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.
The San Antonio Conservation Society was at the cutting edge of heritage conservation in 1924, focusing not only on buildings but the cultural landscape, including “customs” that we now call intangible heritage. This week, San Antonio remains at the cutting edge of the heritage conservation field.
This year marked both my first rodeo and my first Fiesta, which is San Antonio’s 126-year old celebration of the Battle of San Jacinto. The greatest party during the 10-day Fiesta is the San Antonio Conservation Society’s A Night In Old San Antonio®, which runs four consecutive nights.
Project Row Houses by Rick Lowe – I finally saw it 20 years after I met the man.
Well, it finally started to happen, and in Houston of all places. PastForward, the National Preservation Conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, witnessed the emergence of the next generation of “preservation” practitioners and highlighted the future of the movement. Featuring inner-city artists who save places like Houston native Rick Lowe and Chicagoan Theaster Gates, it felt to many of us like the movement had finally turned the corner and embraced the future. Continue Reading
This is the Malt House in San Antonio. Dating to 1949, it is the classic car-service restaurant, known for its malted milkshakes. Generations experienced their localized version of American Graffiti with Mexican and American comfort food and the best malts in town. Continue Reading
Last weekend was the first annual World Heritage Festival here in San Antonio, celebrating one year since the inscription of the San Antonio Missions as a World Heritage Site. Having spent my career in heritage, this is exciting for me because now I live, work and play in a World Heritage site for the first time in my life. Continue Reading
Slimp Oil, 604 Carolina
Back in 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held a national contest called “This Place Matters” where people voted on sites that mattered to them – to their history, their identity and their community. As I noted in my blog at the time, the winner was not a grand mansion or a pathbreaking design by a famous architect. Continue Reading
“The entire mix of cultures was their birthright, the soul of their home city, and it was not to be taken away. Their goal became the saving not only of landmarks but of traditions and ambiance and natural features as well, the preservation of no less than San Antonio’s entire cultural and natural environment.”
Lewis F. Fisher, Saving San Antonio, p. 91-92 Continue Reading
The Mission, recently
Heritage conservation is about place even more than buildings, which are large and important but not exclusive constituents of place. “If these walls could talk” is also true of streets (I did a course for over a decade called “If These Streets Could Talk”) and sidewalks and trees and mountains and streams and streetlamps benches and on and on…. You also have certain places that have an enduring character despite the passing of decades and technologies, these places just seem to imbue activity in a similar way over time, causing us to assign that “character” to place. Continue Reading