San Antonio Update May 2023
Fiesta is over, the IPW international travel network just completed a lovely visit to the Alamo City, and the State Legislature has almost completed its biennial shenanigans, one bit of which just hit the press and could have a negative impact on one of our treasured landmarks, the Institute of Texan Cultures, built in 1968 and a unique celebration of Texan diversity in a unique Brutalist building.
I wrote about this not long ago – the Conservation Society has been working to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, its owner, University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) completed a series of working groups looking at the future of the institute and insists it is looking at three possible options – keeping it where it is, keeping it in the Hemisfair area, and moving it elsewhere. The building – the focus of the Conservation Society – has long been rumored to be a potential site for a new highrise (as illustrated in an issue of Urban Land a few years back) or sports stadium.
Two things happened this week that bode ill for the building. First, the popular Asian Festival was moved from the site to the main downtown UTSA campus. This is a classic predemolition move akin to dozens I have witnessed since the 80s. Remove a beloved event/store/use from a building. Ideally replace it with something crappy that people want to get rid of, and then …poof – no one objects to demolition!
This was the classic example from 40 years ago. A beloved downtown grocery in Chicago where you could get apple-sized strawberries (this was before those became normal – GO GMO!) dipped in chocolate was closed first. Then the retail space became a shop selling two pairs of vinyl men’s pants for $9.99. Within a year or two everyone forgot about Stop N Shop and the exquisite 1930 Hillman’s building was demolished.
Eventually they did building something there. It was only vacant like this for 19 years. See my 2012 post here.
The second thing that happened is that the State Legislature passed a bill that basically gives a couple hundred million in tax revenues to the convention center and downtown sports stadiums. Given that the site of the Institute of Texan Cultures has long been rumored for a baseball (or basketball?) stadium, having a handy government funding source sure could help if it comes to undoing a big Brutalist landmark.
I understand the populist dislike for Brutalism, and even more I understand the Mischief of Modernism that made these amazing buildings in 1968, a Hubris of Scale that engenders an equally skewed approach to redevelopment in our own time.
Meanwhile, at the Alamo temporary constructions are EVERYWHERE. This is the South Gate, which is not a reconstruction but a modern interpretation of a feature that existed from the Mission era (1724) all the way until 1871. It is built atop the actual archaeological remains of the south gate, no easy feat. Just beyond it is the temporary Lunette, a palisaded fortification that exists for maybe 18 months in 1835-36, but since that includes the famous battle of the Alamo, there it is.
And cannon. The Alamo has gained an average of one cannon per year over the last seven years. You have been warned.
These are in addition to the also “temporary” Southwest rampart, with its massive 18-pounder cannon which went in a year ago. Oh, and they just got permission to build a “shade structure” just south of the Lunette in Plaza de Valero. The Conservation Society objected that this will obscure views of the Alamo.
I have a natural concern about “temporary” structures, with specific examples from the last 40 years. Sticking with Chicago, back in 1977 they wanted to build a bandshell in Grant Park, but thanks to a 1912 ruling, no buildings can be added to Grant Park (except the ones already there) which is why the Museum Campus is just south of the park. Now, if this had been the 21st century, they would have done what they did with Millennium Park – just build the buildings and then put the park on top of them! Problem solved!
Alas, this was the 1970s when people were wearing vinyl pants so they decided to build a “demountable structure” for the new bandshell. It was basically a fold-up tent they could erect and disassemble each year, thus not “building” in Grant Park. I remember seeing it the first year it went up. I have seen it since, because it has been demounted exactly 0 times in my lifetime. So, I tend to be suspicious.
More staying power than a traditional mortgage.
The shrine of Texas liberty. Never mind the bollards.
Coffee and beer and technology
I would like to correct my perspective. In the 17 plus years of this blog I have occasionally gone a little Luddite with some anti-technology rants, like this one back in 2007 or this one a few months ago. When you can remember rotary phones, priming carburetors and rolling your own slide film, you will occasionally become an old grouch. On the flip side, I get massively impatient at slow internet and the horrible jumping up and down on websites caused, I assume, by the damn cookies or whatever. I will join your revolution if I must, but please don’t have it at 17 miles an hour. – even I am not that slow.
Most pickup trucks are not to my taste but I found this one palette able.
I grumble about how external hard drives have special connectors designed to slip out of place if there is any percussive motion within three feet, such as typing on a keyboard; or how those same drives always have to be Force Ejected; or how Google needs me to login six times a day. I whine about how “Check Engine” lights are always on no matter what; and how whatever app you are in you will be forced to sign into another app in order to complete your business. But I admit readily that mostly it is progress, even if I have to call my daughter in to talk to the refrigerator. I don’t want to be the stereotypical grouch, especially as a student of history. We’ve been down this road before.
he stereotype of the old person grumbling about how things were better in their day is at least as old as recorded history. One of the things I could grumble about today is how the craft beer revolution that I was part of 30 years ago is now succumbing to hard seltzers and mango white claws – the offspring of Zima and grandchildren of wine coolers and “alcopops”. They have taken over 2-4 more coolers in the grocery store, squeezing out my beloved IPAs in favor of this flavored nonsense.
There is a Sumerian tablet from 2600 BC where the author – in perfect cuneiform – complains about how the coffee today (2600 BC) is watered down and everyone adds cream and spices (mango? chelada?) and it is no longer “like coffee” was back in my day. Harumph. The same tropes of the generationally challenged can be found in most all surviving literature – Greek comedies two thousand years younger than our grumpy old coffee man have identical characters, and Shakespeare in particular can be set in any time period and place without loss of authentically Harumphian stereotypes. Your generation is not special. All the other ones said the same thing. That’s how history works.
Fashion forward. Imagine what the Gibson girl connoted in 1910.
A week ago I joined the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s tour of the Hill Country, and it was replete with fachwerkbau, which is the German word for a type of building construction called half-timbered in English. Basically it is heavy timber joinery infilled in the wall plane with a local masonry material. In the Hill Country, that material is often local limestone.
This Old World technique came naturally to region settled in the mid-19th century by German farmers. Often they might begin, as at the 1856 Faltin House in Comfort, with a log structure, adding fachwerk sections over time.
The Klingelhoeffer House in Fredericksburg was originally built as a fachwerkbau “dogtrot” with a covered open passage between two rooms. The passage was later filled in and more rooms added to the rear.
One amazing little building was this fachwerkbau Chapel in Fredericksburg, which appeared to have been made entirely of extremely unruly curved logs.
A real cool feature here and in another house about a block away were the visible joiner’s marks, which told the builders which pieces of heavy timber fit next to which others. They were generally done in Roman numerals, although with “VIIII” substituting for “IX”!
Here is a view of the whole chapel
Most of these are not generally open, but you can visit the Pioneer Village in Fredericksburg and see the excellent Kammlah House and store, where you are treated to many view of heavy timber and fachwerkbau.
The area also has many of the rock houses, and I have to give props to Baylor’s Kenneth Hafertepe, who wrote the excellent The Material Culture of German Texas, which I wish I had read prior to working on a National Register nomination for one such rock house. They are ubiquitous in the area.
The Tatsch House in Fredericksburg has an amazing large hearth that appears to have been added after initial construction. This is a classic Hill Country “rock house” which often started with a single cubical rock room, with sections added over the years.
There is an article from The Atlantic making the social media rounds titled “Stop Fetishizing Old Homes” written by a planning professor from UCLA. He claims we are fetishizing the aesthetics of old houses when new houses are better in every way. Several people have asked what I make of this. I have a few thoughts:
First, he is mostly deriding construction built in the 1950s and 60s. Being in southern California, he talks a lot about dingbats and how he can hear his neighbors through the walls, etc. Here is the problem of taking 25 years of postwar architecture and making it speak for all historic buildings:
This was the brief window when energy was cheap and windows were single-paned. Yes, the walls were thin and no one cared. Like they cared in 2000. Like they cared in 1928. Like they cared in 1890.
The biggest mistake non-historians make is missing out on the ups and downs of history. They consider history one big bucket with one set of characteristics. When you are talking about old buildings, there are significant shifts in construction technique after 1930 and again in the current century. Heck, there were big shifts in construction in the 1840s.
Buildings considered their thermal qualities very carefully up until 1945, got a little careless in the 60s, and by 1980 they started caring again.
Every Victorian and bungalow had double paned windows. They were called storm windows. Government studies show that pre-1930 buildings thermally outperform those built up to about 2000. Dude should spend a week in Cleveland or Chicago. Oddly, he calls out the Chicago graystone as being the dingbat of its era. I owned a 1906 Chicago graystone for six years and spent the decade afterwards dreaming about it because it was so damn good. Couldn’t hear the neighbors. Steam radiators worked. Built in ice boxes, nice hardwood floors, real plaster everywhere. You CANNOT buy the materials that was made out of. They aren’t for sale anywhere.
His main complaints are lead paint, asbestos and accessibility. We have had three decades of mandated accessibility, nearly five of lead-free paint, and even more since we used asbestos. I am in the process of researching another house, also 1906, which remediated those things in 1990. I remediated those things from my 1898 house. Now they are equivalent to the Dude’s precious new construction except mine has plaster walls that retain their structural stability when they are 75% wet and your piece of contemporary chicanery is made of drywall that fails at 6% wet.
The most interesting aspect of the lead paint, asbestos and accessibility argument is that it is never thought through. Okay – how y’all gettin’ rid of those bad things? See Lead Paint, Asbestos, and Other Excuses here.
A whole section of the article reads like the old “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” advert, which is neither a sales technique nor a rhetorical strategy you want to emulate.
But even making the argument above might not get through to this guy because, to him, it is all aesthetic. That’s what bothers me most, the idea of fetishization. To me preservation is about history and sustainability. I am not precious. I get bothered by the fetishists. Here are some of my blogs that illustrate that. I get sick up and fed with the idea that what preservation is doing is first of all aesthetic.
It was once, yes, but that was a lifetime ago. Dude considers preservation an aesthetic pursuit either because he is unaware of the last 35 years of the discipline or because he is into zoning, where there are no individuals. (Another blog on that subject here.)
He also resurrects the 12-year old Ed Glaeser canard that preservation and regulation inhibit new development. This argument seems to have logic. It would be better if it had EVIDENCE. Like the 96% of every city in North America that is not affected by landmarks laws???
Plus, how can he call for millions of new buildings? He advocates for an extinction level new construction event. He ignores the environmental cost of new construction, not to mention demolition.
We need to understand that the author is a professor of zoning. In zoning everything is a commodity and houses are like the grains of wheat in a grain elevator – you don’t care where they came from or where they are going. Just how many there are and what grade they are.
Finally, the subhead is about how new construction is better but even he admits what every developer I have every talked to admits easily. New homes are only built to last as long as a mortgage – 30-40 years. I hope you like your carbon diet, Dude!
February 2 UPDATE: I was being generous about saying they would last 30 to 50 years. Look what happened to these NOLA houses in about a dozen years:
Options, Upgrades and the elaboration spiral
It has been a while since I indulged in a technology rant. Here is one from 14 years ago. Here is an even better one from 10 years ago. And while the intelligent rant to undertake in 2021 would dissect the opioid-like distribution of emotional internet content in an effort to secure money or power via rampant interactive dopamine addiction, I will forego this more worthy endeavor and stick to my grumpy old mannerisms.
I ride a bicycle, and for the last two years I have recorded my rides on Strava, an app on my phone. I started doing this because our health insurance gives us rewards via Go365 – another app – for exercising. Strava records the rides and shares the info with Go365 and if we ride a lot in a given week, we get bonus points. Strava is free, but they have been desperate to convert me and other users into paying customers. What do they offer? More options, upgrades, and most insidious of all – suggesting new routes. I would almost pay NOT to have that.
The problem is, the app already has too many options. I like to know how far and fast I went, and the altitude business is kinda fun, but comparing my Attagirl to McCullough sprint to the rest of the users is stretching the bounds of my attention. If you wanted me to pay for it, you should not have included everything I need (or could ever want) in the free version.
But they are counting on a natural human tendency to get into things. To elaborate. To get more technical, more gadgety. To explore more options. To geek out. To get complex is naturally to get contradictory. I think there is an architecture book about that. It can be nice in the visual arts. When it is technology, i,.e., when it is supposed to be a tool – Not so nice.
I get it a little – I tend to geek out on information. History, historic preservation, the history of zoning (god that sounds boring), art history, even music a little. But basically I am looking for a certain level of competency and involvement, and that’s it.
I made my own beer for 19 years, and then quit. I made it with malt syrup kits for about 18 months and then I graduated to an all-grain system which I used for the next 17 years, occasionally adding hops or coriander seed from the garden. It was kind of elaborate for 1995, but by 2012 I continued to make decent, quaffable suds without any desire to design a hop-back, invest in a counterflow chiller or experiment with Brett or lactose. I had a system and it worked and elaboration was for others.
When someone tells me that an app “does so much more” that is super unappealing. That means it needs me to work more. I am dealing with Blackboard after a 9-year teaching hiatus, and I am told it does lots more. My interest is getting the materials online, attendance and grading, which of course are three separate sections of the app (and in the case of grading a separate app) none of which are named appropriately. Grading? DON’T go to the section called “Grades.” Attendance? DON’T go the section called “Attendance.” Want to the see the Readings listed in the Syllabus and Schedule? DO NOT go to the section called “Syllabus and Schedule.”
Now the old rants are coming back. I resisted digital photography until 2005, partly because I had a “shift” lens on my camera that allowed me to straighten the edges of tall buildings, correcting the perspective of the image. The digital cameras did not do that, but my colleague assured me I could do it in Photoshop. “Oh, Great,” I responded, “two steps instead of one.” Stealing my time, making me do the work instead of the tech. Bad tool!
I used to do lots of writing for Michelin Green Guides and I can assure you that Word 5.1 was the best word processing program. This is long before “Clippy” or “Grammarly” helped those folks sadly deprived of two of the three Rs to write gooderer. Upgrades – elaborations – ruined it.
Even this damn blog has some wonky new WordPress featurette that forces me to go back to the beginning every time I stop and do something else. This reduces efficiency and makes it take longer – same with the images, which are now impossible to scroll through thanks to the latest upgrades.
But actually, the wonkiness of old and overdesigned apps ENHANCES their appeal to geekdom for the same reasons they annoy the happy novice like me. The point of elaboration is to MAKE IT HARDER, not easier! The geeks who designed it, who troubleshot it, who hack it and who find it fun would NOT find it fun and worth all of their effort if it was intuitive and efficient. As someone said about something else: The cruelty IS the point.
Similarly, when I have to take two (more in 2021) steps to correct the perspective on an image, I am doing more work and the technology is doing demonstrably less, even if, in bits and bytes and sensors, it is doing “more.” Here is where we discover the motive for elaboration and overelaborated technology.
POWER. That is where the cruelty is the point. I remember a discussion with a printer almost 20 years ago about how people were abandoning the offset press for a variety of self-publishing software. He explained it simply.
“People will trade quality for control.”
They will be happy with a less good product if they get to drive it.
They will be pleased with less efficient technology because they “get it” and I don’t.
Just don’t pretend elaboration is progress or upgrades are efficient.
You want to know what is efficient? Stone steps in high jungle. Talk about reducing friction in the 10th century.
Preservation, Technology and Preciosity
Most of my four decade career in heritage conservation has followed the arc away from the preciousness of the museum and toward what my old friend Randy Mason would call “values-centered preservation” – what the new generation calls “human-centered.” Yet the old stereotypes persist. Last Thursday I again heard that preservation meant you had to use the same kind of wood and you had to use only certain paint colors. Fortunately, many in the room realized those two statements were not true in almost every situation, so I did not have to explain it alone.
Twenty years ago I presented my first illustrated rant about restoring and replacing windows. It is the one arena where I exhibit preciosity, but it is also just simple good sense – you can’t make a new window as good as the old ones. The wood doesn’t exist. The rant followed a meeting with a collection of downtown building owners in Chicago who complained that if they were landmarked they would have to replace their windows with wood windows.
Twenty years ago, my reply: IF you can’t keep your original windows, I DON’T CARE if the new ones are wood, metal, graphite or even plastic as long as they look like the original ones. And paint color? There are HOAs that mandate paint color, but generally historic districts and landmarks DO NOT. I used to teach the famous San Antonio case of Sandra Cisneros (originally from Chicago) who got in trouble for painting her house a wild periwinkle color, but she won in court anyway and there are almost no places that regulate paint color, including here.
At The Conservation Society of San Antonio we have approved building grants in historic districts which use modern polymers rather than wood for front porch decking. I saw these products at the Historic Homeowner Fair years ago and I like them for a couple reasons.
Firstly, as with the windows, save the original, dense, fine-grained historic wood if you can. If you can’t, find something that lasts. Modern wood is rarely straight, never dense, and prone to decay. Secondly, this is South Texas where wooden porches are the sun’s favorite snack.
A major goal of heritage conservation is to keep existing structures around by repurposing them for the future. 95% of historic preservation is REHABILITATION – not restoration. There are a few museum structures that should be treated with utmost care and preciosity, but 19 out of 20 times that is not the goal. It isn’t even the goal for “museum” sites. My dear late friend Jim Vaughan wrote a great article in 2008 “Rethinking the Rembrandt Rule” that argued we have to stop treating every item in the museum as a Rembrandt. That is especially a problem in house museums, whose collections would be best preserved if they were NOT in an old building that we are also trying to preserve.
Moreover, if everything is “hands-off” there will be no hands raised when the site needs saving. That’s the point of human-centered preservation. Preservation is a community deciding what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. AND the best way of doing that.
In the everyday, the prime directive for us is to help buildings, structures and sites survive to the next generation. That generation will have to save them again anyway. And they might decide to restore some to a museum standard. If we save them, even imperfectly, the next generation will have that option.
Previous window rants can be seen here, and here, and here, and here for starters….
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.
Museums in Old Buildings
For the last five years, the Conservation Society had advocated for the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings and their re-use as the new Alamo museum. Without every saying so, the Alamo has favored a new building, partly because they want to reveal where part of the western wall was, which I discussed at length last month here. I ended that blog noting that the Woolworth Building was to be a museum of airplanes a little over 20 years ago.
The San Antonio Museum of Art, the Briscoe and almost every other museum in San Antonio is in a historic building. Some, like the McNay and the Witte, have new additions, which is what we proposed for the Woolworth and Crockett.
How are world class museums made? Perhaps you recognize some of these.
You can throw in the Prado, the Alhambra and the Hermitage as well. Locally, we have….
The Alamo museum intends to focus its interpretation on the famed 1836 battle. So, their illustrations have lots of cannons, which, while smaller than airplanes, do need a little space.
Some of the unpublished museum images show the cannons safely indoors and many of the outdoors one will be replicas. In the absence of imagery, perhaps the museum will look like this?
Hmm. What does the outside of this museum look like?
Oh! It’s a historic building! How about this display replete with conquistador astride a horse:
What does this museum look like on the outside?
Kinda looks a lot like the Woolworth Building. Except in both of these cases the column spacing is not as flexible as the Woolworth Building.
The Alamo is warning that it is do or die time for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. The next hurdle? Texas Historical Commission will decide whether the 1940 Cenotaph can be moved a few hundred feet to the south.
Efficiency and Excess
There is an odd relationship in human nature between efficiency and its seeming polar opposite: excess. I was riding my bike this morning and I was thinking about roads as an example of efficiency and excess.
I wasn’t just thinking about the first hard roads in the 1910s and 20s, nor even the ginormous roller-coaster-like interstate interchanges I regularly drive here in San Antonio.
No, what I was actually thinking of were ancient MesoAmerican roads, like the stone staircases in Ciudad Perdida where the Tayrona (in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, present-day Colombia) made high wet jungle efficient and interconnected beginning in the 7th century.
Which was efficient but then they just kept building more and more way beyond the point of efficiency. A little further north, I recalled Richard Hansen in Guatemala’s Mirador Basin declaring that the Maya collapsed because they kept building these lime pathways through their jungle, depleting their resources in the process as the paths grew deeper and deeper. I thought he was overstating the case, but I thought differently this morning.
Roads are very efficient until they aren’t. Like the paradox of building more roads and traffic getting worse, elements of efficiency in the course of human history can indeed become elements of excess until eventually the muscle memory of the efficiency carries the idea of efficiency along like a legend even as you sit two hours to travel thirty miles.
“All roads lead to Rome” and indeed the Pax Romana was based on the efficiency of trade and movement in the ancient world at a level it would not see again for a millennium. I saw a video recently that charged that the road’s led to Rome’s demise by bringing the barbarian armies in more efficiently. Did they turn to excess? Were they status symbols?
In Mechanization Takes Command, Siegfried Giedion talked about guns as the first single-stroke combustion engine, and indeed here is a tool we have proliferated beyond proliferation. From efficiency to excess and from utility to status symbol.
Well, how did I get from roads to guns? How did we get from tools to totems? How does efficiency turn into excess?
And here we go again
Well, it is once again time to win the “I canceled it first” race as the headless response to COVID-19 coronavirus spends its fifth month in the fifty random states of America. Here in Texas we are in a severe situation, outgunned only by Florida, Arizona and Southern California.
Something of this scale has not happened in a century, and a virus this virile and multidextrous has not been seen in modern times. Ebola was tons deadlier, but it killed fast, whereas the novel coronavirus doesn’t even let you know you are spreading it until you have.
Leadership, versed only in the news cycle, has failed badly in response to the longer cycle of the disease. The needless and childish politicization of masks and social distancing has led to the ONLY POSSIBLE OUTCOME it could, and the former USA no longer has the respect of other nations. Pity, perhaps, from a few. Schadenfreude, likely, from the majority.
Recently the Fiesta Commission, in concert with the Mayor, canceled the November Fiesta. Back in March it had been rescheduled from April to November. Now November is gone. The action followed both a spike in cases and hospitalizations, although what it really followed was the news cycle, beginning with an editorial telling the Mayor to do it on Sunday and the cancellation of Austin City Limits and the Texas State Fair. The original decision date was six weeks away.
It is amazing how well things go when you operate with a few basic protocols. Masks. Temperature scans. Sanitizing and hand washing. Over the last ten weeks in my company we have done these things and we have had no spread. Just like Hong Kong and Vietnam and South Korea.
But at the end of the day we are not on lockdown anymore – certain businesses like bars and hotels are being ruined – but you can still hold events, like the farmer’s market where everyone follows the rules and it is pretty much the same density and diversity it was before COVID. We will have to live like this for longer – we could take a cue from the countries that have been doing it for a full generation.