San Antonio Roundup April 2021
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.
Richard Hunt in San Antonio
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.
Re-membering the Alamo
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.
Demolition and economic hardship
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.
Hunka Hunka Burning Landmark
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.
Mejor pedir perdón que permiso
“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.
Usually it is windows, because a generation of shilling has left the average building owner believing that replacement windows are normal and helpful. You can read all about that here and here.
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.
If it wasn’t enough that the San Antonio Housing Authority voted to demolish the Alazan Courts project (1940) just weeks after it was included on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered List (see my blog here), they are also moving to destroy the only piece left from Victoria Courts, an administration building from the same era 80 years ago.
Now, the building was found eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places by the Texas Historical Commission, so if SAHA is using federal funds or permits, then it is an “undertaking” and would have to be reviewed by THC in its role as State Historic Preservation Office. It doesn’t mean you can prevent demolition, but it can slow it down and allow people to reconsider.
When historic housing projects first became eligible for listing back in the mid-1990s, a lot of people and media attacked the notion that these hoity-toity preservationists were interfering with the noble goal of providing decent housing for the working poor. And no one does that better than a local housing authority.
Except that isn’t how it is done. The way housing authorities have worked for the last three decades is that they raze their old projects, partner with a private developer who gets tax credits for providing housing for people at 50 or 80 percent of median area income, while also providing market rate housing, thus eliminating economic ghettos and giving people a leg up.
As you may have guessed, this model is problematic, because by the time you displace a family for demolition and rebuilding, you are likely to never see them again. Moreover, the familiar pattern is like this – you slowly depopulate the project so when it is time to raze and redevelop, you have a far smaller number of people you are obligated to rehouse.
Interestingly, many clever developers have become adept at combining the low-income housing tax credits with the historic preservation tax credits. They even offered to help SAHA with Alazan-Apache, so we wrote SAHA and testified at their hearing.
Crickets. Again, nobody likes the hard work.
While San Antonio has a vibrant historic preservation sector with regulatory support, the City of Olmos Park within our borders does not. The latest egregious evidence of this is the proposed demolition of the Esther Vexler house at 330 Park Hill Drive.
This lovely mid-century modern home was designed by Allison Peery, the architect who coordinated HemisFair ’68, Esther Vexler taught yoga in the home into her 90s but before that was part of the first White House conference on Women and Children in 1963, went back to get her master’s in urban planning from Trinity at age 55 and helped create the Community Housing Development Corporation. Her numerous volunteer positions included serving as the first female president of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio.
The house itself has the low-slung horizontal hallmarks of the mid-century modern, from the anchoring stone end walls to popup clerestories, exposed rafter ends and second helpings of plate glass.
It’s the same old story. Kids sell the house to a buyer who pretends they want to save it but immediately knocks the house and sells the property for more than twice what they just bought it for (including the demo). Nice “work” if you can get it, although in my view you can’t call it work unless there is some effort and intelligence. This is the classic lazy flip.
And it is sad, because by the time anyone notices, the value has been artificially inflated to the demolition point. The real estate ads say “house has no value” as if that was a natural condition and not a manipulated one. Sad!
Photos courtesy Jill Vexler
Alamo Plaza Reports Released
Last week the reports that the Alamo had commissioned regarding the three buildings the State purchased in 2015 were finally released more than two years after they were announced. The reports vindicated preservation.
The report from highly respected John G. Waite & Associates, Architects, confirmed what we had expected – the buildings are structurally sound and adaptable to a variety of uses, including a museum. Another report by Trinity University historian Dr. Carey Latimore was commissioned later, after the efforts of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building documented the history of San Antonio’s famous lunch counter integration, which occurred at seven sites on March 16, 1960. As a bonus, the Waite Report also noted that the Woolworth Building was the only one of the five surviving buildings that actually had physical traces of the lunch counter.
A third previously unknown report was designed to specifically counter the Conservation Society’s argument that the photographs taken March 16, 1960 all depicted the Woolworth lunch counter. I dealt with this conflict between documentary and visual evidence ten months ago here.
Just before the release, the Alamo announced the construction of a new exhibition hall at the east end of the existing gardens behind the shrine. The reason for this is that they have a deadline to exhibit Phil Collins’ Alamo collection.
The Conservation Society has been advocating for the re-use of these buildings for over five years, and the release of the reports vindicated our position, a position that also led to State Antiquities Landmark designation for the Woolworth Building, and its landing on the World Monuments Watch List 2020. We had been requesting these reports for over a year and we are glad that they have been finally made public.
NOVEMBER 13 UPDATE
City Council was briefed on the Alamo plan yesterday and there has been a lot of discussion of “unwinding the lease” between the city and the state. Political battles at the state level between GLO Commissioner George P. Bush and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the Texas Historical Commission’s denial of the plan to move the 1940 Cenotaph, and the departure of most of the project’s high profile private donors have put the whole project in question.