It has been raining for what seems like forty days (a quarantine) in San Antonio and those rains became the excuse for an emergency demolition order on the Whitt Printing Building, a part of the Cattleman Square district west of downtown. Its modest Art Deco facade belies its community importance – this was the largest Spanish-language printing house in a city with more of that business than any other in the nation. Founded by Gilberto Whitt, one of many who came here fleeing the 1910 Mexican Revolution, the building has been deteriorating for more than three decades.
The owners requested to remove it from the historic district and to raze it. The Conservation Society opposed both actions, fearing the precedent of “de-designation” and the loss of another building in the near West side where decay and redevelopment sit cheek by jowl. The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) denied both requests, which were set to go to Zoning when an emergency demolition order came out on the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend. They blamed the rain for more roof collapsing (not the 35 years?)
The Conservation Society hired a structural engineer on two hours’ notice who inspected the structure and reported that while the roof and other wooden elements of the building were in bad shape, its massive concrete piers and beams were solid and in no danger of falling. Indeed, unlike most buildings, the concrete frame did not rely on the roof to hold the walls up.
A mass of local preservationists held vigil over the holiday weekend, as demolition equipment stood by. A scheduled Tuesday zoning hearing was continued and an emergency HDRC meeting was held Wednesday night. Amazingly, the HDRC, owners and preservationists all agreed that the structure of the Whitt Building would be saved, its roof and non-original infill walls removed. A save!
But wait, there’s more! Last Friday as I brought our structural engineer over to the Whitt Building, our two videos on the history of the first peaceful and voluntary integration of Woolworth’s and other lunch counters during the 1960 Sit-In movement premiered online! You can see the videos here. On Tuesday morning we went to Bexar County Commmissioner’s Court to receive a proclamation celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Woolworth Building, which opened June 3, 1921.
We got to thank the Commissioner’s Court for their timely contribution of $25m to rehabilitate the Woolworth and Crockett Buildings for the new Alamo museum, including a free exhibit on the lunch counter integration AT THE SITE. Turns out that the Woolworth is the only one of the six surviving lunch counter buildings that retains physical evidence of the serpentine lunch counter!
As if that wasn’t enough for the week, it kept raining and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) reconsidered a plan that would have run a new sewer line over two conservation easements designed to protect the recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer. Now if we can only get them to do the same on another chunk of recharge land.
Congratulations to all who helped make these victories possible – there were a whole lot of people pulling in the same direction here and it made a difference!
But wait, there’s more! Just got Texas Supreme Court decision upholding Houston’s preservation ordinance! Happy weekend!
A century ago, a fad was sweeping across American cities and suburbs. That fad was zoning. Between the introduction of use and density zoning in New York City in 1916 and the upholding of zoning by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court in 1926, the municipalities of some 30 million people adopted zoning. Most of those municipalities were suburbs, and the issue was not skyscrapers or any other form of density. It was about use.
The technological revolution of the early 20th century was the automobile, and more importantly, the truck. Prior to those innovations, proper middle-class people just made sure to live on the right side of the railroad tracks, away from industry and the poor. But the truck meant that now, industry could go anywhere, not just along the tracks. And in 1916 you made a lot of money tearing down houses and putting up factories. That has not been true in my lifetime, but it was economic reality a century ago.* So zoning came along and protected those houses.
By the 1950s zoning ordinances across the country were being updated to accommodate highways and massive planned developments. It was the age of the suburb, an incorporated R-1 zone. But by the 1970s the wisdom of zoning that separates uses was being questioned and fiddled with. Main Street, that innovative preservation planning project of the 1970s, encouraged people to live above the storefront again, mixing retail and housing as it was in the era before zoning. By the 1990s form-based zoning and experimental communities where you could walk to work and shops were introduced. By the time the pandemic waned a week or two ago, we had all realized that home and work are actually the same place, or were the same place throughout 2020 and could be again. Use zoning suddenly makes little sense.
Not only that, but the renewed interest in affordable housing and mechanisms to address systemic racism has led to a spate of zoning reforms. Minneapolis became the center of zoning reform in late 2019 when it ended single-family zoning altogether, demonstrating that it was aware of what really drove 1920s zoning and that 1926 Euclid V. Ambler Supreme Court decision – keeping others away from nice single-family homes. (It would be another quarter-century before the court struck down racial covenants in 1948.)
There is a new de-zoning revolution going on. In Sacramento they are allowing four units on every lot, eliminating parking mandates and allowing 5000 feet of building on 5000 feet of lot. South Bend is also ditching the parking requirements, along with Hartford, Buffalo, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Montana and Edmonton. Here in San Antonio, almost every project takes place under the c.2000 IDZ zoning to avoid parking requirements as well as those pesky suburban-style setbacks. Cars are ruling the landscape less.
Chicago is trying to preserve its two-flats, built mostly between 1896 and 1926, since the conversion of those to single-family homes erased 20,000 units from the city in the six years between 2010 and 2016.
The original adoption of zoning was driven by economics. People wanted to preserve their investment. That is also a motivation for historic district zoning: people invested in saving old buildings and wanted to preserve their investment. Most historic districts also didn’t fit the suburban-style zoning implemented throughout the middle of the 20th century.
The challenge in the 21st century is that the economics of a century ago are upside down. Now, it makes sense to replace industry with housing, because housing is expensive. So expensive, that urban areas are suffering from a lack of affordable housing. Many of these rejections of traditional Euclidean zoning are driven by a desire to gain density and perhaps address housing affordability. Allow more units on a lot, banish single-family homes.
Where does preservation fit in? Well, generally the most affordable housing is the kind that is already there. And historic district preservation plans dating back 30 years often called for allowing accessory dwelling units. The idea was there would be less pressure to demolish a house if there was accessory income. Perhaps the vanishing two-flats of Chicago are putting the lie to that.
At the same time two-flats are becoming single-family homes, there is a “tiny house” movement valorizing minimalism. So which way is the trend? In either case, preservation can provide the existing building stock.
*Check out Hadachek v. Sebastian (1915) in California where they allowed residential zoning on an existing brickyard despite the fact that it reduced the property’s value by 80%.
Almost a month since my last blog, which was shared 255 times but only read 69? Here in San Antonio we are cautiously emerging from the pandemic. This is normally Fiesta Week, the greatest celebration in San Antonio since 1891, but it has been put off until late June. Taking a cue from New Orleans as we so often have, the King William district (first in Texas!) encouraged residents to decorate their houses like parade floats, allowing Fiesta to live in a socially distanced way.
As I have noted many times over the last year, the work of heritage conservation has not slowed down a bit as the pace of construction and development continues speedily in our fast-growing city. The old El Mirador restaurant was largely demolished, although we helped insure that five old stone walls within the complex will be preserved in the new Rosario’s restaurant (best roasted tomato salsa IMHO).
The town is full of new construction, which tends to pack many units on small lots, like these stick-built zoning envelopes going up on Evergreen on the edge of Tobin Hill, replacing some nice early 20C houses. We have four new hotels opening downtown, at least two of them quite luxurious. We are also seeing more highrise housing planned for the central area, confirming what I said a year ago about what the pandemic means for urban density.
The other development I have been watching on my morning bike rides is the construction of a replica rampart at the southwest corner of Alamo Plaza for a temporary (really?) exhibit of a replica 18-pounder cannon used in the unsuccessful defense of the Alamo in 1836. It also includes a replica of the Losoya house which was in the Alamo compound.
The Alamo project appears to be moving forward in a more community-minded way under new leadership (see blog before last).
Oh! I almost forgot! Thanks to the Power of Preservation Foundation, the lovely 1935 Pure Oil gas station on Nogalitos now has a new roof! This was the subject of my most popular blog ever a couple years back.
Aaronetta Pierce, a lion of civic life and civil rights in San Antonio, was named one of the Tri-Chairs of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee last week. Shortly thereafter we learned that Council Member Roberto Trevino had been replaced on the management committee for the Alamo by Council Member Rebecca Viagran, a descendent of Tejano Alamo defender Toribio Losoya. Dr. Carey Latimore was also appointed to the Citizens Advisory Committee following his detailed study of Civil Rights around Alamo Plaza, specifically the famed lunch counter integration of 1960 – the first peaceful and voluntary integration of lunch counters in the South during the Sit-In movement.
The Mayor made it clear that the buildings facing the Alamo chapel/shrine – the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings – are to be saved. This is huge news and a validation of the position taken by the Conservation Society in the fall of 2015. It is also huge for our Coalition for the Woolworth Building, formed in 2018 and including the aforementioned Aaronetta Pierce. The milestones of the Coalition: State Antiquities Landmark status in May, 2019; the release of a plan showing how to repurpose the buildings that same month; a prize-winning ofrenda honoring civil rights leader Mary Lilian Andrews in October 2019 and the listing of the Woolworth Building later that same month as one of only 3 U.S. buildings on the World Monuments Watch List 2020, have now come to fruition. A year ago we held a Donut Day at the Woolworth and then an all-day seminar on the role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights history. We spent the pandemic year continuing to lobby, collecting video testimonials and crafting a series of short videos about the lunch counter integration that are now in production.
The Mayor is also revisiting a few more ill-conceived and unpopular elements of the 2018 plan, including lowering the plaza (which makes the archeologists CRAZY) and permanently closing the streets (which makes the businesspeople CRAZY). San Antonians have heaved a sigh of relief as the Alamo plan enters a new era that will remember the long arc of its history by preserving all of its layers and getting comfortable with the fact that it is in the middle of a city.
And soon we will reveal the story of a young black man who ate lunch at Woolworth’s on March 16, 1960.
For as long as historic preservation ordinances have been judged appropriate exercises of the police power (40+ years) they have included provisions for economic hardship. This makes sense, if a building is so far gone that it cannot be economically rehabilitated, there should be an exception. But how did it get there? And what are your (legal standard spoiler alert!) “reasonable investment-backed expectations?”
See, San Antonio is pretty good at fixing old buildings that people in other towns won’t. So, when you hear that someone is trying to tear down a salvageable house, odds are they aren’t from here. And their claims of economic hardship? Even sillier.
So, let’s say you owned this house for eight years. During that time you could have invested a couple thousand dollars a year and slowly brought it back to life. Or you could ignore it, allow the homeless to congregate there, and hope that your investment would turn – magically – into a lucrative vacant lot. Except it’s not magic and it is very deliberate. Even the well-worn phrase “demolition by neglect” sounds more benign than malignant, and this behavior is malignant.
See, this isn’t some poor guy who can’t maintain a house. This is an out-of-town investor who has more than a dozen business entities, each of which owns one of these houses in the neighborhood. This isn’t economic hardship – this is malignant neglect and a business model built on NOT taking care of the assets you own.
How do you argue economic hardship when you have created all of the conditions that made the building expensive to rehab? What are the “reasonable investment-backed expectations” of this business model?
And how do the neighbors like it? Well, if you are behind one of these single-house-owning-LLCs, you should reasonably expect that your investment and your business practice model are going to piss off the neighbors. Indeed, that is one of many reasons for putting the asset into a one-off corporate entity – to hide from the neighbors.
Heck, those pesky neighbors might insist that the city enforce the same regulations on you as they do on them. What’s that called? Equity?
No, not that kind of equity.
Time for a new business model.
An even better business model: Buy a perfectly lovely old house, DO NOTHING to the point of actively resisting neighbor’s attempts to lease it, encourage vagrants to collect on the property, and then WAIT for the neighbors to demand demolition because of all the problems the property is causing. YOU aren’t causing the problems, the property is. Did I mention you needed to excise your moral compass and human integrity to follow this business model? No problem? Good!
JULY 2021 UPDATE
I noticed that the Louisiana legislature is considering a bill that would allow New Orleans to double the fines for violating building permits to $1,000 a day to “deter bad actors”. That would be good here as well.
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.
It has been over two weeks since The Conservation Society of San Antonio joined the bulk of the world in lockdown (here in San Antonio and Bexar County it is called Stay Home/Work Safe). There are certain things we can do remotely, and fortunately the world of preserving the built environment is still available – all those historic buildings are outside for you to view as you take your essential exercise, walk the dog, or make a rare dash to the store.
Indeed, we are taking the opportunity to share architectural quizzes – each day we show a building detail and people guess which landmark it is from. This has been a fun way to engage our members and supporters.
Emily Morgan hotel, originally Medical Arts Building, Ralph Cameron, 1926.
While it is great we can still appreciate our historic environment, there is also a concern. While many businesses are shut down, one area that is not is construction and contracting. And given that about half of the items we see each month on the Historic and Design Review agenda are for work done without permits, you can expect a significant caseload of “ask forgiveness, not permission” projects going on under quarantine.
It’s usually the windows
Now, there are still city inspectors out there, but if HALF of the permit cases going before the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) are violations, and the city is unable to hold an HDRC meeting for a month, there will definitely be a bunch in the coming months. There are some brazen violators who have even been instructed to do one thing and just willfully ignore the stipulations and do what they originally intended. I think our UDC needs a significant daily fine until the owner follows the law.
Skirting the issue….
Late last year, the Conservation Society joined together with several other organizations to form the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, the 1921 structure at Alamo and Houston Streets that was the first Woolworth’s lunch counter to integrate peacefully and voluntarily during the sit-in movement of 1960. I wrote about the Coalition earlier this year HERE.
Last year the City turned the whole project over to the State of Texas, owner of the Woolworth, Palace and Crockett buildings since 2015. For four years we have advocated a plan that would incorporate the buildings into the new Alamo museum. Recently that plan was endorsed by the Society of Architectural Historians.
We decided to envision what the 1921 Woolworth Building and its neighbor the 1882 Crockett Building would look like as part of the new museum. We hired an architect. We called it the compromise plan because we gave up on a bunch of issues we fought for last summer, like fencing the plaza, closing the streets, moving the Cenotaph and even preserving the 1926 Palace Building.
The plan envisions a reveal of the location of the west wall of the Alamo compound INSIDE the existing buildings. Elimination of the Palace Building simplifies the problem of misaligned floorplates, and a large addition behind and above the Crockett and Woolworth provides the 130,000 square feet the Alamo desires.
Most importantly, the plan maintains the integrity of century-old buildings and allows the interpretation of the Mission period, the 1836 battle, and the 1960 Civil Rights movement. This makes the site appeal to more tourists.
Recently the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, which includes our San Antonio branch of the NAACP, West Side Preservation Alliance, San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, SAGE, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and others, noted that it will also be a draw for Civil Rights tourism, a rare growth area in the museum industry. (See my blog on this topic a couple months ago HERE.)
Plus, it retains authentic historic fabric rather than removing it for a location of a wall that is entirely gone. The buildings have basements.
Sadly, and despite the multiple concessions we made to our earlier position (and 7,000+ petitions!) the Alamo dissed our plan. They said – as I predicted 364 days ago HERE – that the lunch counter story could be told at one of the other lunch counters that also integrated on March 16, 1960.
When Jet magazine decided to honor Mary Lilian Andrews, the 17-year old Our Lady of the Lake college student who wrote the letters asking the downtown lunch counters to integrate, they photographed her in Woolworth’s.
Woolworth’s was the symbol of the Sit-In movement. Yesterday (September 30 UPDATE) on CBS TV news Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch chose his four favorite artifacts from the Smithsonian’s 19 museums: that is from 11 million historical items. One of the four was the Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro.
When the Woolworth’s in San Antonio closed in 1997, its loss was widely lamented. Not so for Neisner’s, H.L. Green’s, Grant’s, Kress, or Sommers. When you think of the sit-in movement, you think of Woolworth’s, where it began. San Antonians remember the big glazed donuts at Woolworth’s because it was the intersection of two main streets and multiple bus lines.
It was the place and it remains the best place to interpret the sit-in movement’s unique exegesis in San Antonio. It is also a fine place to interpret the long history of the Alamo. This is the message the Coalition is sending to Land Commissioner George P. Bush, Governor Abbott, and the Alamo Trust. Learn more on the Conservation Society website!
It’s the longest day and it has been a month since my last post, so time for a quick catch-up on the state of Conservation in San Antonio!
First, up, the Alamo, whose managing non-profit met today while camels wandered the grounds. They recently announced the architects for the new “world-class” museum after interviewing them last January. They chose Machado Silvetti from Boston. Machado taught in Texas back in the day, according to former students. Hope they look at our design. They have also changed their by-laws to keep Land Commissioner George P. Bush at a distance and become more like a regular non-profit that raises money through philanthropy. Good idea – the last four years of top-down planning have been on the public dime.
Out in the neighborhoods where preservation really happens we are having our Third Neighborhood Workshop tomorrow, June 22, 2019 and it will be a doozy – we are premiering our board game “Plots and Plats: A Neighborhood Development Game” that takes you through the process of developing land and getting Zoning, Planning, Historic and City Council approvals all while dealing with Neighborhood organizations, development delays, financing and the like. It is at the Mexican-American Unity Council 2300 W. Commerce tomorrow at 9 AM!
Tonight you should drop by the Beethoven Maennerchor for Gartenfest, not simply because this is the oldest German singing society west of the Mississippi (152 years) and not simply because it is one of only three in Texas with its own building and beer garden, nor simply because I will be singing with the choir at 8 PM, but ALSO because we have a very cool set of guest taps ($20) from two Texas breweries – my favorite Karbach (Rodeo Clown, Light Circus Hazy IPA, Cherry Lime Radler and Coastal Conservation Wit) and the legendary Shiner (Bock, Light Blonde, Wicked Juicy IPA and Sea Salt & Lime!)
Talk about heritage conservation (or rather, hear us sing about it!)
We are still trying to save that fabulous little 1935 Pure Oil gas station on Nogalitos – we have even been trying to buy it! It was the centerpiece of my most popular blog from 2018 with over 4,000 views. It even rated a half-page in Preservation magazine this spring!
The city recently landmarked an East Side ice house, a Tobin Hill bungalow and a Lavaca house-cum-storefront, but sadly passed on two other Tobin Hill houses because they are swimming in a sea of vexaciously vacant and valuable land. Neighbors are still fighting, but City Council has approved the demolition.
on a more positive note:
The 1880 Claudius King house by San Antonio’s first great architect Alfred Giles made its way across the street to its new home this month. We live-blogged it at San Antonio Conservation Society.
This week we celebrated two excellent years under the leadership of President Susan Beavin and next week we welcome new President Patti Zaiontz, who knows the ins and outs of the best preservation city in the U.S.
San Antonio, Texas!
New Orleans has Mardi Gras, Rio has Carneval, Ahmedabad has Utturayan and San Antonio has Fiesta. It is part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage, a parade that culminated in a “Battle of Flowers,” a European pageant suggested by a Chicago Presbyterian minister back in 1891.
The parade soon became an elaborate and fantastical depiction of social rank with an elaborate collection of self-styled royal courts where the high and mighty families dressed up in themed fantasies and young women debuted in five-figure gowns as the “Duchess of Harmonious Elegance” or “Princess of Perceived Coordination” or whatever and now this tradition has been going on for over 120 years. Heck, “Cornyation,” which makes fun of this, is itself at least 60 years old and has a book about it.
Then there are the medals. Everyone has a medal for sale, even McDonald’s. You sell them, trade them, give them out and compete with other medals. They represent causes and organizations and businesses and politicians and individuals. Even if you don’t try, you will still end up with three dozen of them and you need a sash to carry them all. We all end of looking like South American generals by late April.
We have Kings. The Texas Cavaliers crowned the first King Antonio in 1927, and this group of business leaders found competition 21 years later when the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce crowned the Ugly King – Rey Feo. Now the two Kings get along fine and compete simply to raise money for children’s causes and scholarships respectively.
There are over 100 official Fiesta events, It’s a “party with a purpose” and its signature event is A Night In Old San Antonio®, now in its 71st year. This is our event, which began about 1936 as a Fall Harvest Festival down by Mission San Jose. By the early 1940s it became a downtown Riverwalk event and at the City’s insistence, we moved it up into La Villita in 1948.
It now runs four nights – a total of 20 hours. It utilizes the talents of over 10,000 volunteers to provide food, drink, music, crafts and fun to over 80,000 guests. It raises money for conservation in La Villita and throughout San Antonio. We have 5 year-round full-time staff, two downtown buildings including a commercial kitchen and 18,000 square feet of warehouse just for this four-day event.
Oh yes, and we have volunteers who meet every Thursday morning year-round to make paper flowers and cascarones for the event,
Cascarones? Those are confetti-stuffed eggshells that you crack over your friends’ heads during FIESTA. You can buy them at the local grocery store, just like the medals. For NIOSA® we make our own – about 50,000 each year.
Fiesta as a whole features several major parades, several multi-day fundraisers with food and drink and music, and a huge collection of official receptions, dinners and ceremonies. 100 events. Everyone decorates their house with flower wreaths, papel picado banners, and all manner of colorful acoutrements.
There is nothing like this in any other city that I know of.
It may not have the fame or cachet of Carnival or Mardi Gras, but I love its intricacies, particulars, flights of fancy and aged authenticities. Fiesta is San Antonio’s cultural heritage.
Y’all come visit NIOSA® this week, ya hear?