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.
“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!
* a list of “oldest” parks in the U.S., understanding that none are really “parks” until the 1830s:
- 1573 – Plaza de la Constitucion, San Augustine, Florida
- 1634 – Boston Common
- 1641 – New Haven Green
- 1680 – Washington and Marion Squares, Charleston
- 1686 – Battery Park, New York City
- 1718 – Jackson Square, New Orleans
- 1729 – San Pedro Springs, San Antonio
- 1733 – Bowling Green, New York City