a story that should be told around the world.”
Thanks to the World Monuments Fund, that story is finally being told around the world.
Recently the City Council passed a resolution that would require that any amendments proposed to the Uniform Development Code be subject to an economic impact analysis to see how much cost they would add to new developments. Many community activists are concerned that this would stifle public input, although the intention was to identify what extra costs would be passed on to consumers.
I don’t think it will limit public input, but the opponents raised a really interesting question. Why is the question of economic impact always one-sided, namely the side of the developer?
For centuries there has been debate over the issue of “takings.” “Takings” is when the government takes your property and has to pay you for it. About a century ago some clever lawyers came up with the idea of “regulatory takings” – whereby you put so many regulations on a property you stripped it of all its value. As with most clever concepts, it hit a hard stop in reality when even the prohibition of all development on a beach site in the Carolinas did not zero out property value (Lucas, 1989)
Here’s what gets me: Why doesn’t anyone talk about “givings?” Like when New York City doubled the zoning envelope in 1961, effectively giving every landowner a massive boost in asset value. Chicago did the same in 1957 – we were all going to be living on Mars by 2000 anyway, so it didn’t matter. Every bit of IDZ spot-zoning is a public “giving” to a private property owner. That’s what needs to be quantified.
“Givings” are in fact central to the entire history of real estate. In the 19th century canals and railroads were financed by the sale of public land along their routes. Kind of like TIRZ (TIF). In the 20th century it was hard roads and then interstate highways. Today it is tax increment financing, bonds and incentive packages.
The entire history of real estate development is a history of chasing public subsidies, primarily transportation. You hear “Location, location, location” and what that means is “transportation, markets, infrastructure.” Two-thirds of that recipe is public.
I’m not saying public support is bad. I have supported public subsidies of private developments that really made a difference. I’m just saying you need to count on both sides.
Back in the 1980s, there were so-called “impact fees” that municipalities would assess new residential developments that required new sewers, schools, streets, sidewalks, security, etc. That led to whining, which led to the era of “property rights” and by the 90s there were attempts in Congress to compensate owners for the reduction in the property value caused by regulations.
That silliness aside, the question has always been formulated on only one side of the equation: What are they taking from the property owner?
I would like to see a strict accounting of what we are GIVING.