I have been reworking an old slide show about architectural styles. “Styles” are rubrics we use to categorize things, generally after the fact. This means that the labels we produce for stylistic trends are not usually those being used by the practitioners at the time. In architectural history, for example, the asymmetry, contrast and exuberant ornamentation of the Victorian era is labeled “Queen Anne” when many of its practitioners called it “Free Classical.”
To make things understandable, we push them into categories they never conceived, which is itself a problem, as I have explained before. Compounding this contortion is the problem of time and history. We can say that the Art Deco style kicked off at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs, or that Napoleon instigated the rise of the Empire Style around 1805, and we would be partly right. The problem is that historical events can often have two, oppositional results.
One of my favorite examples is the 1954 Supreme Court case Parker v. Berman, which famously declared “the right of cities to be beautiful” as well as safe and sanitary. This has two opposite effects in terms of design. One result was Urban Renewal, which in less than a decade would be labeled “Urban Removal”. This involved the wholesale demolition of huge tracts of urban land, to be rebuilt with modernist housing and shopping.
Of course the formal opposite of Urban Renewal in 1954 would be Historic Preservation. Preservationists ran with that 1954 decision and within 12 years some 70 cities had historic preservation ordinances. By the time of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, most cities could create their own ordinances without state legislation, and the Act itself mentioned urban renewal as a challenge it was trying to address.
In fact, both urban renewal and this new idea of historic preservation were inspired by the same “right of cities to be beautiful.” They just had different concepts of beauty.
To find an even more interesting example of oppositional synchronicity, we need to go back 60 years earlier, to the birth of this new, unadorned, mechanistic mass-produced Modernism. In 1893, 27 million people visited a World’s Fair in Chicago called the World’s Columbian Exposition. At the time, Chicago architects had been building the first skyscrapers for about a decade, and one of them, Daniel Burnham, was the architect of the Exposition. In order to coordinate architects from across the nation, they had to go with the Classical Revival style they had all been instructed in at the Ecole des Beaux Arts or its imitators. As the story goes, the “White City” in Jackson Park celebrated old styles just as Modernism was being invented in the same city. The exception that proved the rule was Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building at the fair.
The Columbian Exposition had such an impact on architectural design that the following year a young Frank Lloyd Wright, newly independent of Louis Sullivan, submitted a pure Classical design for the Milwaukee Public Library, even as he was refining a Modernism even more abstract than his Liebe Meister. He never did this again, but the weight of the moment had a momentary impact on his design. Everyone wanted in on this Beaux-Arts Classicism that enthralled 27 million.
But those 27 million also saw Louis Sullivan’s ornament, and may well have seen the stripped skyscrapers downtown, embodying a new modern style. Louis Sullivan wrote “The Tall Building Artistically Considered” in 1896 placing him firmly in the Modernist camp. BUT… turns out he was one of the most skilled ornamentalists ever, creating rich flourishes without precedent.
The Columbian Exposition of 1893 also launched the modern field of urban planning, with Burnham designing “City Beautiful” plans for Washington, San Francisco, Manila and Chicago, among others. These tended to be in the same style, replete with columns and pediments and swags and balustrades.
As Sullivan was declaring tall buildings “every inch a proud and soaring thing” in 1896, Frank Lloyd Wright was bending the rules of architectural design with horizontal houses that pushed away traditional ideas of facades, entrances, walls and windows. By 1900 he had invented something completely opposite to Beaux Arts Classicism, and by 1910 he blew away Europe with his “Ausgefuhrten Bauten” that illustrated his newly realized designs.
In 1908 Adolf Loos would declare ornament a crime in the building arts, citing an analogy with tattoos that would not exactly work today. So here we have the oppositional synchronicity of a world charging on in two seemingly opposite directions and an architect paving the way for an unadorned future with the most elaborate ornament ever. In fairness, his ornament was always secondary to the building design from the plan outward, and the impact of Loos would only be felt fully in the 1920s.
Yet, in many ways you can trace BOTH the Neue Sachlichkeit of bare bones European modernism and the White City mimicry of Beaux-Arts City planning to the SAME event in 1893, when young Frank Lloyd Wright was still a “pencil in the master’s hand.”
Moreover, ornament can be misleading because architectural composition starts with a plan and massing, which can be generally Classical with symmetry and hierarchy, or Romantic with asymmetry and contrast.
Here are a couple of examples from San Antonio. First, we have a classically inspired arrangement of volumes, replete with abstract, modernist ornament. Second, an irregular, emotive arrangement with very traditional detailing.
I saw that the famous Battersea Power Station in London has finally been opened, a stunning industrial reuse on a massive scale. As of ten days ago, it is a collection of apartments, shops, restaurants, offices and parks. It is a city within a city. The Art Deco masterpiece by G.G. Scott sat unused for nearly 40 years and went through a plethora of potential redevelopments, including demolition for housing. The rehabilitation discussion has been going on so long I admit I thought it had already happened! The present industrial reuse took nearly a decade. The building was listed (landmarked) in 1980 while it was still operating.
Yesterday here in Bogotá, Colombia where I am a Fulbright Specialist with Ean Universidad, I toured the Catedral de Sal in Zipaquirá and it occurred to me that this was an industrial reuse as well. It is a historic salt mine used since before Europeans arrived and in the early 20th century the idea of building a chapel in the mine emerged from the miners’ devotional traditions. Conceived in the 1930s and built in the 1950s, the chapel was succeeded in the 1990s by the new cathedral, a massive series of tunnels and sculptures that the Colombians have ranked as their greatest Maravilla (wonder). Designed by Roswell Garavita Pearl, the new cathedral is some 500m underground, beneath the level of the now-closed 1950s chapel.
The impression one gets upon entering is that of a mine and the long corridors known as drifts that allowed the extraction of salt. The architecture and sculpture for the most part allows the seams of salt and rock to speak more eloquently than the occasional realist sculpture – indeed sometimes the inserted angels look out of place.
The tour begins with the Stations of the Cross, all fourteen done in an abstract manner whereby a stone cross is set within or without the rock. Here the absence of literal interpretation is a blessing, and the sculptures emerge from the seams of minerals with emphasis and empathy.
The main nave of the Cathedral is actually a triple nave and is preceded by a smaller chapel to the Virgin that includes salt chandeliers.
What makes the main space so effective is again the use of a massive cross above the altar that has the height (50 feet) and depth to carry the colossal space. What struck me most were the massive round columns dug from the salt rock to support the main nave. Again, the most effective aesthetic interventions are those than reference and resonate with the natural mineral forms and patterns.
The only downside (and it didn’t bother me that much) was the fairly extensive collection of shops and concessions down in the salt mine after your complete the tour. Some were obvious, like selling salt sculptures or emeralds or bath salts, but some were almost comically irrelevant, like the King Tut museum.
So what do we have? At the end of the day a very impressive salt mine that is one of the only ones you can visit outside of Poland. It is an industrial reuse that takes advantage of the historic use to create some pretty persuasive artworks that successfully illuminate the heritage of the miners and the religious devotions they brought with them beneath the earth.
This is a creative reuse and has become a massive tourist attraction. I like the latitude given to the intervention. While I loved Falun (a World Heritage strip mine in Sweden) when I saw it in 2007, I find this site a bit more alive, with constant living heritage additions, like the various Virgin icons that continue to be added to the chapel, as noted by my friend and colleague Juan Camilo Chaves.
Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.
Breitbart said politics is downstream of culture, which means our current political extremism is but a distillate of larger cultural forces. I would posit that while these include globalization, climate crises and inequality, they have been profoundly and quite recently shaped by digital communications. The crowd plodding along the street looking at their phones; the basement incel fulminating in extreme words and images because they are his only communication currency; the politician pushing the goalposts for a given issue further and further because the replication of memery mandates that only violent opinions will secure any attention at all.
And here I sit in the middle of heritage conservation as I have for nearly forty years, a rare combination of education, advocacy, urbanism, regulation and economics that sometimes appears to be the last multipartisan issue. Why? Because it is about culture, upstream of the horses that relieve themselves before it reaches the town hall. But what is culture? Something we associate with aesthetics, to be sure, in art and architecture and costume and song and food and drink. The finer things in life. These too, are kinds of communication, phrases and ideas that because they are standing or dancing physically in the real world do not require ultraviolence. They are real. They do not compete with an endless intergalactic webernet’s flow of rawer and rawer sewage.
The sewage is increasingly available to all, but so is heritage conservation. Every place has its stories, its poems and its puffy tacos and every place has its structures and sculptures and street signs. Climb out of the basement and walk down the street and discover heritage, because every bit of it is a node of empathy and a key to a social contract and communication.
In 1901 Frank Lloyd Wright gave his famous “The Art and Craft of the Machine” speech at Hull House in Chicago, turned it into pamphlet sold at his 1902 exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago and purchased by a teen named Barry Byrne, who read it over and over again. Here was the definition of art AND democracy. The clever title transposed two seemingly diametrically opposed cultural/political movements of the time – the Machine Age versus Arts and Crafts, the celebration of the human artifices of a pre-Industrial era. Byrne’s prodigious writings of the 1940s and indeed his buildings refer back again and again to the pamphlet.
To Wright, the Industrial Age meant liberation and democracy. Now all could enjoy the beauty of machine-sawed wood, the commodity of a clear view of nature, and the utility of affordable home and hearth. To Wright, architecture had been “the universal writing of humanity”, rendered moot by Gutenberg. He agreed with Hugo that the book killed the edifice, but instead of lamenting it like Ruskin he embraced it for freeing us from the drudgery of handcraft and allowing the infinite reproduction of beautiful forms. His European associates would likewise celebrate the Machine Age in their theory, and when time and finance permitted, designs.
Wright boiled it down. Art is artifice and all human creations are artificial. “The Machine is Intellect mastering the drudgery of earth that plastic art may live;” and its replication through industry allowed a broad cast of beauty that would “emancipate human expression.” It was the opposite of the mawkish medievalisms of Ruskin, reveling in ruin.
But a year later in 1903, Alois Riegl gave us the seminal heritage conservation text with his “Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Origin.” I have always had an affinity for his proto-Heidegerrian pseudoscientific categorization of preservation motivations: “Age Value;” “Art Value;” “Use Value;” “Historical Value;” “Commemorative Value;” and even “Newness Value.” He talked of intentional and unintentional monuments. He thought “Age Value” the best because it could be apprehended and appreciated by all.
Wright and Riegl both celebrated nature and science and both were focused on the relation of people to their world and to communication. Wright saw the Machine as bringing a new communication to the broadest possible swath of humanity and Riegl saw the Age Value of the heritage site with similar vocabulary and stimulating that same broad swath. This was an era of world views, of seeking cultural essence. It was an era that revolutionized architecture in dramatic ways but also introduced heritage conservation and its manifold motivations.
These two texts of twelve decades gone may not have anticipated the megafolding multiplicity of our current antisocial media landscape, remaining as they did upstream, on the mountain of culture, where humans and nature intersect for real. I think they would have found the plastic artificiality of our intergalactic webernet as cause for a new essay, albeit one that still valued education, nature and science.
My dear friend and once and future architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times Lee Bey wrote a piece today about the “Mistake By the Lake,” a giant Modernist exhibition hall built in 1971 as part of the McCormick Place convention center. The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns it, is releasing an RFI (Request for Information) to solicit ideas about its reuse and development.
The refreshing thing about the RFI is the attitude of the owner. As Bey reports:
“We don’t have any preconceived notions” for the building’s future, said MPEA CEO Larita Clark. “We are really open to all ideas at this point.”
That is how you save a building. You don’t put it in a corner and say it has to be this or that and if it can’t be that, it goes. You ask the world for ideas. We are finally reaching a period in history where the ecological and economic costs of demolition are starting to be calculated. Bey starts out noting that no one is proposing demolition because that could cost a significant chunk of the $400 million it needs in rehab. Plus, they are open to an incremental approach, which is what I have been advocating for a certain building here in San Antonio.
I advocated this for our own large Modernist building earlier this year in my blog, specifically detailing the challenges of single-use Modernist projects that need to be approached in a new way. Our own Institute of Texan Cultures is one of our current preservation issues, built three years before McCormick Place. The University of Texas at San Antonio is studying some options over the next nine months, but maybe an RFI is what is needed?
“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram, once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”
The famous quote of Daniel Burnham two years before his death is a rousing bugle call to think big and build big. A half century later in the apotheosis of postwar optimism, planners and architects in the richest economy ever found their blood stirred by magic and found that for once big bold visions could actually be built.
And they screwed up, because as the architect Jack Hartray noted, the mischief of High Modernism was that they felt they knew everything and could predict all future needs. Hence the full-floor air conditioners in Mies van der Rohe’s 1971 IBM Building, now a hotel. No one is good at futurism, even the recorders of noble diagrams. Circumstances change.
Modernist plans like University of Illinois at Chicago or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs have suffered similar alterations as the all-encompassing original designs proved too specific for the passage of time or human patterns of use.
Every real place that is built and exists for a couple of decades evolves through patterns of use, changing technology, changing needs, tastes and a mountainside of externalities. I argue that iterative design is more efficient and practical, despite lacking the magic and well-stirred blood.
The food truck is a great example of iterative design that starts small and then gets bigger, stirring a little more blood as it gets a sense of what works and what doesn’t and as films and life have shown us, the lowly food truck may well become a Michelin-starred restaurant one day.
I was thinking about this as I read through the final report of the Facility and Land Stewardship Task Force for the Institute of Texan Cultures, which I served on. This Institute was created a half century ago as a re-use of the Texas Pavilion from the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio, Hemisfair. The huge Brutalist structure is aging, and it sits two miles distant from the rest of the downtown campus of University of Texas San Antonio.
Of course, the original big plan in 1970 was to have the whole UTSA campus right next to the ITC in Hemisfair, but it went out to Sprawlland instead. The Institute of Texan Cultures is basically an ethnographic museum supplemented with rotating exhibits on a variety of subjects and gets half of its admissions during the annual Texas Folklife Festival.
Now, our Task Force was told we were not talking about the future of the building but rather the institution. To contradict that point, they opened with a review of various studies of the ITC building which illustrated that it could never reach American Association of Museum (AAM) standards and would cost $50 million* to fix up anyway – not that we were talking about it.
The Task Force actually ended up talking about how they would like to preserve the building, although that thought was mangled in the final report. It was clear from our several meetings that the Institute itself needed to be smaller and more connected to campus, and we accepted the premise that we weren’t talking about the future of this particular building.
I raised the food truck analogy in our second meeting and specifically asked if there was an iterative design process possible. Maybe restore the Institute bit by bit instead of all at once like a mischievous Modernist. The question got lip service but again, is absent in the report.
SO, a High Modernist building designed to become a museum during the era of big bold plans is now threatened because 1. It needs to be smaller and elsewhere; and 2. It would cost a fortune to upgrade something that big and bold. Dissonance, anyone?
But it isn’t just modernism. Every 19th century opera house and 1920s vaudeville movie palace was overwrought. Beauvais Cathedral collapsed like a Gothic Babel. There is a hubris in going huge. World’s Fairs and Olympics and even sports stadia are exemplars of the Sunk Cost Fallacy and Loss Leaders of civic investment. They only “work” in the biggest possible picture.
A new AR and VR based Institute of Texan Cultures in a downtown location near the campus makes sense. Building it up through iterative design makes sense, and the same approach applies to the old Brutalist landmark up against the highway – do it one bit at a time for a collection of different uses.
This is especially true in the world of museums and interpretation – physicality is being replaced by virtuality. The next generation will tour and learn like this, as I noted a few years back.
Don’t repeat the mischief of thinking you know where everything is going, even if that thought stirs your blood.
- The $50 million figure is, as always in these cases, inflated by requiring the entire 182,000 square feet of the building to meet contemporary AAM museum standards. To just rehab it for regular people uses would obviously cost a lot less.
UPDATE: One of the ULI members who evaluated the Institute of Texan Cultures (remotely) was on David Martin Davies’ The Source on TPR today February 24. She said the building was not built to last and was no longer serviceable. She also said the land value was not being optimized. Davies pushed back and asked if it was a “knockdown”. She responded with the great cost of rehab of the entire building, (the mischief of modernism again) and a dig at its style (“it’s in a hole.”).
“A very large, hard to use, expensive building”
Yeah, and I have a large, hard to use expensive city right here – too bad it can’t be redeveloped piece by piece.
There is an article from The Atlantic making the social media rounds titled “Stop Fetishizing Old Homes” written by a planning professor from UCLA. He claims we are fetishizing the aesthetics of old houses when new houses are better in every way. Several people have asked what I make of this. I have a few thoughts:
First, he is mostly deriding construction built in the 1950s and 60s. Being in southern California, he talks a lot about dingbats and how he can hear his neighbors through the walls, etc. Here is the problem of taking 25 years of postwar architecture and making it speak for all historic buildings:
This was the brief window when energy was cheap and windows were single-paned. Yes, the walls were thin and no one cared. Like they cared in 2000. Like they cared in 1928. Like they cared in 1890.
The biggest mistake non-historians make is missing out on the ups and downs of history. They consider history one big bucket with one set of characteristics. When you are talking about old buildings, there are significant shifts in construction technique after 1930 and again in the current century. Heck, there were big shifts in construction in the 1840s.
Buildings considered their thermal qualities very carefully up until 1945, got a little careless in the 60s, and by 1980 they started caring again.
Every Victorian and bungalow had double paned windows. They were called storm windows. Government studies show that pre-1930 buildings thermally outperform those built up to about 2000. Dude should spend a week in Cleveland or Chicago. Oddly, he calls out the Chicago graystone as being the dingbat of its era. I owned a 1906 Chicago graystone for six years and spent the decade afterwards dreaming about it because it was so damn good. Couldn’t hear the neighbors. Steam radiators worked. Built in ice boxes, nice hardwood floors, real plaster everywhere. You CANNOT buy the materials that was made out of. They aren’t for sale anywhere.
His main complaints are lead paint, asbestos and accessibility. We have had three decades of mandated accessibility, nearly five of lead-free paint, and even more since we used asbestos. I am in the process of researching another house, also 1906, which remediated those things in 1990. I remediated those things from my 1898 house. Now they are equivalent to the Dude’s precious new construction except mine has plaster walls that retain their structural stability when they are 75% wet and your piece of contemporary chicanery is made of drywall that fails at 6% wet.
The most interesting aspect of the lead paint, asbestos and accessibility argument is that it is never thought through. Okay – how y’all gettin’ rid of those bad things? See Lead Paint, Asbestos, and Other Excuses here.
A whole section of the article reads like the old “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” advert, which is neither a sales technique nor a rhetorical strategy you want to emulate.
But even making the argument above might not get through to this guy because, to him, it is all aesthetic. That’s what bothers me most, the idea of fetishization. To me preservation is about history and sustainability. I am not precious. I get bothered by the fetishists. Here are some of my blogs that illustrate that. I get sick up and fed with the idea that what preservation is doing is first of all aesthetic.
It was once, yes, but that was a lifetime ago. Dude considers preservation an aesthetic pursuit either because he is unaware of the last 35 years of the discipline or because he is into zoning, where there are no individuals. (Another blog on that subject here.)
He also resurrects the 12-year old Ed Glaeser canard that preservation and regulation inhibit new development. This argument seems to have logic. It would be better if it had EVIDENCE. Like the 96% of every city in North America that is not affected by landmarks laws???
Plus, how can he call for millions of new buildings? He advocates for an extinction level new construction event. He ignores the environmental cost of new construction, not to mention demolition.
We need to understand that the author is a professor of zoning. In zoning everything is a commodity and houses are like the grains of wheat in a grain elevator – you don’t care where they came from or where they are going. Just how many there are and what grade they are.
Finally, the subhead is about how new construction is better but even he admits what every developer I have every talked to admits easily. New homes are only built to last as long as a mortgage – 30-40 years. I hope you like your carbon diet, Dude!
February 2 UPDATE: I was being generous about saying they would last 30 to 50 years. Look what happened to these NOLA houses in about a dozen years:
It has been a while since I indulged in a technology rant. Here is one from 14 years ago. Here is an even better one from 10 years ago. And while the intelligent rant to undertake in 2021 would dissect the opioid-like distribution of emotional internet content in an effort to secure money or power via rampant interactive dopamine addiction, I will forego this more worthy endeavor and stick to my grumpy old mannerisms.
I ride a bicycle, and for the last two years I have recorded my rides on Strava, an app on my phone. I started doing this because our health insurance gives us rewards via Go365 – another app – for exercising. Strava records the rides and shares the info with Go365 and if we ride a lot in a given week, we get bonus points. Strava is free, but they have been desperate to convert me and other users into paying customers. What do they offer? More options, upgrades, and most insidious of all – suggesting new routes. I would almost pay NOT to have that.
The problem is, the app already has too many options. I like to know how far and fast I went, and the altitude business is kinda fun, but comparing my Attagirl to McCullough sprint to the rest of the users is stretching the bounds of my attention. If you wanted me to pay for it, you should not have included everything I need (or could ever want) in the free version.
But they are counting on a natural human tendency to get into things. To elaborate. To get more technical, more gadgety. To explore more options. To geek out. To get complex is naturally to get contradictory. I think there is an architecture book about that. It can be nice in the visual arts. When it is technology, i,.e., when it is supposed to be a tool – Not so nice.
I get it a little – I tend to geek out on information. History, historic preservation, the history of zoning (god that sounds boring), art history, even music a little. But basically I am looking for a certain level of competency and involvement, and that’s it.
I made my own beer for 19 years, and then quit. I made it with malt syrup kits for about 18 months and then I graduated to an all-grain system which I used for the next 17 years, occasionally adding hops or coriander seed from the garden. It was kind of elaborate for 1995, but by 2012 I continued to make decent, quaffable suds without any desire to design a hop-back, invest in a counterflow chiller or experiment with Brett or lactose. I had a system and it worked and elaboration was for others.
When someone tells me that an app “does so much more” that is super unappealing. That means it needs me to work more. I am dealing with Blackboard after a 9-year teaching hiatus, and I am told it does lots more. My interest is getting the materials online, attendance and grading, which of course are three separate sections of the app (and in the case of grading a separate app) none of which are named appropriately. Grading? DON’T go to the section called “Grades.” Attendance? DON’T go the section called “Attendance.” Want to the see the Readings listed in the Syllabus and Schedule? DO NOT go to the section called “Syllabus and Schedule.”
Now the old rants are coming back. I resisted digital photography until 2005, partly because I had a “shift” lens on my camera that allowed me to straighten the edges of tall buildings, correcting the perspective of the image. The digital cameras did not do that, but my colleague assured me I could do it in Photoshop. “Oh, Great,” I responded, “two steps instead of one.” Stealing my time, making me do the work instead of the tech. Bad tool!
I used to do lots of writing for Michelin Green Guides and I can assure you that Word 5.1 was the best word processing program. This is long before “Clippy” or “Grammarly” helped those folks sadly deprived of two of the three Rs to write gooderer. Upgrades – elaborations – ruined it.
Even this damn blog has some wonky new WordPress featurette that forces me to go back to the beginning every time I stop and do something else. This reduces efficiency and makes it take longer – same with the images, which are now impossible to scroll through thanks to the latest upgrades.
But actually, the wonkiness of old and overdesigned apps ENHANCES their appeal to geekdom for the same reasons they annoy the happy novice like me. The point of elaboration is to MAKE IT HARDER, not easier! The geeks who designed it, who troubleshot it, who hack it and who find it fun would NOT find it fun and worth all of their effort if it was intuitive and efficient. As someone said about something else: The cruelty IS the point.
Similarly, when I have to take two (more in 2021) steps to correct the perspective on an image, I am doing more work and the technology is doing demonstrably less, even if, in bits and bytes and sensors, it is doing “more.” Here is where we discover the motive for elaboration and overelaborated technology.
POWER. That is where the cruelty is the point. I remember a discussion with a printer almost 20 years ago about how people were abandoning the offset press for a variety of self-publishing software. He explained it simply.
“People will trade quality for control.”
They will be happy with a less good product if they get to drive it.
They will be pleased with less efficient technology because they “get it” and I don’t.
Just don’t pretend elaboration is progress or upgrades are efficient.
You want to know what is efficient? Stone steps in high jungle. Talk about reducing friction in the 10th century.
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.