The Fallacy of the Blank Slate

May 25, 2018 Blog, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (2) 460

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) 547

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 (1) 704

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 Hell Gate railroad Bridge apparently

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) 788

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 (4) 4004

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 1935 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.

APRIL 2019 UPDATE

The City Council is scheduled for final designation of the gas station on April 18, but owners are still pushing for demolition!  After they negotiated “in good faith”.  Unbelievable!

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People And Places And People

December 6, 2017 History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 669

This year at PastForward, the National Preservation Conference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation focused on People Saving Places.  “People” is operative, because for many – notably wonky architectural historians like myself – it had often been about buildings. Even for those in the planning profession, it had been a technical question rather than a human one.  That is wrong.

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A San Antonio surprise

November 4, 2017 Historic Districts, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (1) 2373

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.

 

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Conservation of Living Heritage

September 1, 2017 Blog, Intangible Heritage, Texas Comments (0) 1088

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.

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A dozen years and counting

August 1, 2017 Historic Districts, House Museums, House Museums, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 720

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.

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