Only downtown landmark by a Mexican-American architect to be demolished

April 19, 2024 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 4

San Antonio, Texas has always been a majority Hispanic city, but for most of that history, Mexican-Americans faced legal and cultural discrimination and exclusion. Now, sadly, the only major downtown building designed by a Mexican-American architect is going to be demolished. The University of Texas at San Antonio recently announced its plans to demolish the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building designed for Hemisfair ’68 by William Peña of Caudill, Rowlett and Scott.

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but as smart people know, that is not enough to save it, despite the enticing prospect of 45% investment tax credits (see my recent blog here). The media speculation for the last decade has been that the site is ideal for a new Spurs stadium (Spurs IV – A New Hope) even though it is smaller than their current stadium site by a lot.

The Spurs were asked to meet with the City a year ago, which has fed a bevy of speculative articles over the last year (Pro Tip: Read them carefully and see who is quoted.)

ITC in foreground, Spurs II (Alamodome) in background left.

Who was Willie Peña and why is he the only Mexican-American architect who designed a major building in downtown San Antonio?

Born in Laredo, Peña was a student at Texas A & M when World War II broke out. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and lost a leg, earning both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star medal. The French gave him the Croix de Guerre. Finishing his architecture degree in 1948, he became the first employee of the influential Houston architectural firm Caudill, Rowlett and Scott and became a partner the next year. He became a national pioneer in architectural programming, literally writing the book (Problem Seeking – now in its fifth edition) on it.

William Peña, Courtesy CRS Center, Texas A & M University

Many of our downtown landmarks were designed by Anglo architects like Alfred Giles, James Riely Gordon, Atlee Ayres, Ralph Cameron and O’Neil Ford. The Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta designed the Central Library, and the Conservation Society has honored Humberto Saldaña for his downtown restorations, but there are no downtown buildings designed by a Mexican-American architect except the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures.

So why does UTSA want to tear it down? Probably because it is easier for them. As a unit of the State, they don’t even need to ask for a demolition permit. The demolition is currently scheduled for Summer 2025.

They will need to get the demolition money, which could easily approach the $7 million they have deferred in maintenance on the structure. They plan to move some portion of the collections to the Frost Tower and hope to build a new museum behind the Alamo for $100 million.

That means they need to net over $107 million on the sale of the land, which I suppose is doable for a $1.2 billion stadium.

Casa Navarro

Sadly, the city has a long history of erasing the history of its most numerous population. The famed Laredito neighborhood was destroyed in the 1950s and 60s, and only a last-minute effort by the Conservation Society saved Casa Navarro in 1959. It became a National Historic Landmark in 2017, yet even today Hispanic history and design is referenced in less than 4% of National Register of Historic Places listings, even with the recent inclusion of the Texas Pavilion. In 2014, the first Spanish language TV station – Univision – was demolished downtown.

It is time for this erasure of Latino history to end.

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San Antonio Update May 2023

May 26, 2023 Blog, Chicago Buildings, History, Interpretation, Technology, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 213

Fiesta is over, the IPW international travel network just completed a lovely visit to the Alamo City, and the State Legislature has almost completed its biennial shenanigans, one bit of which just hit the press and could have a negative impact on one of our treasured landmarks, the Institute of Texan Cultures, built in 1968 and a unique celebration of Texan diversity in a unique Brutalist building.

I wrote about this not long ago – the Conservation Society has been working to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, its owner, University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) completed a series of working groups looking at the future of the institute and insists it is looking at three possible options – keeping it where it is, keeping it in the Hemisfair area, and moving it elsewhere. The building – the focus of the Conservation Society – has long been rumored to be a potential site for a new highrise (as illustrated in an issue of Urban Land a few years back) or sports stadium.

Two things happened this week that bode ill for the building. First, the popular Asian Festival was moved from the site to the main downtown UTSA campus. This is a classic predemolition move akin to dozens I have witnessed since the 80s. Remove a beloved event/store/use from a building. Ideally replace it with something crappy that people want to get rid of, and then …poof – no one objects to demolition!

This was the classic example from 40 years ago. A beloved downtown grocery in Chicago where you could get apple-sized strawberries (this was before those became normal – GO GMO!) dipped in chocolate was closed first. Then the retail space became a shop selling two pairs of vinyl men’s pants for $9.99. Within a year or two everyone forgot about Stop N Shop and the exquisite 1930 Hillman’s building was demolished.

Eventually they did building something there. It was only vacant like this for 19 years. See my 2012 post here.

The second thing that happened is that the State Legislature passed a bill that basically gives a couple hundred million in tax revenues to the convention center and downtown sports stadiums. Given that the site of the Institute of Texan Cultures has long been rumored for a baseball (or basketball?) stadium, having a handy government funding source sure could help if it comes to undoing a big Brutalist landmark.

I understand the populist dislike for Brutalism, and even more I understand the Mischief of Modernism that made these amazing buildings in 1968, a Hubris of Scale that engenders an equally skewed approach to redevelopment in our own time.

Meanwhile, at the Alamo temporary constructions are EVERYWHERE. This is the South Gate, which is not a reconstruction but a modern interpretation of a feature that existed from the Mission era (1724) all the way until 1871. It is built atop the actual archaeological remains of the south gate, no easy feat. Just beyond it is the temporary Lunette, a palisaded fortification that exists for maybe 18 months in 1835-36, but since that includes the famous battle of the Alamo, there it is.

And cannon. The Alamo has gained an average of one cannon per year over the last seven years. You have been warned.

These are in addition to the also “temporary” Southwest rampart, with its massive 18-pounder cannon which went in a year ago. Oh, and they just got permission to build a “shade structure” just south of the Lunette in Plaza de Valero. The Conservation Society objected that this will obscure views of the Alamo.

I have a natural concern about “temporary” structures, with specific examples from the last 40 years. Sticking with Chicago, back in 1977 they wanted to build a bandshell in Grant Park, but thanks to a 1912 ruling, no buildings can be added to Grant Park (except the ones already there) which is why the Museum Campus is just south of the park. Now, if this had been the 21st century, they would have done what they did with Millennium Park – just build the buildings and then put the park on top of them! Problem solved!

What schmatta?

Alas, this was the 1970s when people were wearing vinyl pants so they decided to build a “demountable structure” for the new bandshell. It was basically a fold-up tent they could erect and disassemble each year, thus not “building” in Grant Park. I remember seeing it the first year it went up. I have seen it since, because it has been demounted exactly 0 times in my lifetime. So, I tend to be suspicious.

More staying power than a traditional mortgage.

The shrine of Texas liberty. Never mind the bollards.

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The Mischief of Modernism and the Hubris of Scale

February 17, 2022 Economics, Sustainability, Vision and Style Comments (0) 440

“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.

One of my two favorite modernist big plans – IIM, Ahmedabad.

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.

We know what computers will look like in 50 years?

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.

I actually like the buildings but I also remember the aerial walkways which didn’t make it 30 years.
This is my other favorite – same architect as above.

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.

Behold the taco truck

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.

Gorgeous.

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.

This is not a building people naturally love. It looks like neither a puppy nor a kitty.

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.

Wood Courthouse/Confluence Theater – also from Hemisfair ’68.

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.

This architecture however, is not disingenuous.

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.

Can we accuse the architects of waffling?

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?

This is where Daniel Burnham actually made his big plans.

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.

Foreground: ITC during Folk Life Festival. Background: The Spurs forever home after they left Hemisfair.

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.

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