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?
Just back from San Francisco, currently sporting the worst air quality on the planet but also hosting PastForward, the National Preservation Conference.
For me it brought back fond memories of Beijing, 2004.
It was the final meeting for National Trust President Stephanie Meeks. I remember flying from Chicago to Washington DC and back the same day to vote her into her position back in 2010.
Her speech at the Plenary session hit five major points that well illustrate the status of heritage conservation in 2018 and its future direction. You can see her full speech here, but I hope she will allow me to reflect on her five points below.
Heritage conservation is about what people want and need, and not about museums and architectural obscurities. It is about Main Streets and housing and schools and jobs and how communities are built and thrive. It about more than tourism and curation – it is about how we feel about belonging to a place, investing ourselves in it.
Stephanie cited Abraham Maslow’s 1943 “Hierarchy of Needs” where PLACE and a sense of belonging were first identified as essential human needs. Current neuroscience has dramatically underscored this early intuition with the solid research into the brain chemistry of architecture and environment in the work of Colin Ellard (which I blogged about here in 2016.)
The latest developments go even further that Ellard’s quantification of how – chemically – interesting buildings make us feel good and parking lots make us anxious. I just read Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s Welcome To Your World, a study of the new concept of embodied cognition – that how we think about and understand our world is crafted by our built environment, largely in an unconscious way. She makes the case that good design is a basic human need, a key to brain health and a source of emotions. “Recognizing and identifying patterns produces in us a sensation of pleasure.”
We see ourselves in our surroundings.
It turns out architecture is neither a luxury nor an externality. It is the way we construct our thoughts and feelings. The heritage conservation field is only beginning to take advantage of these new frontiers in neuroscience which prove something we suspected for a long time. Look for a big expansion in the coming years.
The changes to heritage conservation in the last two decades are epic. In terms of diagnostics, we can now learn so much more about archaeology and buildings with minimally invasive techniques impossible in the 20th century. Ground-penetrating radar. LIDAR. We can snake cameras into the tiniest crawlspaces and cavity walls, and we can point cloud anything with a regular camera if need be.
Presidio 2007 – an actual point cloud station but they did show us how to do it with camera.
New tools are also available for rehabilitation. I learned Thursday that a company actually makes siding that matches 1940s asbestos siding! We can 3-D print components, or we can find the companies that still make the same sash cord they did 90 years ago.
The greatest innovations, of course, have been in interpretation of historic places.
Painting with light. “Restored By Light” at Mission San Jose, 2016
Innovation works at two levels here. First, we have to reach the next audience through the media they choose to use. Second, we can restore history without resorting to massive physical intervention, as seen above.
Interpretation at the recently reopened Cooper-Molera historic site, Monterey, CA.
Innovative interpretation is key not only to the massive tourism industry, but also the more basic and democratic project of sharing why we save and repurpose elements of the past. People love the stories in the simplest of buildings. They enrich our experiences, which people crave today more than things.
Stephanie referenced the virtual reality interpretations of historic sites, and I would simply add that augmented reality is already a staple of museums and public history today, in 2018. The next generation of tourists will expect AR at every heritage site. Full stop.
I blogged about this moment almost two years ago here.
Scale. We complained at Harvard Business School this summer that every case study was about scaling. But yes, scaling is growth and that is the pattern of political economy and indeed civilization. So too in preservation we need to scale beyond the regulated landmark by incorporating heritage – in some form – into every aspect of building and planning. We are doing it here in San Antonio, from our neighborhood workshops that invite ALL communities regardless of designation to the city’s recent efforts to improve infill zoning.
Stephanie specifically referenced the rehabilitation of Cooper-Molera Adobe, the National Trust site in Monterey which I was involved with and saw in all of its free-entry glory last Saturday. It is like the Gaylord Building now – a restaurant, bakery and event space pay for the lively restored and crisply interpreted historic house. Nice job!
The challenge of bringing the heritage conservation message to scale is implicit in the initiatives described above – including all older neighborhoods regardless of their architectural integrity or consistency; reaching out to include diverse voices from history; understanding heritage as a part and parcel of EVERY planning and zoning decision.
The challenge for groups like the National Trust or San Antonio Conservation Society is how do you transmit scale into your organization? Can you grow membership in an era of declining membership? Can you create micro-members who join for a singular moment and cause? Can you re-tool surveys to fully incorporate diverse and intangible histories?
This was not one of the categories in Stephanie’s speech, but it was a frequent topic of educational sessions, since San Francisco is leading the way in dealing with Living Heritage through its thematic context studies, Legacy Business Program, and cultural place initiatives.
Japantown, San Francisco
These initiatives explode the traditional bounds of architecturally-based heritage conservation by focusing on intangible heritage and community values that are embodied in PLACE but not ARCHITECTURE. Some of these sessions were TrustLive follow-ups to the TrustLive presentation at our September Living Heritage Symposium in San Antonio, featuring my friend Theresa Pasqual. I blogged about our 2017 symposium here.
Three and a half years ago I attended the Pocantico Conference on Climate change and heritage. With so many coastal cities threatened by rising sea levels, climate change remains a central concern in the field of heritage conservation.
Preservation is always triage – which are the most important places to save, and which must be let go due to limited resources or political capital? Climate change accelerates these hard choices. I am reminded of Valmeyer, Illinois, the little town that moved – in its entirety – up to the bluffs following the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1993, or the National Historic Landmarks on the east coast that have been moved inland as storms worsen.
Like Lucy the Margate elephant.
This was a nice touch on Stephanie’s part. Spread Joy. The joy of heritage, a work that supports the brain and enlivens the body through its haptic interaction with a nurturing environment, an environment rich in stories and social interaction.
We know about this in San Antonio, where 12,000 volunteers entertain 85,000 attendees each year in support of preservation. A Night In Old San Antonio® will be here April 23-26, 2019!
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