Heritage Narratives

April 30, 2024 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 74

Thanks to the intergalactic webernet, we live in a time of narratives. Stories. Mostly these are short form: Reels and memes and Tik Toks and brief videos, but narratives nevertheless. Stories. A good story does not need to be true or follow rules of evidence like court cases or history books, i.e., they don’t have to be real. They are arguably better stories if they aren’t real. Humans are inherently story tellers and probably inherently fabulists. When friends and colleagues express frustration at the preponderance of blatantly untrue narratives, I try to explain that the solution cannot be provided by evidence. You need a narrative. But that does not mean you have to be a fabulist and fabricate.

History is rife with examples of massacres and conquests carried out in the name of unproveable religious or ideological narratives. Sure, those narratives may have been window dressing for underlying economic or political realities, but they worked their fabulism on the participants.

What does that have to do with heritage conservation? Well, in her important new report The Relevancy Guidebook, Bonnie McDonald of Landmarks Illinois talks about preservationists as storytellers. One of factors limiting preservation’s appeal and constituency has been an inherited focus on architecture. This has exacerbated the diversity deficit as I have written about here and here and elsewhere. Preservationists need to focus less on architecture and more on story.

Architecture became a default mechanism for preservation for a number of reasons. First, the earliest preservation laws coincided with the advent of architectural history in the early 20th century. Second, the introduction of historic preservation tax incentives brought in a slew of real estate developers who wanted their preservation as mechanistic as possible. Not the squishy world of stories. Third, we trained a generation of practitioners and bureaucrats on jalousie windows and jerkinhead roofs and like any profession, there is a frisson associated with the forced erudition of a secret language.

Just another duostyle Doric portico in antes

And this is already happening. When I did one of my early National Register nominations in the 1980s of the Kenwood United Church of Christ, I had all of this fascinating information about the important people who attended the church, including the famous poet Edgar Lee Masters. The State Historic Preservation Office made it clear that I could leave that information in, but it would have no bearing on the significance of a Romanesque church of Maryland granite by the city’s first professional architect.

In contrast, when our National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building went to the State Review Board in January, they specifically asked for more pictures with people in them! A formalist focus will appeal to some, but people and their stories appeal to everyone.

That’s my photo – Guilty of formalism!

Narrative is especially important if you are trying to conserve heritages that: 1. Did not or could not express their identity in architecture; 2. Had important historic things happen in everyday buildings without architectural integrity; or 3. Were actively erased by the dominant power structure. In these cases you need to gather the stories first, before you ever go out looking at buildings.

The Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building is a case in point – the only downtown building by a Mexican American architect (Willie Peña). San Antonio’s Mexican-American history is defined more by erasure than preservation, as I illustrated recently.

So many of the histories we are capturing in the 21st century are those of groups who were either erased, like the indigenous and ethnic/racial minorities; or hidden, like the LGBTQ community. In the dozen years I have been working on improving the diversity of the National Register of Historic Places, we have seen significant improvements in how to deal with these properties, and a bevy of historic context statements that have done a lot to uncover, rescue and record these formerly secreted histories. Today the National Register is actively working on updating guidance to capture more stories and to reflect the full spectrum of American history.

But much more needs to be done. One could say that the mainstream historians of the past overlooked these secret histories. “Secret histories” – now there is some branding that could spark the required frisson – the dopamine kick – that “insiders” get when they follow a fabulist narrative. But, like the work the National Register and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and us local preservationists – it would have evidence. Do you think it would work?

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Only downtown landmark by a Mexican-American architect to be demolished

April 19, 2024 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Sustainability, Texas Comments (1) 133

San Antonio, Texas has always been a majority Hispanic city, but for most of that history, Mexican-Americans faced legal and cultural discrimination and exclusion. Now, sadly, the only major downtown building designed by a Mexican-American architect is going to be demolished. The University of Texas at San Antonio recently announced its plans to demolish the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building designed for Hemisfair ’68 by William Peña of Caudill, Rowlett and Scott.

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but as smart people know, that is not enough to save it, despite the enticing prospect of 45% investment tax credits (see my recent blog here). The media speculation for the last decade has been that the site is ideal for a new Spurs stadium (Spurs IV – A New Hope) even though it is smaller than their current stadium site by a lot.

See below – that is the Texas Pavilion/ITC on the left and the current Frost Bank Center on right. Which has more parking???

The Spurs were asked to meet with the City a year ago, which has fed a bevy of speculative articles over the last year (Pro Tip: Read them carefully and see who is quoted.)

ITC in foreground, Spurs II (Alamodome) in background left.

Who was Willie Peña and why is he the only Mexican-American architect who designed a major building in downtown San Antonio?

Born in Laredo, Peña was a student at Texas A & M when World War II broke out. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and lost a leg, earning both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star medal. The French gave him the Croix de Guerre. Finishing his architecture degree in 1948, he became the first employee of the influential Houston architectural firm Caudill, Rowlett and Scott and became a partner the next year. He became a national pioneer in architectural programming, literally writing the book (Problem Seeking – now in its fifth edition) on it.

William Peña, Courtesy CRS Center, Texas A & M University

Many of our downtown landmarks were designed by Anglo architects like Alfred Giles, James Riely Gordon, Atlee Ayres, Ralph Cameron and O’Neil Ford. The Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta designed the Central Library, and the Conservation Society has honored Humberto Saldaña for his downtown restorations, but there are no downtown buildings designed by a Mexican-American architect except the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures.

So why does UTSA want to tear it down? Probably because it is easier for them. As a unit of the State, they don’t even need to ask for a demolition permit. The demolition is currently scheduled for Summer 2025.

They will need to get the demolition money, which could easily approach the $7 million they have deferred in maintenance on the structure. They plan to move some portion of the collections to the Frost Tower and hope to build a new museum behind the Alamo for $100 million.

That means they need to net over $107 million on the sale of the land, which I suppose is doable for a $1.2 billion stadium.

Casa Navarro

Sadly, the city has erased much of the history of its most numerous population. The famed Laredito neighborhood was destroyed in the 1950s and 60s, and only a last-minute effort by the Conservation Society saved Casa Navarro in 1959. It became a National Historic Landmark in 2017, yet even today Hispanic history and design is referenced in less than 4% of National Register of Historic Places listings, even with the recent inclusion of the Texas Pavilion. In 2014, the first Spanish language TV station – Univision – was demolished downtown.

It is time for this erasure of Latino history to end.

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Brackenridge Park

January 18, 2024 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 166

I have been on the Brackenridge Park Stakeholders Advisory Committee for the last half year and was one of the facilitators at the public hearing January 8 which drew some 114 people for two hours of discussing what Guiding Principles should be used for evaluating future projects in Brackenridge Park. We will be having another public meeting January 30 where we will share the revised criteria. There is also an online survey you can fill out before then here.

Urban parks have inherently competing interests within them. They are designed to preserve and promote nature. They are also designed to promote recreation. Those two elements can be at odds. They are home to wildlife, but also part of human life and again, those two uses will be in conflict at times. The Guiding Principles are designed to help negotiate these inherent conflicts. Here is what I said at the meeting, according to the San Antonio Express-News: “When you are dealing with a place where people are doing things, and there’s also nature and wildlife, there will always be conflicts at some point. So, respect for compromise is one of our guiding principles.”

Here is a bird eating a fish in Brackenridge Park recently, so we have those conflicts as well.

Brackenridge Park is kind of unique. The Brackenridge Park Conservancy (founded by the Conservation Society of San Antonio in 2009) did a Cultural Landscape Report for the park a little over a year ago. See, unlike most parks – Central Park in Manhattan, or Jackson Park in Chicago – the park was not undevelopable land that was transformed by a landscape architect into a community amenity. That is how most urban parks are formed.

Central Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted AFTER he visited San Antonio.

Brackenridge Park is actually a natural area near the source of the San Antonio river that was preserved as a park. The largest part of it was donated to the city by George Washington Brackenridge in 1899. He owned it because he owned the first public water system in town, so it is kind of a real estate development story, but it is still unlike most urban parks in that many elements of the landscape are NOT designed.

The 1877 Pump House in Brackenridge Park, built for the first public water system.

Consequently, the Cultural Landscape Report and our Guiding Principles include reference to 12,000 years of human interaction with the park, long before it became part of New Spain. One of the reasons we are in this whole community process was the strong reaction to proposed tree cutting by citizens concerned with both the environment and traditional spiritual practices of indigenous people. I covered the tree issue, and my own participation in traditional cultural practice regarding trees here last year.

View from the river to the golf course. Like many urban park golf courses, it is one of the oldest in the area.

So, unlike most urban parks, there are portions of Brackenridge Park that are arguably “wilderness”. “Wilderness” is where both natural area conservation and historic preservation began 150 years ago.

Here. Well, also Yellowstone. 1872.

Today the wilderness model of natural area conservation is as outdated as the house museum model in historic preservation. Over a decade ago the two started coming together to create a new, more practical and less Puritanical approach to conservation as a whole, as I described here in 2013.

Goats in Brackenridge Park in 2023 to help clear undergrowth. Sheep – designed to eat grass and thus “mow” the lawn areas, were part of the original 19th century design of many large Chicago parks.

Brackenridge Park not only has 12,000 years of human history, but a lot of interesting cultural practices as well, such as Easter weekend, when many many families camp out in the park for three days.

So the whole exercise is setting up principles and criteria to help negotiate between natural, cultural and other environmental wants and needs. As I explained at the opening of the public meeting, these goals will be in conflict and the principles and criteria are a way to balance their competing interests.

Well, that is a lovely waterfall! But unlike some parts of the park, there is nothing natural about it. This is an industrial site – a quarry – that was transformed into a Japanese garden over a century ago. This part of Brackenridge Park was designed, and it was an adaptive re-use of an abandoned industrial quarry. Heck, there are even lime kilns surviving from when the dimension stone gave way to gravel.

The Japanese Tea Garden is one of the highlights of San Antonio I always bring visitors to see. I am a frequent user of the park and my bike rides through it at least once a week offer a variety of natural and cultural highlights. We begin coming up the concrete ditch along Avenue A next to the golf course, which again is not a very natural landscape.

We continue across the Mulberry bridge and past the Witte museum. Last year the egrets had taken over the next section of trees to the level of public health hazard.

We then stop to enjoy the river flowing over the Low Water Crossing, built in 1937 for automobiles to get from one side of the park to the other. Probably not ideal for water quality to have cars splashing through there, and it hasn’t been allowed in some years. We will often see the Zoo mini train in the distance at this point.

We then follow the river south through a portion of the park that is undesigned save for picnic tables and walkways and a road. In addition to dog walkers and picnickers we occasionally see trapeze artists and jugglers in a small meadow as we near Mulberry Avenue again.

We follow the river south of Mulberry along Avenue B between the golf course and the River Road neighborhood until we come to another 1937 crossing, scheduled to be replaced. Here the artificial waterfall attracts migratory waterfowl.

Soon we are back in the neighborhood reveling in the aftermath of the forest bath and commenting on what we may have seen – tents, jugglers, low riders, family picnics, fishers and historic buildings. It is a swirl of competing uses that is richer for its complexities and contradictions. One of the participants in the January 8 public meeting said, we should maintain the “romantic and quirky” character of the park.

Joske pavilion, 1920s.

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Traditional Architecture

December 8, 2023 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 233

I was just up at University of Notre Dame to participate in final reviews for their Historic Preservation Program, which is designed as an advanced degree for architects, thanks to the support of the Duda Center for Preservation, Resilience and Sustainability. My friend Steven Semes crafted the program and was kind enough to have me as an advisor. Notre Dame’s architecture and preservation program celebrate the Classical tradition while most architecture schools eschew it. This is a reverse of the situation a century ago, when most architectural schools only taught the Classical tradition.

I first saw Professor Semes in 2006, debating Paul Byard at a Traditional Building Conference. I even commented on it in a blog at the time and later joined him at a Congress for New Urbanism conference in Madison. I blogged again when his book The Future of the Past came out and he joined us at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago to talk about it. He has brought me up to Notre Dame twice since I moved to San Antonio, and I learn something each time.

The Stoa at the Walsh Family Hall at University of Notre Dame

In my blogs I admired his approach to preservation as a way to understand how we built before. Humanity has forgotten more building techniques than it knows – Roman concrete, Chinese chrome, Mayan limewalks, Persian passive air conditioning, the alternating stones and wood lintels of earthquake-resistant Nepalese houses, etc.

Or the natural thermal qualities of the Shaanxi yaodong!

What really struck me this time was something he said about traditional architecture as a whole – not simply the Greek-Roman-Byzantine Classicism of orders and temples and stoas but also traditional Chinese architecture and traditional Indian architecture and traditional African architecture and traditional Incan architecture. Traditional architecture is not a style but a practice that is handed down over generations. Semes quotes Hannah Arendt about the “loving care” of tradition – the bridge between the past and present.

Semes made the point at some time during our discussion Monday that “traditional building” is actually quite catholic in its easy incorporation of motifs and principles from other traditions. This is why the orders have spread from the Mediterranean to the rest of the world and in the other direction, why Saracenic architecture spread into Europe to help birth the Gothic. “Traditional building” is about building traditions, process, and continuity. Every society has its building traditions, which are in the realm of process and practice, not “Style.”

The students in the program – all degreed architects – are from Kenya, Costa Rica, Syria and Iran. They produce exquisite hand drawings, just like my students did during my 16 years at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Why? Because the gesture of a hand drawing teaches something a click cannot. Just like building a dry stone wall rewires your brain to see dry stone walls in a way you never could before.

Actually dry stone walls are a wonderful example of the diversity of traditional building. I was just reading about the dry stone walls of Japan. I have experienced the dry stone walls of Ireland and the north of England, and I am aware of the tradition in Kentucky. I am sure I have encountered them in South America as well.

Marcahuamachuco, Peru

Another universal is of course the earthen building. We call them adobes here, and Professor Sue Ann Pemberton recently made a presentation about earthen architecture at our own adobe brick Yturri-Edmunds house in San Antonio. The World Heritage site of Bam, Iran is earthen. In fact, the majority of buildings in all of human history are earthen.

One of the most famous landmarks in the world is earthen architecture (with a veneer of stone in some places)

Speaking of veneers – Here in San Antonio we have caliche block – the South Texas version of laterite, which is what is beneath the stone veneers of Angkor. A muddy clay with enough calcium carbonate that it hardens into an artificial limestone when you dry it in the sun.

South Texas caliche – losing its protective plaster layer

Southeast Asian laterite losing its Angkorian stone veneer.

On the way back from Notre Dame, I read one of those marvelously complex articles in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, all about a Stoa (hey – I was in one in Notre Dame! See photo above) from Samothrace that had evidence of the use of a flat arch in the metope/triglyph section of the Doric entablature a century or two before it appeared in Rome. Now this is the third century BCE and the triglyphs themselves are already skeuomorphs of wooden antecedents, carved from the same stone as the metope and then cut at an angle to create the flat arch.

Non nova sed nove

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

October 31, 2023 Blog, Economics, History, Texas Comments (1) 187

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOVEMBER 5 UPDATE, OR

DO YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT NOTHINGBURGER?

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

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Techno Trivia and the backward lens 2

September 1, 2023 Blog, History, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 232

In the last installment of Time Tells we learned about how elevators are older than bicycles and we restrained ourselves from commenting on fixies (unlike this time).

What other strange bits of technology trivia can we find in the backward lens? There are always reversed technologies, like the “introduction” of concrete in the late 19th century only to learn 120 years later that the Romans actually did it better 2000 years earlier. Or the case of Qinshihuangdi’s chromed blades predating the 1930s discovery of the chrome process, again by 2000 years. But I am looking for either things that seem old but aren’t – like the bicycle – or things that seem new but aren’t – like hydraulics.

Acequia flowing right now in an aqueduct above a stream – since 1745.

The reason this is interesting is because we tend to organize things in a progressive manner – x begets y begets z – so when we find things that happen in a transgressive manner – z happened before x or y happened and then everyone forgot about it – it is interesting to us. Because it is differently patterned. Like the fact that the first bread toaster predates sliced bread by 35 years. Yes, there was a toaster patented in 1893, the same year we got the zipper, the dishwasher, the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Pabst Blue Ribbon, spray paint and diet soda. And to think that Coca-Cola was only 7 years old at the time.

Then there are the things that go away and come back – like the electric car, which was all the rage up to about 1910, but then got squeezed out until the 21st century where it is hitting back with a vengeance. I guess the oil companies were pissed off about losing the battle for indoor lighting to the electric folks, also around 1910. We often forget that John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil made their money off indoor lighting. Cars had nothing to do with it up to the point where his trust got busted in 1911 (which made Rockefeller even richer, because capitalism).

Oooh look at that truck – it just caused zoning!

Fun Fact; Rockefeller’s Standard Oil made its money off of kerosene, which is what everyone was making out of petroleum. Standard Oil was the first oil company to NOT throw the gasoline (an unwanted byproduct) into the river.

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Techno trivia the backward lens

August 21, 2023 Blog, History, Technology Comments (0) 249

You have probably seen those lists where things that seem to be separated by great chasms of history are actually closer in time to each other than you think. Or farther, like the fun fact that Cleopatra (VII) lived closer to the invention of Snapchat than the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. My favorite is the 66 years between the first powered flight and landing on the moon.

But what really amazes me are the things that seem to be backwards in our lens. Take these two human inventions. On the one hand we have the bicycle, a ubiquitous form of transportation and amusement that is deceptively simple but also strikingly modern. Our contemporary bicycles with chains and gears and rubber tires are basically the same age as the first automobiles, starting in the 1880s. There were velocipedes in the early 19th century, and some form of pedal locomotion emerging in the mid-1800s, but even the term bicycle dates to at best 1860, and the modern “safety” bicycle that begat beer guts in lycra is pretty much contemporary with the first automobile around 1885-86.

Now contrast that with an invention that is a good two generations older – the elevator. The first counter-weighted elevators emerged in the 18th century and were steam-powered by the early 19th century. Elishu Otis patented his “safety” elevator in 1853 over thirty years before the “safety” bicycle.

So, when you get off your bicycle and get into an elevator, do you feel like you are going back in time? Because you are.

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San Antonio Update June 2023

June 15, 2023 Blog, Historic Districts, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 255

I would always tell my students that you don’t save buildings once. You have to do it again and again. Back in the 1980s and 90s when I worked for Landmarks Illinois (it had a longer name then) we helped save the Hotel St. Benedict Flats (James Egan, 1882) four times in six years – with a National Register nomination, appeals to zoning changes, and finally a landmark designation followed by a phone call from a developer who ended up buying and restoring it using the historic tax credits and an easement donation.

Last year here at the Conservation Society of San Antonio, we lobbied San Antonio College and the Archdiocese – then the owner – to offer the building for sale. We collaborated with the Tobin Hill neighborhood group and even with this blog, which led to two persons purchasing the building for rehabilitation as a wine bar. You can see my blogs on it here and here. Now, a year later, it needs to be saved again as the owners have put it up for sale following a little rehab and some damage from intruders.

I actually discovered that people had broken in back in February when I was taking Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Chair Sarah Bronin on whirlwind tour of San Antonio preservation. I immediately alerted one of the owners, but some damage had been done and now there is a protective fence and several boarded up windows.

Damage does not always mean the end of an historic landmark, and at least the Hughes House was officially landmarked by the City Council in the interim. It also got a zoning change for the wine bar, no mean feat given its location near schools and houses of worship. Still, the process starts again, the building is a bit banged up and the future is uncertain….

In other news, a landmark I drive past every day had a fire recently, again courtesy of the obdachlos, who also tried to block firefighters from responding. Fortunately the firefighters succeeded and only a portion of the rear of the house was damaged. We were interviewed by a tv station about the house, since it is a Texas Historical Landmark and associated with Venustiano Carranza, one of the big four of the Mexican Revolution along with Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Carranza was President for most of 1915-20 (and actually got rid of Zapata). The house was built by his niece 1913-14. Both Madero and Carranza spent significant time in San Antonio early in the decade, although the houses they visited before 1913 are all demolished now. There is a statue of Madero on the River Walk near King William. So the Carranza house is our only physical connection to this history.

Fortunately the house has been secured, but thanks to the KSAT reporters, we learned that there is another building associated with this important chapter in San Antonio history, and it is right across the street. And it is being rehabbed. Now we have two buildings, whose history is intertwined!

Turns out this simple industrial structure was the publication site of La Prensa, an important Spanish language newspaper in San Antonio for a century. La Prensa was front and center during the Mexican Revolution, and having it right across the street doubles down on the value of this landmark. Here are two buildings that hosted important visitors central to a defining moment in Mexican history. They had discussions and strategized here, and the press put their words into action.

If these walls could talk……. The good news is the building is secured, so perhaps it will not suffer the fate of so many others – perhaps a dozen a year – lost to demolition by neglect.

The issue raises the larger question of why the city can’t do more to prevent the loss of vacant buildings, especially since San Antonio passed a Vacant Building Ordinance nearly a decade ago. According to KSAT News, over 250 vacant historic buildings exist in the city, and we have certainly seen many of them succumb to fire after squatters take up residence. We had the sad story of 503 Urban Loop last year, the Lone Star Brewery before that. Heck, 800 W. Russell in my neighborhood (pictured above) burned twice. Like many of the others, the owners were neither local nor attentive.

Above: Site of 212 W. Dewey owned by an Austin developer who bought like 8 houses in the Tobin Hill area which are all subject to demolition by neglect. This neglect is not a lack of capital or supply chains or anything – it is a business model, one that harms neighborhoods.

So why doesn’t the Vacant Building ordinance solve the problem? Representatives of historic neighborhoods have been asking the city that very question in recent days. If neighborhoods alert the Office of Historic Preservation about a vacant building and get it on the Vacant Building list, shouldn’t Development Services be enforcing code violations? Or, is it because it is on the list that everyone thinks someone else is taking care of it? Stay tuned!

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San Antonio Update May 2023

May 26, 2023 Blog, Chicago Buildings, History, Interpretation, Technology, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 282

Fiesta is over, the IPW international travel network just completed a lovely visit to the Alamo City, and the State Legislature has almost completed its biennial shenanigans, one bit of which just hit the press and could have a negative impact on one of our treasured landmarks, the Institute of Texan Cultures, built in 1968 and a unique celebration of Texan diversity in a unique Brutalist building.

I wrote about this not long ago – the Conservation Society has been working to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, its owner, University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) completed a series of working groups looking at the future of the institute and insists it is looking at three possible options – keeping it where it is, keeping it in the Hemisfair area, and moving it elsewhere. The building – the focus of the Conservation Society – has long been rumored to be a potential site for a new highrise (as illustrated in an issue of Urban Land a few years back) or sports stadium.

Two things happened this week that bode ill for the building. First, the popular Asian Festival was moved from the site to the main downtown UTSA campus. This is a classic predemolition move akin to dozens I have witnessed since the 80s. Remove a beloved event/store/use from a building. Ideally replace it with something crappy that people want to get rid of, and then …poof – no one objects to demolition!

This was the classic example from 40 years ago. A beloved downtown grocery in Chicago where you could get apple-sized strawberries (this was before those became normal – GO GMO!) dipped in chocolate was closed first. Then the retail space became a shop selling two pairs of vinyl men’s pants for $9.99. Within a year or two everyone forgot about Stop N Shop and the exquisite 1930 Hillman’s building was demolished.

Eventually they did building something there. It was only vacant like this for 19 years. See my 2012 post here.

The second thing that happened is that the State Legislature passed a bill that basically gives a couple hundred million in tax revenues to the convention center and downtown sports stadiums. Given that the site of the Institute of Texan Cultures has long been rumored for a baseball (or basketball?) stadium, having a handy government funding source sure could help if it comes to undoing a big Brutalist landmark.

I understand the populist dislike for Brutalism, and even more I understand the Mischief of Modernism that made these amazing buildings in 1968, a Hubris of Scale that engenders an equally skewed approach to redevelopment in our own time.

Meanwhile, at the Alamo temporary constructions are EVERYWHERE. This is the South Gate, which is not a reconstruction but a modern interpretation of a feature that existed from the Mission era (1724) all the way until 1871. It is built atop the actual archaeological remains of the south gate, no easy feat. Just beyond it is the temporary Lunette, a palisaded fortification that exists for maybe 18 months in 1835-36, but since that includes the famous battle of the Alamo, there it is.

And cannon. The Alamo has gained an average of one cannon per year over the last seven years. You have been warned.

These are in addition to the also “temporary” Southwest rampart, with its massive 18-pounder cannon which went in a year ago. Oh, and they just got permission to build a “shade structure” just south of the Lunette in Plaza de Valero. The Conservation Society objected that this will obscure views of the Alamo.

I have a natural concern about “temporary” structures, with specific examples from the last 40 years. Sticking with Chicago, back in 1977 they wanted to build a bandshell in Grant Park, but thanks to a 1912 ruling, no buildings can be added to Grant Park (except the ones already there) which is why the Museum Campus is just south of the park. Now, if this had been the 21st century, they would have done what they did with Millennium Park – just build the buildings and then put the park on top of them! Problem solved!

What schmatta?

Alas, this was the 1970s when people were wearing vinyl pants so they decided to build a “demountable structure” for the new bandshell. It was basically a fold-up tent they could erect and disassemble each year, thus not “building” in Grant Park. I remember seeing it the first year it went up. I have seen it since, because it has been demounted exactly 0 times in my lifetime. So, I tend to be suspicious.

More staying power than a traditional mortgage.

The shrine of Texas liberty. Never mind the bollards.

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Coffee and beer and technology

May 5, 2023 Blog, History, Technology Comments (0) 381

I would like to correct my perspective. In the 17 plus years of this blog I have occasionally gone a little Luddite with some anti-technology rants, like this one back in 2007 or this one a few months ago. When you can remember rotary phones, priming carburetors and rolling your own slide film, you will occasionally become an old grouch. On the flip side, I get massively impatient at slow internet and the horrible jumping up and down on websites caused, I assume, by the damn cookies or whatever. I will join your revolution if I must, but please don’t have it at 17 miles an hour. – even I am not that slow.

Most pickup trucks are not to my taste but I found this one palette able.

I grumble about how external hard drives have special connectors designed to slip out of place if there is any percussive motion within three feet, such as typing on a keyboard; or how those same drives always have to be Force Ejected; or how Google needs me to login six times a day. I whine about how “Check Engine” lights are always on no matter what; and how whatever app you are in you will be forced to sign into another app in order to complete your business. But I admit readily that mostly it is progress, even if I have to call my daughter in to talk to the refrigerator. I don’t want to be the stereotypical grouch, especially as a student of history. We’ve been down this road before.

he stereotype of the old person grumbling about how things were better in their day is at least as old as recorded history. One of the things I could grumble about today is how the craft beer revolution that I was part of 30 years ago is now succumbing to hard seltzers and mango white claws – the offspring of Zima and grandchildren of wine coolers and “alcopops”. They have taken over 2-4 more coolers in the grocery store, squeezing out my beloved IPAs in favor of this flavored nonsense.

There is a Sumerian tablet from 2600 BC where the author – in perfect cuneiform – complains about how the coffee today (2600 BC) is watered down and everyone adds cream and spices (mango? chelada?) and it is no longer “like coffee” was back in my day. Harumph. The same tropes of the generationally challenged can be found in most all surviving literature – Greek comedies two thousand years younger than our grumpy old coffee man have identical characters, and Shakespeare in particular can be set in any time period and place without loss of authentically Harumphian stereotypes. Your generation is not special. All the other ones said the same thing. That’s how history works.

Fashion forward. Imagine what the Gibson girl connoted in 1910.

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