Last week was quite busy with saving the Whitt Building, as recounted here. This week the focus was another near Westside building known for both sinners and saints. Everyone thought it was landmarked, but then no one could find the ordinance from 30 years ago, and the owners want to demolish it. But what a history.
The two-story portion to the right was built in 1883 by Aurelia Dashiell as a “boarding house” which meant of course, a brothel. For about five years at the turn of the century it was the home of famed madam Fannie Porter, who hosted the Wild Bunch including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, purportedly giving them a big party in 1901. This was two blocks south of San Antonio’s “Sporting District”, the third largest “red light” district in the U.S. and a highly regulated one with a defined zone, licensing and regular health exams for the sex workers. It provided one of the city’s largest revenue streams and attracted more tourists than any local site except for the Alamo.
Then the Archbishop bought it in 1913 and it spent over a century aiding the impoverished and neglected youth of the near Westside “Laredito” neighborhood, first under the Carmelite Sisters for over 70 years and then under Father Flanagan’s Boys Town from 1990 to 2017. The building had gone from one generation of sinners to five generations of saints. The structure itself had a major addition in 1931 by the Carmelites and more in ’51 and ’62 giving it its current look, roughly the same as a 1949 Jubilee yearbook photo published by the Archdiocese.
It is also a rare survivor of “Laredito” the near Westside Hispanic neighborhood that was deliberately decimated by highways and urban renewal. There are a tiny handful of Laredito buildings left, including this National Historic Landmark that the Conservation Society saved in 1959, Casa Navarro:
Anyway, there is more than enough information for it to be nominated as a landmark – which everyone assumed it was – and the Conservation Society will be pursuing that along with our friends at Westside Preservation Alliance, Tier 1 Neighborhood Association and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.
Meanwhile, I got intrigued about some buildings in my own Beacon Hill. I went looking for this little house maybe 150 feet behind my own.
This was the home of the Liberto family, including Vivian Liberto, who met Johnny Cash roller skating in 1951. They married at the nearby St. Ann’s Church, a cool mid-century modern built in 1948.
Speaking of 1948, I recently learned that a series of houses were built to promote the 1948 film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant, which I actually saw many years ago. And the one in San Antonio is still there and in seemingly excellent condition. Thanks to David Bush of Preservation Houston for finding this!
It has been raining for what seems like forty days (a quarantine) in San Antonio and those rains became the excuse for an emergency demolition order on the Whitt Printing Building, a part of the Cattleman Square district west of downtown. Its modest Art Deco facade belies its community importance – this was the largest Spanish-language printing house in a city with more of that business than any other in the nation. Founded by Gilberto Whitt, one of many who came here fleeing the 1910 Mexican Revolution, the building has been deteriorating for more than three decades.
The owners requested to remove it from the historic district and to raze it. The Conservation Society opposed both actions, fearing the precedent of “de-designation” and the loss of another building in the near West side where decay and redevelopment sit cheek by jowl. The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) denied both requests, which were set to go to Zoning when an emergency demolition order came out on the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend. They blamed the rain for more roof collapsing (not the 35 years?)
The Conservation Society hired a structural engineer on two hours’ notice who inspected the structure and reported that while the roof and other wooden elements of the building were in bad shape, its massive concrete piers and beams were solid and in no danger of falling. Indeed, unlike most buildings, the concrete frame did not rely on the roof to hold the walls up.
A mass of local preservationists held vigil over the holiday weekend, as demolition equipment stood by. A scheduled Tuesday zoning hearing was continued and an emergency HDRC meeting was held Wednesday night. Amazingly, the HDRC, owners and preservationists all agreed that the structure of the Whitt Building would be saved, its roof and non-original infill walls removed. A save!
But wait, there’s more! Last Friday as I brought our structural engineer over to the Whitt Building, our two videos on the history of the first peaceful and voluntary integration of Woolworth’s and other lunch counters during the 1960 Sit-In movement premiered online! You can see the videos here. On Tuesday morning we went to Bexar County Commmissioner’s Court to receive a proclamation celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Woolworth Building, which opened June 3, 1921.
We got to thank the Commissioner’s Court for their timely contribution of $25m to rehabilitate the Woolworth and Crockett Buildings for the new Alamo museum, including a free exhibit on the lunch counter integration AT THE SITE. Turns out that the Woolworth is the only one of the six surviving lunch counter buildings that retains physical evidence of the serpentine lunch counter!
As if that wasn’t enough for the week, it kept raining and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) reconsidered a plan that would have run a new sewer line over two conservation easements designed to protect the recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer. Now if we can only get them to do the same on another chunk of recharge land.
Congratulations to all who helped make these victories possible – there were a whole lot of people pulling in the same direction here and it made a difference!
But wait, there’s more! Just got Texas Supreme Court decision upholding Houston’s preservation ordinance! Happy weekend!
According to the conceptual plan presented in Bexar County Commissioners Court today, not only will the Woolworth Building be repurposed as part of the new Alamo Museum, but there will be a free exhibit about Civil Rights and lunch counter integration in the space where the lunch counter was inside the building! The county is contributing $25M over 5 years to the museum project. The state legislature is going to vote on $50M this week and the major players all seem to be on the same page regarding the new plan. This is amazing news and a real confirmation of the work of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building and the Conservation Society of San Antonio over the last four years. It is also a testament to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who has been fighting right along side of us this whole time.
When Coalition for the Woolworth Building member Aaronetta Pierce became tri-chair on the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee and Rebecca Viagran took over on the management committee, we knew there would be a new approach. New Alamo Trust CEO Kate Rogers has also made a great impression. There’s much more emphasis on stakeholder inclusion and telling the full story now. It’s a new day.
It is almost too much to process today. Thanks to our supporters at the World Monuments Fund, and the preservation community throughout the United States and especially the members of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building: Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, San Antonio Branch NAACP, Westside Preservation Alliance, San Antonio for Growth on the East Side, Mexican American Civil Rights Institute and all of the individuals who have made this moment possible.
For background, here are a few blogs on the buildings, which we have been fighting to save since 2015.
Also, the first two videos on the unique Civil Rights history of the Woolworth Building are available online here!
SEPTEMBER 2021 UPDATE – Check out this blogpost on the Coalition on the National Trust Leadership Forum Page!
Almost a month since my last blog, which was shared 255 times but only read 69? Here in San Antonio we are cautiously emerging from the pandemic. This is normally Fiesta Week, the greatest celebration in San Antonio since 1891, but it has been put off until late June. Taking a cue from New Orleans as we so often have, the King William district (first in Texas!) encouraged residents to decorate their houses like parade floats, allowing Fiesta to live in a socially distanced way.
As I have noted many times over the last year, the work of heritage conservation has not slowed down a bit as the pace of construction and development continues speedily in our fast-growing city. The old El Mirador restaurant was largely demolished, although we helped insure that five old stone walls within the complex will be preserved in the new Rosario’s restaurant (best roasted tomato salsa IMHO).
The town is full of new construction, which tends to pack many units on small lots, like these stick-built zoning envelopes going up on Evergreen on the edge of Tobin Hill, replacing some nice early 20C houses. We have four new hotels opening downtown, at least two of them quite luxurious. We are also seeing more highrise housing planned for the central area, confirming what I said a year ago about what the pandemic means for urban density.
The other development I have been watching on my morning bike rides is the construction of a replica rampart at the southwest corner of Alamo Plaza for a temporary (really?) exhibit of a replica 18-pounder cannon used in the unsuccessful defense of the Alamo in 1836. It also includes a replica of the Losoya house which was in the Alamo compound.
The Alamo project appears to be moving forward in a more community-minded way under new leadership (see blog before last).
Oh! I almost forgot! Thanks to the Power of Preservation Foundation, the lovely 1935 Pure Oil gas station on Nogalitos now has a new roof! This was the subject of my most popular blog ever a couple years back.
I have been aware of Richard Hunt – the sculptor with more public commissions than any other in U.S. history – for well over 40 years. When I attended the University of Chicago, his flamelike metal sculpture Why? was in Harper Court which I walked past almost daily in the late 70s and early 80s. I liked it – it seemed kind of like a fire, kind of like a hand and it epitomizes the spirit of inquiry there.
I got the chance to spend a lovely lunch with Richard Hunt about 15 years ago at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago when I was doing a presentation on Hubert Ropp, who was Dean of the School when Richard attended in the 1950s. Just recently I noticed that sculptor Preston Jackson, whom I also know from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, had posted a painting of Richard and he online.
Now, here in San Antonio, as you know from my last blog, we have been waging a campaign to Save The Woolworth Building, not only for its drop-dead gorgeous Chicago Commercial style architecture, but because it was the focus of the only voluntary and peaceful integration of lunch counters during the Sit-In movement of 1960. Following letters sent by Mary Lilian Andrews, NAACP Youth Council Chair, in early March, and a mass meeting of 1,500 held March 13, 1960 at Second Baptist Church, Woolworth’s and 6 other lunch counters quietly and peacefully integrated on Wednesday, March 16, 1960 before any sit-in demonstrations could be held.
Last week, Jon Ott of the International Sculpture Center telephoned me and asked about the Woolworth campaign. I related the recent shift in leadership that seemed to bode well for the building and its role in Civil Rights History. Then he asked me whether we knew of any African-Americans who ate at the Woolworth lunch counter that day and I related the story of the photographer who captured a young black man looking in the window but only found blacks and whites eating together mid-morning when he wandered down to the Kress cafeteria on Houston Street. That story was related here.
Then Jon Ott informed me that Richard Hunt ate at the Woolworth lunch counter on that day, March 16, 1960. I was floored. Then Jon told me the rest of the story. Richard Hunt had graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957 and gone to Europe on a Traveling Fellowship while preparing for an exhibit at a New York Gallery. In Paris he received his draft notice, was given extra time to report in order to prepare for the New York show, which he missed due to basic training.
Hunt was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston as a medic but quickly became an army illustrator. Friends with modernist architects O’Neil Ford and Allison Peery, Richard and his wife Betty Scott managed to rent a brand-new home at Fort Sam for NCOs, despite the fact that he was a private and African-American. He and his wife went to the NAACP rally on Sunday, March 13, 1960 at Second Baptist Church when the sit-ins were planned for Thursday, March 17.
When the lunch counters peacefully and voluntarily integrated on Wednesday March 16, Allison Peery and his wife Mimi drove to Fort Sam and brought Richard down to Woolworth’s for lunch. He had a ham sandwich.
Richard Hunt is the first identified African-American we can place at the Woolworth lunch counter that day. By that time, he was sharing the Mill Race Studio – where Gutzon Borglum designed Mount Rushmore, with artist Chester Toney. He had also just returned from Louisiana, where he had his first public sculpture commission at Southern University. He has had some 150 such commissions over his lifetime, more than any other American sculptor. His first was crafted in San Antonio.
Jon Ott has been interviewing Richard Hunt for a year and a half, and he asked Richard why he had never told this story before. In his typical humble manner, he said “I wasn’t a Freedom Rider.” He had an uneventful lunch on the first day of integrated eating at Woolworth’s. But then again, that was the whole point.
Featured photo by Martha Mood courtesy Richard Hunt and Jon Ott.
Aaronetta Pierce, a lion of civic life and civil rights in San Antonio, was named one of the Tri-Chairs of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee last week. Shortly thereafter we learned that Council Member Roberto Trevino had been replaced on the management committee for the Alamo by Council Member Rebecca Viagran, a descendent of Tejano Alamo defender Toribio Losoya. Dr. Carey Latimore was also appointed to the Citizens Advisory Committee following his detailed study of Civil Rights around Alamo Plaza, specifically the famed lunch counter integration of 1960 – the first peaceful and voluntary integration of lunch counters in the South during the Sit-In movement.
The Mayor made it clear that the buildings facing the Alamo chapel/shrine – the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings – are to be saved. This is huge news and a validation of the position taken by the Conservation Society in the fall of 2015. It is also huge for our Coalition for the Woolworth Building, formed in 2018 and including the aforementioned Aaronetta Pierce. The milestones of the Coalition: State Antiquities Landmark status in May, 2019; the release of a plan showing how to repurpose the buildings that same month; a prize-winning ofrenda honoring civil rights leader Mary Lilian Andrews in October 2019 and the listing of the Woolworth Building later that same month as one of only 3 U.S. buildings on the World Monuments Watch List 2020, have now come to fruition. A year ago we held a Donut Day at the Woolworth and then an all-day seminar on the role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights history. We spent the pandemic year continuing to lobby, collecting video testimonials and crafting a series of short videos about the lunch counter integration that are now in production.
The Mayor is also revisiting a few more ill-conceived and unpopular elements of the 2018 plan, including lowering the plaza (which makes the archeologists CRAZY) and permanently closing the streets (which makes the businesspeople CRAZY). San Antonians have heaved a sigh of relief as the Alamo plan enters a new era that will remember the long arc of its history by preserving all of its layers and getting comfortable with the fact that it is in the middle of a city.
And soon we will reveal the story of a young black man who ate lunch at Woolworth’s on March 16, 1960.
Well, last week was a lost week, thanks to two snowstorms in a city that usually takes a decade to see two snowstorms. Add extended sub-freezing temperatures and a free-market utility system and you have a Texas-sized disaster that will easily eclipse Hurricane Harvey in cost.
Hundreds of thousands of people were without power, heat and water for much of the last week. My family’s experience in Soviet Texas – 4-5 hours of power per day, impassable roads, boil-water notices and a burst pipe – was not as bad as many. Indeed, we were lucky, and had full power back by Thursday after intermittent power Sunday-Wednesday.
The comically and unironically named Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has taken a lot of heat (literally) for the rolling blackouts and just plain blackouts that affected over 4 million Texans last week. But the system – designed to avoid federal oversight and harness the free market – ultimately worked as it was designed to: Energy companies made massive windfall profits while people shivered and boiled snow.
It began on a Saturday with freezing rain, turning to a good 4 inches of snow on Monday, following by single-digit overnight temperatures for two nights, a brief thaw and then more snow on Thursday. And there are basically no shovels or plows here, period.
I spent fifty years living in Chicago and can easily recollect at least four snowfalls of 20 inches or more and half a dozen days at -20 degrees Fahrenheit. But that place is designed for it. Not only is San Antonio not designed for snowfall, but the utility system rewards NOT winterizing your facilities, so they all – natural gas, nuclear, wind, coal, solar – froze up. They don’t do that in Chicago. Or Canada. Or Denmark. Or Russia.
The most Soviet aspect of the whole experience was not simply the lack of power most of the time, or the boiling of water, but the empty store shelves – it made the onset of the pandemic nearly a year ago seem quaint. You could get toilet paper, but forget about meat or milk.
But, we are fine and well. The biggest hurt has got to be Texas’ pride – not only did silly ERCOT get publicly busted and bruised, but the political fallout of a series of own goals followed by a multimillion dollar philanthropic largesse from New York City has got to sting somethin’ fierce.
For as long as historic preservation ordinances have been judged appropriate exercises of the police power (40+ years) they have included provisions for economic hardship. This makes sense, if a building is so far gone that it cannot be economically rehabilitated, there should be an exception. But how did it get there? And what are your (legal standard spoiler alert!) “reasonable investment-backed expectations?”
See, San Antonio is pretty good at fixing old buildings that people in other towns won’t. So, when you hear that someone is trying to tear down a salvageable house, odds are they aren’t from here. And their claims of economic hardship? Even sillier.
So, let’s say you owned this house for eight years. During that time you could have invested a couple thousand dollars a year and slowly brought it back to life. Or you could ignore it, allow the homeless to congregate there, and hope that your investment would turn – magically – into a lucrative vacant lot. Except it’s not magic and it is very deliberate. Even the well-worn phrase “demolition by neglect” sounds more benign than malignant, and this behavior is malignant.
See, this isn’t some poor guy who can’t maintain a house. This is an out-of-town investor who has more than a dozen business entities, each of which owns one of these houses in the neighborhood. This isn’t economic hardship – this is malignant neglect and a business model built on NOT taking care of the assets you own.
How do you argue economic hardship when you have created all of the conditions that made the building expensive to rehab? What are the “reasonable investment-backed expectations” of this business model?
And how do the neighbors like it? Well, if you are behind one of these single-house-owning-LLCs, you should reasonably expect that your investment and your business practice model are going to piss off the neighbors. Indeed, that is one of many reasons for putting the asset into a one-off corporate entity – to hide from the neighbors.
Heck, those pesky neighbors might insist that the city enforce the same regulations on you as they do on them. What’s that called? Equity?
No, not that kind of equity.
Time for a new business model.
An even better business model: Buy a perfectly lovely old house, DO NOTHING to the point of actively resisting neighbor’s attempts to lease it, encourage vagrants to collect on the property, and then WAIT for the neighbors to demand demolition because of all the problems the property is causing. YOU aren’t causing the problems, the property is. Did I mention you needed to excise your moral compass and human integrity to follow this business model? No problem? Good!
JULY 2021 UPDATE
I noticed that the Louisiana legislature is considering a bill that would allow New Orleans to double the fines for violating building permits to $1,000 a day to “deter bad actors”. That would be good here as well.
Fires have hit two historic houses in the last couple of weeks and it reminds me of the tragedy of losing landmarks to fire. The first was a stunning Alta Vista bungalow that was NOT occupied. Of course, if you have a building that is not occupied and not secured, it IS occupied by homeless. In winter, fire becomes even more likely.
Indeed, that is what caused the fire at the old Lone Star brewery a year ago. Sadly, this bungalow has not been cared for by the owners. The other fire was next to a landmark, but one man called to say the home had been visited by two presidents, something we are looking into.
Fire, fire, fire. One of the biggest gut punches I ever felt was returning to Chicago from New York in 2006 and seeing the news that Pilgrim Baptist Church had burned – an architectural landmark (originally KAM synagogue) by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler and a cultural icon as the home of gospel music founder Thomas Dorsey.
That year saw two of Louis Sullivan’s buildings burn and another demolished in a perverse and macabre celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. I blogged about it here and witnessed the second fire from the Loop train platform.
The two 2006 Sullivan fires were caused by dodgy tradesmen using torches where they should not have been using torches. Shortcuts. Fauler Mistkerl.
I saw it with an 1830s Greek Revival house in Lockport in 2000 when they used heat guns to strip paint, ignoring the 150 year old newspaper packed into the walls. They went to lunch and it burned down.
Sometimes it is deliberate. Another gut punch was a weekend we took the dog for a walk in Humboldt Park and saw that the stunning 1896 Fromman and Jebsen Stables Building had been torched.
Back here in San Antonio we had that dramatic fire in the historic gas station at Flores, Cevallos and Nogalitos a year ago. Fortunately the walls are still there and there is hope for a rebirth.
Interestingly, that old Pilgrim Baptist Church just got a big stabilization grant to help preserve those surviving walls nearly 15 years after the fire. Where there is a will, there is a way.
“It is better to seek forgiveness than permission.”
Unless you believe in justice and the rule of law. Or have an economist’s need for certainty and market stability. If you are just trying to get away with stuff, perdón beats permiso for sure. Yay criminality!
This is an attitude you come across in historic preservation – indeed, urban development in general – all the time. People just go ahead and whack away at their building without permits and hope they can get away with stuff.
Often they do. In San Antonio, violating a permit (or not having one) does not have a financial penalty. In some cases, the building owner can be required to put things back the way they were, although absent clear and malicious intent, that rarely happens. In other places, you can be fined up to $500 a day until you put it right.
Now take a gander at the above photo. What is it? It is a kiosk, I say. That is what the permit that was approved in 2018 said. A park with some trails and benches and a small retail kiosk.
So, the developers got an approval for a kiosk, which quietly morphed into a 5,000 square foot restaurant, plus 3,000 square feet of outdoor seating. Let’s hear it for open space!
This case is not the malicious building owner as much as the misdirecting one, and often it is the city facilitating the sleight-of-hand. We (Conservation Society) called it “bait-and-switch” in our statement, which recalled the drawings from 2018 which included no restaurant at all.
We do see this from the development community, especially between the “conceptual approval” of a development and “final approval.” “Conceptual approval” will often feature nicely finished new buildings, which then get dumbed down into cereal boxes by value engineers prior to “final approval.” Or, the old building they promised to save has deteriorated so much (often by active undermining) that they can no longer save it, it costs too much cry cry cry.
I think it would be better if we got back to a level playing field where ALL building owners played by the same rules, and promises made one year were still valid the next. Here’s hoping that an era of sneaking and cheating comes to an end.
JULY 2021 UPDATE
I noticed that the Louisiana legislature is considering a bill that would allow New Orleans to double the fines for violating building permits to $1,000 a day to “deter bad actors”. That would be good here as well.