A week ago the Texas Historical Commission voted unanimously to designate the Woolworth Building in San Antonio as a State Antiquities Landmark. While no landmark designation can absolutely prevent demolition, this status is significant. More importantly, unlike the earlier designations (National Register and City) this nomination included a detailed discussion of the civil rights history of the site.
The big week began on Tuesday, when the San Antonio Conservation Society, joined by the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, released a compromise plan that would wall off Alamo Plaza and expose the location of the mission’s west wall – while preserving the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings. The event got good coverage in print and television and even radio!
One of the ironies of the decades-old attempt to reveal the site of the western wall is that the northern wall – beneath the Post Office and Gibbs Building – was more significant in the 1836 battle. This is where Santa Anna broke through and this is where commanding officer Lt. Travis fell.
No remains of the western wall survive – not only were the walls destroyed after the 1836 battle, but the Crockett Block buildings have full basements, which eliminates any remnant of 17th century foundations (unless the Franciscans were sinking 14-foot deep footings).
Our plan preserves the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings while adding a large 4-story addition to the rear to achieve the stated goal of a 130,000 square foot museum. We also carve an arcade through the buildings to reveal where the wall was. This provides a “teaser” for the exhibits inside, which can include in the Woolworth site both the Castañeda and Treviño houses along the wall, as well as the Woolworth lunch counter site.
Unlike the Conservation Society’s earlier position, the fences and walls enclosing the plaza are illustrated in this plan. Moreover, the Palace theater facade is removed to allow for a grand entrance to the new museum. This displeases some preservationists.
The Alamo management (the buildings have been owned by the Texas General Land Office since 2015) dismissed our effort to share a vision that includes BOTH a new museum and enclosed plaza AND preserved landmarks. As I said to a reporter following the press conference – you can walk along the line of the wall and when you reach the Woolworth interior, you can turn right and learn about the battle, then turn left and learn about the lunch counter integration.
We have been advocating for the Woolworth Building since 2015 and it was a rewarding week thanks to the efforts of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, who participated in both the press conference and the trip to Austin for State Antiquities Landmark designation!
New Orleans has Mardi Gras, Rio has Carneval, Ahmedabad has Utturayan and San Antonio has Fiesta. It is part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage, a parade that culminated in a “Battle of Flowers,” a European pageant suggested by a Chicago Presbyterian minister back in 1891.
The parade soon became an elaborate and fantastical depiction of social rank with an elaborate collection of self-styled royal courts where the high and mighty families dressed up in themed fantasies and young women debuted in five-figure gowns as the “Duchess of Harmonious Elegance” or “Princess of Perceived Coordination” or whatever and now this tradition has been going on for over 120 years. Heck, “Cornyation,” which makes fun of this, is itself at least 60 years old and has a book about it.
Then there are the medals. Everyone has a medal for sale, even McDonald’s. You sell them, trade them, give them out and compete with other medals. They represent causes and organizations and businesses and politicians and individuals. Even if you don’t try, you will still end up with three dozen of them and you need a sash to carry them all. We all end of looking like South American generals by late April.
We have Kings. The Texas Cavaliers crowned the first King Antonio in 1927, and this group of business leaders found competition 21 years later when the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce crowned the Ugly King – Rey Feo. Now the two Kings get along fine and compete simply to raise money for children’s causes and scholarships respectively.
There are over 100 official Fiesta events, It’s a “party with a purpose” and its signature event is A Night In Old San Antonio®, now in its 71st year. This is our event, which began about 1936 as a Fall Harvest Festival down by Mission San Jose. By the early 1940s it became a downtown Riverwalk event and at the City’s insistence, we moved it up into La Villita in 1948.
It now runs four nights – a total of 20 hours. It utilizes the talents of over 10,000 volunteers to provide food, drink, music, crafts and fun to over 80,000 guests. It raises money for conservation in La Villita and throughout San Antonio. We have 5 year-round full-time staff, two downtown buildings including a commercial kitchen and 18,000 square feet of warehouse just for this four-day event.
Oh yes, and we have volunteers who meet every Thursday morning year-round to make paper flowers and cascarones for the event,
Cascarones? Those are confetti-stuffed eggshells that you crack over your friends’ heads during FIESTA. You can buy them at the local grocery store, just like the medals. For NIOSA® we make our own – about 50,000 each year.
Fiesta as a whole features several major parades, several multi-day fundraisers with food and drink and music, and a huge collection of official receptions, dinners and ceremonies. 100 events. Everyone decorates their house with flower wreaths, papel picado banners, and all manner of colorful acoutrements.
There is nothing like this in any other city that I know of.
It may not have the fame or cachet of Carnival or Mardi Gras, but I love its intricacies, particulars, flights of fancy and aged authenticities. Fiesta is San Antonio’s cultural heritage.
Y’all come visit NIOSA® this week, ya hear?
San Antonio has a unique history in the Civil Rights movement, but it is not known because it is characterized not by conflict, but by its absence. The tradition continues to this day with the nation’s largest Martin Luther King Day March. Approximately 300,000 participants annually.
This year, a new Coalition for the Woolworth Building participated in the march and had an information booth in the park afterwards. The Conservation Society is a member along with the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, among others.
As the banner notes, what happened in San Antonio in 1960 was different.
- February 1, 1960 – four students stage a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Protests and violent reactions pepper the nation in the following weeks.
- March, 1960 – OLLU student and NAACP member Mary Andrews sends letters to downtown lunch counters requesting equal service. NAACP holds rally Sunday March 13 and asks for desegregation by Thursday March 17.
- On Tuesday, March 15 civic, religious and business leaders meet and agree to desegregate Woolworth’s and six other lunch counters.
- Wednesday, March 16, 1960. Photographers descend on Woolworth’s in San Antonio as blacks and whites are served equally at the basement cafeteria and lunch counter
- March 19, 1960. Jackie Robinson calls the voluntary integration “a story that should be told around the world” and compares it to his integration of Major League baseball in a Page 1 New York Times story
There were places – Corpus Christi, Oklahoma City, that integrated their ,lunch counters earlier, but only following protests and confict. San Antonio proceeded differently.
Woolworth’s location gave it special significance. Nettie Hinton recalls buying the “big donuts” at Woolworth’s prior to catching the bus to the African-American East Side. Indeed, the corner of Alamo and Houston was where the cultures of San Antonio met and separated – Hispanics to the west, African Americans to the east, and Anglos to the north.
The story is not well known, despite Jackie Robinson and the front page of the New York Times because there was no violence. The old news media saying “If it bleeds, it leads” could find no purchase in the soil of San Antonio, so the story was not “told around the world” as Robinson pleaded.
Although it could be still! In fact, Civil Rights sites are one of the few growth areas in tourism, as reported recently. This Civil Rights site is an opportunity for San Antonio.
What’s Not There
Now, the threat to the Woolworth’s Building since 2015 has been that it sits atop the site of the west wall of the Alamo compound, potentially the site of Travis’ quarters during the epochal 1836 battle.
Yesterday someone said to me: “But the lunch counter is gone – there is no remnant of it.”
The same is true of the western wall and Travis’ quarters. Nothing left of them. The buildings there have basements, so it’s all gone. No remnant.
So which do you interpret?
Both, obviously. And you have tons of room inside the Woolworth Building to do that.
See my 2018 blog on the Woolworth Building here.
The Woolworth Building has been nominated as a State Antiquities Landmark, to be heard by the Texas Historical Commission on April 16. You can voice your support by contacting Mark Wolfe, Executive Director, Texas Historical Commission, P.O. Box 12276, Austin, TX 78711, Mark.Wolfe@thc.texas.gov
Also, check the Conservation Society website for updates!
If you want to see what the Alamo Plaza plan was like exactly four months ago prior to a series of public meetings, check out my blog from June 20 here. If you want to see what the City Council approved last week, check out my blog from June 20 here. Not much changed, although a booklet called Alamo Plan August 2018 did address a series of the questions that came up during the public meetings and explained why things pretty much had to stay the way they were. Like the website, the book starts on the negative, decrying all of the icky things that happen in front of the Alamo.
Always best to start with the negative..
We don’t get the POSITIVE vision for the site until after the City hands over control. It is curious that we only are presented what Alamo Plaza shouldn’t be – the few images in the booklet are generic and uninspiring.
The Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings that we have been advocating for for the last three years. These face the Alamo chapel. In the August 2018 book they announce they will “assess the significance and integrity according to national standards” and “assess opportunities for reuse, including how to connect multiple floor plates”. This is the equivalent of Henry II’s plaintive wail “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
The City Council voted to lease the plaza and streets to the State of Texas for 50 years (with two 25-year extensions). The main changes over the four months were not changes to the plan as much as changes to those opposed to the plan. The two main parades (Battle of Flowers and Fiesta Flambeau) agreed to the new parade routes, the Citizens Advisory Committee publically approved the plan, and the Historic and Design Review Committee approved the moving of the Cenotaph, which raised the most controversy over the summer.
The new location of the Cenotaph within the plaza area was arguably the only change made to the plan itself. They did add some new drawings commemorating the Payaya Indians who first inhabited the 1718 mission to the final presentation and book. These added illustrations received significant commendation from the Council members for interpreting more than just the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. So… they included the 18th century, but what about the 20th???
The Phil Collins-sponsored metal model plaques that were installed this year start with 1744, and then march to 1785, 1793, 1836, 1846, 1861 and … then stop marching at 1900. This is the problem: They claim to interpret 300 years of history but actually stop halfway, prior to the 20th century. Which is when Adina de Zavala and Claire Driscoll actually saved the Alamo. And a city happened.
Despite the casting of this summer’s plan as an “interpretive plan,” the only hints at interpretation were images of costumed interpreters and the recent hiring of a living history director. Although they have assured me there will be 21st century museum staples like augmented reality, there is a curious fondness for the unpopular and unprofitable world of 20th century living history, which I surveyed in another recent blog.
In fairness to our city leaders, we raised a big stink about the importance of the Woolworth’s Building in Civil Rights history (see my blog here) and this was referenced in the City’s lease agreement, if not into the Alamo Plan publication. But it can still be demolished.
That would be a missed opportunity to make money.
A recent study shows that Civil Rights tourism is one of the few categories of tourism that is growing – a new Green Book movie is coming out and the National Museum of African-American History with 2.4 million tourists has kicked off a boom in the sector.
Fine looking building – would be worth saving for architecture. But the Civil Rights history is even more epic.
The other big issue this summer was access, a subject of our petition. The new museum which will occupy the space (and hopefully the facades) of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings will be open 9-5 and during that time only one access point to the plaza – next to the museum – will be open to the public.
No sneaking in!!!!!
Up to six gates in the new fences surrounding the plaza will be open at other times, so that vital midnight selfie in front of the Alamo will be only a bit less convenient than today. This element of the plan upset most of the architects and planners in town, and again, there was minimal change – more off-hours access points were added, but daytime stayed at one.
My normal time is 7 AM, although I will probably have to leave my bike outside.
So, now all the decisions will be taken by the state. The Citizens Advisory Committee and the Historic and Design Review Commission will comment on the results of the architectural assessments, but the power lies with the General Land Office of the State of Texas.
We can hope. Our focus at San Antonio Conservation Society remains on the buildings. Roads can be closed and opened. Gates can be added and subtracted, Fences can be erected and deconstructed. But once you tear down these historic buildings, they are gone forever.
This year I published a chapter called “Addressing the Diversity Deficit: Reform the National Register of Historic Places” in a book called Creating Historic Preservation in the 21st Century. This is a topic I have been working on for many years. You can see some of my writing on it here and here.
The National Register and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment are not culturally neutral tools. For historical and pragmatic reasons, they privilege architecture and white male history. Worse, those cultures oppressed in the past are forced to relive that oppression when told that their historic sites lack “integrity.”
Where “Invisible Man” was written in the 1940s, Manhattan.
Those who were second-class citizens had to make do with second-class facilities and now second-class landmarks. Second-class status is perpetuated when we make minority landmarks live up to rules designed by and for the dominating culture.
Woolworth’s, designed by Adams and Adams in 1921.
The relevance of this struck me in regard to the State of Texas plan to demolish the Woolworth’s Building on Alamo Plaza, which emerged three months ago (see my blog about it here.)
This was a major building by a national chain at the major intersection of Alamo and Houston Streets. The interior is heavily altered, but the exterior looks much as it did when built in 1921. It is on the National Register and a local landmark. But wait. There’s more.
The San Antonio Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counter on March 16, 1960, peacefully and without demonstration. This was a first for the South. The Greensboro, N.C. sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter had been only six weeks earlier. It was a first for Woolworth’s, a national chain that was still being picketed nationwide and would not officially adopt an integrated lunch counter policy for months.
A few days later Jackie Robinson, in San Antonio, compared the event to his entry into Major League Baseball and said “It is a story that should be told around the world,” according to the New York Times.
Five other stores also integrated peacefully on that day, and none wanted to be called out. The San Antonio Express and News reported:
“Speculation was that the flat refusal by the group to name the stores may stem from recent reports that some of the larger chain stores have ordered their managers not to integrate.
Also, a spokesman from one store said earlier that most of the businesses are for integration, but none of them want to be named as the first to make the move.”
Kress, one of the other stores.
Photos of the Woolworth’s store ran in the San Antonio News that day, and Kress was mentioned in the Light. While some of the other stores’ locations survive, thanks to Greensboro, Woolworth’s remains forever front-and-center in civil rights history.
SO – what happens now? Three months after they released their initial plan to demolish the Woolworth’s building, the Alamo is now hiring an architect to evaluate the buildings based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and their significance at the national state and local levels.
If you have experience with minority culture sites, you can see where this is going.
They have already released an illustration showing how the three building’s interior floors don’t line up. That will be Reason 1, although it will be wrong, because in this particular case you could gut the interiors so they do line up – just like Joske’s did – and still have the exterior where the young African-American boy peering into the store was photographed on March 16, 1960.
Joske’s, November 2014.
And you can still interpret the long-lost mission wall and buildings inside – in the shade.
Reason 2 will be that the building does not have sufficient integrity on the interior. This conclusion would require ignoring both the minority cultural context and current directives on evaluating interior integrity. Recognizing its deficiencies in addressing cultural and historical sites, in December 2016 the National Park Service issued new guidance that encourages conserving “a space’s historic associations even though its component features and materials may be themselves so highly deteriorated that their integrity is irretrievably lost.”
Woolworth’s storefront on Houston Street – the markings on the ground show where mission buildings were. Also where Travis lived during the siege. Probably his slave Joe as well.
Reason 3 will be this: If you demolish Woolworth’s you will still have other sites that witnessed peaceful integration in March, 1960. That is true, and incredibly insulting.
It says your history can make do with fewer landmarks. It says because you have Neisner’s, Kress’ and Green’s then you don’t need the only one people have heard of.
Erasing an authentic place for a reconstruction?
Whose history would be erased for whose?
Photo: UTSA Special Collections Courtesy San Antonio Express News
On March 22, 2018 the San Antonio Conservation Society turned 94! That’s right, we have been around a quarter century longer than the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Rena Maverick Green and Emily Edwards founded the group with 11 other women in 1924. They supposedly notched their first “save” that year, a tree along the river the city planned to remove. Within a decade they had purchased and saved much of Mission San Jose, especially the Granary.
Hard to believe, but the Missions were in bad shape 94 years ago – the tower here at San Jose would collapse in 1928 and was only restored thanks to the intervention of the San Antonio Conservation Society. The upper third of the Mission San Jose Granary was bought and paid for by the Society in 1930, thank you very much.
We originally formed to save not just architectural treasures like the Missions but also areas of natural beauty and most importantly customs – what we now call intangible heritage. That is one of the things I love about working here – we knew what 21st century heritage conservation was like way back in the early 20th century. We revived Los Pastores and our amazing Night In Old San Antonio ® event is now in its 70th year. It is a cultural performance and homage. Also a fundraiser. Biggest in the United States. By miles and miles.
It is the Missions that really course through the history of the San Antonio Conservation Society. That was the first place that the women of the Society went out on a limb, buying land, securing craftspersons, and actually owning and restoring historic buildings.
And then giving them away. By 1941, the Society had not only restored much of Mission San Jose, it had secured National Historic Landmark status (a 5-year old program at the time) and coordinated the efforts of the State, County, City and Catholic Archdiocese to create a state park encompassing the San Antonio Missions. All before Pearl Harbor.
Mission San Juan Capistrano.
By 1978 through delicate lobbying from the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago (coincidentally the birthplace of the “smoke-filled room”), they made the Missions a National Park, maneuvering the deal past the opposition of President Carter. Money. Smarts. Savvy.
At Mission San Francisco de Espada.
When I visited San Antonio in 2010, I made a point of seeing all of the Missions, even the Espada Aqueduct that the San Antonio Conservation Society bought in the 1950s to insure its preservation.
I blogged about the Missions during my 2010 visit (SEE BLOG HERE).
See, the amazing thing about the Missions is not their architecture – although much of that is quite excellent. Nor is it simply the fact that these were the first European structures built here. It is the fact that the entire landscape of an encounter – between the Spanish and the Native Americans – is not simply legible in the landscape: It is alive.
Matachines at Mission Concepcion, 2017.
I blogged again 5 years later when the San Antonio Conservation Society, together with city and county partners, achieved something amazing in only 9 years: Inscription as a World Heritage Site (SEE BLOG HERE). For the same reason. Here was a place that contained history not only in buildings, and waterways, but in people and traditions. Customs.
10th and 11th generation Canary Islanders at San Fernando Cathedral two weeks ago.
It is fun to look at my old blogs – when I had literally no idea I would be working here – and see how much respect and admiration I had for the Society, one of the oldest in the nation. When I applied for the job in early 2016, I was equally impressed by how the Society kept with the times, embracing modern landmarks less than 50 years old…
To be fair, it will turn 50 in two weeks…(Confluence Theater/U.S. Pavilion HemisFair ’68 – now Wood Courthouse)
And sites that represent the diversity of the American experience, a diversity that the historic preservation movement overlooked in its early days.
1921 Woolworth Building on Alamo Plaza, site of first successful (and peaceful) integration of a lunch counter in the South in February, 1960.
I suppose being founded in 1924 gave the San Antonio Conservation Society a certain modernity. This was a time of a booming, building downtown, and indeed the first effort was to save the Market House from street widening, which failed.
Widening of Commerce Street in 1913 – the Alamo National Bank Building of 1902 (center) was moved back 16 feet rather than shave off its facade like the others. Then three stories were added.
If you are in downtown San Antonio, the odds are a building the Conservation Society bought and saved is within a block of wherever you are standing. Here are a few from our 94 years, none of which we still own…..
Ursuline College/Southwest School of Art
Rand Building – the tech center of downtown SA
O Henry House
Casa Navarro, home of Jose Antonio Navarro, only Tejano signer of both Texas Declaration of Independence and Texas Constitution. We ran it for 15 years before turning it over to the state.
Emily Morgan Hotel. A block from the Alamo.
Maverick Building. Also a block from the Alamo.
Reuter Building. Half a block from the Alamo.
Staacke and Stevens Buildings
We aren’t the oldest preservation organization in the country – heck, we aren’t even the first one in San Antonio, where efforts to save the Alamo began back in 1883. But we are 94. And going strong!
This year at PastForward, the National Preservation Conference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation focused on People Saving Places. “People” is operative, because for many – notably wonky architectural historians like myself – it had often been about buildings. Even for those in the planning profession, it had been a technical question rather than a human one. That is wrong.
Over the dozen years of this blog I have sprinkled in historical facts about how old certain ideas and institutions are. This is because these things are so fundamental to our way of seeing and interacting with the world that we assume them to be eternal, not a few decades or a couple centuries old.