Integrating History: The Role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights Legacy

February 4, 2020 Blog, Global Heritage, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 128

Our World Monument Watch Day Event took place this past Saturday at the double-height courtroom of the Bexar County Courthouse, and it was stupendous. We had five excellent speakers who offered new insights into the role of Alamo Plaza and specifically the Woolworth Building in the story of Civil Rights in Bexar County.

The entrance to the Woolworth’s lunch counter as it appears today.

You can see a full video of the event here. It began with a welcome from Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Conservation Society President Patti Zaiontz. Then, 16-year old Taylor Andrews, grandniece of Mary Lilian Andrews, read the letter that Mary wrote – at age 17 – in March, 1960 asking the downtown lunch counters to integrate.

Mary Andrews and friend appear at Woolworth’s following the integration – Jet magazine, March 31, 1960.

Her letter, as Youth President of the NAACP San Antonio branch, led to a mass meeting on March 13, 1960. The meeting of 1500 persons agreed that a sit-in demonstration should begin on March 17. Business and religious leaders gathered on Tuesday and convinced seven downtown lunch counters to peacefully and voluntarily integrate on Wednesday, March 16, 1960, a first for the South. Jackie Robinson was in town Friday and said – in a Page 1 New York Times article – that it was “a story that should be told around the world.”

I gave a background of the issue – how the Conservation Society got the building listed on the state’s Most Endangered List in 2016, shortly after the state purchased it. Then the 2017 Alamo master plan and the 2018 Alamo interpretive plan. It was that 2018 plan that illustrated the Woolworth replaced with a new building. They have always wanted to reclaim the “footprint” of the original mission and battlefield, even though there are no archaeological remains (the buildings have basements)

Besides, there is more footprint under the northern buildings.

The Conservation Society has consistently argued FOR a new Alamo museum WITHIN the Woolworth and Crockett Building facades. We even released a plan this May illustrating exactly that.

In May Woolworth’s was designated a State Antiquities Landmark and in October it was listed on the World Monuments Watch List 2020, one of 25 sites in the world. You can read all about that here. Thanks to that designation, we have hosted a series of events, including the symposium, held on February 1, the 60th anniversary of the very first sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Our first speaker was Everett Fly, who traced a series of Civil Rights events on Alamo Plaza, beginning back in the 1880s when an African-American group successfully sued the Mayor for denying their right to assemble there. Everett passionately defended the character of the Alamo city, where diverse groups were more likely than other places to mingle, and Alamo Plaza was the premier place they did so.

Everett Fly, FASLA

Next was Dr. Tara Dudley of University of Texas – Austin, an expert on the National Register. African-Americans are nearly 13% of Texas’ population but are represented in less than 5% of our National Register properties. Indeed, the Woolworth Building National Register listing from 40 years ago is only about its excellent architecture and the Civil Rights story was not told until it was listed as a State Antiquities Landmark in 2019.

Dr. Tara Dudley

Dr. Bruce Winders, who was Alamo historian and curator for 23 years until last July, voiced his support for keeping the buildings on Alamo Plaza and not destroying them to recreate a space that became a city more than a century and a half ago. You don’t tear down a real historic building to reveal the site of a long-lost wall.

Dr. Bruce Winders

Dr. Todd Moye of the University of North Texas shared some videos from his Civil Rights in Black and Brown project, which has collected more than 500 oral histories from veterans of the Civil Rights movement in Texas. He described in vivid and unpleasant detail what the sit-in activists faced in other cities, further underscoring the unique response of San Antonio.

Dr. Todd Moye

Finally, Dr. Kathryn O’Rourke gave a rousing presentation on how plazas have defined the power relationships in a society from the Renaissance forward. She passionately related how Alamo Plaza is a civic space made richer by its layered history and legacy of freedom of expression over the last century and a half. She received a standing ovation.

Dr. Kathryn O’Rourke

Everyone agreed that the Symposium was a roaring success, with five excellent speakers and nearly 100 engaged participants. It proved that the story of Woolworth’s and the other lunch counters resonates with people and can be a force for preservation.

Many thanks to sponsors Bexar County Commissioner’s Court, World Monuments Fund, H-E-B and the San Antonio Public Library. You can view the full symposium here.

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Upcoming Events: World Monuments Watch Day!

January 14, 2020 Global Heritage, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 67

Join us for these upcoming events celebrating the inclusion of the San Antonio Woolworth Building on the 2020 World Monuments Watch List!

🍩Friday January 17, 2020 🍩

10:30 to Noon – Talk, tour and donuts outside the Woolworth Building, 518 E. Houston Street.  Gather next door at Moses Rose’s, 516 E. Houston Street to hear first-person recollections of the early Civil Rights era, the Woolworth’s lunch counter, and its famous potato donuts!  Everett Fly will offer a tour of the civil rights sites in Alamo Plaza.  We will distribute flyers regarding our official World Monuments Watch Day event January 31-February 1 and pass out free donuts!

🚶‍♂️Monday, January 20, 2020🚶‍♂

10:00 AM – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. March.  Join the Coalition for the Woolworth Building as we participate in the nation’s largest Martin Luther King march.  Information about the campaign to Save the Woolworth!, an important African-American landmark, will be available in the park following the march.

👀Friday, January 31, 2020👀

3:00 PM – Press Conference featuring World Monuments Fund President Benedicte de Montlaur regarding the San Antonio Woolworth Building’s inclusion on the World Monuments Fund 2020 Watch List for the “underrepresented narrative” of Civil Rights history on Alamo Plaza.

🏛️Saturday, February 1, 2020 🏛️

10:00 AM to 3:00 PM – Symposium: “Integrating History: The Role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights Legacy.”  Bexar County Courthouse, double-height courtroom.  Scholars of African-American history, architecture and preservation discuss the important legacy of civil rights in the Woolworth Building and throughout Alamo Plaza.

VOLUNTEER:  RSVP to conserve@saconservation.org or call 210-224-6163

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Woolworth Building, Alamo Plaza: End of 2019

December 27, 2019 Blog, Economics, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 223

San Antonio Woolworth Building, 2019

2019 was a big year for the San Antonio Woolworth Building. In May, the Conservation Society and the Coalition for the Woolworth Building released a study showing how the historic Crockett and Woolworth Buildings could be incorporated into the new Alamo Museum.

Also in May, the Woolworth Building was named a State Antiquities Landmark. Then in October, the Conservation Society and the Coalition for the Woolworth Building constructed an ofrenda in honor of Mary Lilian Andrews, the 17-year old NAACP youth branch leader who initiated the sit-in movement’s first peaceful and voluntary lunch counter integration in the south on Wednesday, March 16, 1960.

It won a prize!

Also in October, the San Antonio Woolworth Building was named to the 2020 World Monuments Fund Watch List, one of only 3 sites in the U.S. This led to a rash of publicity in favor of saving the building. So the question is – where are we today?

If you want to know the plan for the Woolworth Building, just look at my blog from August, 2018. It’s all there.

It’s 2019. You don’t change your plans just because the public doesn’t like them. The lack of public influence on the plan was one of the reasons that historian Bruce Winders left the Alamo in 2019 after 23 years.

40 years ago

In an effort to regain the PR momentum, the Alamo announced that it had studied the lunch counter integration and would fund a 5,000 square foot institute on Civil Rights history at the Kress Building, two blocks to the west on Houston Street. The institute – led by Dr. Carey Latimore of Trinity University – is a good thing.

Same photo I used in August 2018.

But why can’t they interpret that history at the Alamo Museum? The museum is supposed to be 130,000 square feet. They can’t spare 5,000?

They have the entrance. Why the obvious reluctance to incorporate the Woolworth Building – the most prominent of the Plaza’s three Civil Rights sites and the commercial lynchpin that once connected Alamo and Houston Streets?

Follow The Money

Besides dealing with the Woolworth publicity, the Alamo is getting sued by Native American groups concerned about burials as well as Defender descendants concerned about the Cenotaph. To regain PR momentum, they announced that the Cenotaph restoration and relocation would begin in early 2020. The interesting fact about this announcement is that it is achieved not through the long-promised $300 million in private donations, but with $38 million in previously secured city bond money.

The only part of the Alamo plan so far not paid for by the public.

The new Alamo Museum design is not yet revealed, and you usually need that – plus half the money during the “silent phase” – in order to generate your centimillionaire donations. Here we are five years and well over $100 million of taxpayer money into the project and it is still being directed by private donors who haven’t chipped in yet.

Civil Rights History

Dr. Latimore was hired to prepare a study on the social history of the Alamo Plaza and nearby buildings for the Alamo. He has argued that the Kress was the first lunch counter integrated, not the Woolworth. Hence the institute there.

Last year’s MLK march, San Antonio

The whole point of the negotiated, voluntary, peaceful integration in San Antonio was that no one had to go first. And, as Dr, Gregory Hudspeth, President of the San Antonio branch of the NAACP said to Dr. Latimore – Woolworth’s was the most important site to San Antonians. It was where you grabbed a donut as you changed buses to the south, east or west sides of the city. It was where the sit-in movement started in Greensboro, N.C. As I noted four months ago, Woolworth’s was lamented when it closed – Kress was not.

The Express-News sent out photographers and reporters to Woolworth’s lunch counter on March 16, 1960. The photographer’s log clearly states F.W. Woolworth and says 12 photo negatives were used. The photo of the young man looking into the window (reproduced in the mural) is clearly Woolworth’s, but the interior shots look like Kress. It would not be normal procedure for the photographer to visit another location without making a correction, but we do know that the San Antonio Light called out Kress. The conclusion would be that photographers and reporters went to Woolworth’s, found no photo ops, and continued to Kress where they found black and white customers. You can see the photos here. Another photo appeared in the Greensboro, N.C. paper on the 17th.

Mary Lilian Andrews and friend after integration, 1960 – original image in Jet magazine.

The event was covered by the local papers on March 16 and 17, followed by positive editorials celebrating how San Antonio was setting an example of peace in an era of conflict. “San Antonio can set the example for the whole nation” said the San Antonio News on March 17, 1960. The day before it quoted Fr. Erwin Juraschek, one of the religious leaders who negotiated the agreement stating “This city can make a fine name for itself throughout the country and the world.” and of course there is Jackie Robinson’s quote in The New York Times on March 20: “This is a story that should be told around the world.”

Thanks to the World Monuments Fund, that story is finally being told around the world.

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Givings

November 26, 2019 Blog, Economics, Texas Comments (0) 174

Recently the City Council passed a resolution that would require that any amendments proposed to the Uniform Development Code be subject to an economic impact analysis to see how much cost they would add to new developments. Many community activists are concerned that this would stifle public input, although the intention was to identify what extra costs would be passed on to consumers.

Like requiring materials that don’t burn so fast.

I don’t think it will limit public input, but the opponents raised a really interesting question. Why is the question of economic impact always one-sided, namely the side of the developer?

How many of these lights are private?

For centuries there has been debate over the issue of “takings.” “Takings” is when the government takes your property and has to pay you for it. About a century ago some clever lawyers came up with the idea of “regulatory takings” – whereby you put so many regulations on a property you stripped it of all its value. As with most clever concepts, it hit a hard stop in reality when even the prohibition of all development on a beach site in the Carolinas did not zero out property value (Lucas, 1989)

Mercury not so rising – Gotta love New York zoning 1960s style!

Here’s what gets me: Why doesn’t anyone talk about “givings?” Like when New York City doubled the zoning envelope in 1961, effectively giving every landowner a massive boost in asset value. Chicago did the same in 1957 – we were all going to be living on Mars by 2000 anyway, so it didn’t matter. Every bit of IDZ spot-zoning is a public “giving” to a private property owner. That’s what needs to be quantified.

One house becomes four! It’s magic! It’s Giving!

“Givings” are in fact central to the entire history of real estate. In the 19th century canals and railroads were financed by the sale of public land along their routes. Kind of like TIRZ (TIF). In the 20th century it was hard roads and then interstate highways. Today it is tax increment financing, bonds and incentive packages.

Check out legend lower right – a literal monument to hard roads.

The entire history of real estate development is a history of chasing public subsidies, primarily transportation. You hear “Location, location, location” and what that means is “transportation, markets, infrastructure.” Two-thirds of that recipe is public.

I’m not saying public support is bad. I have supported public subsidies of private developments that really made a difference. I’m just saying you need to count on both sides.

preferably without alienating the commodity

Back in the 1980s, there were so-called “impact fees” that municipalities would assess new residential developments that required new sewers, schools, streets, sidewalks, security, etc. That led to whining, which led to the era of “property rights” and by the 90s there were attempts in Congress to compensate owners for the reduction in the property value caused by regulations.

In a city that still has height limits…

That silliness aside, the question has always been formulated on only one side of the equation: What are they taking from the property owner?

I would like to see a strict accounting of what we are GIVING.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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San Antonio Woolworth on World Monuments Watch List 2020

October 31, 2019 Blog, Global Heritage, History, Texas Comments (0) 435

Woolworth Building on the morning of the announcement, October 29, 2019

Notre Dame. Machu Picchu. Easter Island. San Antonio Woolworth. We are in good company.

The Woolworth Building was the heart of the first voluntary and peaceful integration of lunch counters in the South achieved a place on the World Monuments Fund Watch List 2020. #WorldMonumentsWatch

The list includes 25 sites around the world, from more than 20 countries. The San Antonio Woolworth is one of three in the U. S., and one of only seven featured in the World Monuments Fund video of the Watch List.

2018 Mural derived from photo taken March 16, 1960

Why? Because the Woolworth Building in San Antonio tells the story of unique moment during the Sit-In movement when a community decided to integrate before any demonstrations were held. It is a story that Jackie Robinson, in town two days later, said should be told around the world. Today the story is finally being told around the world.

It was another big week for the Woolworth Building, with our prize winning ofrenda to NAACP Youth leader Mary Andrews, who spurred the integration over the weekend and the World Monuments Watch announcement on Tuesday. It was like May when we announced our compromise plan for Alamo Plaza one day and secured State Antiquities Landmark Status a few days later!

Clipping from Jet Magazine, March 31, 1960.

Kudos to the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, which includes the local branch of the NAACP, The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, the Westside Preservation Alliance, and many more. You can read about the Coalition here.

November 7 UPDATE: Great coverage from the Toronto Star this week!

Also a nice local TV spot from Kens5.

Above the fold!

NOVEMBER 9 UPDATE: Judge Wolff supports the Woolworth and The Conservation Society plan!

NOVEMBER 23 UPDATE: San Antonio Express-News editorial endorses preservation of the Woolworth Building!

NOVEMBER 26 UPDATE: Elaine Ayala writes an open letter to Phil Collins!

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Mary Andrews Ofrenda

October 26, 2019 Blog, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 618

This weekend there is an ofrenda honoring the life of Mary Lilian Andrews, the 17-year old Our Lady of the Lake student and youth NAACP President who spurred the integration of lunch counters in San Antonio. Just a month after the first sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, she wrote to seven downtown lunch counters urging integration.

A mass meeting was held a week later and demonstrations planned for Thursday, March 17. City, business and religious leaders got together on Tuesday and the lunch counters were integrated Wednesday without incident. Two days later Jackie Robinson spoke at La Villita and compared San Antonio’s achievement to his integration of Major League Baseball.

A detail of the ofrenda – you can vote for it!

In a Page 1 New York Times article on March 20, 1960, Robinson said what San Antonio did was a “story that should be told around the world.” For her part, Mary Andrews was photographed getting a Coke at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in the March 31, 1960 issue of Jet magazine.

Derived from the Jet magazine photo of Mary Andrews at Woolworth’s, 1960.

Mary Andrews sadly passed away 20 years ago but the Coalition for the Woolworth Building worked with her family to develop the ofrenda, aided by artist Chris King and spearheaded by Beth Standifird of the Conservation Society of San Antonio. Even her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority contributed.

The top of the ofrenda is designed to mimic the cornice of the famed 1921 Woolworth Building, which became a State Antiquities Landmark in May.

Papel picado banners down the side spell out “Civil Rights”.

The front of the ofrenda is designed like the Woolworth lunch counter, complete with salt and pepper shakers, Woolworth’s menu and representations of the legendary Woolworth’s donuts. The “Woolworth’s” legend on the sidewalk at the entrance (still visible on Houston Street) forms a floor in front of the altar.

Mary’s other passions, from piano to Ford Mustangs, are also represented, along with a multitude of flowers and lights.

Placemats with calaveras quote the letter Mary wrote to the lunch counters nearly 60 years ago.

Members of the Coalition and the local branch of the NAACP will be on hand today to answer questions about Mary. We are located right on Alamo Street south of Nueva right at the entrance to the Muertos Fest.

Please come visit during the free festival this weekend and vote for our ofrenda!

For more about the Woolworth Building effort, see The Conservation Society website here!

SUNDAY NIGHT UPDATE: Our ofrenda won second place!

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Support for the Woolworth Building

August 29, 2019 Blog, Historic Districts, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 487

Late last year, the Conservation Society joined together with several other organizations to form the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, the 1921 structure at Alamo and Houston Streets that was the first Woolworth’s lunch counter to integrate peacefully and voluntarily during the sit-in movement of 1960. I wrote about the Coalition earlier this year HERE.

Last year the City turned the whole project over to the State of Texas, owner of the Woolworth, Palace and Crockett buildings since 2015. For four years we have advocated a plan that would incorporate the buildings into the new Alamo museum. Recently that plan was endorsed by the Society of Architectural Historians.

Notice the North Wall, critical in the 1836 battle, remains under buildings.

We decided to envision what the 1921 Woolworth Building and its neighbor the 1882 Crockett Building would look like as part of the new museum. We hired an architect. We called it the compromise plan because we gave up on a bunch of issues we fought for last summer, like fencing the plaza, closing the streets, moving the Cenotaph and even preserving the 1926 Palace Building.

The plan envisions a reveal of the location of the west wall of the Alamo compound INSIDE the existing buildings. Elimination of the Palace Building simplifies the problem of misaligned floorplates, and a large addition behind and above the Crockett and Woolworth provides the 130,000 square feet the Alamo desires.

Most importantly, the plan maintains the integrity of century-old buildings and allows the interpretation of the Mission period, the 1836 battle, and the 1960 Civil Rights movement. This makes the site appeal to more tourists.

Recently the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, which includes our San Antonio branch of the NAACP, West Side Preservation Alliance, San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, SAGE, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and others, noted that it will also be a draw for Civil Rights tourism, a rare growth area in the museum industry. (See my blog on this topic a couple months ago HERE.)

The lunch counter is gone, but the entrance remains.

Plus, it retains authentic historic fabric rather than removing it for a location of a wall that is entirely gone. The buildings have basements.

The location of the west wall revealed – in the shade!

Sadly, and despite the multiple concessions we made to our earlier position (and 7,000+ petitions!) the Alamo dissed our plan. They said – as I predicted 364 days ago HERE – that the lunch counter story could be told at one of the other lunch counters that also integrated on March 16, 1960.

This was painted in 2018 – we have not forgotten

When Jet magazine decided to honor Mary Lilian Andrews, the 17-year old Our Lady of the Lake college student who wrote the letters asking the downtown lunch counters to integrate, they photographed her in Woolworth’s.

Woolworth’s was the symbol of the Sit-In movement. Yesterday (September 30 UPDATE) on CBS TV news Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch chose his four favorite artifacts from the Smithsonian’s 19 museums: that is from 11 million historical items. One of the four was the Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro.

When the Woolworth’s in San Antonio closed in 1997, its loss was widely lamented. Not so for Neisner’s, H.L. Green’s, Grant’s, Kress, or Sommers. When you think of the sit-in movement, you think of Woolworth’s, where it began. San Antonians remember the big glazed donuts at Woolworth’s because it was the intersection of two main streets and multiple bus lines.

Woolworth’s in 1981, courtesy San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation.

It was the place and it remains the best place to interpret the sit-in movement’s unique exegesis in San Antonio. It is also a fine place to interpret the long history of the Alamo. This is the message the Coalition is sending to Land Commissioner George P. Bush, Governor Abbott, and the Alamo Trust. Learn more on the Conservation Society website!

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Demolition Daze

July 24, 2019 Sustainability, Texas Comments (2) 679

Suuummmerr-tiiime and the demolition is easy….

It’s July in San Antonio, which means it is probably hot and it is definitely time to demolish landmark buildings. In addition to the unexpected demolition of the G.J. Sutton Building which began last week without an alibi, this week we are also witnessing the needless removal of two homes on Evergreen near Tobin Hill that are going to be replaced by nine units. (Nine? You have two buildings PLUS a vacant lot and you can’t manage nine units by rehabbing? What development school did you go to?)

Not to mention the Medal of Honor recipient who grew up there.

To add a heaping schlag of cruelty to this demolition sachertorte, they have little kids cheering the demolition of the 1915 Beacon Hill School. Sad. The School District promised to rehab the building three decades ago, let it rot that whole time, and then manipulated schoolchildren and their parents into calling for its demolition by putting up an unnecessary fence and pretending the building was a hazard to the nearby playground.

Teaching moment. Curious how it isn’t a hazard for the kids to be there during demolition.

In another era, that would be called lying. Anyway, there were the kids in cute little hardhats, egging on the claws and dumptrucks and firehoses.

Who is responsible? The Sutton Building was a State decision that excluded the City. Evergreen and Beacon Hill were City Council decisions, and Almaguer was a Historic and Design Review decision. Meanwhile, check out this heat map showing demolitions near the Tobin Hill and Monte Vista historic districts.

This is why people want to live in historic districts.
Image courtesy City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation.

So, come to San Antonio in the summer! Where else can you get so many different and delightful demolitions going on at the same time? The sun might feel hot but we got lots of fire hoses running round the clock!

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Bad Excuses

July 19, 2019 Economics, Sustainability, Texas Comments (7) 813

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.

G.J. Sutton Building, constructed 1912 as home of San Antonio Machine & Supply Co.

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.

Sutton Building yesterday.

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 107-year old brickwork looks fine. The 10-year old windows? Not so much.

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.

Run for your life!

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.

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George Willis, Architect

June 26, 2019 Chicago Buildings, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (1) 648

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.

Entrance to Oak Park Studio. Photograph copyright Felicity Rich
Fraznk Lloyd Wright’s Walter Gale House, 1893
George Willis’ Lawrence T. Wright House, 1917

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.

Milam Building from the River Walk

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:

Terrell House in Monte Vista, San Antonio – 1914
Martindale-Kuntz House, Monte Vista, San Antonio, 1914
Cain House, Westfort, San Antonio, 1915
Cherry House, Alta Vista, 1918
Young House, Alamo Heights, 1918

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.

Right out of Ladies Home Journal…..

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.

Photo courtesy Cynthia Spielman

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.

They did the front part – now Tobin Center rebuilt after 1980s fire.
Here they did the back part – Bexar County Courthouse addition

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.

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