Shortly after moving to San Antonio in 2016, I encountered this house just a couple blocks from my apartment. Immediately I was struck by the appearance of a full-on Wrightian Prairie House in the heart of San Antonio.
I posted it on Instagram and was immediately informed that this was the Lawrence T. Wright (no relation) house by George Willis. After a day or two I realized Willis’ name had appeared in my book The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Bringing the Prairie School to Europe. Willis had been a draftsman nearly four years when Byrne arrived in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio in 1902.
Willis practiced a few years in California with Myron Hunt and a few more in Dallas before relocating to San Antonio in 1911. Willis is probably best known for his 1928 Milam Building, known as the first fully air-conditioned office building in America. By this time he had adopted the streamlined revival styles of the 1920s, decorating the upper levels of the building’s 21 stories with Spanish Revival terra-cotta.
Willis arrived in San Antonio as a Wrightian, and his houses show the influence up until 1919 or so. Many are attributed to Atlee Ayres, in whose office Willis worked until 1916. Here are a few of the ones we have found:
A couple of years ago I stumbled across this one in Alta Vista, and I promise you it IS by George Willis and from the same period, c. 1915, even though we haven’t found documentary evidence.
By 1919 George Willis has departed from Modernist Prairie style for the revival styles that would dominate the 1920s, as seen in this house on West Woodlawn in Beacon Hill. A recent article in the Express-News claims that this is the first Spanish Colonial house in San Antonio, and one of the first built with air conditioning.
Willis was a major San Antonio figure by this time, collaborating with Atlee Ayres and Emmett Jackson on such major projects as the Municipal Auditorium and 1926 addition to the Bexar County Courthouse.
Willis worked on the Sunken Garden Theater WPA Project in 1937 with Harvey Smith and Charles Boelhauwe. He continued practicing in San Antonio until his death in 1960 and has left a significant architectural legacy throughout the city.
It’s the longest day and it has been a month since my last post, so time for a quick catch-up on the state of Conservation in San Antonio!
First, up, the Alamo, whose managing non-profit met today while camels wandered the grounds. They recently announced the architects for the new “world-class” museum after interviewing them last January. They chose Machado Silvetti from Boston. Machado taught in Texas back in the day, according to former students. Hope they look at our design. They have also changed their by-laws to keep Land Commissioner George P. Bush at a distance and become more like a regular non-profit that raises money through philanthropy. Good idea – the last four years of top-down planning have been on the public dime.
Out in the neighborhoods where preservation really happens we are having our Third Neighborhood Workshop tomorrow, June 22, 2019 and it will be a doozy – we are premiering our board game “Plots and Plats: A Neighborhood Development Game” that takes you through the process of developing land and getting Zoning, Planning, Historic and City Council approvals all while dealing with Neighborhood organizations, development delays, financing and the like. It is at the Mexican-American Unity Council 2300 W. Commerce tomorrow at 9 AM!
Tonight you should drop by the Beethoven Maennerchor for Gartenfest, not simply because this is the oldest German singing society west of the Mississippi (152 years) and not simply because it is one of only three in Texas with its own building and beer garden, nor simply because I will be singing with the choir at 8 PM, but ALSO because we have a very cool set of guest taps ($20) from two Texas breweries – my favorite Karbach (Rodeo Clown, Light Circus Hazy IPA, Cherry Lime Radler and Coastal Conservation Wit) and the legendary Shiner (Bock, Light Blonde, Wicked Juicy IPA and Sea Salt & Lime!)
Talk about heritage conservation (or rather, hear us sing about it!)
We are still trying to save that fabulous little 1935 Pure Oil gas station on Nogalitos – we have even been trying to buy it! It was the centerpiece of my most popular blog from 2018 with over 4,000 views. It even rated a half-page in Preservation magazine this spring!
The city recently landmarked an East Side ice house, a Tobin Hill bungalow and a Lavaca house-cum-storefront, but sadly passed on two other Tobin Hill houses because they are swimming in a sea of vexaciously vacant and valuable land. Neighbors are still fighting, but City Council has approved the demolition.
on a more positive note:
The 1880 Claudius King house by San Antonio’s first great architect Alfred Giles made its way across the street to its new home this month. We live-blogged it at San Antonio Conservation Society.
This week we celebrated two excellent years under the leadership of President Susan Beavin and next week we welcome new President Patti Zaiontz, who knows the ins and outs of the best preservation city in the U.S.
San Antonio, Texas!
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. Col. 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?
“The U.S. Civil Rights Trail was designed to motivate people to learn more, see more and feel more. The website can tell the stories, but the emotional weight of those stories cannot be fully absorbed without standing in the exact spots where sacrifices were made and the direction of history was changed.”
The Civil Rights Trail combines sites that have been significant in the battle for Civil Rights, especially the 1950s and 1960s. Launched in January, 2018, the Trail includes over 100 sites in 14 states. Given the incredible popular success of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and the fact that Civil Rights tourism is a growth sector demanding honest history, the identification and interpretation of such sites promises to be an economic boon to communities where these resources are located.
In San Antonio, we have the story of the first voluntary and peaceful integration of a Woolworth’s lunch counter on March 16, 1960, a story that Jackie Robinson said “should be told around the world.” He was quoted in the New York Times on March 20, 1960, but the story did not have the “legs” of the more confrontational protests in other cities.
In addition to Woolworth’s the sites of the Kress, H.L. Green, Grant’s, Sommers and Neisner’s stores survive, sans lunch counters. The beginnings of a Civil Rights trail are right in front of us, although the concern is that at least two of these could disappear soon.
Thanks to local landscape architect and historian Everett Fly, more overlooked sites in San Antonio are now being uncovered. You could see markers for the Rincon School near the River Walk, but Fly’s work has really illuminated the importance of downtown – notably Alamo Plaza, in a struggle for equal rights that goes back to the early 1880s.
The challenge now is to bundle these sites – and many more, into a package that can attract tourist investment. In San Antonio we already have the largest Martin Luther King Day march, active contingents of Buffalo Soldier interpreters, and Everett Fly’s impressive research into African American cemeteries.
The opportunity is there. The question is: Do we embrace it?
Here is a very intact Victorian home in San Antonio of the typical Queen Anne type: L-shaped plan with front facing gable, decorative balusters, posts and porch trim. It even has decorative brackets with drop pendants that survive on the corner.
Next door we have this house. It is boarded up and a temporary fence was added three weeks ago, but this Queen Anne retains a lot of integrity, from every one of its four Doric order porch columns to original wood siding and decorative shingles in the protruding gables. The house volume is unchanged since 1912.
Next door, also behind the fence, this Folk Victorian gem has a double-munched standing seam metal roof, original siding and original shingles in the gables. It is also boarded up, so we don’t know how many original doors and windows survive, but in my experience, there will be several if not all.
SOOOOOO……. the owner proposed to demolish these three.
I have seen buildings in WAY worse shape get saved.
In fact, one that was on the demolition list when I started at the San Antonio Conservation Society three years ago recently came up in our house hunting.
The owner of the three Commerce houses has a business a block away where he rents, so he bought these “just in case.”
Perfect! Move your offices in there and ditch the landlord!
Um, so then the owner’s representative said they tried renting them but they were having too much trouble. But then the druggies and thugs started hanging out and breaking in, so they need to be demolished.
Because when you demolish buildings, those problems go away?
Then the owner’s rep said he wants to build and apartment building here but has no plans and no timeline.
“There is plenty of room to put in his office AND add an apartment building,” I said. This is not an EITHER/OR.
And then there is money. You rehab these as houses, you can get the city tax incentives. You rehab them as National Register landmarks (that still needs to be done) and you can get a 20% investment tax credit. And a 25% state tax credit. They would totally qualify based on their history, architecture and condition. 45% of your rehab costs paid for.
Since the fence went up three weeks ago the squatters and scrabblers have stayed away. We can only hope the owner listens to reason. Or money. Or the neighbors. Or takes a look at Zillow and sees what has happened to other buildings that someone once thought should be demolished.
Because they couldn’t think of anything else.
Paper or plastic?
For years we have been offered this choice at the supermarket checkout, and it annoys me. Why can’t I have both? I sometimes reply “Some of each,” which confuses people. But I actually have some need for plastic and some for paper. I’m NOT one or the other.
Our “polarized” 2019 world has been caused by many such false choices – politically and otherwise – between categories that seem to exclude each other. But they don’t. Making the categories more extreme (i.e., you are either Communist or Fascist) makes the duality seem real. It’s not.
Let’s leave the hoary hoardings of the politicalifragilistic to one side and remain in our expertise: architectural history and preservation. 13 years ago in this blog I celebrated a debate which I witnessed several times between modernist Paul Byard and classicist Steven Semes (who is a good friend) on the appropriate way to design additions to historic buildings. Byard, who has since passed away, advocated modernist additions while Semes has written a book arguing for contextual additions. The debate was AWESOME because each speaker was so convincing you actually suspended your own bias and wandered back and forth between the camps.
The debate and the dichotomy struck me yesterday as I visited the San Antonio Museum of Art, a late Victorian building with two contemporary additions.
One satisfies the contextualists, and one uses contemporary materials to distinguish itself from the original. Both defer to the original building in scale, massing and setback. If you are sensitive to brick color and the patina of time, both read clearly as additions. I like them BOTH.
SAMA has both MODERNIST and CONTEXTUAL additions. Or perhaps I should say SAMA has BOTH Modernist AND Contextual additions.
BOTH AND is the actual dynamic state of the world. The binaries and categories we use to make sense of this world are intellectual constructs that negate a major physical reality: Time.
A thing now does not equal a thing ten years from now. This is manifest at the quantum level but it is also true up here in the everyday. Styles change, technologies change, and materials age, each at their own rate.
There are continuities, of course, and indeed the task of heritage conservation is about maintaining continuities amid change. To do that job, you need to see things as they are, not as you would have them be. You need to understand BOTH now AND then.
The dynamic nature of experience and existence belies clumsy categorizations. We, and our work, are always in the process of becoming.
I explained this better in my 2012 blog: Categories are your Frenemies.
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!
Recently in San Francisco a house flipper illegally demolished a significant 1936 home by the famous Richard Neutra. Here is some coverage.
Perhaps he expected to be treated like the last lawbreaker, who had demolished a Willis Polk house in the same city and was fined a record $400,000. In that case the flipper paid the fine and quickly made 7 or 8 million on the flip. Price of doing business.
Except our Neutra Exterminator didn’t get a fine – he was told he had to rebuild the house in the same materials just as it was, and then put up a plaque explaining the history of the building and making sure everyone understands that they are looking at a replica.
I’m sure we can find a “property rights” type who would cry for this poor flipper,. but not me. The value of this harsh but entirely equitable judgement is that it discourages the unfortunate tendency of some to “ask forgiveness” rather than ask permission. This approach undercuts the law and rewards lawbreakers. Making someone FIX their lawbreaking actually discourages further lawbreaking.
(By the way, you can always tell a flipper because they SAY that they are going to live in the house with their family. Dead giveaway.)
We have some of this “backwards planning” here in San Antonio. First, we have a structural problem in Planning. Public hearings on planning issues are only held AFTER the applicant has dealt with the city planners and there is a big sign that clearly states that there can be no changes at that point. So public input is rendered worthless.
We have the “ask forgiveness” problem in epidemic proportions. Applicants come before a citizen board with limited experience, plead that they have already invested in their non-permitted scheme, and the board feels sorry for them and grants the permit retroactively. Awful precedent, and everyone is taking it up. It happens at Board of Adjustment all the time – “I didn’t know I needed a permit. Sorry. Can I keep it?”
This also happens with the Historic and Design Review Commission, which has several new members and it still getting used to its processes and purview.
I guess, technically, we are the Wild West, but planning anarchy is no way to welcome tens of thousands of new residents a year. With a series of political and administrative shifts in our city (and an increase in borrowing costs) it is high time we fixed our backwards planning.
Minneapolis just eliminated single-family zoning, and Oregon is considering the same for its cities. The goal is to increase affordable housing and redress a century of racial bias undergirded by said zoning. Planners are excited by this trend and see more of it on the horizon.
San Antonio just reformed its zoning code to include R-1 and R-2 zones, because our old zoning allowed high density pretty much everywhere. The new R-1 and R-2 zoning will help low-density core neighborhoods and historic districts by encouraging appropriate infill. So, with all of the current City Hall concern with affordable housing, why are we doing the opposite of what Minneapolis did?
The contrast with Minneapolis is actually not as dramatic as it seems. Not only is San Antonio more affordable in general, it is not landlocked like Minneapolis. Plus the zoning in Minneapolis was actually, really “single family.” In contrast, even our new R-1 and R-2 districts could see 2-3 units on a lot. King William, the oldest historic district in Texas, is full of accessory units and always has been. In fact, one of our highest priced houses was once seven apartments:
At the San Antonio Conservation Society we meet regularly with neighborhood representatives, and in a recent meeting we learned the difference between density and intensity. We tend to think only of the former, but look at the little two-story apartment building below. It has been in the heart of the King William district for decades and is incredibly dense – something like 126 units per acre. But it is not intense. It fits in.
Now look at the development below, which is less dense, but more intense.
After the meeting, I shared a project from Oak Park, Illinois about a dozen years ago. Two historic houses built in 1875 and 1908, the latter actually a two-flat. The owners proposed ten units over parking massed up front toward the sidewalk. Super intense.
Since it was in a historic district, the demolition was not allowed, and today the two houses look the same as they did before. Better, actually.
So did preservation mean gentrification? Nope. Turns out you are looking at seven units. You just can’t see them unless you get right up to the buildings and look into the back. What preservation meant was that density was increased without increasing intensity.
In fact, Oak Park’s Long Range Historic Preservation plan way back in 1994 encouraged accessory units and coach houses as a way to maintain the historic character of the area. Preservation is about improving development, not opposing it.
There was some more interesting news out of Chicago this week when the city landmarked the Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, with the specific intent of preserving its vernacular architecture and its culture. They are crafting a historic district with the specific goal of preventing gentrification.
Got it? Yes, you heard that right.
Chicago combined landmark designation with a five-year Affordable Requirement Ordinance (ARO) and an arrangement with Chicago Community Land Trust to reduce property taxes. Crucially, the effort is focused not just on architecture but also the distinctive culture of Pilsen.
This is something we have been working on in San Antonio for a few years , notably with the City’s Living Heritage Symposia that the Conservation Society has supported. Cultural heritage conservation is the leading edge of our field, and it is exciting to see how various communities are developing new tools to achieve it.
It is also nice to see an end to the 35-year old myth (shibboleth, perhaps) about preservation and gentrification. I was asked the question by news reporters when I came to San Antonio in 2016 and I said what I always have said – gentrification and its definable cohort – displacement – is a much bigger phenomenon than historic districts.
Let me be clear – when preservation emerged as a form of zoning in the 1920s, it was used to exclude minorities and preserve wealth, just like single-family zoning.
But that was no longer true by the 1980s, when preservation had been inflected by the 1960s community planning movement, permanently altering its character. Someone wrote a dissertation about this 🙂
Yes, there were historic districts that gentrified. There were also historic districts like Wicker Park in Chicago that slowed gentrification while nearby unregulated areas saw values double or triple in a year’s time.
This week San Antonio extended its housing incentive program, to the cheers of some and jeers of others. There are different opinions about whether the tools work or not. San Antonio is shrinking the target area and adding an affordable housing fund following concerns that the incentives were being used for more upscale projects.
As someone has commented regarding the Pilsen plan, there are always unintended consequences of incentive programs, whether financial or regulatory. IDZ zoning was intended to provide affordable housing in inner-city areas and after a decade became a default for developers trying to avoid various regulatory requirements.
Real estate development always follows public subsidy – from roads and sewers and trails to zoning and funding incentives. The Pilsen experiment includes industrial job goals. It also includes a recreational trail and policies designed to allow the trail to improve the community without increasing values too much. The obvious parallel here in San Antonio is the RiverWalk, especially the Museum Reach, which together with the Pearl has spurred a flurry of development.
The Mission Reach has potential for the South Side, and another piece of that puzzle was added this week with the Mission Historic District Design Guidelines. Like the Pilsen landmarking, these will help conserve an architectural vernacular particular to a place and a people.
These various efforts demonstrative how much the preservation/heritage conservation field has evolved a lot in the last 35 years. Zoning has certainly changed significantly in the last century. Most importantly, the goals have shifted in the wake of urban revitalization. Time will tell whether these various programs work toward the new goals of affordability and amenity or have unintended consequences.