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.
Well, last week was a lost week, thanks to two snowstorms in a city that usually takes a decade to see two snowstorms. Add extended sub-freezing temperatures and a free-market utility system and you have a Texas-sized disaster that will easily eclipse Hurricane Harvey in cost.
Hundreds of thousands of people were without power, heat and water for much of the last week. My family’s experience in Soviet Texas – 4-5 hours of power per day, impassable roads, boil-water notices and a burst pipe – was not as bad as many. Indeed, we were lucky, and had full power back by Thursday after intermittent power Sunday-Wednesday.
The comically and unironically named Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has taken a lot of heat (literally) for the rolling blackouts and just plain blackouts that affected over 4 million Texans last week. But the system – designed to avoid federal oversight and harness the free market – ultimately worked as it was designed to: Energy companies made massive windfall profits while people shivered and boiled snow.
It began on a Saturday with freezing rain, turning to a good 4 inches of snow on Monday, following by single-digit overnight temperatures for two nights, a brief thaw and then more snow on Thursday. And there are basically no shovels or plows here, period.
I spent fifty years living in Chicago and can easily recollect at least four snowfalls of 20 inches or more and half a dozen days at -20 degrees Fahrenheit. But that place is designed for it. Not only is San Antonio not designed for snowfall, but the utility system rewards NOT winterizing your facilities, so they all – natural gas, nuclear, wind, coal, solar – froze up. They don’t do that in Chicago. Or Canada. Or Denmark. Or Russia.
The most Soviet aspect of the whole experience was not simply the lack of power most of the time, or the boiling of water, but the empty store shelves – it made the onset of the pandemic nearly a year ago seem quaint. You could get toilet paper, but forget about meat or milk.
But, we are fine and well. The biggest hurt has got to be Texas’ pride – not only did silly ERCOT get publicly busted and bruised, but the political fallout of a series of own goals followed by a multimillion dollar philanthropic largesse from New York City has got to sting somethin’ fierce.
“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.
For as long as historic preservation ordinances have been judged appropriate exercises of the police power (40+ years) they have included provisions for economic hardship. This makes sense, if a building is so far gone that it cannot be economically rehabilitated, there should be an exception. But how did it get there? And what are your (legal standard spoiler alert!) “reasonable investment-backed expectations?”
See, San Antonio is pretty good at fixing old buildings that people in other towns won’t. So, when you hear that someone is trying to tear down a salvageable house, odds are they aren’t from here. And their claims of economic hardship? Even sillier.
So, let’s say you owned this house for eight years. During that time you could have invested a couple thousand dollars a year and slowly brought it back to life. Or you could ignore it, allow the homeless to congregate there, and hope that your investment would turn – magically – into a lucrative vacant lot. Except it’s not magic and it is very deliberate. Even the well-worn phrase “demolition by neglect” sounds more benign than malignant, and this behavior is malignant.
See, this isn’t some poor guy who can’t maintain a house. This is an out-of-town investor who has more than a dozen business entities, each of which owns one of these houses in the neighborhood. This isn’t economic hardship – this is malignant neglect and a business model built on NOT taking care of the assets you own.
How do you argue economic hardship when you have created all of the conditions that made the building expensive to rehab? What are the “reasonable investment-backed expectations” of this business model?
And how do the neighbors like it? Well, if you are behind one of these single-house-owning-LLCs, you should reasonably expect that your investment and your business practice model are going to piss off the neighbors. Indeed, that is one of many reasons for putting the asset into a one-off corporate entity – to hide from the neighbors.
Heck, those pesky neighbors might insist that the city enforce the same regulations on you as they do on them. What’s that called? Equity?
No, not that kind of equity.
Time for a new business model.
An even better business model: Buy a perfectly lovely old house, DO NOTHING to the point of actively resisting neighbor’s attempts to lease it, encourage vagrants to collect on the property, and then WAIT for the neighbors to demand demolition because of all the problems the property is causing. YOU aren’t causing the problems, the property is. Did I mention you needed to excise your moral compass and human integrity to follow this business model? No problem? Good!
JULY 2021 UPDATE
I noticed that the Louisiana legislature is considering a bill that would allow New Orleans to double the fines for violating building permits to $1,000 a day to “deter bad actors”. That would be good here as well.
Fires have hit two historic houses in the last couple of weeks and it reminds me of the tragedy of losing landmarks to fire. The first was a stunning Alta Vista bungalow that was NOT occupied. Of course, if you have a building that is not occupied and not secured, it IS occupied by homeless. In winter, fire becomes even more likely.
Indeed, that is what caused the fire at the old Lone Star brewery a year ago. Sadly, this bungalow has not been cared for by the owners. The other fire was next to a landmark, but one man called to say the home had been visited by two presidents, something we are looking into.
Fire, fire, fire. One of the biggest gut punches I ever felt was returning to Chicago from New York in 2006 and seeing the news that Pilgrim Baptist Church had burned – an architectural landmark (originally KAM synagogue) by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler and a cultural icon as the home of gospel music founder Thomas Dorsey.
That year saw two of Louis Sullivan’s buildings burn and another demolished in a perverse and macabre celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. I blogged about it here and witnessed the second fire from the Loop train platform.
The two 2006 Sullivan fires were caused by dodgy tradesmen using torches where they should not have been using torches. Shortcuts. Fauler Mistkerl.
I saw it with an 1830s Greek Revival house in Lockport in 2000 when they used heat guns to strip paint, ignoring the 150 year old newspaper packed into the walls. They went to lunch and it burned down.
Sometimes it is deliberate. Another gut punch was a weekend we took the dog for a walk in Humboldt Park and saw that the stunning 1896 Fromman and Jebsen Stables Building had been torched.
Back here in San Antonio we had that dramatic fire in the historic gas station at Flores, Cevallos and Nogalitos a year ago. Fortunately the walls are still there and there is hope for a rebirth.
Interestingly, that old Pilgrim Baptist Church just got a big stabilization grant to help preserve those surviving walls nearly 15 years after the fire. Where there is a will, there is a way.
“It is better to seek forgiveness than permission.”
Unless you believe in justice and the rule of law. Or have an economist’s need for certainty and market stability. If you are just trying to get away with stuff, perdón beats permiso for sure. Yay criminality!
This is an attitude you come across in historic preservation – indeed, urban development in general – all the time. People just go ahead and whack away at their building without permits and hope they can get away with stuff.
Often they do. In San Antonio, violating a permit (or not having one) does not have a financial penalty. In some cases, the building owner can be required to put things back the way they were, although absent clear and malicious intent, that rarely happens. In other places, you can be fined up to $500 a day until you put it right.
Now take a gander at the above photo. What is it? It is a kiosk, I say. That is what the permit that was approved in 2018 said. A park with some trails and benches and a small retail kiosk.
So, the developers got an approval for a kiosk, which quietly morphed into a 5,000 square foot restaurant, plus 3,000 square feet of outdoor seating. Let’s hear it for open space!
This case is not the malicious building owner as much as the misdirecting one, and often it is the city facilitating the sleight-of-hand. We (Conservation Society) called it “bait-and-switch” in our statement, which recalled the drawings from 2018 which included no restaurant at all.
We do see this from the development community, especially between the “conceptual approval” of a development and “final approval.” “Conceptual approval” will often feature nicely finished new buildings, which then get dumbed down into cereal boxes by value engineers prior to “final approval.” Or, the old building they promised to save has deteriorated so much (often by active undermining) that they can no longer save it, it costs too much cry cry cry.
I think it would be better if we got back to a level playing field where ALL building owners played by the same rules, and promises made one year were still valid the next. Here’s hoping that an era of sneaking and cheating comes to an end.
JULY 2021 UPDATE
I noticed that the Louisiana legislature is considering a bill that would allow New Orleans to double the fines for violating building permits to $1,000 a day to “deter bad actors”. That would be good here as well.
Yesterday I watched a webinar conversation with Moshe Safdie and Balkrishna Doshi, two legendary architects who met in Louis Kahn’s office in the early 1960s. What was fascinating about the discussion was how little it was about “architecture” in terms of form or object. They spent most of the time talking about nature and culture and festivals and journeys.
Safdie noted that in the Abrahamic traditions, paradise is a garden, not a building. Doshi said that if you study nature, it is integrated and sustainable. It reminded me of what Frank Lloyd Wright said about his “organic” architecture – that everything belonged like the fingers on a hand or the branches on a tree.
But the analogy is still form-based at this point. Doshi’s main point was about festivals and culture and how a building is not complete until it is inhabited. That reminded me of Barry Byrne’s declaration that the design of the church was not complete until the priest was at the altar celebrating mass.
Doshi gave the 300-year old example of Maharajah Jai Singh II who built the Jantar Mantar, a series of scalable structures designed to allow people to study the stars and sky. He relished the action encouraged by these structures where a family could go and look at the sky.
Safdie talked about how Crystal Bridges art museum has become a community center for Bentonville. He also lamented the loss of urbanism – noting that in the 1960s it was impossible to think of architecture without urbanism, and today it is the opposite. We are focused on the form, not the process, on the object, not the activity, and on the individual rather than the community.
When I met Doshi in 2008 in Ahmedabad I had a fantastic architectural journey, including the stunning IIM, Le Corbusier’s Mill Owners Building and City Hall, the Adalaj stepwell and of course Doshi’s own work. But there were two sites that struck me not for their design, but their use. The first was the Manek Chowk, a plaza in the center of town that transforms its purpose three times every day, from livestock forage to shopping market to food court. It is a place defined by activities, not architectural forms.
I also happened to be there for Uttarayan, the kite festival where thousands of people go to their rooftops with their fighting kites (the Kite Runner is set in an Afghani version of this festival.) Hearing Doshi talk about festivals yesterday reminded me of this particular one, where the architecture is literally underfoot.
Both architects lamented to erosion of culture and while neither mentioned it, I thought about the radical individualization – atomization, really – occasioned by social media and the intergalactic webernet. Online interactions are the opposite of looking at the stars with your family.
It begins with Nature. People then create culture in and of the natural environment – agriculture, ritual, art and shelter. The essence of culture is in the gathering of people to work, to eat, to gather resources, to study, to play and to sing. Conserving culture is ever conserving place.
If it wasn’t enough that the San Antonio Housing Authority voted to demolish the Alazan Courts project (1940) just weeks after it was included on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered List (see my blog here), they are also moving to destroy the only piece left from Victoria Courts, an administration building from the same era 80 years ago.
Now, the building was found eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places by the Texas Historical Commission, so if SAHA is using federal funds or permits, then it is an “undertaking” and would have to be reviewed by THC in its role as State Historic Preservation Office. It doesn’t mean you can prevent demolition, but it can slow it down and allow people to reconsider.
When historic housing projects first became eligible for listing back in the mid-1990s, a lot of people and media attacked the notion that these hoity-toity preservationists were interfering with the noble goal of providing decent housing for the working poor. And no one does that better than a local housing authority.
Except that isn’t how it is done. The way housing authorities have worked for the last three decades is that they raze their old projects, partner with a private developer who gets tax credits for providing housing for people at 50 or 80 percent of median area income, while also providing market rate housing, thus eliminating economic ghettos and giving people a leg up.
As you may have guessed, this model is problematic, because by the time you displace a family for demolition and rebuilding, you are likely to never see them again. Moreover, the familiar pattern is like this – you slowly depopulate the project so when it is time to raze and redevelop, you have a far smaller number of people you are obligated to rehouse.
Interestingly, many clever developers have become adept at combining the low-income housing tax credits with the historic preservation tax credits. They even offered to help SAHA with Alazan-Apache, so we wrote SAHA and testified at their hearing.
Crickets. Again, nobody likes the hard work.
While San Antonio has a vibrant historic preservation sector with regulatory support, the City of Olmos Park within our borders does not. The latest egregious evidence of this is the proposed demolition of the Esther Vexler house at 330 Park Hill Drive.
This lovely mid-century modern home was designed by Allison Peery, the architect who coordinated HemisFair ’68, Esther Vexler taught yoga in the home into her 90s but before that was part of the first White House conference on Women and Children in 1963, went back to get her master’s in urban planning from Trinity at age 55 and helped create the Community Housing Development Corporation. Her numerous volunteer positions included serving as the first female president of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio.
The house itself has the low-slung horizontal hallmarks of the mid-century modern, from the anchoring stone end walls to popup clerestories, exposed rafter ends and second helpings of plate glass.
It’s the same old story. Kids sell the house to a buyer who pretends they want to save it but immediately knocks the house and sells the property for more than twice what they just bought it for (including the demo). Nice “work” if you can get it, although in my view you can’t call it work unless there is some effort and intelligence. This is the classic lazy flip.
And it is sad, because by the time anyone notices, the value has been artificially inflated to the demolition point. The real estate ads say “house has no value” as if that was a natural condition and not a manipulated one. Sad!
Photos courtesy Jill Vexler
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.