In October, 1939, San Antonio passed the La Villita ordinance to preserve its oldest neighborhood, stating boldly:
RE-CREATING “LA VILLITA” AS A PROJECT OF SAN ANTONIO: PROVIDING FOR ITS RESTORATION, PRESERVATION AND CONTINUATION; ENUMERATING CERTAIN IDEALS, HOPES, AND PURPOSES: SETTING FORTH IN NARRATIVE FORM SOME OF ITS INTERESTING HISTORY; AT THE SAME TIME ORDAINING THAT VILLITA SHALL NOT BE A DEAD MUSEUM FOR MINCING SCHOLARS, BUT A PLACE FOR THE LIVING, AND THOSE NOT YET BORN.
Whoa. They actually repeated the line about mincing scholars in the ordinance itself, with an illustration comparing the mincing scholar to a jitterbugging couple, adding “Moreover, there are more jitter-bugs than scholars.”
The Cos House, one of the first seven La Villita buildings restored 1939-41.
La Villita was and is to be a collection of historic buildings selling crafts, thus preserving handcraft traditions as well as buildings. Nearly 80 years ago San Antonio was trying to save its intangible heritage through legislation – for the people, not scholars! The ordinance said it was “always aiming to meet the needs of TODAY and TOMORROW, ”
Bolivar Hall – they also named all of the 1941 sites after Latin American heroes – Bolivar, Juarez and Hidalgo, to promote peace and trade. “Promotion of World Peace” was a stated purpose of the ordinance.
The San Antonio Conservation Society had a key role in all of this. After the WPA money ran out, the City implored the private Conservation Society to purchase more buildings, extending the crafts village another block to the east with the purchase of the Dashiell and Bombach houses in 1942 and 1949. We still own these.
Dashiell House today
Otto Bombach House, home to Little Rhein Steakhouse since 1967.
The crafts village had working tile kilns and even today you can see soap made there, along with other handmade items, since that jitterbugging 1939 ordinance is still in effect. (As a scholar, I try to limit my mincing when in La Villita.)
Entrance to Plaza Juarez, La Villita. The cannon may help discourage mincers.
The City also asked the Conservation Society to move its harvest festival from Fall to Spring and from the River to La Villita to help bolster the craft village. So we did that in 1948. And again the next year and the year after. This year we celebrated our 70th A Night In Old San Antonio®, the signature event of Fiesta, in La Villita.
NIOSA opening parade, 2017.
With as many as 15,000 volunteers and over 80,000 attendees, NIOSA® is huge by any standard, and it explicitly hearkens to the variety of cultural inheritances of the city, from Native American and Spanish to African-American, Asian, Mexican, German, French and more. It is appropriately decked out with paper flowers and cascarones made by yet more volunteers. After 70 years, it is itself an important cultural tradition and inheritance.
NIOSA volunteers meet every Thursday morning. Year round. 50,000 cascarones don’t make themselves.
The event itself has to be experienced to be believed. Crowded. Colorful. Steamy. Fun-loving. Every kind of meat on a stick. Standing in line for tortillas. Music and crazy hats. Not a mincing scholar in sight.
The final quadrant of La Villita, Maverick Plaza did not come into being until various commercial and industrial buildings there were demolished in the 1960s. This is the biggest part of NIOSA and it is also the site for 3 new restaurants in the coming years. The economics of the craft village have been challenging, and now the City is asking Chef Johnny Hernandez to help make it a culinary destination.
This approach – and the whole history of La Villita, will make for an interesting discussion at the second Living Heritage Symposium being held by the Office of Historic Preservation on September 5-7, 2018.
The first symposium last September brought international experts from around the world and country to discuss new approaches to preserving culture that have little, if anything to do with architecture. The Office of Historic Preservation, led by my longtime friend Shanon Miller, has already jumped in to these new approaches with its Legacy Business program.
Del Bravo Records on Old Highway 90 – a Legacy Business.
Susan West Montgomery of the National Trust for Historic Preservation told us today that San Antonio and San Francisco are the only cities really dealing with the issue of living heritage.
That is cool to hear. Those are the places I’ve been living the last six years.
One of them has weather. The other does not.
It’s great that San Antonio is on the cutting edge of preservation in 2018, but as we saw above, that was equally true in 1939, when they already saw the end of living history re-enactors and urged not simply preservation of buildings, but the “continuation” of building and craft traditions that would engage the next generation.
It is enough to make this mincing scholar break into a jitterbug.
66 people a day are moving to San Antonio. That is a higher number than any other city in the U.S. There are less than a dozen cranes downtown, but that is more than San Antonians are used to, and there have been various flare-ups over developments in neighborhoods.
So an opinion piece dived in on the side of top-down planning in the Rivard Report, claiming that San Antonio has a movement against New Urbanism and is in danger of sprawling even further by restricting density.
Check out this sentence: “Zoning decisions shouldn’t be based upon answering the singular question of whether an infill project fits in with the neighborhood.”
Cellars at the Pearl
Zoning decisions are never based on answering singular questions. The whole point of zoning is that it is a site of negotiation of complicated, multiple questions. The author references the debate over the Dean Steel site along San Pedro Creek west of the King William area. Perfect example of the multiple questions being answered by zoning, like, should it be residential (yes), how should it address the street, the creek and the nearby neighborhood, and how dense should it be?
Big Tex on Mission Reach near Blue Star
The Oden Hughes project he cited was a perfect example: Developer asks for 400+ units, neighbors push back, he settles for 340. That is how zoning works as a site of negotiation. Developer probably anticipated the negotiation. I expect to see something similar at Dean Steel.
The disturbing thing about the article is it seems to want to give more power to the planners and blame the neighbors for causing sprawl. There are always those people who will oppose any change. There are always those who will oppose more density. And there are always those who will ask for more than they need. But NONE of them get to decide, And neither does Baron Hausmann or Le Corbusier or their 21st century wannabes.
Corbu to you, too
San Antonio is not a commodity, it is a place. Of course the downtown will grow more dense and newbie urbanistique. You can start by building on the 40% of downtown that is surface parking. Then you have your industrial sites like Dean Steel and Oden Hughes and Lone Star that can add thousands of new residents without displacing any old ones since they were industrial sites. You have office buildings that can be converted to dense residential, like these are right now:
You also have Hemisfair, soon to be a new residential neighborhood downtown. Greenwich Village hasn’t stifled the density of Manhattan, and King William and Dignowity Hill won’t stifle the new residential downtown. On the contrary, they will complement and economically enhance the new residential downtown just as the Museum Reach and Mission Reach have done for their geographies. Historic districts preserve and enhance a character that attracts human and financial investment.
San Antonio is not a commodity, it is a place with character. Planning is not a math problem and people aren’t simply decanted into towers and corridors. There are multiple reasons 464 people arrive each week and there are multiple components to San Antonio’s character.
Planning and zoning are negotiations between multiple stakeholders that – at the end of the process – answer the manifold question of whether a project fits into a place.
My favorite bugaboo about heritage conservation rose its head this Easter/April Fool’s morning in the form of an editorial in the Rivard Report. The bugaboo goes like this, and has for over a century: If we focus too much on saving the past we won’t have a future or any new development.
Ed Glaeser made this argument regarding Manhattan in his book Triumph of the City earlier in the decade. I loved the book, which had a myriad of brilliant insights and then this bugaboo which was so simplistic it required no response. Manhattan has been saving TONS of its building inventory for three generations with no ill effect to its vibrancy or economy. Just visit Times Square.
Prisoner of the past abandoned by development
No United States city has designated as landmarks more than about 3 or 4 percent of its buildings. So the argument basically is that development is such a precarious and precious business that it can’t survive on a free-fire zone that covers 96 percent of the landscape. Really?
San Antonio from the Tower of the Americas, 2014.
The really fascinating thing about this statistic is that it hasn’t changed in 30 years. Yes, more sites and districts get designated as historic (and keep developing, BTW) but plenty more new stuff gets added. The whole reason Glaeser went after Manhattan is that the statistic there is much higher, although when you include all five boroughs it is back to normal.
That’s the Triborough Bridge
So here is the bugaboo in its unadulterated form from today’s : “it could reach a tipping point where just about anything and everything is accorded historic status. In a world where everything is historic, nothing is historic.”
So where is that? Where did that happen? And if it didn’t happen anywhere, why is it a valid argument? Where is it ABOUT to happen?
Chicago designated ONE MILE of downtown building frontage 15 years ago. Contrary to our favorite bugaboo, this has actually inspired development (including a supertall on a vacant lot) and investment. Once San Antonio covers the 40% of its downtown that is currently surface parking, we might begin to worry about a slippery slope.
View from King William (designated 1967) to Tower of the Americas.
Now, to be fair to my friend Bob Rivard, the impetus for the piece was the proposed viewshed ordinance, inspired by the development near the Hays Street Bridge, to protect iconic views. This would seem to potentially thwart projects that aren’t designated. Interestingly, Austin – not a town known for preservation – has one of the most complicated viewshed protections in place for the Capitol.
The reality is that any protection system functions not as a prohibition but as a site of negotiation. This already happens with the Historic and Design Review Commission, which considered viewsheds of the Tower Life Building in reviewing a new development at St. Mary’s and Cesar Chavez. Good planning is buttressed by landmark laws and viewshed laws, not because they prohibit, but because they provide a review platform that integrates development into the urban fabric.
Disclosure: I serve on the Viewshed Technical Advisory Panel, so I am well acquainted with the specifics of how viewshed ordinances work. This information, like all knowledge, dispels fear, especially of this bugaboo.
So here is the photo I posted on my first day at work nearly a year and a half ago.
This is the main office of the San Antonio Conservation Society, and has been so since 1974, when the organization was already 50 years old. It is the Anton Wulff House, built in 1870 and described as Italianate style. This is reasonable since it has that Tuscan tower, those paired windows and doors and other hallmarks of the most popular style in America from 1850 to 1880.
After the tower and the main front-facing gabled mass, there is a half-gable mass that almost reads like an addition, but everyone assured me the building was built this way.
Maybe it is the nature of the slightly irregular limestone blocks, but that last mass (which contains my office) seemed less designed, reflective perhaps of the isolated and emergent city some seven years before the railroad arrived.
What did seem clear was a complete absence of any influence from Anton Wulff’s home country, Germany, and specifically the Alsace region adjacent to France. Alsatians had clearly brought European architecture to nearby Castroville at the same time.
Huth House, Castroville, 1846.
But I was wrong because I did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of early 19th century high style European architecture. If I had, I would have recognized a homage to the MOST famous German architect of the 19th century, Friedrich Schinkel, he of the Altes Museum. In 1829, Schinkel designed the Römische Bäder, an expressionistic complex at Potsdam for the romantic Prussian Friedrich Wilhelm IV. This is what it looked like:
Credit for this discovery goes to Michael Guarino, who left me a stack of images of the structure. All of a sudden the Wulff House had a fairly grand legacy, and that half-gabled section made sense for the first time.
Twelve years and 502 blogs ago, I began “Time Tells” – my little blog about heritage conservation, architecture, planning, technology and economics. I have moved three times in those dozen years and now live in San Antonio, one of the pioneering preservation places in the United States.
I attended a recent ULI event here in San Antonio that outlined emerging trends in real estate. I was struck by how much the factors they identified tracked with my own prognostications in November during my Partners speech in Houston at the National Trust conference.
I am living in an historic building that was moved more than a mile from its original location, from the King William district, the first historic district in Texas.
This is the 1881 Oge carriage house, now located near the Yturri-Edmunds house, which is in its original location near Mission Road. Our San Antonio Conservation Society moved the house here in order to save it. On the same property we also have the Postert House, an 1850 palisado cabin which was similarly moved in order to save it from demolition. In fact, I remember very well in 1985 when San Antonio set a record for moving the largest building that had ever been relocated on wheels, the 1906 Fairmount Hotel. Continue Reading
Full disclosure: Four years ago, I was the Historic Preservation consultant for the Julia C. Lathrop Homes in Chicago, a very important 1937 federal housing project. This past Thursday the Chicago Plan Commission approved the current plan for the project, which I ceased to work on when I left Chicago in July 2012. I took the opportunity to compare the plan to my April 2011 Preliminary Report and to the project at the time I left.
This coming week I will be lecturing about Main Street, a National Trust for Historic Preservation initiative that began in the 1970s as a way to help preserve historic downtowns throughout America in communities of every size. This was in the era when suburban shopping malls had become the centerpiece of American life, drawing attention and dollars away from the smaller shops and services of the old downtowns. Continue Reading
Everybody loves them some locktender’s houses
One of the interesting facts about the heritage conservation field is that it does not track neatly with political persuasions. My first day of work in 1983 saw the legislation creating the first national heritage area co-sponsored by every single member of the Illinois Congressional delegation, bar none. Imagine. Continue Reading