Alamo Plaza October 2018

October 23, 2018 Blog, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 110

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.

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) 78

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) 1315

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) 348

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) 1412

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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The Fallacy of the Blank Slate

May 25, 2018 Blog, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (2) 319

I am on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Architecture, Planning and Construction at the University of Texas at San Antonio and we had a retreat yesterday.  Heavy in the discussion was the fact that many architecture students do not get “real world” training or experience.  They emerge especially underschooled in zoning and codes and the permitting process.

Let’s not forget plumbing.

I kinda don’t get it because I used to cover these issues extensively in my Master of Science in Historic Preservation classes.  I guess there is an historical tendency for architecture curriculum to focus on designing new buildings.

I want my name in lights!  And my tower the tallest!

My friend Stuart Cohen used to introduce my presentation to his class at UIC by saying “75% of all the architectural work you will ever do is on existing buildings.”  Add to this the tendency of architectural accreditation to load on course requirements and you have little leeway to help students navigate the actual path of constructing or reconstructing buildings.

Hence the proliferation of “C” level work.

The discussion turned on how both architecture professors and students use “creativity” as the reason they do not study rehabilitation and process.  This is a hoary word and a hoarier concept.  The implication is that creativity is GREATER or MORE when there are no constraints.

See how much MORE you can do with a blank slate?  Like, it must be at least 68% MORE!

The idea is that a blank slate allows more creativity.  But it is wrong.  Demonstrably wrong.  The “Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis” was proved years ago.  Look here.

This was designed in an extremely constrained environment.  By Frank Lloyd Wright, but still.

In fact, it is LAZIER to start from scratch.  Nothing to figure out, just let your mind wander, let your creative juices flow, and you will get…..something like the Libeskind building above where the creative juices just really, really flowed, like flowed.  And the mind wandered. And we who confront the building wander as well.

Unless it looks like it is going to crush us, then we walk purposefully away.

In any kind of education there is always a tension between information and practices that must be learned and the mechanism of learning.  One does not simply decant information into a vessel.  The best kinds of education create a permanent pathway for learning, so that new challenges that were never considered before can be met, not by specific example, but by processes developed and exercised.  Not so much gray matter memory as muscle memory.

Baby I’ve been there before, I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor.

My friend Bruce Sheridan has written extensively on how science and art are both underpinned by the same human capacities, and that education must reintegrate art and science.   How our brains and even our emotions work reinforces this concept.  Creativity does not arise magically from an absence, but robustly from a muscled presence.

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School Houses Rock

April 13, 2018 Economics, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 360

Not long ago I did a blog about the myriad examples of preserved, adapted historic gas stations.  Today let’s look at schools.  I remember schools rehabbed into homes from the beginning of my career over 34 years ago.

The Lemont School – front half 1896, rear piece 1869 – converted into residences c. 1980.

The Lemont School above shows how even two generations of school design are easily adapted, since they needed large windows to allow enough light in for instruction – a feature suited well to conversion into apartments or condos.  Offices are another easy rehabilitation goal, as seen in this 1874 school in Georgetown, Colorado.  (This is from a decade ago – it is rehabbed now)

Schools are a more straightforward rehab prospect than other community-defining buildings like churches and theaters, which tend to have a massive open space inside, although of course more modern schools will themselves include assembly halls and theaters, along with gymnasia.  Still, most classrooms are easily made into offices, condos or even retail spaces.

This one is for the birds.  I mean The Birds (Bodega Bay, California).

Which brings us to this lovely 1916 school by local architect Leo Dielmann, which was “saved,” or rather “not demolished” 20 years ago when they tore off various additions and built a new school.  And then let this one rot.  Despite a sturdy concrete frame, the roof was the only wood portion and it turned into a sponge in the last decade.  But the walls are there and it is beautiful.

Still the owners – the School District – have pulled a fast one, or more accurately, a really SLOW one.  Demolition by neglect.  Over more than two decades.  Makes it look almost…natural.

Councilman Treviño has been fighting for the school, and our friends over at Ford Powell Carson architects even did some renderings to show how it could be rehabbed.

Many neighbors want to save it, but others have been convinced by the long con that the eyesore is too far gone and must be removed.  The real crime here is that no one gets dunned for demolition by neglect – the most common way to deliberately destroy a perfectly usable building.  There is also lack of vision – seeing older buildings as obstacles rather than opportunities.

See?

Treviño is fighting a Principal and Superintendent who want to see the building go away, which was perhaps the plan 20-odd years ago.  That would be a shame.  For the neighborhood, the city, and future resources subjected to the mistreatment of the long con.

MAY UPDATE

Now all the parents are upset because the School District added another fence around the landmark, closing off all open space on the block.  This was not due to an incident but the occasion of a structural report that doubted the building’s ability to withstand a tornado.

Yes, really.  Can’t make this stuff up!  To the long con of demolition by neglect they have added structural scare-everybody-ism.  As the first con was strategic, so is the second, because now we have upset children and parents demanding that something be done.  Those allies are key, because the structural report itself was a bit of a laugher – it is not clear he even accessed the building!  He claimed his report was based on his experience over 40 years. I have to remember that one.

Another structural engineer is taking a look at it through actual inspection and soon we will know what it costs and whether we can find all of the money.  Stay tuned.

AUGUST UPDATE

The parents, pressured by the unnecessary closing of the playground, called for demolition this summer and the owner finally filed for a demolition permit.  Sadly, it seems the long con is working.

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My favorite BugaBoo

April 1, 2018 Economics, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (0) 466

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.

Like Paris…

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.

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94 Years and Going Strong!

March 23, 2018 Blog, History, Intangible Heritage, Texas Comments (1) 359

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).

Espada Aqueduct.

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

Aztec Theater

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!

 

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Gas Station – Why Demolish an Opportunity?

February 7, 2018 Economics, Texas Comments (1) 3528

This is Bliss, a restaurant in San Antonio.  The upscale American cuisine focuses on fresh ingredients, has superior service and is consistently ranked one of the best restaurants in the nation’s seventh largest city.  It is housed in a historic Humble Oil gas station.

This is the Station Cafe, across from our office, a more modest sandwich shop that is filled to the brink every lunchtime and offers evening beers from its historic Texaco gas station.

At Austin Highway and Broadway this former Mobil gas station is an upscale women’s boutique described as a “must-visit for anyone who is in the mood to indulge in some retail therapy.”  sloan/hall is high-end adaptive re-use.

This is another historic gas station on St. Mary’s Street just north of downtown that is about to be converted into a restaurant.

I could go on with many more examples, but the bottom line is that historic gas stations are adaptive re-use GOLD.  Like everything in the entirely externalized world of real estate value, location is key, which brings us to the city’s newest trail, along San Pedro and Apache Creeks.  I have ridden it a half-dozen times already.

The trail was just completed in the last year and connects to the famous Mission Reach trail that runs 12 miles through the World Heritage area.

Pictured above is a trailhead near Nogalitos Street.  Which brings us to this 1936 Pure Oil gas station at this very trailhead.

2017 photo.

Pure Oil was a San Antonio company that adopted the half-timbered Tudor Revival for their stations, which can be found in a dozen states.  This is the only one left in San Antonio.  It features steeply pitched roofs on both the “house” and “canopy”.

The same station in 2012, detail of the half-timbering on the canopy.

And here it is in 1983 when the San Antonio Conservation Society surveyed it.  We surveyed more than 1,500 gas stations over the years, and this was one of the 30 best, proposed as city landmarks last year.  Having looked at 1500 stations, we can tell you with confidence that the Tudor Style is quite unusual and the station is quite intact.

2012 polychrome view

But then the station was quietly pulled from the designation list at the behest of the out-of-town owner.  So the San Antonio Conservation Society filed a Request for Review of Significance, which the Historic and Design Review Commission agreed to.

We also learned at that time that the site was quite large and the little gem of a gas station only occupies about one-eighth of the land.  The Office of Historic Preservation ruled that ONLY the gas station had historic significance, so the other buildings on site do not need to be re-used.

An acre of land along the trail and a cell phone tower to boot!

A map showing construction of the site.  Only Area 1 is proposed landmark.

The owner hired the best real estate attorneys to prevent designation.  Why?  Because it would be worth more demolished?  That argument doesn’t hold up too well in this town – gas stations are constantly turned into successful businesses.  Here’s a few more:

The Conservation Society met with attorneys for the owners and Councilwoman Gonzales moments before the item came up at City Council.  All parties agreed to put designation on hold for 60 days.

Re-use the gas station on the right (corner of Nogalitos and Ralph).  SPLACH is optional, as are the other buildings.

A restored Pure Oil station in McMinnville, TN in case you wanted to see an example.  One also became a BANK in Geneva, Illinois.

We are trying to find the right buyer for all or part of the site before the DEADLINE of March 18.  For more information, contact me at vmichael@saconservation.org,

Now for a few more of the successfully rehabbed gas stations in San Antonio:

APRIL 2018 UPDATE

The gas station got another reprieve, this time for six months, although it is still not officially for sale.  If interested in this, please contact me!

AUGUST 2018 UPDATE

The San Antonio Conservation Society made a significant financial offer for the Nogalitos Pure Oil gas station and the land it is on, commissioning Alamo Architects to draw up plans showing a restored gas station and new housing along San Pedro Creek.  The owners declined to sell.  Now the gas station must be landmarked.

 

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