Big Week for the Woolworth Building

May 17, 2019 History, Interpretation, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 25

A week ago the Texas Historical Commission voted unanimously to designate the Woolworth Building in San Antonio as a State Antiquities Landmark. While no landmark designation can absolutely prevent demolition, this status is significant. More importantly, unlike the earlier designations (National Register and City) this nomination included a detailed discussion of the civil rights history of the site.

2018 Mural of 1960 Woolworth’s in Hemisfair Park

The big week began on Tuesday, when the San Antonio Conservation Society, joined by the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, released a compromise plan that would wall off Alamo Plaza and expose the location of the mission’s west wall – while preserving the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings. The event got good coverage in print and television and even radio!

One of the ironies of the decades-old attempt to reveal the site of the western wall is that the northern wall – beneath the Post Office and Gibbs Building – was more significant in the 1836 battle. This is where Santa Anna broke through and this is where commanding officer Lt. Travis fell.

No remains of the western wall survive – not only were the walls destroyed after the 1836 battle, but the Crockett Block buildings have full basements, which eliminates any remnant of 17th century foundations (unless the Franciscans were sinking 14-foot deep footings).

Our plan preserves the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings while adding a large 4-story addition to the rear to achieve the stated goal of a 130,000 square foot museum. We also carve an arcade through the buildings to reveal where the wall was. This provides a “teaser” for the exhibits inside, which can include in the Woolworth site both the Castañeda and Treviño houses along the wall, as well as the Woolworth lunch counter site.

Unlike the Conservation Society’s earlier position, the fences and walls enclosing the plaza are illustrated in this plan. Moreover, the Palace theater facade is removed to allow for a grand entrance to the new museum. This displeases some preservationists.

The Alamo management (the buildings have been owned by the Texas General Land Office since 2015) dismissed our effort to share a vision that includes BOTH a new museum and enclosed plaza AND preserved landmarks. As I said to a reporter following the press conference – you can walk along the line of the wall and when you reach the Woolworth interior, you can turn right and learn about the battle, then turn left and learn about the lunch counter integration.

You can have both! See my earlier blogs on this subject here and here and here.

We have been advocating for the Woolworth Building since 2015 and it was a rewarding week thanks to the efforts of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, who participated in both the press conference and the trip to Austin for State Antiquities Landmark designation!

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Civil Rights Tourism

April 16, 2019 Blog, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 141

“The U.S. Civil Rights Trail was designed to motivate people to learn more, see more and feel more. The website can tell the stories, but the emotional weight of those stories cannot be fully absorbed without standing in the exact spots where sacrifices were made and the direction of history was changed.”

Howard University, Washington, D.C.

The Civil Rights Trail combines sites that have been significant in the battle for Civil Rights, especially the 1950s and 1960s. Launched in January, 2018, the Trail includes over 100 sites in 14 states. Given the incredible popular success of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and the fact that Civil Rights tourism is a growth sector demanding honest history, the identification and interpretation of such sites promises to be an economic boon to communities where these resources are located.

Display in National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D C

The National Civil Rights Trail includes over 100 sites in 14 states, but none in Texas. Address this, and we could tap into a $63bn industry.

In San Antonio, we have the story of the first voluntary and peaceful integration of a Woolworth’s lunch counter on March 16, 1960, a story that Jackie Robinson said “should be told around the world.” He was quoted in the New York Times on March 20, 1960, but the story did not have the “legs” of the more confrontational protests in other cities.

2018 San Antonio Tricentennial mural at Hemisfair. From a March 16, 1960 photograph of a young man looking into Woolworth’s

In addition to Woolworth’s the sites of the Kress, H.L. Green and Neisner’s stores also survive, sans lunch counters. The beginnings of a Civil Rights trail are right in front of us, although the concern is that at least two of the four could disappear soon.

Kress Building, Houston Street, San Antonio

Thanks to local landscape architect and historian Everett Fly, more overlooked sites in San Antonio are now being uncovered. You could see markers for the Rincon School near the River Walk, but Fly’s work has really illuminated the importance of downtown – notably Alamo Plaza, in a struggle for equal rights that goes back to the early 1880s.

African American barbers plied their trade at the Menger Hotel, and an African American owned a cleaning shop at the rear. Across the street, Joske’s Store was built on the site of an 1860s slave market. In 1960, Joske’s resisted integration as seven other downtown stores adopted equal serving policies.
This was H.L. Green’s, another lunch counter that integrated that day. It is a block south of Woolworth’s and across from the Menger.

The challenge now is to bundle these sites – and many more, into a package that can attract tourist investment. In San Antonio we already have the largest Martin Luther King Day march, active contingents of Buffalo Soldier interpreters, and Everett Fly’s impressive research into African American cemeteries.

Buffalo soldiers at Rodeo Parade

The opportunity is there. The question is: Do we embrace it?

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Pillars of Value

March 27, 2019 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 102

Why saving buildings makes more dollars and sense

1310 W. Commerce, built c. 1899 for Toby Barnes

Here is a very intact Victorian home in San Antonio of the typical Queen Anne type: L-shaped plan with front facing gable, decorative balusters, posts and porch trim. It even has decorative brackets with drop pendants that survive on the corner.

1306 W. Commerce, built c. 1909 for Charles Willard

Next door we have this house. It is boarded up and a temporary fence was added three weeks ago, but this Queen Anne retains a lot of integrity, from every one of its four Doric order porch columns to original wood siding and decorative shingles in the protruding gables. The house volume is unchanged since 1912.

1302 W. Commerce, built c. 1899 for Henry Gill

Next door, also behind the fence, this Folk Victorian gem has a double-munched standing seam metal roof, original siding and original shingles in the gables. It is also boarded up, so we don’t know how many original doors and windows survive, but in my experience, there will be several if not all.

SOOOOOO……. the owner proposed to demolish these three.

I have seen buildings in WAY worse shape get saved.

In fact, one that was on the demolition list when I started at the San Antonio Conservation Society three years ago recently came up in our house hunting.

Needs to be demolished 2016. Today it is yours for $300k here.

The owner of the three Commerce houses has a business a block away where he rents, so he bought these “just in case.”

Perfect! Move your offices in there and ditch the landlord!

Um, so then the owner’s representative said they tried renting them but they were having too much trouble. But then the druggies and thugs started hanging out and breaking in, so they need to be demolished.

Because when you demolish buildings, those problems go away?

Um, no.

Then the owner’s rep said he wants to build and apartment building here but has no plans and no timeline.

“There is plenty of room to put in his office AND add an apartment building,” I said. This is not an EITHER/OR.

And then there is money. You rehab these as houses, you can get the city tax incentives. You rehab them as National Register landmarks (that still needs to be done) and you can get a 20% investment tax credit. And a 25% state tax credit. They would totally qualify based on their history, architecture and condition. 45% of your rehab costs paid for.

Since the fence went up three weeks ago the squatters and scrabblers have stayed away. We can only hope the owner listens to reason. Or money. Or the neighbors. Or takes a look at Zillow and sees what has happened to other buildings that someone once thought should be demolished.

Because they couldn’t think of anything else.

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Both And

February 25, 2019 Blog, Interpretation, Technology, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 139

Paper or plastic?

For years we have been offered this choice at the supermarket checkout, and it annoys me. Why can’t I have both? I sometimes reply “Some of each,” which confuses people. But I actually have some need for plastic and some for paper. I’m NOT one or the other.

Paper in plastic.

Our “polarized” 2019 world has been caused by many such false choices – politically and otherwise – between categories that seem to exclude each other. But they don’t. Making the categories more extreme (i.e., you are either Communist or Fascist) makes the duality seem real. It’s not.

YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE A SIDE!

Let’s leave the hoary hoardings of the politicalifragilistic to one side and remain in our expertise: architectural history and preservation. 13 years ago in this blog I celebrated a debate which I witnessed several times between modernist Paul Byard and classicist Steven Semes (who is a good friend) on the appropriate way to design additions to historic buildings. Byard, who has since passed away, advocated modernist additions while Semes has written a book arguing for contextual additions. The debate was AWESOME because each speaker was so convincing you actually suspended your own bias and wandered back and forth between the camps.

The debate and the dichotomy struck me yesterday as I visited the San Antonio Museum of Art, a late Victorian building with two contemporary additions.

Paper.
Plastic.

One satisfies the contextualists, and one uses contemporary materials to distinguish itself from the original. Both defer to the original building in scale, massing and setback. If you are sensitive to brick color and the patina of time, both read clearly as additions. I like them BOTH.

SAMA has both MODERNIST and CONTEXTUAL additions. Or perhaps I should say SAMA has BOTH Modernist AND Contextual additions.

And where does Art Nouveau stained glass fit into your philosophy, Horatio?

BOTH AND is the actual dynamic state of the world. The binaries and categories we use to make sense of this world are intellectual constructs that negate a major physical reality: Time.

A thing now does not equal a thing ten years from now. This is manifest at the quantum level but it is also true up here in the everyday. Styles change, technologies change, and materials age, each at their own rate.

King James Bible, 1611. Words and language change as well.

There are continuities, of course, and indeed the task of heritage conservation is about maintaining continuities amid change. To do that job, you need to see things as they are, not as you would have them be. You need to understand BOTH now AND then.

The dynamic nature of experience and existence belies clumsy categorizations. We, and our work, are always in the process of becoming.

I explained this better in my 2012 blog: Categories are your Frenemies.

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Coalition for the Woolworth Building

January 29, 2019 Blog, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 217

San Antonio Woolworth Building, built 1921. The first voluntary, peaceful integration of a Woolworth’s lunch counter happened here March 16, 1960.

San Antonio has a unique history in the Civil Rights movement, but it is not known because it is characterized not by conflict, but by its absence. The tradition continues to this day with the nation’s largest Martin Luther King Day March. Approximately 300,000 participants annually.

They even saw our sign in Hawaii!!!

This year, a new Coalition for the Woolworth Building participated in the march and had an information booth in the park afterwards. The Conservation Society is a member along with the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, among others.

As the banner notes, what happened in San Antonio in 1960 was different.

The most prominent corner in San Antonio – the intersection of Alamo and Houston Streets.
  • February 1, 1960 – four students stage a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Protests and violent reactions pepper the nation in the following weeks.
  • March, 1960 – OLLU student and NAACP member Mary Andrews sends letters to downtown lunch counters requesting equal service. NAACP holds rally Sunday March 13 and asks for desegregation by Thursday March 17.
  • On Tuesday, March 15 civic, religious and business leaders meet and agree to desegregate Woolworth’s and six other lunch counters.
  • Wednesday, March 16, 1960. Photographers descend on Woolworth’s in San Antonio as blacks and whites are served equally at the basement cafeteria and lunch counter
  • March 19, 1960. Jackie Robinson calls the voluntary integration “a story that should be told around the world” and compares it to his integration of Major League baseball in a Page 1 New York Times story
Integration at Woolworth’s, March 16, 1960. Courtesy UTSA Special Collections.

There were places – Corpus Christi, Oklahoma City, that integrated their ,lunch counters earlier, but only following protests and confict. San Antonio proceeded differently.

Susan Beavin and Nettie Hinton of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, 2019.

Woolworth’s location gave it special significance. Nettie Hinton recalls buying the “big donuts” at Woolworth’s prior to catching the bus to the African-American East Side. Indeed, the corner of Alamo and Houston was where the cultures of San Antonio met and separated – Hispanics to the west, African Americans to the east, and Anglos to the north.

The story is not well known, despite Jackie Robinson and the front page of the New York Times because there was no violence. The old news media saying “If it bleeds, it leads” could find no purchase in the soil of San Antonio, so the story was not “told around the world” as Robinson pleaded.

San Antonio Woolworth’s Houston Street entrance, 2019

Although it could be still! In fact, Civil Rights sites are one of the few growth areas in tourism, as reported recently. This Civil Rights site is an opportunity for San Antonio.

What’s Not There

Now, the threat to the Woolworth’s Building since 2015 has been that it sits atop the site of the west wall of the Alamo compound, potentially the site of Travis’ quarters during the epochal 1836 battle.

See the area to the left where the soldiers are swarming in? That is under the building below.
This is on top of the site of the north wall, where Travis fell and where Santa Ana broke through. A more significant location, but apparently is wasn’t for sale.

Yesterday someone said to me: “But the lunch counter is gone – there is no remnant of it.”

The same is true of the western wall and Travis’ quarters. Nothing left of them. The buildings there have basements, so it’s all gone. No remnant.

So which do you interpret?

Both, obviously. And you have tons of room inside the Woolworth Building to do that.

See my 2018 blog on the Woolworth Building here.

FEBRUARY UPDATE:

The Woolworth Building has been nominated as a State Antiquities Landmark, to be heard by the Texas Historical Commission on April 16. You can voice your support by contacting Mark Wolfe, Executive Director, Texas Historical Commission, P.O. Box 12276, Austin, TX 78711, Mark.Wolfe@thc.texas.gov

Also, check the Conservation Society website for updates!

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Alamo Plaza October 2018

October 23, 2018 Blog, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 364

If you want to see what the Alamo Plaza plan was like exactly four months ago prior to a series of public meetings, check out my blog from June 20 here.  If you want to see what the City Council approved last week, check out my blog from June 20 here.  Not much changed, although a booklet called Alamo Plan August 2018 did address a series of the questions that came up during the public meetings and explained why things pretty much had to stay the way they were.  Like the website, the book starts on the negative, decrying all of the icky things that happen in front of the Alamo.

Always best to start with the negative..

We don’t get the POSITIVE vision for the site until after the City hands over control.  It is curious that we only are presented what Alamo Plaza shouldn’t be – the few images in the booklet are generic and uninspiring.

The Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings that we have been advocating for for the last three years.  These face the Alamo chapel.  In the August 2018 book they announce they will “assess the significance and integrity according to national standards” and “assess opportunities for reuse, including how to connect multiple floor plates”.  This is the equivalent of Henry II’s plaintive wail “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

The City Council voted to lease the plaza and streets to the State of Texas for 50 years (with two 25-year extensions).  The main changes over the four months were not changes to the plan as much as changes to those opposed to the plan.  The two main parades (Battle of Flowers and Fiesta Flambeau) agreed to the new parade routes, the Citizens Advisory Committee publically approved the plan, and the Historic and Design Review Committee approved the moving of the Cenotaph, which raised the most controversy over the summer.

The new location of the Cenotaph within the plaza area was arguably the only change made to the plan itself.  They did add some new drawings commemorating the Payaya Indians who first inhabited the 1718 mission to the final presentation and book.  These added illustrations received significant commendation from the Council members for interpreting more than just the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.  So… they included the 18th century, but what about the 20th???

The Phil Collins-sponsored metal model plaques that were installed this year start with 1744, and then march to 1785, 1793, 1836, 1846, 1861 and … then stop marching at 1900.  This is the problem:  They claim to interpret 300 years of history but actually stop halfway, prior to the 20th century.  Which is when Adina de Zavala and Claire Driscoll actually saved the Alamo.  And a city happened.

Despite the casting of this summer’s plan as an “interpretive plan,” the only hints at interpretation were images of costumed interpreters and the recent hiring of a living history director.  Although they have assured me there will be 21st century museum staples like augmented reality, there is a curious fondness for the unpopular and unprofitable world of 20th century living history, which I surveyed in another recent blog.

In fairness to our city leaders, we raised a big stink about the importance of the Woolworth’s Building in Civil Rights history (see my blog here) and this was referenced in the City’s lease agreement, if not into the Alamo Plan publication.  But it can still be demolished.

That would be a missed opportunity to make money.

A recent study shows that Civil Rights tourism is one of the few categories of tourism that is growing – a new Green Book movie is coming out and the National Museum of African-American History with 2.4 million tourists has kicked off a boom in the sector.

Fine looking building – would be worth saving for architecture.  But the Civil Rights history is even more epic.

The other big issue this summer was access, a subject of our petition.  The new museum which will occupy the space (and hopefully the facades) of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings will be open 9-5 and during that time only one access point to the plaza – next to the museum – will be open to the public.

No sneaking in!!!!!

Up to six gates in the new fences surrounding the plaza will be open at other times, so that vital midnight selfie in front of the Alamo will be only a bit less convenient than today.  This element of the plan upset most of the architects and planners in town, and again, there was minimal change – more off-hours access points were added, but daytime stayed at one.

My normal time is 7 AM, although I will probably have to leave my bike outside.

So, now all the decisions will be taken by the state.  The Citizens Advisory Committee and the Historic and Design Review Commission will comment on the results of the architectural assessments, but the power lies with the General Land Office of the State of Texas.

Icky!

We can hope.  Our focus at San Antonio Conservation Society remains on the buildings.  Roads can be closed and opened.  Gates can be added and subtracted,  Fences can be erected and deconstructed.  But once you tear down these historic buildings, they are gone forever.

 

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September sightings

October 2, 2018 House Museums, House Museums, Texas Comments (0) 255

This will be a primarily visual blog highlighting some of the heritage sites I saw this past month which I had not seen before.  First is the Tuberculosis sanitarium houses on Zarzamora here in San Antonio.

Built starting in 1938, this complex of a dozen buildings features red tile roofs and southwestern style sun-baked wall finishes.  TB patients would each get a small cubic house with plenty of windows and really sweet architectural details.

Gotta love a real steel casement window.  They rolled that steel 7 or 8 times to get those delicate profiles.  Nothing like it today.

University Health Systems owns them and uses some for offices and some for storage.  We are hoping that several can be preserved in the long-term, focusing on those built in the 1938-48 period of initial construction.  The overall feeling is like you are on a 1920s silent movie set!

We also got to tour the Sisson House, a very early house adjacent to the acequia at Mission San Jose.  The American Indians in Texas are planning to create their museum there.  The house is owned by the National Park Service.

The fun part here is trying to figure out which section was built when.  There are two structures, and parts of the main house here appear to be wood, but a rear portion is stone and/or caliche block.

Did they take stone from the abandoned mission and build an addition?  The rear building has a surprisingly deep basement – was it built first?  I love these kind of forensic escapades with knowledgeable historic architects around as we debate potential answers.

Even the double munched standing seam metal roof has a curious proportion on the shed addition.

The next treasure is in Billings, Montana and it is a house museum.  I have seen many, many house museums, but the Moss Mansion in Billings is really something.  Built in 1903 and designed by Henry Hardenbergh of Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel and Dakota Apartments, this house was an exercise in architectural styles, beginning with the insanely detailed Moorish foyer:

To the left is a library so paneled and English that is has a stained glass window of William Shakespeare, while to the right is a room so French and pink you expect Louis XIV-XVI to materialize out of thin air.

The level of architectural detail is really off the hook – this house did not do a wall finish, but a wainscot, a wall finish, a crown finish and a relief plastered ceiling in every room in every style.  Here is the parlor beyond the library in a Nouveau style:

The crown molding here in the study is about 8 inches high and 4 inches deep

Not only is there a massive bathroom on the second floor with tile all over the floors and walls, but even the ceiling is tiled with rosettes at every corner:

horror vacui non potest

Dining room detail.  The other side of the room has stained glass.

A bedroom.

Another bedroom.

Not only did they have the first telephone in town (and owned the company, if memory serves) they also had electric hair curlers in every bathroom, and massive ice boxes in the pantry.

This house survived because it stayed in the family until the 1980s.  Reminds me of the Maverick Carter House here in San Antonio, which is STILL in the same family, has a similar vintage and a similar Richardsonian Romanesque exterior.

Entry, Maverick Carter House, San Antonio

I actually toured that one back in August, so it doesn’t count for September.

Here’s me with Stephen Cavender at the Audi Dominion, which replaced a Robert Hugman house that was not known at the time.  We are standing by a plaque recalling the house and there is an area that uses stones from the property to create a small rest area whilst the house outlines are traced on the lot.

Finally a wonderful courtyard with a tile waterfall design from O’Neil Ford’s incomparable Trinity University, listed on the National Register of Historic Places this year and the site of the city’s second Living Heritage Symposium!  That deserves another blog…

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Alamo Plaza and Diversity

August 30, 2018 Blog, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (2) 1701

This year I published a chapter called “Addressing the Diversity Deficit: Reform the National Register of Historic Places” in a book called Creating Historic Preservation in the 21st Century.  This is a topic I have been working on for many years.  You can see some of my writing on it here and here.

The National Register and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment are not culturally neutral tools.  For historical and pragmatic reasons, they privilege architecture and white male history.  Worse, those cultures oppressed in the past are forced to relive that oppression when told that their historic sites lack “integrity.”

Where “Invisible Man” was written in the 1940s, Manhattan.

Those who were second-class citizens had to make do with second-class facilities and now second-class landmarks.  Second-class status is perpetuated when we make minority landmarks live up to rules designed by and for the dominating culture.

Woolworth’s, designed by Adams and Adams in 1921.

The relevance of this struck me in regard to the State of Texas plan to demolish the Woolworth’s Building on Alamo Plaza, which emerged three months ago (see my blog about it here.)

This was a major building by a national chain at the major intersection of Alamo and Houston Streets.  The interior is heavily altered, but the exterior looks much as it did when built in 1921.  It is on the National Register and a local landmark.  But wait.  There’s more.

The San Antonio Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counter on March 16, 1960, peacefully and without demonstration.  This was a first for the South.  The Greensboro, N.C. sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter had been only six weeks earlier.  It was a first for Woolworth’s, a national chain that was still being picketed nationwide and would not officially adopt an integrated lunch counter policy for months.

A few days later Jackie Robinson, in San Antonio, compared the event to his entry into Major League Baseball and said “It is a story that should be told around the world,” according to the New York Times.

Five other stores also integrated peacefully on that day, and none wanted to be called out.  The San Antonio Express and News reported:

“Speculation was that the flat refusal by the group to name the stores may stem from recent reports that some of the larger chain stores have ordered their managers not to integrate.

Also, a spokesman from one store said earlier that most of the businesses are for integration, but none of them want to be named as the first to make the move.”

Kress, one of the other stores.

Photos of the Woolworth’s store ran in the San Antonio News that day, and Kress was mentioned in the Light.  While some of the other stores’ locations survive, thanks to Greensboro, Woolworth’s remains forever front-and-center in civil rights history.

SO – what happens now?  Three months after they released their initial plan to demolish the Woolworth’s building, the Alamo is now hiring an architect to evaluate the buildings based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and their significance at the national state and local levels.

If you have experience with minority culture sites, you can see where this is going.

They have already released an illustration showing how the three building’s interior floors don’t line up.  That will be Reason 1, although it will be wrong, because in this particular case you could gut the interiors so they do line up – just like Joske’s did – and still have the exterior where the young African-American boy peering into the store was photographed on March 16, 1960.

Joske’s, November 2014.

And you can still interpret the long-lost mission wall and buildings inside – in the shade.

Reason 2 will be that the building does not have sufficient integrity on the interior.  This conclusion would require ignoring both the minority cultural context and current directives on evaluating interior integrity.  Recognizing its deficiencies in addressing cultural and historical sites, in December 2016 the National Park Service issued new guidance that encourages conserving “a space’s historic associations even though its component features and materials may be themselves so highly deteriorated that their integrity is irretrievably lost.”

Woolworth’s storefront on Houston Street – the markings on the ground show where mission buildings were.  Also where Travis lived during the siege.  Probably his slave Joe as well.  

Reason 3 will be this: If you demolish Woolworth’s you will still have other sites that witnessed peaceful integration in March, 1960.  That is true, and incredibly insulting.

It says your history can make do with fewer landmarks.  It says because you have Neisner’s, Kress’ and Green’s then you don’t need the only one people have heard of.

Erasing an authentic place for a reconstruction?

Whose history would be erased for whose?

Photo:  UTSA Special Collections Courtesy San Antonio Express News

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Last Stand at the Alamo

June 20, 2018 Blog, Interpretation, Technology, Texas Comments (0) 539

Are they making a state park in the middle of the city?  With a 130,000 square foot museum?  Fencing off the San Antonio’s most important public space?

This is the Piazza Navona, one of the world’s great urban spaces.  It sits on the site of the Roman Circus.  There is no need to recreate the circus, or wall it off.  The use of that space by the public connects it back 2000 thousand years and forward another 1000.  It is alive, not covered by glass or shrubs.  Alamo Plaza is our Piazza Navona.  They are almost the same size and scale.

Last year’s Master Plan envisioned glass walls around the Alamo Plaza.  This year’s Interpretive Plan reduces the walls to fences and shrouds them in shrubs, but the goal is the same.  Manage – and likely monetize – the space.  Since both plans have this attribute, the order is clearly coming from the client, not the designer.

No more sneaking in

Public meetings are going on now to take stock of this interpretive plan.  Bottom line?  Every San Antonian has the right to take a selfie in front of the Alamo at 1 A.M.

Or 7 A.M.

We at the San Antonio Conservation Society are circulating a petition focusing on access to the plaza and the buildings that face the Alamo. We have been fighting for these buildings since 2015 when the state bought them, and a year ago, we thought we had won!  Last year’s Master Plan had the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth’s Buildings saved as part of the new museum.  We supported that, along with the restoration of the chapel and Long Barracks, and the regrading of the plaza to create a more uniform space in the courtyard/battlefield.  The City Council approved it.  This year’s plan is different, and not in a good way.

Crockett Building on left, built the year before the Alamo was purchased by the state.

This is still the location of the big ‘ol museum.  For our presentation, they showed keeping the front half of the Crockett Building, which would create an appropriately reverent transition from the courtyard/battlefield to the high-tech wizardry they are promising inside.  They also had an illustration that demolished all three buildings.

The plan we saw removed the two other landmark buildings, including the Woolworth’s on the corner, site of the first voluntary peaceful integration of a lunch counter in the South (March 1960).  All three are landmarks locally and listed on the National Register.

You can interpret both the lunch counter and the long-lost west wall of the compound inside the building.  In the shade.  Why is it always either/or?  Designers know better.

The real irony here is that in the name of interpreting history, they suggest removing actual century-old historic buildings in order to replace them with modern versions of long-lost elements, like the wall.  Replacing real history with fake history?  Tossing actual historic fabric in the dumpster for a conjectural reconstruction?

The other big issue is access.  Last  year the plan closed Alamo Street in front of the Alamo.  Now they are closing part of Houston Street to the north, Crockett Street, and the bit of Alamo between Market and Commerce.  Access is limited to five gates.  The planners are adamant that the Battle of Flowers parade and Fiesta Flambeau can’t parade in front of the Alamo?  Why?  We have a fence around Wulff House and we still let the Granaderos y Damas de Galvez do their living history there once a year.  We take the fence down for a day and then put it back.  That’s not hard.  Why the bloodymindedness?

We okayed closing Alamo Street in front of the chapel a year ago, but now the closures have grown like kudzu and it seems there will be little northerly traffic through the downtown.

Unless they re-open Main Plaza.  Just sayin’.

I still don’t get why no one has proposed restoring the chapel to the way it was during the battle.

In addition to the irony of demolishing actual historical things for reproductions, there is the irony of wanting to get rid of the “tacky” theme park-styled attractions that occupy the Woolworth’s and Palace Buildings, as well as more to the south.  Yet walling off the plaza for heritage reenactment risks turning the whole thing into a kind of theme park like Colonial Williamsburg.

The amount of physical intervention proposed by this interpretive plan is really staggering.  This is the 21st century – you don’t need the sort of physical interventions people were doing in the 1930s (like Colonial Williamsburg).  Or 1960s.  This is NOW.  Augmented reality, programmable to the latest discoveries.  Clean up, regrade and reprogram.  No heavy machinery needed.

Looking at the key point where the March 6, 1836 battle turned – underneath the Post Office. 

Check out my previous blogs on how actual tourists will be experiencing historic sites tomorrow.  Don’t spend millions crafting something that will be silly in five years.  Y’all can’t outdo Piazza Navona.  That takes actual, continuous history, not a recreated circus.

Not the Alamo.  Also not Piazza Navona, but it is a Roman ruin.

AUGUST 2 UPDATE:

Still no timeline for a revised plan, but they are releasing an RFQ for an architect for the museum and commissioning someone to evaluate the buildings in light of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation weighed in with a letter urging preservation of the buildings.  The City Manager, Mayor, County Judge and Councilman Trevino have all gone public in support of preserving the buildings and keeping the plaza open, which are the two main points in our petition.  And our petition now has over 6,200 signatures!

OCTOBER 1 UPDATE

We now have more information on the importance of the Woolworth’s Building (see my blog here) and a new August 2018 The Alamo Plan.  It devotes six pages to the Crockett Block buildings, beginning with “Why can’t you retain the buildings on the west side of the site?” following with “This needs further study” and then “Retain multiple options until later in the design process” and then “Assess the Significance and Integrity” before two pages of structural diagrams showing how the floors don’t line up.

After reading these pages it is hard not hear Henry II shouting “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

My blog also deals with the integrity and structural issues FYI.

Petition drive now concluded with about 7,300 total.  City Council votes on October 18.

 

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Infill in the Fastest Growing City in the U.S.

June 13, 2018 Economics, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (0) 1972

66 people a day are moving to San Antonio.  That is a higher number than any other city in the U.S.  There are less than a dozen cranes downtown, but that is more than San Antonians are used to, and there have been various flare-ups over developments in neighborhoods.

So an opinion piece dived in on the side of top-down planning in the Rivard Report, claiming that San Antonio has a movement against New Urbanism and is in danger of sprawling even further by restricting density.

Check out this sentence: “Zoning decisions shouldn’t be based upon answering the singular question of whether an infill project fits in with the neighborhood.”

Cellars at the Pearl

Zoning decisions are never based on answering singular questions.  The whole point of zoning is that it is a site of negotiation of complicated, multiple questions.  The author references the debate over the Dean Steel site along San Pedro Creek west of the King William area.  Perfect example of the multiple questions being answered by zoning, like, should it be residential (yes), how should it address the street, the creek and the nearby neighborhood, and how dense should it be?

Big Tex on Mission Reach near Blue Star

The Oden Hughes project he cited was a perfect example:  Developer asks for 400+ units, neighbors push back, he settles for 340.  That is how zoning works as a site of negotiation.  Developer probably anticipated the negotiation.  I expect to see something similar at Dean Steel.

Dean Steel

The disturbing thing about the article is it seems to want to give more power to the planners and blame the neighbors for causing sprawl.  There are always those people who will oppose any change.  There are always those who will oppose more density.  And there are always those who will ask for more than they need.  But NONE of them get to decide,  And neither does Baron Hausmann or Le Corbusier or their 21st century wannabes.

Corbu to you, too

San Antonio is not a commodity, it is a place.  Of course the downtown will grow more dense and newbie urbanistique.  You can start by building on the 40% of downtown that is surface parking.  Then you have your industrial sites like Dean Steel and Oden Hughes and Lone Star that can add thousands of new residents without displacing any old ones since they were industrial sites.  You have office buildings that can be converted to dense residential, like these are right now:

You also have Hemisfair, soon to be a new residential neighborhood downtown.  Greenwich Village hasn’t stifled the density of Manhattan, and King William and Dignowity Hill won’t stifle the new residential downtown.  On the contrary, they will complement and economically enhance the new residential downtown just as the Museum Reach and Mission Reach have done for their geographies.  Historic districts preserve and enhance a character that attracts human and financial investment.

San Antonio is not a commodity, it is a place with character.  Planning is not a math problem and people aren’t simply decanted into towers and corridors.  There are multiple reasons 464 people arrive each week and there are multiple components to San Antonio’s character.

Planning and zoning are negotiations between multiple stakeholders that – at the end of the process – answer the manifold question of whether a project fits into a place.

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