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Some of the unpublished museum images show the cannons safely indoors and many of the outdoors one will be replicas.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.
Here are three very nicely designed highrises one after the next. They are the Gibbs Hotel (1909) in a Renaissance/Chicago Commercial style, the Classical 1937 Courthouse and Post Office, and the Deco Gothic verticality of the Emily Morgan hotel (1926). This is in the heart of town just north of the Alamo.
In fact, these three buildings cover the north wall of the fabled mission and fortress. The famous 1836 battle began when Santa Anna successfully stormed the north wall, breaking in roughly between the Courthouse and the Emily Morgan. Commander Lt. Wm. Travis fell but a minute and a half into the battle, also on the north wall, to the left of where the streetlights are in the lower center of the photo.
The chapel, which everyone knows as the Alamo, was the first building preserved by the public west of the Mississippi, in 1883, less than fifty years after the battle. Already this had become the center of town and the large commercial Crockett Block was in place facing the chapel.
The Conservation Society began advocating for the re-use of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings when the state purchased them nearly five years ago for a new Alamo Museum. This was part of the larger reimagining of the Alamo that began in 2014. Sixteen months ago we presented a concept showing how the buildings could be added onto to make the new museum.
All this is preface to a curious push right now by the Save the Alamo Foundation to garner public support for their Alamo Plan. The most curious aspect of this push is that they don’t have a final design for the plaza. Nor even a preliminary design for the museum. How do you sell that?
Well, they are selling the idea that they will reclaim the footprint of the battlefield/mission walls. A portion of where the west wall was is 10 feet under the Crockett and Woolworth buildings. WHERE IT WAS – these buildings have 15 foot basements so there is NO remnant of the wall.
But let’s go back to the north wall, where all the action happened. Are they planning to take down the Gibbs Hotel and the Courthouse? No.
So what are they selling? An invisible museum? It seems they are selling the idea that the famed 1836 battle will – by itself – attract all sorts of tourists. Calmer heads, like CM Roberto Trevino, are arguing that the 110 years of history before the battle need to be interpreted as well. After all, it is the mission era that made the Alamo part of a World Heritage Site.
The Alamo spent 80 years as a mission, 50 as a fort, and 170 as the commercial heart of a growing city.
The most curious thing of all about the Alamo Plan is not the absence of a design, nor the decision to expose some wall sites rather than others, but the fact that it is driven by an interpretive message that appears to be scripted by a 10-year old boy in 1950.* I visited as a 15-year old a couple decades later and thoroughly enjoyed the tales of heroism and sacrifice. But that is a small demographic.
The 1836 battle is just the starting point for a much richer tale with stories relevant to all peoples and all times. Why don’t they sell that? The more you include, the more money you make – what am I missing here?
*Thanks to Evan Thompson for this quip.
AUGUST 25 UPDATE:
Well, they have a drawing now! The drawing shows the plaza reconstructed as a reenactment of the 1836 battle, with a second story on the Long Barracks, a rebuilt southwest rampart, and lots of cannon and palisades. The drawing, from their Facebook page and in the news, is rendered from a position above the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings, so no news on the museum.
While still clearly aimed at that 10-year-old, it is the first new illustration of the plan in two years, so that is something. The drawing shows reconstruction of the second story of the Long Barracks as well as an earthen rampart at the southwest corner with cannon. I have dealt with the folly of reconstruction in the digital age previously. The drawing also shows lots of living history reenactors, making the whole thing a curiously large investment in a moribund industry.
In a month the Texas Historical Commission will make a decision about moving the Cenotaph, which is a publicly funded portion of the project. No news yet on the museum or other privately funded projects.
FUN FACT: The reason Clara Driscoll insisted on taking down the second story of the Long Barracks in 1913 was that it dominated the plaza and overshadowed the shrine – the same argument for moving the Cenotaph today!
FUN FACT: Do you know that in 1997 when it closed, the proposal was to turn the Woolworth Building into an aviation museum? True!
The developers of a much-maligned project in River Road have once again been denied permission to build on a vacant area in the historic district. This time they managed to get a feature article written around their failure, morphing from a case to a cause. The subhead calls it an “unpredictable process.”
Being an expert in the field, I don’t find it “unpredictable” but it has a quality that makes it difficult for the average developer. And that quality is literally Quality. Historic Design Review is a qualitative process, and most developers are used only to zoning, which is quantitative.
The first problem is that the qualities of projects like this case – design, landscaping, setbacks, and massing – are overwhelmed by the quantity. The goal seems to be to cram as much building as you can into whatever space you have available. You can add gables and porches and board-and-batten siding but it is still a big hulk. Over the last year, the 23-townhome project has changed design elements that we objected to, like front-loading garages (snout houses) and heavy lot line massing.
They would likely have been approved if they removed one more unit, but after 18 months of carrying costs and redesigns, they probably felt they couldn’t afford to. Curiously, they basically got approval from the Office of Historic Preservation staff, but could not get enough votes from the volunteer Historic and Design Review Commission.
But now that it is a feature article, let’s look at the bigger picture, which is quantity and quality and who is good at what they do.
See, the beauty of historic districts and historic landmarks is that they treat every resource individually. It is not a commodity that can be alienated. It is not a grain that can be graded and put in a grain elevator. There is not a solution from another district or another landmark that can be applied, because that would be a different individual with different needs.
Average developers do not have a good handle on qualitative issues. They are in the business of grading grain and selling it by the container load. Their business model has no room or capital for individuals.
Above-average developers, on the other hand, get the qualitative issues. They may even seek out historic buildings because they know they can get a 45% investment tax credit between the state and federal laws. And they are practiced, so the process is less unpredictable for them. They know the rules but more importantly they know that they have to approach each project with an eye open for its inimitable qualities.
The ongoing San Pedro Creek Cultural Park project has already added a lot to San Antonio, with marvelous public artworks, a pleasant walking path, and lovely plantings, all in the name of flood control.
Last week I participated in a panel discussing a very exciting archaeological discovery – the foundations of an 1875 African Methodist Episcopal Church just across from the Alameda Theater.
The design team had know of the site of the church and planned to interpret it, but they did not expect to find the full 40 by 60 foot foundation of the building, and the original 1875 cornerstone. According to newspapers, a “time capsule” celebrating the event was put into the cornerstone!
I participated in the focus group organized by the San Antonio River Authority because the original design for this section created a semicircular amphitheatre stepping down 6 feet from Camaron Street to the creek. This would eliminate all but the front fourth of the foundation, hence the need for the focus group. We are pushing for more.
In a time when people are marching to redress the injustices done to African-Americans then and now, it is more pressing that we save and interpret this significant historic cultural site in San Antonio. As Everett Fly has said, San Antonio does not have a strong record of preserving African-American history. This remains true in our ongoing efforts to save the Woolworth Building.
The AME Church site is a shining opportunity to conserve and commemorate a vital but underrepresented aspect of San Antonio’s cultural inheritance.
The protests last night (June 2) ended up violent again, as they had on Saturday, both times unusual for San Antonio. As commentator Rick Casey said “We don’t do riots in the streets.” The last significant one was at Municipal Auditorium in 1939. Now he realizes he can’t be so categorical, because we have just doubled our riot total for the last century.
The contrast to other cities remains significant, and the wise words of both Police Chief McManus and Sheriff Salazar have reinforced the sense of community that has always defined San Antonio.
These are the most challenging times I have experienced and the contrast to something that happened three months before and three blocks away from my birth is significant.
On March 16, 1960, seven lunch counters on Alamo and Houston Streets desegregated voluntarily and peacefully, without protest. It happened in the same place as the unrest Saturday night, as Scott Huddleston of the Express-News noted. An amazing college freshman, Mary Andrews, had written the lunch counters asking them to allow blacks to sit and eat.
The sit-in movement had started at a Woolworth’s in North Carolina only a month before. A meeting was held and a sit-in was planned. Then, the community of San Antonio kicked in. Religious and civic leaders got together with the businesses and they integrated a day before the planned sit-in.
The story of Mary Andrews is puro San Antonio, which makes the events of the last few days even more disheartening. At the Conservation Society of San Antonio, we have been fighting to save the heart of that peaceful integration – the Woolworth Building – since 2015. This month we will celebrate Juneteenth with testimonials from residents regarding the importance of the Woolworth Building and San Antonio’s unique role in Civil Rights history.
In times of fear and violence, it is even more important to remember the triumphs of peace and community.
I am helping the City of San Antonio with a virtual tour of the Spanish Governor’s Palace, which is both the only remaining residential structure of the 18th century city and a fascinating document of how historic preservation was practiced 90 years ago.
When you look at this building, you may think of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and that was a big inspiration. The Santa Fe building was restored right about the time that Adina de Zavala started lobbying for the preservation of this San Antonio building in 1915. By 1930 the city had purchased and restored it and the Conservation Society was operating it.
The building is a rare and singular survivor, but it was never really a palace, and while one Spanish Governor did visit San Antonio in 1720, the building dates to 1722 as the comandancia, or home and office of the military commander of the presidio garrison.
Restored by architect Harvey Smith, he took numerous liberties we would not countenance 90 years later. Despite finding no evidence, he built a fountain and a walled back garden that even he knew never existed because it would convey a romantic sense of refined 18th century life.
This romantic vision of “The Spanish Governor’s Palace” cause Smith to add two rooms that never existed, and interpret other rooms with these elaborate plaques that described a courtly life that also didn’t exist. Each interpretive plaque is then explained by a contemporary plaque below explaining Smith’s romantic embellishments!
Old telephone poles became ceiling beams and old flagstone sidewalks became floors in the restored “Palace” and the whole was filled with period furnishings. The century that the building spent as a tinsmith shop, pawn shop, hide dealer, clothing store and saloon was not interpreted.
This was an era of nostalgic appropriation of historical styles, from the Spanish Colonial to the Georgian, Tudor and Renaissance Revival. This was the time when architect R.H.H. Hugman proposed “The Shops of Aragon and Romula” that would become the San Antonio River Walk.
It was a different aesthetic and a different goal for preservation. Smith did lots of research, but there was precious little to go on for an 18th century building that had been changed a hundred times. No international guidelines for preservation existed yet (they would come in 1932.)
A similar approach was taken by O’Neil Ford when he restored La Villita in 1939-41. There was so little documentary or forensic evidence about the vernacular buildings he was restoring that he simply tried to create “a mood.” Like Smith, he added lots of walls to enhance that mood.
I suppose the goal was to really demonstrate the importance of the historic building by giving it a more glamorous pedigree. There was one reference to a fandango or party in the salon of the Governor’s Palace, so like the 1930s Riverwalk tile mural by Ethel Wilson Harris, a singular incident became a chronic intepretation.
What is really fascinating about the Governor’s Palace – and other sites “restored” in the 1930s is that those acts of poetic license are now themselves historic, and they have added another layer of history.
To me history – basically the same word as “story” – is made richer by more layers of interpretation, by more stories. The primary story you get from the Spanish Governor’s Palace is a sense of 18th century life on the Spanish frontier. But you also learn about the civic life of the 1920s that sought to bolster civic pride with romantic tales of civic origin.
This is the “Child’s Bedroom” that Smith invented out of whole cloth in 1930. His impulse was to illustrate the luxury and gentility of the “Governor’s” lives with some creative construction. Like Adina de Zavala or the Conservation Society at the time, they wanted to glorify their forbears.
My favorite room is the Commander’s Office, not only because it reveals the original rubble stone construction, but because it also reveals the true nature of the building. The Commander used this space to command, but much more to sell household goods and necessities to his soldiers and the general public. Business was so brisk that he added a storeroom behind in the late 18th century, although if you go there today you see religious artifacts and other antiques in vitrine displays.
In the 21st century we understand heritage conservation as more than an architectural design problem, and are careful to find evidence for both the stories we tell and the physical fabric we restore – or choose not to. If somehow this last residential building of the Spanish city had survived until today, it might look very different. It would tell the stories of the presidio commanders with a little less embellishment, focusing perhaps on how the 19th century shops and saloons were a continuation of the comandancia rather than a rejection of it. It would perhaps be called the Presidio Captain’s Residence and it would be without its 1930 additions.
I like telling both stories – the true story of the presidio and its capitans, along with the equally true story of 1920s San Antonians puffing their chests and inflating their history just a bit.
Less than a week ago I was part of a group planning the next national preservation conference and we were brainstorming what programs and indeed what formats should be employed to reflect our world in the COVID-19 crisis. One of the big concerns was whether “historic preservation” would be considered a luxury that we no longer could afford.
Man that’s dumb. The only business happening on my street besides mail delivery and garbage pickup is “historic preservation.” They are repairing the lovely bungalow on the corner, restoring the clapboard siding after leveling. Work is also going on next door in another bungalow that just sold, and there is a ton of interest in the one just fixed up on the other side of our house. There are at least 5 rehab projects on this one block, two for sale and another for lease.
You could quibble about some of the choices the owner/contractors made, but the bottom line is that century-old buildings are being rehabilitated and reused. Conserving well-made older buildings is a wise reuse of resources, a more affordable approach to housing, and a benefit for the community.
I live in a conservation district, not an historic district, but every building on my block is old and ninety percent of the work being done would be consistent with a historic district. Preserving building is not only environmentally friendlier than new construction, it is also an economic engine. Right now it is providing more than its share of jobs in an otherwise stalled economy.
It has been over two weeks since The Conservation Society of San Antonio joined the bulk of the world in lockdown (here in San Antonio and Bexar County it is called Stay Home/Work Safe). There are certain things we can do remotely, and fortunately the world of preserving the built environment is still available – all those historic buildings are outside for you to view as you take your essential exercise, walk the dog, or make a rare dash to the store.
Indeed, we are taking the opportunity to share architectural quizzes – each day we show a building detail and people guess which landmark it is from. This has been a fun way to engage our members and supporters.
Emily Morgan hotel, originally Medical Arts Building, Ralph Cameron, 1926.
While it is great we can still appreciate our historic environment, there is also a concern. While many businesses are shut down, one area that is not is construction and contracting. And given that about half of the items we see each month on the Historic and Design Review agenda are for work done without permits, you can expect a significant caseload of “ask forgiveness, not permission” projects going on under quarantine.
It’s usually the windows
Now, there are still city inspectors out there, but if HALF of the permit cases going before the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) are violations, and the city is unable to hold an HDRC meeting for a month, there will definitely be a bunch in the coming months. There are some brazen violators who have even been instructed to do one thing and just willfully ignore the stipulations and do what they originally intended. I think our UDC needs a significant daily fine until the owner follows the law.
Skirting the issue….
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.
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.
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)
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call 210-224-6163