My favorite bugaboo about heritage conservation rose its head this Easter/April Fool’s morning in the form of an editorial in the Rivard Report. The bugaboo goes like this, and has for over a century: If we focus too much on saving the past we won’t have a future or any new development.
Ed Glaeser made this argument regarding Manhattan in his book Triumph of the City earlier in the decade. I loved the book, which had a myriad of brilliant insights and then this bugaboo which was so simplistic it required no response. Manhattan has been saving TONS of its building inventory for three generations with no ill effect to its vibrancy or economy. Just visit Times Square.
Prisoner of the past abandoned by development
No United States city has designated as landmarks more than about 3 or 4 percent of its buildings. So the argument basically is that development is such a precarious and precious business that it can’t survive on a free-fire zone that covers 96 percent of the landscape. Really?
San Antonio from the Tower of the Americas, 2014.
The really fascinating thing about this statistic is that it hasn’t changed in 30 years. Yes, more sites and districts get designated as historic (and keep developing, BTW) but plenty more new stuff gets added. The whole reason Glaeser went after Manhattan is that the statistic there is much higher, although when you include all five boroughs it is back to normal.
That’s the Triborough Bridge
So here is the bugaboo in its unadulterated form from today’s : “it could reach a tipping point where just about anything and everything is accorded historic status. In a world where everything is historic, nothing is historic.”
So where is that? Where did that happen? And if it didn’t happen anywhere, why is it a valid argument? Where is it ABOUT to happen?
Chicago designated ONE MILE of downtown building frontage 15 years ago. Contrary to our favorite bugaboo, this has actually inspired development (including a supertall on a vacant lot) and investment. Once San Antonio covers the 40% of its downtown that is currently surface parking, we might begin to worry about a slippery slope.
View from King William (designated 1967) to Tower of the Americas.
Now, to be fair to my friend Bob Rivard, the impetus for the piece was the proposed viewshed ordinance, inspired by the development near the Hays Street Bridge, to protect iconic views. This would seem to potentially thwart projects that aren’t designated. Interestingly, Austin – not a town known for preservation – has one of the most complicated viewshed protections in place for the Capitol.
The reality is that any protection system functions not as a prohibition but as a site of negotiation. This already happens with the Historic and Design Review Commission, which considered viewsheds of the Tower Life Building in reviewing a new development at St. Mary’s and Cesar Chavez. Good planning is buttressed by landmark laws and viewshed laws, not because they prohibit, but because they provide a review platform that integrates development into the urban fabric.
Disclosure: I serve on the Viewshed Technical Advisory Panel, so I am well acquainted with the specifics of how viewshed ordinances work. This information, like all knowledge, dispels fear, especially of this bugaboo.
On March 22, 2018 the San Antonio Conservation Society turned 94! That’s right, we have been around a quarter century longer than the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Rena Maverick Green and Emily Edwards founded the group with 11 other women in 1924. They supposedly notched their first “save” that year, a tree along the river the city planned to remove. Within a decade they had purchased and saved much of Mission San Jose, especially the Granary.
Hard to believe, but the Missions were in bad shape 94 years ago – the tower here at San Jose would collapse in 1928 and was only restored thanks to the intervention of the San Antonio Conservation Society. The upper third of the Mission San Jose Granary was bought and paid for by the Society in 1930, thank you very much.
We originally formed to save not just architectural treasures like the Missions but also areas of natural beauty and most importantly customs – what we now call intangible heritage. That is one of the things I love about working here – we knew what 21st century heritage conservation was like way back in the early 20th century. We revived Los Pastores and our amazing Night In Old San Antonio ® event is now in its 70th year. It is a cultural performance and homage. Also a fundraiser. Biggest in the United States. By miles and miles.
It is the Missions that really course through the history of the San Antonio Conservation Society. That was the first place that the women of the Society went out on a limb, buying land, securing craftspersons, and actually owning and restoring historic buildings.
And then giving them away. By 1941, the Society had not only restored much of Mission San Jose, it had secured National Historic Landmark status (a 5-year old program at the time) and coordinated the efforts of the State, County, City and Catholic Archdiocese to create a state park encompassing the San Antonio Missions. All before Pearl Harbor.
Mission San Juan Capistrano.
By 1978 through delicate lobbying from the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago (coincidentally the birthplace of the “smoke-filled room”), they made the Missions a National Park, maneuvering the deal past the opposition of President Carter. Money. Smarts. Savvy.
At Mission San Francisco de Espada.
When I visited San Antonio in 2010, I made a point of seeing all of the Missions, even the Espada Aqueduct that the San Antonio Conservation Society bought in the 1950s to insure its preservation.
I blogged about the Missions during my 2010 visit (SEE BLOG HERE).
See, the amazing thing about the Missions is not their architecture – although much of that is quite excellent. Nor is it simply the fact that these were the first European structures built here. It is the fact that the entire landscape of an encounter – between the Spanish and the Native Americans – is not simply legible in the landscape: It is alive.
Matachines at Mission Concepcion, 2017.
I blogged again 5 years later when the San Antonio Conservation Society, together with city and county partners, achieved something amazing in only 9 years: Inscription as a World Heritage Site (SEE BLOG HERE). For the same reason. Here was a place that contained history not only in buildings, and waterways, but in people and traditions. Customs.
10th and 11th generation Canary Islanders at San Fernando Cathedral two weeks ago.
It is fun to look at my old blogs – when I had literally no idea I would be working here – and see how much respect and admiration I had for the Society, one of the oldest in the nation. When I applied for the job in early 2016, I was equally impressed by how the Society kept with the times, embracing modern landmarks less than 50 years old…
To be fair, it will turn 50 in two weeks…(Confluence Theater/U.S. Pavilion HemisFair ’68 – now Wood Courthouse)
And sites that represent the diversity of the American experience, a diversity that the historic preservation movement overlooked in its early days.
1921 Woolworth Building on Alamo Plaza, site of first successful (and peaceful) integration of a lunch counter in the South in February, 1960.
I suppose being founded in 1924 gave the San Antonio Conservation Society a certain modernity. This was a time of a booming, building downtown, and indeed the first effort was to save the Market House from street widening, which failed.
Widening of Commerce Street in 1913 – the Alamo National Bank Building of 1902 (center) was moved back 16 feet rather than shave off its facade like the others. Then three stories were added.
If you are in downtown San Antonio, the odds are a building the Conservation Society bought and saved is within a block of wherever you are standing. Here are a few from our 94 years, none of which we still own…..
Ursuline College/Southwest School of Art
Rand Building – the tech center of downtown SA
O Henry House
Casa Navarro, home of Jose Antonio Navarro, only Tejano signer of both Texas Declaration of Independence and Texas Constitution. We ran it for 15 years before turning it over to the state.
Emily Morgan Hotel. A block from the Alamo.
Maverick Building. Also a block from the Alamo.
Reuter Building. Half a block from the Alamo.
Staacke and Stevens Buildings
We aren’t the oldest preservation organization in the country – heck, we aren’t even the first one in San Antonio, where efforts to save the Alamo began back in 1883. But we are 94. And going strong!
So here is the photo I posted on my first day at work nearly a year and a half ago.
This is the main office of the San Antonio Conservation Society, and has been so since 1974, when the organization was already 50 years old. It is the Anton Wulff House, built in 1870 and described as Italianate style. This is reasonable since it has that Tuscan tower, those paired windows and doors and other hallmarks of the most popular style in America from 1850 to 1880.
After the tower and the main front-facing gabled mass, there is a half-gable mass that almost reads like an addition, but everyone assured me the building was built this way.
Maybe it is the nature of the slightly irregular limestone blocks, but that last mass (which contains my office) seemed less designed, reflective perhaps of the isolated and emergent city some seven years before the railroad arrived.
What did seem clear was a complete absence of any influence from Anton Wulff’s home country, Germany, and specifically the Alsace region adjacent to France. Alsatians had clearly brought European architecture to nearby Castroville at the same time.
Huth House, Castroville, 1846.
But I was wrong because I did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of early 19th century high style European architecture. If I had, I would have recognized a homage to the MOST famous German architect of the 19th century, Friedrich Schinkel, he of the Altes Museum. In 1829, Schinkel designed the Römische Bäder, an expressionistic complex at Potsdam for the romantic Prussian Friedrich Wilhelm IV. This is what it looked like:
Credit for this discovery goes to Michael Guarino, who left me a stack of images of the structure. All of a sudden the Wulff House had a fairly grand legacy, and that half-gabled section made sense for the first time.
The San Antonio Conservation Society was at the cutting edge of heritage conservation in 1924, focusing not only on buildings but the cultural landscape, including “customs” that we now call intangible heritage. This week, San Antonio remains at the cutting edge of the heritage conservation field.
Twelve years and 502 blogs ago, I began “Time Tells” – my little blog about heritage conservation, architecture, planning, technology and economics. I have moved three times in those dozen years and now live in San Antonio, one of the pioneering preservation places in the United States.
This year marked both my first rodeo and my first Fiesta, which is San Antonio’s 126-year old celebration of the Battle of San Jacinto. The greatest party during the 10-day Fiesta is the San Antonio Conservation Society’s A Night In Old San Antonio®, which runs four consecutive nights.