Most of my four decade career in heritage conservation has followed the arc away from the preciousness of the museum and toward what my old friend Randy Mason would call “values-centered preservation” – what the new generation calls “human-centered.” Yet the old stereotypes persist. Last Thursday I again heard that preservation meant you had to use the same kind of wood and you had to use only certain paint colors. Fortunately, many in the room realized those two statements were not true in almost every situation, so I did not have to explain it alone.
Twenty years ago I presented my first illustrated rant about restoring and replacing windows. It is the one arena where I exhibit preciosity, but it is also just simple good sense – you can’t make a new window as good as the old ones. The wood doesn’t exist. The rant followed a meeting with a collection of downtown building owners in Chicago who complained that if they were landmarked they would have to replace their windows with wood windows.
Twenty years ago, my reply: IF you can’t keep your original windows, I DON’T CARE if the new ones are wood, metal, graphite or even plastic as long as they look like the original ones. And paint color? There are HOAs that mandate paint color, but generally historic districts and landmarks DO NOT. I used to teach the famous San Antonio case of Sandra Cisneros (originally from Chicago) who got in trouble for painting her house a wild periwinkle color, but she won in court anyway and there are almost no places that regulate paint color, including here.
At The Conservation Society of San Antonio we have approved building grants in historic districts which use modern polymers rather than wood for front porch decking. I saw these products at the Historic Homeowner Fair years ago and I like them for a couple reasons.
Firstly, as with the windows, save the original, dense, fine-grained historic wood if you can. If you can’t, find something that lasts. Modern wood is rarely straight, never dense, and prone to decay. Secondly, this is South Texas where wooden porches are the sun’s favorite snack.
A major goal of heritage conservation is to keep existing structures around by repurposing them for the future. 95% of historic preservation is REHABILITATION – not restoration. There are a few museum structures that should be treated with utmost care and preciosity, but 19 out of 20 times that is not the goal. It isn’t even the goal for “museum” sites. My dear late friend Jim Vaughan wrote a great article in 2008 “Rethinking the Rembrandt Rule” that argued we have to stop treating every item in the museum as a Rembrandt. That is especially a problem in house museums, whose collections would be best preserved if they were NOT in an old building that we are also trying to preserve.
Moreover, if everything is “hands-off” there will be no hands raised when the site needs saving. That’s the point of human-centered preservation. Preservation is a community deciding what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. AND the best way of doing that.
In the everyday, the prime directive for us is to help buildings, structures and sites survive to the next generation. That generation will have to save them again anyway. And they might decide to restore some to a museum standard. If we save them, even imperfectly, the next generation will have that option.
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!
“Conservation means all of the processes of looking after a place so as to retain its cultural significance.”
“Cultural significance is embodied in the place itself, its fabric, its setting, use, associations, meanings, records, related places and related objects. Places may have a range of values for different individuals or groups.”
This is from the document I consider the northstar of my field, the Burra Charter. While we call it historic preservation in the U.S., I have argued for a dozen years that it is in fact heritage conservation. It is not a set of rules or standards. It is a process.
The process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into its future. The community must determine what is significant, how significant it is, and how it should be conserved and treated in the future. Professionals can help the community do this, but they have to do it or it is worthless.
The quotations above from the Burra Charter illustrate that heritage conservation is a process, and that different types of resources follow different types of rules. The quotation also iterates a concept that we in the United States call integrity but elsewhere is authenticity.
That is because integrity tends to be a mechanistic and formalistic concept that reinforces the primacy of materiality. It doesn’t have to be so. Integrity’s seven aspects include feeling and association and I have been involved in the effort to redefine integrity in order to diversify heritage conservation and preserve the full range of our history.
I am currently Co-Chair of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice Working Group, part of a partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Preservation Partners Network. Our field is still clogged with the remnants of a history that empowered white males to the exclusion of others, and integrity aided and abetted that exclusion.
How do you define the integrity of a building that housed decades of history for a marginalized community? Shouldn’t it in fact illustrate the fact that it survived on the margins of the power structure and economic hegemony? Doesn’t the fact that it lost its cornice or replaced stone with brick in fact define its cultural significance?
Following years of work on this issue, I wrote a paper that became a book chapter published in 2018 that dove fairly deeply into the specific mechanics of integrity and diversity – the bottom line is that the preservation world has much to repair in its relation to the whole of history and the whole of the country. Recognizing the bias in the rules – and those who interpret them – is the first step.
“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.
Yesterday I watched a webinar conversation with Moshe Safdie and Balkrishna Doshi, two legendary architects who met in Louis Kahn’s office in the early 1960s. What was fascinating about the discussion was how little it was about “architecture” in terms of form or object. They spent most of the time talking about nature and culture and festivals and journeys.
Safdie noted that in the Abrahamic traditions, paradise is a garden, not a building. Doshi said that if you study nature, it is integrated and sustainable. It reminded me of what Frank Lloyd Wright said about his “organic” architecture – that everything belonged like the fingers on a hand or the branches on a tree.
But the analogy is still form-based at this point. Doshi’s main point was about festivals and culture and how a building is not complete until it is inhabited. That reminded me of Barry Byrne’s declaration that the design of the church was not complete until the priest was at the altar celebrating mass.
Doshi gave the 300-year old example of Maharajah Jai Singh II who built the Jantar Mantar, a series of scalable structures designed to allow people to study the stars and sky. He relished the action encouraged by these structures where a family could go and look at the sky.
Safdie talked about how Crystal Bridges art museum has become a community center for Bentonville. He also lamented the loss of urbanism – noting that in the 1960s it was impossible to think of architecture without urbanism, and today it is the opposite. We are focused on the form, not the process, on the object, not the activity, and on the individual rather than the community.
When I met Doshi in 2008 in Ahmedabad I had a fantastic architectural journey, including the stunning IIM, Le Corbusier’s Mill Owners Building and City Hall, the Adalaj stepwell and of course Doshi’s own work. But there were two sites that struck me not for their design, but their use. The first was the Manek Chowk, a plaza in the center of town that transforms its purpose three times every day, from livestock forage to shopping market to food court. It is a place defined by activities, not architectural forms.
I also happened to be there for Uttarayan, the kite festival where thousands of people go to their rooftops with their fighting kites (the Kite Runner is set in an Afghani version of this festival.) Hearing Doshi talk about festivals yesterday reminded me of this particular one, where the architecture is literally underfoot.
Both architects lamented to erosion of culture and while neither mentioned it, I thought about the radical individualization – atomization, really – occasioned by social media and the intergalactic webernet. Online interactions are the opposite of looking at the stars with your family.
It begins with Nature. People then create culture in and of the natural environment – agriculture, ritual, art and shelter. The essence of culture is in the gathering of people to work, to eat, to gather resources, to study, to play and to sing. Conserving culture is ever conserving place.
In 2006 I wrote a blog called “The Fallacy of Primacy” focused on the idea that the “first” to discover something was not necessarily historically important. The Vikings got to North America and the Chinese maybe got to Peru before the Spanish, but it doesn’t matter. They didn’t affect the trajectory of history like those who came later. In addition to the fallacy of “firsts” and “discoveries,” there is also the problem of category and context.
This is San Pedro Springs Park in San Antonio, sometimes claimed as the second oldest park in the United States after Boston Common, since it was set aside as public land by King Philip V of Spain in 1729.
That fact is not true in two ways. First, there are older public lands in places like St.. Augustine so San Pedro Springs Park is more like 10th oldest. Second, there is no context for public parks until the 1830s – the category of a city park simply did not exist. If you look it up, San Pedro Springs Park is the oldest city park in Texas, dated not 1729 but 1852.
The urban park as a type begins no earlier than 1827 when they start redesigning St. James Park in London. The oldest “parks” in U.S. cities are more like the squares in Savannah, which were open space but not parks. There was no context for “park” as a place of recreation and relaxation outdoors. If you wanted that, you went to a cemetery.
So here is the oldest city park in the U.S., Boston Common, and you can see that it is also a cemetery. When it was created in 1634 it could be used for celebrations, militia drills, burials, and yes, even picnics and sport. Interestingly, the design of “parks” in the 19th century begins with the design of the first rural cemetery at Mount Auburn outside Boston in 1831. It then inspires the first generation of park designers.
So, we have a whole new context emerging in the second quarter of the 19th century. Parks. By the end of the 19th century, Boston has its Emerald Necklace of Parks, New York has the massive Central Park, Chicago has a boulevard and park system stretching 30 miles and even Los Angeles had the 575 acre Elysian Park. Parks, like museums, were an idea less than century old.
We have a similar movement in the current century to create urban linear parks from old railroads or other rights-of-way. Think New York’s High Line, Chicago’s 606, or San Antonio’s San Pedro Creek Culture Park. Rails or canals to trails is also roughly a century old, and getting more and more elaborate.
When you ask whether something is first, or oldest or original, you are in fact asking a present day question about how a place is perceived and categorized. It is kind of like the difference between fact (to aléthes) and truth (alétheia) in Greek. A fact – to aléthes – is that San Pedro Springs Park became a public space in 1729. Alétheia is truth in the sense of a body of truth, like urban parks were started in the 1830s and 40s. Boston Common is the oldest park – to aléthes – but it is also a collection of other ideas about public space between 1634 and 1834 – Alétheia.
FUN FACTS: A San Antonio native, Robert Hammond, was behind the High Line in New York! Also, another San Antonian, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, founded the Central Park Conservancy!
For the last five years, the Conservation Society had advocated for the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings and their re-use as the new Alamo museum. Without every saying so, the Alamo has favored a new building, partly because they want to reveal where part of the western wall was, which I discussed at length last month here. I ended that blog noting that the Woolworth Building was to be a museum of airplanes a little over 20 years ago.
The San Antonio Museum of Art, the Briscoe and almost every other museum in San Antonio is in a historic building. Some, like the McNay and the Witte, have new additions, which is what we proposed for the Woolworth and Crockett.
How are world class museums made? Perhaps you recognize some of these.
You can throw in the Prado, the Alhambra and the Hermitage as well. Locally, we have….
The Alamo museum intends to focus its interpretation on the famed 1836 battle. So, their illustrations have lots of cannons, which, while smaller than airplanes, do need a little space.
Some of the unpublished museum images show the cannons safely indoors and many of the outdoors one will be replicas. In the absence of imagery, perhaps the museum will look like this?
Hmm. What does the outside of this museum look like?
Oh! It’s a historic building! How about this display replete with conquistador astride a horse:
What does this museum look like on the outside?
Kinda looks a lot like the Woolworth Building. Except in both of these cases the column spacing is not as flexible as the Woolworth Building.
The Alamo is warning that it is do or die time for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. The next hurdle? Texas Historical Commission will decide whether the 1940 Cenotaph can be moved a few hundred feet to the south.
The developers of a much-maligned project in River Road have once again been denied permission to build on a vacant area in the historic district. This time they managed to get a feature article written around their failure, morphing from a case to a cause. The subhead calls it an “unpredictable process.”
Being an expert in the field, I don’t find it “unpredictable” but it has a quality that makes it difficult for the average developer. And that quality is literally Quality. Historic Design Review is a qualitative process, and most developers are used only to zoning, which is quantitative.
The first problem is that the qualities of projects like this case – design, landscaping, setbacks, and massing – are overwhelmed by the quantity. The goal seems to be to cram as much building as you can into whatever space you have available. You can add gables and porches and board-and-batten siding but it is still a big hulk. Over the last year, the 23-townhome project has changed design elements that we objected to, like front-loading garages (snout houses) and heavy lot line massing.
They would likely have been approved if they removed one more unit, but after 18 months of carrying costs and redesigns, they probably felt they couldn’t afford to. Curiously, they basically got approval from the Office of Historic Preservation staff, but could not get enough votes from the volunteer Historic and Design Review Commission.
But now that it is a feature article, let’s look at the bigger picture, which is quantity and quality and who is good at what they do.
See, the beauty of historic districts and historic landmarks is that they treat every resource individually. It is not a commodity that can be alienated. It is not a grain that can be graded and put in a grain elevator. There is not a solution from another district or another landmark that can be applied, because that would be a different individual with different needs.
Average developers do not have a good handle on qualitative issues. They are in the business of grading grain and selling it by the container load. Their business model has no room or capital for individuals.
Above-average developers, on the other hand, get the qualitative issues. They may even seek out historic buildings because they know they can get a 45% investment tax credit between the state and federal laws. And they are practiced, so the process is less unpredictable for them. They know the rules but more importantly they know that they have to approach each project with an eye open for its inimitable qualities.
Earlier in the shutdown/pause/lockdown I wrote a blog that argued that the virus would NOT cause urban planners to rethink their propensity for density. My evidence was basically every pandemic in history, with a fun side trip to the history of telegraphy and telephony.
There was a hint at the end of that blog about how the viral pandemic is actually accelerating previous trends in urban planning. The pandemic has slowed traffic dramatically, encouraging a tendency to eliminate cars from center cities. Many towns and cities around the world are planning on closing streets to traffic in order to encourage biking, walking and outdoor dining as areas move to reopen and adjust to the new abnormal. Turns out it is TONS safer to eat outside than inside.
The historian in me says that our cities and our dense human activities have survived a hundred plagues and only come back denser and busier. The historian in me also says beware of those who says “everything will change – these are unprecedented times” because they always say that. They said it after World War I definitively, and even more definitively after World War II and the atom bomb. They said it during plagues and pogroms, during fires and famines and today is always different from yesterday and that itself is the same old story.
Sure, there are paradigm shifts and we may be experiencing one. But the COVID-19 pandemic will not cause that shift. Such events only accelerate trends already underway (closing streets to cars) or illuminate factors that would play out with or without the current crisis (collapse of US hegemony).
I still hear – from respectable professionals – that pandemics change planning. That is partly true. Chicago had typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the 1860s that caused it to raise the entire city in order to build a sewer system.
Paris’s famed rebuilding under Baron Hausmann was cited as an example of city planning driven by pandemic, although in addition to sewage and some hospitals with fresh air, there was a social control/military aspect to the slum clearance as well. Wide boulevards are better for the army.
I would venture that major epidemiological crises are more likely to influence infrastructure than super structure and thus be somewhat invisible. They also influence social practices, and indeed our current pandemic has rewritten many social norms, but again this is not something you can necessarily see in the larger built environment.
But what WILL change?
Leaving the macro level of urban planning, we have seen changes at the micro level. You already have plastic sheeting at the checkout counters of grocery stores and we have seen everything from shower curtains to cubicle-sized sneeze guards going up at restaurants.
UV carpets may sanitize your shoes and mounted temperature scans have already spread way beyond their original habitat, the Chinese airport of two decades ago.
HVAC systems may well be overhauled, and sanitation procedures will be much more extensive for a while. Anyplace you sit still inside for long periods, like airplanes or restaurants are more susceptible to viral load than places you wander through, like museums.
If anything, like the closing of streets to automobile traffic, there will be a tendency to offer less-dense public spaces, while maintaining urban density. There will be renewed interest in public parks, beaches and open spaces which are lower risk for viral spread.
We may well see changes as elements of our architectural landscape that encourage clustering of people for extended periods become endangered, like churches and theaters. Churches and theaters have always been more difficult to preserve due to their large spaces and relatively high costs. Now they have the added problem of people emitting nanodroplets.
With all the working and learning and teaching from home in the last two months we may start to see changes in interior architecture more than anywhere else. The open floor plan office beloved by designers for more than 50 years may give way to private offices or at least much more substantial barriers between workspaces.
Our own office at the Conservation Society is in fact the opposite, which allows us to maintain distance because in our converted 19th century mansion, everyone has an office with a door and no one is within 15 feet of anyone else.
With everyone living and working and doing almost everything from home, there have been spate of articles (like this one) on demand for better home office furniture, home gyms, more clearly defined spaces both within and without, and decluttering services.
People spent more time in their homes in the last two months than ever before, and that will ultimately have an impact on interior design. The open floor plan made possible by central heating and popular by Frank Lloyd Wright may retreat a bit in the coming years as commutes shift from highway to hallway.
The pandemic caused the global economy to calve like an Antarctic ice sheet and expose massive inequalities. Like The Economist, I worry that one policy result of the pandemic will be a renewed isolationism from the teetering old nation states, fostering a decline in productivity, innovation and the promise of a just society. (It will also make it more expensive and difficult for people to collect the photos I have displayed in this blog!)
Here’s hoping we learn a few lessons, if not from history then from our own everyday within the new abnormal.
I am helping the City of San Antonio with a virtual tour of the Spanish Governor’s Palace, which is both the only remaining residential structure of the 18th century city and a fascinating document of how historic preservation was practiced 90 years ago.
When you look at this building, you may think of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and that was a big inspiration. The Santa Fe building was restored right about the time that Adina de Zavala started lobbying for the preservation of this San Antonio building in 1915. By 1930 the city had purchased and restored it and the Conservation Society was operating it.
The building is a rare and singular survivor, but it was never really a palace, and while one Spanish Governor did visit San Antonio in 1720, the building dates to 1722 as the comandancia, or home and office of the military commander of the presidio garrison.
Restored by architect Harvey Smith, he took numerous liberties we would not countenance 90 years later. Despite finding no evidence, he built a fountain and a walled back garden that even he knew never existed because it would convey a romantic sense of refined 18th century life.
This romantic vision of “The Spanish Governor’s Palace” cause Smith to add two rooms that never existed, and interpret other rooms with these elaborate plaques that described a courtly life that also didn’t exist. Each interpretive plaque is then explained by a contemporary plaque below explaining Smith’s romantic embellishments!
Old telephone poles became ceiling beams and old flagstone sidewalks became floors in the restored “Palace” and the whole was filled with period furnishings. The century that the building spent as a tinsmith shop, pawn shop, hide dealer, clothing store and saloon was not interpreted.
This was an era of nostalgic appropriation of historical styles, from the Spanish Colonial to the Georgian, Tudor and Renaissance Revival. This was the time when architect R.H.H. Hugman proposed “The Shops of Aragon and Romula” that would become the San Antonio River Walk.
It was a different aesthetic and a different goal for preservation. Smith did lots of research, but there was precious little to go on for an 18th century building that had been changed a hundred times. No international guidelines for preservation existed yet (they would come in 1932.)
A similar approach was taken by O’Neil Ford when he restored La Villita in 1939-41. There was so little documentary or forensic evidence about the vernacular buildings he was restoring that he simply tried to create “a mood.” Like Smith, he added lots of walls to enhance that mood.
I suppose the goal was to really demonstrate the importance of the historic building by giving it a more glamorous pedigree. There was one reference to a fandango or party in the salon of the Governor’s Palace, so like the 1930s Riverwalk tile mural by Ethel Wilson Harris, a singular incident became a chronic intepretation.
What is really fascinating about the Governor’s Palace – and other sites “restored” in the 1930s is that those acts of poetic license are now themselves historic, and they have added another layer of history.
To me history – basically the same word as “story” – is made richer by more layers of interpretation, by more stories. The primary story you get from the Spanish Governor’s Palace is a sense of 18th century life on the Spanish frontier. But you also learn about the civic life of the 1920s that sought to bolster civic pride with romantic tales of civic origin.
This is the “Child’s Bedroom” that Smith invented out of whole cloth in 1930. His impulse was to illustrate the luxury and gentility of the “Governor’s” lives with some creative construction. Like Adina de Zavala or the Conservation Society at the time, they wanted to glorify their forbears.
My favorite room is the Commander’s Office, not only because it reveals the original rubble stone construction, but because it also reveals the true nature of the building. The Commander used this space to command, but much more to sell household goods and necessities to his soldiers and the general public. Business was so brisk that he added a storeroom behind in the late 18th century, although if you go there today you see religious artifacts and other antiques in vitrine displays.
In the 21st century we understand heritage conservation as more than an architectural design problem, and are careful to find evidence for both the stories we tell and the physical fabric we restore – or choose not to. If somehow this last residential building of the Spanish city had survived until today, it might look very different. It would tell the stories of the presidio commanders with a little less embellishment, focusing perhaps on how the 19th century shops and saloons were a continuation of the comandancia rather than a rejection of it. It would perhaps be called the Presidio Captain’s Residence and it would be without its 1930 additions.
I like telling both stories – the true story of the presidio and its capitans, along with the equally true story of 1920s San Antonians puffing their chests and inflating their history just a bit.