It was a cold night, dipping below freezing, and the morning saw another fire at the landmark site 503 Urban Loop, which had suffered a small one in December attributed to repeated infiltrations by homeless. This time it looks like a total loss, just two weeks after the owners asked the Conservation Society, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the Westside Preservation Alliance for another delay of our Request for Review of Significance to landmark the site. We submitted the request last August.
An important visual link to important history has been destroyed. This history includes the only reminder of the city’s Red Light District as it was built originally in 1883 as a brothel by Aurelia Dashiell and hosted Fanny Porter and the Wild Bunch of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the turn of the last century. It also had a much longer history as an orphanage and day dare center for the bustling Mexican-American Laredito district for over a century. Bishop John Shaw purchased and rehabbed the building in 1913 and the next year the Carmelite Sisters opened a day care and orphanage to serve refugees from the Mexican Revolution.
The new orphanage and day care center brought Reverend Mother Mary Teresa to San Antonio and Mother Mary Felicitas took charge. The noted midwife Ramona Ramos ran the nearby Casa de Maternidad and was likely involved. Most importantly, the building was one of the ONLY sites associated with the Laredito community that survived. The other is Casa Navarro, which the Conservation Society saved in 1959.
The erasure of Laredito is nearly complete now, thanks to this fire. It is always fire, and it is always gut-wrenching to lose these visceral, haptic connections to our shared history. I remember walking the dog in Humboldt Park Chicago in 1992 and seeing that the stunning Humboldt Park Stables had burned in what turned out to be an arson fire.
I remember 2006, when three Louis Sullivan buildings were lost to fire during the 150th anniversary of his birth, two by careless rehab contractors.
What makes this conflagration at 503 Urban Loop in San Antonio so disturbing is that it removes an important connection to a community that has seen far more than its share of erasure – deliberate and otherwise – for more than half a century.
Since late last year I have been Co-Chair of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice Working Group, one of four groups comprising the Preservation Priorities Task Force, a joint effort between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Preservation Partners Network. For most of my years (2006-2015) as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I was Vice Chair of the Diversity Committee and Diversity Task Force. This is an issue that is of profound importance to heritage conservation, especially in the United States.
Diversity is the need to represent the full heritage of a place for the full complement of its communities. Inclusion is the necessity of insuring that every member of every community has a hand in the decision-making of what gets saved, why it gets saved, and how it gets saved. Racial justice is the need to address an imbalance that the historic preservation field helped foster, beginning in the 19th century and continuing into recent memory.
It made matters worse that we focused historic preservation on architectural history, which was the white-manniest of professions until a week or two ago. Moreover, many of the early preservation organizations in the 1920s, including my own, engaged in cultural heritage preservation of minority cultures without any input or involvement from those cultures. Commemoration of the Other simply reinforced power and hegemony.
In June, James Madison’s Montpelier took it a step further and voted to share power with the descendants of those 3,000 American men, women and children who were enslaved at the sixth president’s sprawling home and plantation. You can read about it here. This is ultimately what it is about. When Juneteenth came to Texas 156 years ago, it was followed quickly by sharecropping, poll taxes, and a penal system designed to return recently emancipated slaves into a state of servitude. It is a testament to human resilience that so many rose above despite a multivalent and violent system designed to prevent them from doing so.
What Montpelier did is key, because the only way to achieve Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice is to hand power over. This is hard for any institution, any movement, any society. It is like the challenge I wrote about ten years ago as two of my preservation organizations struggled to figure out how to incorporate the next generation. The answer is simple. You hand them the steering wheel and get out of the way.
It has been very rewarding to make some progress in this arena in San Antonio, especially our recent success in saving the 1921 Woolworth Building on Alamo Plaza. It was listed on the World Monument Watch List 2020 in part due to the “underrepresented narrative” of Civil Rights history. That publicity resulted in our finding out that famed sculptor Richard Hunt ate at the Woolworth lunch counter that day.
Our Coalition for the Woolworth Building has been the subject of several presentations and an upcoming article and this fall the Conservation Society will be honored for its “important contributions to to civil rights history in the City of San Antonio” by the San Antonio Branch NAACP. Here is a recent National Trust blogspot on the Coalition.
It took centuries for us to get to this place, and the need for reckoning, for Truth and Reconciliation, is still apparent. Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert recently made an eloquent and personal plea to look to San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza as a place to begin that process in the U.S.
There is a long way to go for both society and the heritage conservation field, but at least we are facing in the appropriate direction.
Last week was quite busy with saving the Whitt Building, as recounted here. This week the focus was another near Westside building known for both sinners and saints. Everyone thought it was landmarked, but then no one could find the ordinance from 30 years ago, and the owners want to demolish it. But what a history.
The two-story portion to the right was built in 1883 by Aurelia Dashiell as a “boarding house” which meant of course, a brothel. For about five years at the turn of the century it was the home of famed madam Fannie Porter, who hosted the Wild Bunch including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, purportedly giving them a big party in 1901. This was two blocks south of San Antonio’s “Sporting District”, the third largest “red light” district in the U.S. and a highly regulated one with a defined zone, licensing and regular health exams for the sex workers. It provided one of the city’s largest revenue streams and attracted more tourists than any local site except for the Alamo.
Then the Archbishop bought it in 1913 and it spent over a century aiding the impoverished and neglected youth of the near Westside “Laredito” neighborhood, first under the Carmelite Sisters for over 70 years and then under Father Flanagan’s Boys Town from 1990 to 2017. The building had gone from one generation of sinners to five generations of saints. The structure itself had a major addition in 1931 by the Carmelites and more in ’51 and ’62 giving it its current look, roughly the same as a 1949 Jubilee yearbook photo published by the Archdiocese.
It is also a rare survivor of “Laredito” the near Westside Hispanic neighborhood that was deliberately decimated by highways and urban renewal. There are a tiny handful of Laredito buildings left, including this National Historic Landmark that the Conservation Society saved in 1959, Casa Navarro:
Anyway, there is more than enough information for it to be nominated as a landmark – which everyone assumed it was – and the Conservation Society will be pursuing that along with our friends at Westside Preservation Alliance, Tier 1 Neighborhood Association and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.
Meanwhile, I got intrigued about some buildings in my own Beacon Hill. I went looking for this little house maybe 150 feet behind my own.
This was the home of the Liberto family, including Vivian Liberto, who met Johnny Cash roller skating in 1951. They married at the nearby St. Ann’s Church, a cool mid-century modern built in 1948.
Speaking of 1948, I recently learned that a series of houses were built to promote the 1948 film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant, which I actually saw many years ago. And the one in San Antonio is still there and in seemingly excellent condition. Thanks to David Bush of Preservation Houston for finding this!
Aaronetta Pierce, a lion of civic life and civil rights in San Antonio, was named one of the Tri-Chairs of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee last week. Shortly thereafter we learned that Council Member Roberto Trevino had been replaced on the management committee for the Alamo by Council Member Rebecca Viagran, a descendent of Tejano Alamo defender Toribio Losoya. Dr. Carey Latimore was also appointed to the Citizens Advisory Committee following his detailed study of Civil Rights around Alamo Plaza, specifically the famed lunch counter integration of 1960 – the first peaceful and voluntary integration of lunch counters in the South during the Sit-In movement.
The Mayor made it clear that the buildings facing the Alamo chapel/shrine – the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings – are to be saved. This is huge news and a validation of the position taken by the Conservation Society in the fall of 2015. It is also huge for our Coalition for the Woolworth Building, formed in 2018 and including the aforementioned Aaronetta Pierce. The milestones of the Coalition: State Antiquities Landmark status in May, 2019; the release of a plan showing how to repurpose the buildings that same month; a prize-winning ofrenda honoring civil rights leader Mary Lilian Andrews in October 2019 and the listing of the Woolworth Building later that same month as one of only 3 U.S. buildings on the World Monuments Watch List 2020, have now come to fruition. A year ago we held a Donut Day at the Woolworth and then an all-day seminar on the role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights history. We spent the pandemic year continuing to lobby, collecting video testimonials and crafting a series of short videos about the lunch counter integration that are now in production.
The Mayor is also revisiting a few more ill-conceived and unpopular elements of the 2018 plan, including lowering the plaza (which makes the archeologists CRAZY) and permanently closing the streets (which makes the businesspeople CRAZY). San Antonians have heaved a sigh of relief as the Alamo plan enters a new era that will remember the long arc of its history by preserving all of its layers and getting comfortable with the fact that it is in the middle of a city.
And soon we will reveal the story of a young black man who ate lunch at Woolworth’s on March 16, 1960.
“Conservation means all of the processes of looking after a place so as to retain its cultural significance.”
“Cultural significance is embodied in the place itself, its fabric, its setting, use, associations, meanings, records, related places and related objects. Places may have a range of values for different individuals or groups.”
This is from the document I consider the northstar of my field, the Burra Charter. While we call it historic preservation in the U.S., I have argued for a dozen years that it is in fact heritage conservation. It is not a set of rules or standards. It is a process.
The process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into its future. The community must determine what is significant, how significant it is, and how it should be conserved and treated in the future. Professionals can help the community do this, but they have to do it or it is worthless.
The quotations above from the Burra Charter illustrate that heritage conservation is a process, and that different types of resources follow different types of rules. The quotation also iterates a concept that we in the United States call integrity but elsewhere is authenticity.
That is because integrity tends to be a mechanistic and formalistic concept that reinforces the primacy of materiality. It doesn’t have to be so. Integrity’s seven aspects include feeling and association and I have been involved in the effort to redefine integrity in order to diversify heritage conservation and preserve the full range of our history.
I am currently Co-Chair of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice Working Group, part of a partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Preservation Partners Network. Our field is still clogged with the remnants of a history that empowered white males to the exclusion of others, and integrity aided and abetted that exclusion.
How do you define the integrity of a building that housed decades of history for a marginalized community? Shouldn’t it in fact illustrate the fact that it survived on the margins of the power structure and economic hegemony? Doesn’t the fact that it lost its cornice or replaced stone with brick in fact define its cultural significance?
Following years of work on this issue, I wrote a paper that became a book chapter published in 2018 that dove fairly deeply into the specific mechanics of integrity and diversity – the bottom line is that the preservation world has much to repair in its relation to the whole of history and the whole of the country. Recognizing the bias in the rules – and those who interpret them – is the first step.
Last week the reports that the Alamo had commissioned regarding the three buildings the State purchased in 2015 were finally released more than two years after they were announced. The reports vindicated preservation.
The report from highly respected John G. Waite & Associates, Architects, confirmed what we had expected – the buildings are structurally sound and adaptable to a variety of uses, including a museum. Another report by Trinity University historian Dr. Carey Latimore was commissioned later, after the efforts of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building documented the history of San Antonio’s famous lunch counter integration, which occurred at seven sites on March 16, 1960. As a bonus, the Waite Report also noted that the Woolworth Building was the only one of the five surviving buildings that actually had physical traces of the lunch counter.
A third previously unknown report was designed to specifically counter the Conservation Society’s argument that the photographs taken March 16, 1960 all depicted the Woolworth lunch counter. I dealt with this conflict between documentary and visual evidence ten months ago here.
Just before the release, the Alamo announced the construction of a new exhibition hall at the east end of the existing gardens behind the shrine. The reason for this is that they have a deadline to exhibit Phil Collins’ Alamo collection.
The Conservation Society has been advocating for the re-use of these buildings for over five years, and the release of the reports vindicated our position, a position that also led to State Antiquities Landmark designation for the Woolworth Building, and its landing on the World Monuments Watch List 2020. We had been requesting these reports for over a year and we are glad that they have been finally made public.
NOVEMBER 13 UPDATE
City Council was briefed on the Alamo plan yesterday and there has been a lot of discussion of “unwinding the lease” between the city and the state. Political battles at the state level between GLO Commissioner George P. Bush and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the Texas Historical Commission’s denial of the plan to move the 1940 Cenotaph, and the departure of most of the project’s high profile private donors have put the whole project in question.
In 2006 I wrote a blog called “The Fallacy of Primacy” focused on the idea that the “first” to discover something was not necessarily historically important. The Vikings got to North America and the Chinese maybe got to Peru before the Spanish, but it doesn’t matter. They didn’t affect the trajectory of history like those who came later. In addition to the fallacy of “firsts” and “discoveries,” there is also the problem of category and context.
This is San Pedro Springs Park in San Antonio, sometimes claimed as the second oldest park in the United States after Boston Common, since it was set aside as public land by King Philip V of Spain in 1729.
That fact is not true in two ways. First, there are older public lands in places like St.. Augustine so San Pedro Springs Park is more like 10th oldest.* Second, there is no context for public parks until the 1830s – the category of a city park simply did not exist. If you look it up, San Pedro Springs Park is the oldest city park in Texas, dated not 1729 but 1852.
The urban park as a type begins no earlier than 1827 when they start redesigning St. James Park in London. The oldest “parks” in U.S. cities are more like the squares in Savannah, which were open space but not parks. There was no context for “park” as a place of recreation and relaxation outdoors. If you wanted that, you went to a cemetery.
So here is the oldest city park in the U.S., Boston Common, and you can see that it is also a cemetery. When it was created in 1634 it could be used for celebrations, militia drills, burials, and yes, even picnics and sport. Interestingly, the design of “parks” in the 19th century begins with the design of the first rural cemetery at Mount Auburn outside Boston in 1831. It then inspires the first generation of park designers.
So, we have a whole new context emerging in the second quarter of the 19th century. Parks. By the end of the 19th century, Boston has its Emerald Necklace of Parks, New York has the massive Central Park, Chicago has a boulevard and park system stretching 30 miles and even Los Angeles had the 575 acre Elysian Park. Parks, like museums, were an idea less than century old.
We have a similar movement in the current century to create urban linear parks from old railroads or other rights-of-way. Think New York’s High Line, Chicago’s 606, or San Antonio’s San Pedro Creek Culture Park. Rails or canals to trails is also roughly a century old, and getting more and more elaborate.
When you ask whether something is first, or oldest or original, you are in fact asking a present day question about how a place is perceived and categorized. It is kind of like the difference between fact (to aléthes) and truth (alétheia) in Greek. A fact – to aléthes – is that San Pedro Springs Park became a public space in 1729. Alétheia is truth in the sense of a body of truth, like urban parks were started in the 1830s and 40s. Boston Common is the oldest park – to aléthes – but it is also a collection of other ideas about public space between 1634 and 1834 – Alétheia.
FUN FACTS: A San Antonio native, Robert Hammond, was behind the High Line in New York! Also, another San Antonian, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, founded the Central Park Conservancy!
* a list of “oldest” parks in the U.S., understanding that none are really “parks” until the 1830s:
- 1573 – Plaza de la Constitucion, San Augustine, Florida
- 1634 – Boston Common
- 1641 – New Haven Green
- 1680 – Washington and Marion Squares, Charleston
- 1686 – Battery Park, New York City
- 1718 – Jackson Square, New Orleans
- 1729 – San Pedro Springs, San Antonio
- 1733 – Bowling Green, New York City
The meeting started at 9 AM and ended at 7 PM with a 12-2 vote by the Texas Historical Commission NOT to approve a permit to relocate and restore the Cenotaph in Alamo Plaza. This relocation had been characterized by the City and Alamo Endowment as essential for the success of the entire plan.
That characterization is curious – one would think that the development of the museum – which has a timeline imposed by donor Phil Collins – would be the key element of the plan. Or the closing of the streets. Or even the relocation of the entertainment zone facing the Plaza, which seemed for years to be the key negative motivator for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. But there has been no movement on that issue at all.
The Conservation Society of San Antonio has been primarily focused on the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings, as I have blogged about many times. It was interesting to hear the Texas Historical Commission debate the Cenotaph relocation. My first takeaway was: These people know what they are talking about. Laurie Limbacher displayed a razor-sharp knowledge of concrete and armatures, and several other Commissioners made it clear that they understood the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards which discourage relocation unless it is needed to safeguard a structure.
Which brought everything back to the curious logic of “this must happen first”? THC Chairman John Nau was not buying it. He said the site is too important “to suggest that the entire project depends on granting a single permit.” Were they giving themselves a way out? The project started six years ago and has been fueled entirely by public money so far. It was stated during the meeting that no private fundraising had been done yet, something I wondered about last month.
Meanwhile, the Alamo itself has reopened after nearly half a year, although it and the Cenotaph are still surrounded by barricades.
For the last five years, the Conservation Society had advocated for the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings and their re-use as the new Alamo museum. Without every saying so, the Alamo has favored a new building, partly because they want to reveal where part of the western wall was, which I discussed at length last month here. I ended that blog noting that the Woolworth Building was to be a museum of airplanes a little over 20 years ago.
The San Antonio Museum of Art, the Briscoe and almost every other museum in San Antonio is in a historic building. Some, like the McNay and the Witte, have new additions, which is what we proposed for the Woolworth and Crockett.
How are world class museums made? Perhaps you recognize some of these.
You can throw in the Prado, the Alhambra and the Hermitage as well. Locally, we have….
The Alamo museum intends to focus its interpretation on the famed 1836 battle. So, their illustrations have lots of cannons, which, while smaller than airplanes, do need a little space.
Some of the unpublished museum images show the cannons safely indoors and many of the outdoors one will be replicas. In the absence of imagery, perhaps the museum will look like this?
Hmm. What does the outside of this museum look like?
Oh! It’s a historic building! How about this display replete with conquistador astride a horse:
What does this museum look like on the outside?
Kinda looks a lot like the Woolworth Building. Except in both of these cases the column spacing is not as flexible as the Woolworth Building.
The Alamo is warning that it is do or die time for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. The next hurdle? Texas Historical Commission will decide whether the 1940 Cenotaph can be moved a few hundred feet to the south.
There is an odd relationship in human nature between efficiency and its seeming polar opposite: excess. I was riding my bike this morning and I was thinking about roads as an example of efficiency and excess.
I wasn’t just thinking about the first hard roads in the 1910s and 20s, nor even the ginormous roller-coaster-like interstate interchanges I regularly drive here in San Antonio.
No, what I was actually thinking of were ancient MesoAmerican roads, like the stone staircases in Ciudad Perdida where the Tayrona (in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, present-day Colombia) made high wet jungle efficient and interconnected beginning in the 7th century.
Which was efficient but then they just kept building more and more way beyond the point of efficiency. A little further north, I recalled Richard Hansen in Guatemala’s Mirador Basin declaring that the Maya collapsed because they kept building these lime pathways through their jungle, depleting their resources in the process as the paths grew deeper and deeper. I thought he was overstating the case, but I thought differently this morning.
Roads are very efficient until they aren’t. Like the paradox of building more roads and traffic getting worse, elements of efficiency in the course of human history can indeed become elements of excess until eventually the muscle memory of the efficiency carries the idea of efficiency along like a legend even as you sit two hours to travel thirty miles.
“All roads lead to Rome” and indeed the Pax Romana was based on the efficiency of trade and movement in the ancient world at a level it would not see again for a millennium. I saw a video recently that charged that the road’s led to Rome’s demise by bringing the barbarian armies in more efficiently. Did they turn to excess? Were they status symbols?
In Mechanization Takes Command, Siegfried Giedion talked about guns as the first single-stroke combustion engine, and indeed here is a tool we have proliferated beyond proliferation. From efficiency to excess and from utility to status symbol.
Well, how did I get from roads to guns? How did we get from tools to totems? How does efficiency turn into excess?