Support for the Woolworth Building

August 29, 2019 Blog, Historic Districts, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 316

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.

Notice the North Wall, critical in the 1836 battle, remains under buildings.

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.)

The lunch counter is gone, but the entrance remains.

Plus, it retains authentic historic fabric rather than removing it for a location of a wall that is entirely gone. The buildings have basements.

The location of the west wall revealed – in the shade!

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.

This was painted in 2018 – we have not forgotten

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.

Woolworth’s in 1981, courtesy San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation.

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!

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San Antonio Conservation June 2019

June 21, 2019 Blog, Historic Districts, Intangible Heritage, Texas Comments (0) 254

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!

Are we at peak world class yet?

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.

Neighborhood Workshop 2 back in February

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!

Playing the game June 22!
Touring the Karbach Brewery last year

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!)

Come on down! Plenty of room! Only $5 admission!

Talk about heritage conservation (or rather, hear us sing about it!)

Tuesday night at the Beethoven!

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!

We even figured out how to develop the site.

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.

307 E Evergreen – Cole House
311 E Evergreen

on a more positive note:

1880 Claudius King house is saved by moving across the street

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.

Susan Beavin, me and NIOSA Director Audrey Haake

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.

The Hertzberg Clock – owned and just restored by the Conservation Society!

San Antonio, Texas!

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This is Fiesta: San Antonio’s Cultural Heritage

April 22, 2019 Blog, Historic Districts, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation Comments (1) 394

If you have to ask…A Night In Old San Antonio®, the premier Fiesta event, shown in 2017.

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.

Me and my medals. More on back.

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.

NIOSA medal design unveiling, 2019. Do you know of another city where medals are an integral part of life?
We don’t have generals but we do have Kings, and they have royal retinues.

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.

Parade to the King’s Party, San Antonio Conservation Society Board members, 2018.

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.

La Villita is a nice site for it, because it is full of old buildings and gets very crowded, which is part of the appeal of NIOSA!

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.

The origin of the cascaron is actually Chinese.

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.

1975.

Y’all come visit NIOSA® this week, ya hear?

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Pillars of Value

March 27, 2019 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 338

Why saving buildings makes more dollars and sense

1310 W. Commerce, built c. 1899 for Toby Barnes

Here is a very intact Victorian home in San Antonio of the typical Queen Anne type: L-shaped plan with front facing gable, decorative balusters, posts and porch trim. It even has decorative brackets with drop pendants that survive on the corner.

1306 W. Commerce, built c. 1909 for Charles Willard

Next door we have this house. It is boarded up and a temporary fence was added three weeks ago, but this Queen Anne retains a lot of integrity, from every one of its four Doric order porch columns to original wood siding and decorative shingles in the protruding gables. The house volume is unchanged since 1912.

1302 W. Commerce, built c. 1899 for Henry Gill

Next door, also behind the fence, this Folk Victorian gem has a double-munched standing seam metal roof, original siding and original shingles in the gables. It is also boarded up, so we don’t know how many original doors and windows survive, but in my experience, there will be several if not all.

SOOOOOO……. the owner proposed to demolish these three.

I have seen buildings in WAY worse shape get saved.

In fact, one that was on the demolition list when I started at the San Antonio Conservation Society three years ago recently came up in our house hunting.

Needs to be demolished 2016. Today it is yours for $300k here.

The owner of the three Commerce houses has a business a block away where he rents, so he bought these “just in case.”

Perfect! Move your offices in there and ditch the landlord!

Um, so then the owner’s representative said they tried renting them but they were having too much trouble. But then the druggies and thugs started hanging out and breaking in, so they need to be demolished.

Because when you demolish buildings, those problems go away?

Um, no.

Then the owner’s rep said he wants to build and apartment building here but has no plans and no timeline.

“There is plenty of room to put in his office AND add an apartment building,” I said. This is not an EITHER/OR.

And then there is money. You rehab these as houses, you can get the city tax incentives. You rehab them as National Register landmarks (that still needs to be done) and you can get a 20% investment tax credit. And a 25% state tax credit. They would totally qualify based on their history, architecture and condition. 45% of your rehab costs paid for.

Since the fence went up three weeks ago the squatters and scrabblers have stayed away. We can only hope the owner listens to reason. Or money. Or the neighbors. Or takes a look at Zillow and sees what has happened to other buildings that someone once thought should be demolished.

Because they couldn’t think of anything else.

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San Antonio Development: Density, Intensity and Affordability.

December 15, 2018 Blog, Chicago Buildings, Economics, Historic Districts Comments (0) 507

Minneapolis just eliminated single-family zoning, and Oregon is considering the same for its cities.  The goal is to increase affordable housing and redress a century of racial bias undergirded by said zoning.  Planners are excited by this trend and see more of it on the horizon.

Buurma section of River Forest, Illinois

San Antonio just reformed its zoning code to include R-1 and R-2 zones, because our old zoning allowed high density pretty much everywhere.    The new R-1 and R-2 zoning will help low-density core neighborhoods and historic districts by encouraging appropriate infill.  So, with all of the current City Hall concern with affordable housing, why are we doing the opposite of what Minneapolis did?

Four houses sidewise on one lot, Grove near Roosevelt.

The contrast with Minneapolis is actually not as dramatic as it seems.  Not only is San Antonio more affordable in general, it is not landlocked like Minneapolis.  Plus the zoning in Minneapolis was actually, really “single family.”  In contrast, even our new R-1 and R-2 districts could see 2-3 units on a lot.  King William, the oldest historic district in Texas, is full of accessory units and always has been. In fact, one of our highest priced houses was once seven apartments:

Yup.

At the San Antonio Conservation Society we meet regularly with neighborhood representatives, and in a recent meeting we learned the difference between density and intensity.  We tend to think only of the former, but look at the little two-story apartment building below.  It has been in the heart of the King William district for decades and is incredibly dense – something like 126 units per acre.  But it is not intense.  It fits in.

In the heart of the district.

Now look at the development below, which is less dense, but more intense.

Also ugly.

After the meeting, I shared a project from Oak Park, Illinois about a dozen years ago.  Two historic houses built in 1875 and 1908, the latter actually a two-flat.  The owners proposed ten units over parking massed up front toward the sidewalk.  Super intense.

This is what they were inspired by, to replace the two houses below.

Since it was in a historic district, the demolition was not allowed, and today the two houses look the same as they did before.  Better, actually.

So did preservation mean gentrification?  Nope.  Turns out you are looking at seven units.  You just can’t see them unless you get right up to the buildings and look into the back.  What preservation meant was that density was increased without increasing intensity.

In fact, Oak Park’s Long Range Historic Preservation plan way back in 1994 encouraged accessory units and coach houses as a way to maintain the historic character of the area.  Preservation is about improving development, not opposing it.

18th Street, Pilsen, Chicago

There was some more interesting news out of Chicago this week when the city landmarked the Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, with the specific intent of preserving its vernacular architecture and its culture.  They are crafting a historic district with the specific goal of preventing gentrification. 

Got it? Yes, you heard that right.

This mural was painted over last year, an outrage that certainly propelled the landmark designation.

Chicago combined landmark designation with a five-year Affordable Requirement Ordinance (ARO) and an arrangement with Chicago Community Land Trust to reduce property taxes. Crucially, the effort is focused not just on architecture but also the distinctive culture of Pilsen.

A Pilsen tour led by local activists in 2009.

This is something we have been working on in San Antonio for a few years , notably with the City’s Living Heritage Symposia that the Conservation Society has supported.  Cultural heritage conservation is the leading edge of our field, and it is exciting to see how various communities are developing new tools to achieve it.

West Guadalupe, San Antonio

It is also nice to see an end to the 35-year old myth (shibboleth, perhaps) about preservation and gentrification.  I was asked the question by news reporters when I came to San Antonio in 2016 and I said what I always have said – gentrification and its definable cohort – displacement – is a much bigger phenomenon than historic districts. 

Let me be clear – when preservation emerged as a form of zoning in the 1920s, it was used to exclude minorities and preserve wealth, just like single-family zoning. 

Ansonborough, Charleston.  It happened here.

But that was no longer true by the 1980s, when preservation had been inflected by the 1960s community planning movement, permanently altering its character.  Someone wrote a dissertation about this 🙂

Yes, there were historic districts that gentrified.  There were also historic districts like Wicker Park in Chicago that slowed gentrification while nearby unregulated areas saw values double or triple in a year’s time.

Wicker Park

This week San Antonio extended its housing incentive program, to the cheers of some and jeers of others.  There are different opinions about whether the tools work or not.  San Antonio is shrinking the target area and adding an affordable housing fund following concerns that the incentives were being used for more upscale projects.  

Neighborhood workshop at San Antonio Conservation Society

As someone has commented regarding the Pilsen plan, there are always unintended consequences of incentive programs, whether financial or regulatory.  IDZ zoning was intended to provide affordable housing in inner-city areas and after a decade became a default for developers trying to avoid various regulatory requirements.

And maybe squeeze in a few more square feet.

Real estate development always follows public subsidy – from roads and sewers and trails to zoning and funding incentives.  The Pilsen experiment includes industrial job goals. It also includes a recreational trail and policies designed to allow the trail to improve the community without increasing values too much.  The obvious parallel here in San Antonio is the RiverWalk, especially the Museum Reach, which together with the Pearl has spurred a flurry of development.

The Mission Reach has potential for the South Side, and another piece of that puzzle was added this week with the Mission Historic District Design Guidelines.  Like the Pilsen landmarking, these will help conserve an architectural vernacular particular to a place and a people.

We have seen an increase in the number of Great Blue residents.

These various efforts demonstrative how much the preservation/heritage conservation field has evolved a lot in the last 35 years.  Zoning has certainly changed significantly in the last century.  Most importantly, the goals have shifted in the wake of urban revitalization.  Time will tell whether these various programs work toward the new goals of affordability and amenity or have unintended consequences.  

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Villita Shall Not Be A Dead Museum for Mincing Scholars

August 16, 2018 Historic Districts, Intangible Heritage Comments (0) 869

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.

 

 

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Infill in the Fastest Growing City in the U.S.

June 13, 2018 Economics, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (0) 2385

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.

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.

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My favorite BugaBoo

April 1, 2018 Economics, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (1) 832

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.

Like Paris…

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 Hell Gate railroad Bridge apparently

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.

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A San Antonio surprise

November 4, 2017 Historic Districts, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (1) 2489

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.

 

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A dozen years and counting

August 1, 2017 Historic Districts, House Museums, House Museums, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 844

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.

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