I was quoted in the news several times this week, thanks to the sudden demolition of the 1912 G.J. Sutton Building on the East Side, as well as the unanimous vote to demolish the 1958 Almaguer Dance Studio at Woodlawn Lake. Both cases were exercises in Bad Excuses.
The Sutton Building demolition began suddenly and without warning. In fact, when a community member emailed us Tuesday afternoon saying it was being demolished, we prepared to forward a news article from the weekend that indicated it would be rehabilitated. But, by then, several news reporters had discovered that the opposite was true.
The building is owned by the State of Texas, specifically the Texas Facilities Commission. After rejecting several bids from developers who would have saved the solid brick structure, they decided to proceed with remediation and demolition. The state does not even have to get local demolition permits, so there was no warning. Not even the local officials elected to represent the interests of the East Side knew. There were, however, Bad Excuses.
The worst of the Bad Excuses was the kind of bureaucratic insanity that makes people want to get rid of government. Remember I said there were bids from developers who would have saved the property? Well, the Texas Facilities Commission can’t do residential, and the three bids (18 months ago) included developing residential uses.
That’s nuts. Transfer the property to another agency. Sell it to the city. Sell it to the developer without a plan. Change whatever regulation caused that. This building served as an industrial site before G.J. Sutton, the first black Texas legislator from San Antonio, championed its transformation into a state office building. Why can’t its next reuse include residential?
The Bad Excuses continued with the familiar environmental shibboleths of lead paint and asbestos and even mercury switches to make it a perfect trifecta. I wrote about these bad excuses nine years ago here. Simply put, the more you demolish, the more you have to remediate.
Not only that, but the state is paying millions to do the abatement and demolition rather than putting those expenses on the final buyer, an expensive decision County Commissioner Tommy Calvert questioned in an article Tuesday.
And then there is everyone’s favorite Bad Excuse: It’s too expensive. Huh? The private developers (more than one!) who bid on the site could have taken advantage of state and federal tax incentives totaling 45% of rehab costs. This Bad Excuse is usually accompanied by numbers that show how expensive it would be to rehabilitate. To be safe, you should always go with $300 a square foot. That’s what you tell the engineers when you hire them.
Heck, you don’t even need to get an official report. It is 2019 after all, so evidence is hardly necessary – just make the claim. That’s what happened with the 1958 Almaguer Dance Studio, which the Historic and Design Review Commission voted to demolish on Wednesday. We met with the Parks Department about their demolition plan months ago and they showed pictures of cracks and leaks.
Well, you can do that with any building. It is a Bad Excuse. We told them at the time we have seen many worse buildings brought back. We wanted to see actual evidence, but none was forthcoming. It obviously was a safe and sound building hosting dozens of classes where people dance about.
The decision ultimately turned on the desire for upgraded dance studios with sprung floors and a new community center. That was translated into “unreasonable economic hardship” during the hearing, which is another Bad Excuse. There is actually a standard for this – “reasonable rate of return” which doesn’t really apply to public entities.
So, this week, the tale of two governments who tore down landmarks while serving up nearly the full portfolio of Bad Excuses. Retain for future reference.
His younger contemporaries Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier got there first, but Frank Lloyd Wright, the most influential American architect in history, finally made the UNESCO World Heritage List. As a Board Member of the Frank Lloyd Wright .Building Conservancy, I am very pleased that the long-awaiting recognition came today in Baku, Azerbaijan. A total of eight works were included, including Unity Temple in Oak Park and Robie House in Chicago.
The inscription of Wright’s work took almost 20 years, twice as long as the effort that saw the San Antonio Missions inscribed four years ago. Two buildings originally proposed, the Price Tower in Bartlesville, OK and the Marin County Courthouse in California were dropped as the nomination was extensively revised.
The selected sites do reflect Wright’s genius, from his pre-World War I Prairie period that gave us the incomparable Unity Temple and Robie House, through his California textile block houses (represented by the Hollyhock or Barnsdale House) and his mid-century Usonian style that began with the Jacobs I house in Madison Wisconsin.
The inscription also includes both of Wright’s sprawling “schools” – Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona, where his apprentices learned for over 20 years.
And of course, Wright’s famous “comeback” building, Fallingwater, is included, where he ditched the idea that he was a 19th century architect and cemented his reputation with a building that not only balances above a waterfall and integrates with the landscape, but becomes a landscape. Wright loved nature and his gift was not simple integrating buildings with nature, but allowing buildings to be inspired by nature, designed by nature, so that they elevated and improved the landscapes they occupied.
Wright’s early apprentice Barry Byrne said Wright only needed to sketch plans and elevations, because he could think in three dimensions. When Ken Burns did that documentary on Wright, even his needling adversary Philip Johnson admitted that Wright could imagine space in a way few mortals can.
The recognition is long overdue, but well deserved. For decades I have said that Unity Temple is one of the best buildings in the world. I lived less than a block from it for a dozen years and my children grew up with it. There is no question in my mind that it belongs in the company of the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat.
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!