This week marks forty years since I began my career in heritage conservation, a journey over much time and vast space. I am incredibly blessed. Last week I got to take Sarah Bronin, the Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on a quick tour of preservation challenges and successes in San Antonio at her specific request. I recently visited by Zoom with my 7 roommates from the 2018 Harvard Business School Non Profit Management class and next week I will be in Washington DC lobbying for the Historic Preservation Fund, among other things.
Forty years is a long time, and a fun thought experiment is to take another 40 year chunk – for example the century before, 1883-1923 and see what changed. That period witnessed electrification, automobiles, movies, radio, analgesics, relativity, psychoanalysis and modern architecture. Mine witnessed personal computers, the internet, digital photography, smartphones, microbreweries, quantum entanglement, global warming and email. Both had global pandemics and both ended up with eight planets in the solar system.
The last forty years in heritage conservation/historic preservation have seen the rise of heritage areas in the 1980s, the expansion of historic tax credits in the 1990s, new approaches to intangible heritage and cultural history in the 2000s, to the current focus on affordable housing, climate change, diversity and historic trades. Some things persist, like the importance of public-private partnerships, public relations, and networking, and some things evolve, like architectural history and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards (we hope).
I am usually struck more by similarity than difference, but there has been some serious evolution in the field, even though you can find preservation initiatives dealing with trades, diversity, affordability and climate all the way back in the 1970s. To me the most significant shift has been the ongoing arc away from museum curation to community activism, and the attendant emphasis on the economic everyday.
In my dissertation, I traced the evolution of preservation from a museum-focused antiquarian enterprise in the early 20th century to a part of the neighborhood activist’s toolbox in the 1960s and 1970s. Historic districts, which were still a new thing in the 1960s (in the 1960s the Municipal Arts Society imagined there would be no more than three or four historic districts EVER in New York City). The next step came with the invention of Main Street in 1975 by Mary Means, where traditional architectural preservation was only 1/4 of the cocktail, combined with promotion, organization and economic restructuring. I arrived in the field in 1983 as the first heritage area was introduced in Congress, where again traditional preservation was only a 1/4 of the cocktail, combined now with natural area conservation, recreation and economic development.
I was asked in 1990 by Metropolitan Review to write an article about the coming decade of preservation and my answer was couched in terms of expanding audiences and expanding targets for preservation – more modern buildings, more diverse constituencies, and a greater focus on the community issues that had driven districts, Main Streets and heritage areas.
Architectural history had always lagged the community activists who had saved the Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1961 when all the experts hated High Victorian Queen Anne design. By the 1980s and 1990s the pesky public were not only fully on board with Victorian and 1920s bungalows, but they were already going after Mid-Century Modern and dragging the eggheads along reluctantly, as Richard Longstreth pointed out.
Probably the most dramatic fact of 40 years is that we are already trying to save buildings that were built during that period, some of which were decried at the time of construction, like the maligned and then beloved State of Illinois/Thompson Center in Chicago.
Diversity is perhaps the most important, and has been a leitmotif throughout my preservation career, from working for landmark designation of North Kenwood 1988-1993 to serving on no less than three diversity committees and task forces for the National Trust in the last 15 years. For the last ten years I have been leading panels and trying to find ways to bring more diversity to the National Register of Historic Places, efforts embraced by many that are starting to bear fruit. I am also very grateful to have been a part of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building here in San Antonio and today a part of the Alamo Museum Planning Civil Rights Exhibit Subcommittee planning that portion of the rehabilitated Woolworth Building. (See our video on the history here.)
Diversity is essential to the private sector for innovation and to the public sector for justice. It is essential to the heritage conservation field because our basic mission is not simply to save historic buildings, sites and places, but to save those places that will continue to have meaning to subsequent generations. After forty years in this fascinating field, I have seen many historic places “saved” more than once.
Since my first day I have understood that a key to heritage conservation is conveying the importance of a preservation ethic. Preservation is a process that a community uses to identify what elements of its past are essential to its future. Demographics have shifted significantly in 40 years, and the communities of today are measurably different than 1983.
Preservation is always a future oriented decision, and the diverse generations of the future are key. How do you insure that the next generation also believes in the importance of saving places? Listen to them and give them power.
I ride past this every morning on my bike. Here is the progress of a new construction townhome “in the 400s”. Note dates for each iteration.
Then it kinda came to a standstill for a year and a half. This is normal. Then all of a sudden, as the housing market tanked…..
My Fulbright Specialist work at Ean University, Bogotá
My two week Fulbright Specialist time at Universidad Ean in Bogotá, Colombia is coming to an end in a couple of days. This has been an excellent experience, thanks in large part to Ean faculty member Juan Camilo Chaves and over a dozen excellent students in Cultural Heritage Management. Thanks also go to Fulbright Colombia, celebrating 65 years, and Paola Basto Castro of Ean’s International program, Sergio Sanchez and Laura Hernandez of Fulbright Colombia and Alejandro Torres of Ean.
First off, Ean has a brand new building with an incredible facade-screen passive heating and cooling system, facial recognition technology to enter and exit the building, and a host of other high-tech items, including a nap room, study rooms with color matched to your study style, etc. Even the old (2012!) building has a green roof of the type we were designing with School of the Art Institute of Chicago students in Lima in 2012, complete with hydroponics, beehives and greenhouses.
My weeklong workshop of five lectures was called “Heritage As Process” and included lectures on the long history of heritage conservation in San Antonio; People and the Preservation Process; Conserving World Heritage; History of Historic Districts and of course the amazing story of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building. I was also asked to have a Q & A with a larger group of student last week, and guest lectured on the San Antonio World Heritage Missions for another class. Tomorrow I will do my Fulbright presentation summarizing this.
So what did I learn, aside from what a modern university looks like? First, I am again lucky to live in a city with a long heritage conservation tradition, because Bogotá seems a bit like Houston or Singapore with endless highrises backed up to the mountains and little concern for the few remaining historic buildings. The students are working on cultural districts, but the idea of historic districts or preservation zones seems to have little traction here.
I visited the house museum of Simon Bolivar, the father of South American independence. It is a well interpreted site set in a lush garden. Especially impressive was the dining room, done in a French style – indeed, due to the timing, the whole place has an Empire feel to it.
Of course the classic tourist visit is a ride up the funicular to Monserrate, the hill above the city. The whole city sits smack dab against the mountains, and of course Monserrate is a pilgrimage route as well, with its church featuring a Christ figure descended from the cross.
I am off this morning to report on my Fulbright Specialist experience! Stay tuned for the next blog on the wonderfully challenging approach to interpretation in the museums of Bogotá!
Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.
My dear friend and once and future architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times Lee Bey wrote a piece today about the “Mistake By the Lake,” a giant Modernist exhibition hall built in 1971 as part of the McCormick Place convention center. The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns it, is releasing an RFI (Request for Information) to solicit ideas about its reuse and development.
The refreshing thing about the RFI is the attitude of the owner. As Bey reports:
“We don’t have any preconceived notions” for the building’s future, said MPEA CEO Larita Clark. “We are really open to all ideas at this point.”
That is how you save a building. You don’t put it in a corner and say it has to be this or that and if it can’t be that, it goes. You ask the world for ideas. We are finally reaching a period in history where the ecological and economic costs of demolition are starting to be calculated. Bey starts out noting that no one is proposing demolition because that could cost a significant chunk of the $400 million it needs in rehab. Plus, they are open to an incremental approach, which is what I have been advocating for a certain building here in San Antonio.
I advocated this for our own large Modernist building earlier this year in my blog, specifically detailing the challenges of single-use Modernist projects that need to be approached in a new way. Our own Institute of Texan Cultures is one of our current preservation issues, built three years before McCormick Place. The University of Texas at San Antonio is studying some options over the next nine months, but maybe an RFI is what is needed?
I wrote recently about The Institute of Texan Cultures, a unique museum created in the Texas Pavilion after the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio. The Conservation Society made Page 1 in the local paper with our announcement that we will be listing it on the National Register of Historic Places.
While the focus of the Conservation Society remains on reusing the building itself, the Institute, operated by the University of Texas at San Antonio, has over the years celebrated a diversity that most outside of the state – and many inside it – are unaware of.
For many Texas seems to be quintessential American (“Murican”) culture – pickup trucks, country music, ridiculously large portions, and of course oil fields and ranching. Many are also aware that Texas was Spain for over a hundred years and Mexico for another twenty, so there is an awareness of something called “Tex-Mex” and if you are in San Antonio, Fiesta – a 131-year old event that borrows heavily from Spanish and Mexican culture.
Then there are the Germans. If you came to San Antonio in 1850, Germans were almost a quarter of the population, just behind those of Mexican descent at 30% and well ahead of the American and French at 15% each. Many of the surrounding communities like Castroville, New Braunfels, Fredericksburg and Comfort were settled by Germans and have retained many cultural traditions to this day.
I remember Dominic Pacyga describing the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago where there was spatial integration but social segregation between the many (mostly European) ethnic groups that lived and worked there. In San Antonio, there is a culture of blending. This goes back to its founding as a series of missions designed to convert the indigenous people living here into Spaniards. Founded by syncretism, every major event in San Antonio history centers on the idea of a confluence of cultures, a mestizo blending inherent throughout the Western Hemisphere, but not always as celebrated as it is here.
This is not to paper over a long history of racism and oppression of people of color, that would be foolish. It happened here as it did throughout the state. San Antonio was quicker than other Texas towns to shed the worst trappings of segregation and racial oppression, as the Conservation Society explored in its videos on the 1960 lunch counter Sit-In movement.
When the Riverwalk was designed in 1929 and built a decade later, it’s goal was to capture the spirit of landmark cities along the Mediterranean, and the La Villita reconstruction undertaken at the same time (1939-41) had as its goal the unification of the countries of the Western hemisphere that had thrown off the European yoke, naming its principal places after Simon Bolivar, Benito Juarez and Miguel Hidalgo and promoting historic preservation of La Villita as a way to celebrate this shared heritage.
The Conservation Society’s event A Night In Old San Antonio(R) was created in 1948 and has over a dozen areas each representing part of the city’s cultural heritage, including Spanish, Mexican, African-American, Asian, French, German and even Cowboy.
Some other examples of the syncretic nature of culture in San Antonio include the Alameda Theatre, perhaps the premier Spanish language cinema of the postwar era, developed by an Italian immigrant known for cowboy boots and designed by a Russian Jewish architect.
The mestizo nature of San Antonio continued in the 1960s. The theme of HemisFair ’68 was literally A Confluence of Cultures in the Americas. That’s puro San Antonio. We still have two murals celebrating that.
There are so many other cultures that have become part of San Antonio it is dizzying. We have the largest Martin Luther King Day march in the country and the largest Diwali celebration. Don’t even get us started on Dia de los Muertos.
History is about Everything
“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”
- Mark Twain
I have always loved history because it contains everything. It is full of contradictions, replete with exceptions that prove the rule, and layered with conflicting motivations, unintended consequences, and outright paradoxes. Those of us who promote history by preserving historic sites revel in this depth and complexity. It isn’t simply that more stories can be told from each place. You can also attract more visitors, and thus complexity adds money as well.
This was one of the big arguments we made about preserving the Woolworth Building with its important Civil Rights history across from the Alamo (see this blog for example). Under the old plan, you would get Alamo battle tourists only. By adding another layer to the depth of history told, you get more tourists. That means more money. That’s why everyone was so excited when the Alamo and the other San Antonio Missions became a World Heritage Site in 2015 (my blog at the time).* Because that adds another story – the story of the missions, the Franciscans, soldiers and indigenous people who first populated the city in the 18th century. More stories = more tourists = more money.
I bring this up because some tabloids and their online siblings have been attacking various National Trust historic sites for being “w*ke” or adopting “CRT” or some other cryptohistoric political claptrap they invented. Being tabloids, they strive to paint sites onto one side of the political spectrum by outright lying that they are only interpreting these sites one way.
Wrong. Also stupid. Also you lose money because you shut out stories that attract more and different people. Diversity is always going to be economically richer. One of those maligned by the knuckle-draggers was Montpelier, which I visited as a Trustee of the National Trust some years ago.
The main point of interpretation was James Madison and the Constitution, which it still is. So don’t believe the tabloidiots who said otherwise. Another story being told is that James Madison could not maintain 100 buildings all by himself and had enslaved people do it. That story is also told. I saw the preparations for both of those stories – and many more about nature and gardens and decorative arts and lifestyles. That’s how successful sites work – they have depth. Otherwise people would see them once for an hour and never have to return.
The problem with “culture wars” is that they are driven by ideology. Ideologies, as I explained before (and despite their verifiable agency) are always wrong BECAUSE they are static and thus ignore history. History is dynamic, diverse, complex and contradictory. That’s why it is so fun. You can’t get it all in an hour. Or a day. Or a week. Or a lifetime.
When the mouth-breathing tabloidiots is that when they say “w*ke” or “CRT” they are making it up. These house museums and historical societies are about preserving and interpreting history, and the more the better. Their agenda is telling a deep, rich and complete story of everything that happened over time.
Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
*FUN FACT: The 1836 Battle for the Alamo is not part of the World Heritage nomination for the missions.
The Good, the Bad and the Interesting
A child characterizes the world in broad strokes to make it understandable. There are good guys and bad guys. If we mature, we see more nuance. We see the good and bad in many people, and while some remain largely good or bad actors, most are more interesting than the simple dichotomy because we are able to see them as a bundle of interests. That is more interesting.
Here is the Hughes House on Courtland Avenue, an absolutely beautiful 1912 Prairie Style home here in San Antonio (by a St. Louis architect) that was threatened by demolition last fall. A demolition permit had been applied for by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which had owned the property for 50 years. The obvious purchaser was San Antonio College, which owned the adjacent parking lots.
A lot of neighborhood activists and the Conservation Society of San Antonio opposed the demolition and asked that it be considered as a landmark. Ricki Kushner of the Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association and Michael Carroll put together a detailed history of the house. In addition to its lovely architecture, it was where Russell Hughes grew up, a famous international dancer who was celebrated for her skills.
So, depending on your point of view, you could say there were good guys (preservationists, or the two institutions) and bad guys (the two institutions, or the preservationists). But that view requires some kind of obliteration of one side or the other. That’s not how you save a building.
You save a building by finding where the various actors’ interests lie, and seeing if there isn’t a way to ally those interests into a solution. So, in this case, the preservation folks asked San Antonio College to NOT purchase the property for demolition since the site was valued by the community. We distributed yard signs saying “SAVE THE HUGHES HOUSE”. San Antonio College agreed not to pursue acquisition of the site because good community relations is in their financial and public relations interest. Then we asked the Archdiocese to consider selling the property on the market, since their interest was to make money off the deal.
They did that and found a buyer who is interested in preservation. Now, everyone gets to be the good guy, because all interests have all been considered and the landmark lives on.
Many thanks the May Chu and Andrew Weissman for teaming up to save this landmark! Look for a new venue that will allow you to see the fabulous interiors – like these fireplaces! The Conservation Society introduced May to our local legendary chef Andrew and the whole community is excited about the possibility!
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.
Before and After
Well, it has been over a month since my last blog, and that month has included all of Fiesta here in San Antonio, the first real Fiesta in two years and it was a blockbuster! A Night In Old San Antonio(R) our four-night event, was packed as usual for the food, drink, music and more celebrating San Antonio’s diverse cultural inheritance. This was our 73rd presentation of this event, which means it is itself a cultural expression worthy of preservation!
In addition to our signature Fiesta traditions, we also have a strong preservation ethic. So here are some buildings that might not make it in another city.
Fire. It’s always Fire.
It was a cold night, dipping below freezing, and the morning saw another fire at the landmark site 503 Urban Loop, which had suffered a small one in December attributed to repeated infiltrations by homeless. This time it looks like a total loss, just two weeks after the owners asked the Conservation Society, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the Westside Preservation Alliance for another delay of our Request for Review of Significance to landmark the site. We submitted the request last August.
An important visual link to important history has been destroyed. This history includes the only reminder of the city’s Red Light District as it was built originally in 1883 as a brothel by Aurelia Dashiell and hosted Fanny Porter and the Wild Bunch of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the turn of the last century. It also had a much longer history as an orphanage and day dare center for the bustling Mexican-American Laredito district for over a century. Bishop John Shaw purchased and rehabbed the building in 1913 and the next year the Carmelite Sisters opened a day care and orphanage to serve refugees from the Mexican Revolution.
The new orphanage and day care center brought Reverend Mother Mary Teresa to San Antonio and Mother Mary Felicitas took charge. The noted midwife Ramona Ramos ran the nearby Casa de Maternidad and was likely involved. Most importantly, the building was one of the ONLY sites associated with the Laredito community that survived. The other is Casa Navarro, which the Conservation Society saved in 1959.
The erasure of Laredito is nearly complete now, thanks to this fire. It is always fire, and it is always gut-wrenching to lose these visceral, haptic connections to our shared history. I remember walking the dog in Humboldt Park Chicago in 1992 and seeing that the stunning Humboldt Park Stables had burned in what turned out to be an arson fire.
I remember 2006, when three Louis Sullivan buildings were lost to fire during the 150th anniversary of his birth, two by careless rehab contractors.
What makes this conflagration at 503 Urban Loop in San Antonio so disturbing is that it removes an important connection to a community that has seen far more than its share of erasure – deliberate and otherwise – for more than half a century.