It was a cold night, dipping below freezing, and the morning saw another fire at the landmark site 503 Urban Loop, which had suffered a small one in December attributed to repeated infiltrations by homeless. This time it looks like a total loss, just two weeks after the owners asked the Conservation Society, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the Westside Preservation Alliance for another delay of our Request for Review of Significance to landmark the site. We submitted the request last August.
An important visual link to important history has been destroyed. This history includes the only reminder of the city’s Red Light District as it was built originally in 1883 as a brothel by Aurelia Dashiell and hosted Fanny Porter and the Wild Bunch of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the turn of the last century. It also had a much longer history as an orphanage and day dare center for the bustling Mexican-American Laredito district for over a century. Bishop John Shaw purchased and rehabbed the building in 1913 and the next year the Carmelite Sisters opened a day care and orphanage to serve refugees from the Mexican Revolution.
The new orphanage and day care center brought Reverend Mother Mary Teresa to San Antonio and Mother Mary Felicitas took charge. The noted midwife Ramona Ramos ran the nearby Casa de Maternidad and was likely involved. Most importantly, the building was one of the ONLY sites associated with the Laredito community that survived. The other is Casa Navarro, which the Conservation Society saved in 1959.
The erasure of Laredito is nearly complete now, thanks to this fire. It is always fire, and it is always gut-wrenching to lose these visceral, haptic connections to our shared history. I remember walking the dog in Humboldt Park Chicago in 1992 and seeing that the stunning Humboldt Park Stables had burned in what turned out to be an arson fire.
I remember 2006, when three Louis Sullivan buildings were lost to fire during the 150th anniversary of his birth, two by careless rehab contractors.
What makes this conflagration at 503 Urban Loop in San Antonio so disturbing is that it removes an important connection to a community that has seen far more than its share of erasure – deliberate and otherwise – for more than half a century.
Big news last week was the weather, which was a paler shade of last year’s Soviet-style winter, lasting only a day and closing a few roads due to ice. Big news the week before was the State reneging on 7 years of cooperation to steal Broadway back from the City just as it attempted to make it a pedestrian and bicycle friendly thoroughfare. Scuppering a plan approved by over 70% of the voters, the Governor took State Loop 368 back. The buggery of Broadway is just plain cruelty – the “reasons” wouldn’t pass elementary school muster – “97% of Texans drive cars” and “we need to keep as many lanes as possible” which are fictive, flippant, and factually false.
Even the Governor’s big business supporters wrote him a letter saying PLEASE DON’T but the guy can’t pass up a chance to bash a city, especially one that understands how traffic actually works. Adding lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to deal with obesity.
This is a little like our discussion last time about how the argument that land use regulations suppress housing construction. It kind of makes logical sense. Unless you test it. Or look for EVIDENCE. It seems to make sense that if you add lanes you reduce congestion, but if you test “road diets” they work. If you give people options, they take them. I have ridden my bike up Broadway – sorry, State Loop 368 – faster than driving. If a trip is a mile or a mile and a half, it’s faster on a bike once you factor in parking.
WHAT ELSE? Well, there has been a hullabaloo about tree removal in Brackenridge Park, including nie or ten heritage trees, which are the bigger ones protected by ordinance – which the Governor spent 2017 trying to remove. But this is not about him, it is about trees and the public desire to keep them versus projects – like the restoration of the 1776 acequia and 1877 Pump House No. 1 – that threaten them. Some of the trees are undermining our historic structures, so it becomes a classic tradeoff.
WHAT ELSE? San Antonio College backed off any interest in acquiring the Hughes House on Courtland, owned by the Archdiocese, which thanks to a 2019 law, can demolish it despite any landmarking attempts. They are still taking offers for it. Meanwhile, the erstwhile developers of the 503 Urban Loop building promised a design this week and then did not deliver one, instead offering a legal agreement to document the thing, put up a plaque and then presumably smoke Pall Malls while watching Gunsmoke because how could you get more 1965? I mean, my whole blog two months ago was called “Alternativeless demolition” because the one thing you need to convince people that you should demolish it is A DESIGN.
Dunno what y’all were doing all that time, but it shows.
This is the 1911 Hughes house at 312 W Courtland Street in San Antonio. It sits on a corner next to a parking lot and across from the epic and massive Koehler House. And it is up for demolition. Which is understandable, unless you look at it.
It’s pretty. It’s intact. It is a solidly built, eminently adaptable house. Indeed, it has been owned by the Archdiocese for over half a century. They used it for a Catholic student center for most of that time, but now apparently it needs work. LIKE EVERY OTHER HOUSE IN HISTORY.
So, we have an owner who feel they can’t rehabilitate a house they themselves have let go. What is the alternative? Are they going to build a new student center? A parking lot? What is the alternative? Nothing. Just like 503 Urban Loop, our brothel-cum-child care center that is up for designation December 2. The owners originally said they were building a residential highrise, not they are on to the NO ALTERNATIVE PLANS plans.
Does anything say “I’M A FLIPPER” more loudly than a request for demolition with no plan for a replacement?
I remember City Council members back in the 1980s in Chicago saying that they might vote against landmarking something if they saw that what it was going to be replaced with was better. That actually makes sense, because a legislative representative has to look at all the factors, whereas a landmarks commissioner focuses on whether the building meets the criteria for designation.
If you aren’t revealing your plan, you probably don’t have one. In fact, you might just be shilling for the eventual owner, who has convinced you to do the dirty work of getting a demolition permit before they will ink the deal. It happens. But the Tobin Hill neighbors who are upset about the Hughes house are right, and the Council Member needs to have an alternative or he will be approving an Alternativeless Demolition.
Despite four non-profit and neighborhood organizations supporting the designation of 503 Urban Loop, it has its detractors because it is not conventionally pretty from all angles. Some might argue that the homeless are getting in and demolition is necessary. Because demolition solves the homeless issue?
312 W. Courtland is a very nice house so it might have even more friends, and fewer social ills in its Tobin Hill/Monte Vista neighborhood.
No, the real issue at 312 W. Courtland is likely that a potential buyer is asking the Archdiocese to demolish it because, under state law, they can do it UNLIKE EVERY OTHER BUILDING OWNER because they are a church.
The building isn’t a church, of course, which is what the first religious exclusion laws in the 80s focused on. It’s a perfectly good house.
Want to know the funny part?
The Archdiocese is likely getting hosed by the buyer – who is obviously making their offer contingent on the Archdiocese getting the demolition.
How many ways are there to be hosed in this situation?
- The property was never listed for sale, so all of those out-of-state transplants buying big lovely houses three blocks away have not had a chance to bid on this. The Archdiocese is leaving money on the table.
- The demolition and disposal cost on this is going to be high. Tile roofs are lovely, but heavy. Brick is also lovely, and you can’t push it over for $20k. Not a cheap demolition by any stretch. If the Archdiocese pays this bill for the under-the-market buyer, they are again….leaving money on the table.
So, what is the alternative? We don’t know.
Tobin Hill neighbors are asking for a Review of Significance, which you can support by contacting the Office of Historic Preservation, City of San Antonio. Again, State law allows the Archdiocese to prevail over landmarks laws, but let’s at least shine a light on it.
WHAT CAN YOU DO!
Visit the Conservation Society page on the Hughes House TODAY!
See the Conservation Society page on 503 Urban Loop now!
JUNE 2022 UPDATE: The HUGHES HOUSE IS SAVED! The Archdiocese found a willing buyer who is interested in repurposing the house! Apparently the sale closed today!
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.
Less than a week ago I was part of a group planning the next national preservation conference and we were brainstorming what programs and indeed what formats should be employed to reflect our world in the COVID-19 crisis. One of the big concerns was whether “historic preservation” would be considered a luxury that we no longer could afford.
Man that’s dumb. The only business happening on my street besides mail delivery and garbage pickup is “historic preservation.” They are repairing the lovely bungalow on the corner, restoring the clapboard siding after leveling. Work is also going on next door in another bungalow that just sold, and there is a ton of interest in the one just fixed up on the other side of our house. There are at least 5 rehab projects on this one block, two for sale and another for lease.
You could quibble about some of the choices the owner/contractors made, but the bottom line is that century-old buildings are being rehabilitated and reused. Conserving well-made older buildings is a wise reuse of resources, a more affordable approach to housing, and a benefit for the community.
I live in a conservation district, not an historic district, but every building on my block is old and ninety percent of the work being done would be consistent with a historic district. Preserving building is not only environmentally friendlier than new construction, it is also an economic engine. Right now it is providing more than its share of jobs in an otherwise stalled economy.
On March 22, 2018 the San Antonio Conservation Society turned 94! That’s right, we have been around a quarter century longer than the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Rena Maverick Green and Emily Edwards founded the group with 11 other women in 1924. They supposedly notched their first “save” that year, a tree along the river the city planned to remove. Within a decade they had purchased and saved much of Mission San Jose, especially the Granary.
Hard to believe, but the Missions were in bad shape 94 years ago – the tower here at San Jose would collapse in 1928 and was only restored thanks to the intervention of the San Antonio Conservation Society. The upper third of the Mission San Jose Granary was bought and paid for by the Society in 1930, thank you very much.
We originally formed to save not just architectural treasures like the Missions but also areas of natural beauty and most importantly customs – what we now call intangible heritage. That is one of the things I love about working here – we knew what 21st century heritage conservation was like way back in the early 20th century. We revived Los Pastores and our amazing Night In Old San Antonio ® event is now in its 70th year. It is a cultural performance and homage. Also a fundraiser. Biggest in the United States. By miles and miles.
It is the Missions that really course through the history of the San Antonio Conservation Society. That was the first place that the women of the Society went out on a limb, buying land, securing craftspersons, and actually owning and restoring historic buildings.
And then giving them away. By 1941, the Society had not only restored much of Mission San Jose, it had secured National Historic Landmark status (a 5-year old program at the time) and coordinated the efforts of the State, County, City and Catholic Archdiocese to create a state park encompassing the San Antonio Missions. All before Pearl Harbor.
Mission San Juan Capistrano.
By 1978 through delicate lobbying from the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago (coincidentally the birthplace of the “smoke-filled room”), they made the Missions a National Park, maneuvering the deal past the opposition of President Carter. Money. Smarts. Savvy.
At Mission San Francisco de Espada.
When I visited San Antonio in 2010, I made a point of seeing all of the Missions, even the Espada Aqueduct that the San Antonio Conservation Society bought in the 1950s to insure its preservation.
I blogged about the Missions during my 2010 visit (SEE BLOG HERE).
See, the amazing thing about the Missions is not their architecture – although much of that is quite excellent. Nor is it simply the fact that these were the first European structures built here. It is the fact that the entire landscape of an encounter – between the Spanish and the Native Americans – is not simply legible in the landscape: It is alive.
Matachines at Mission Concepcion, 2017.
I blogged again 5 years later when the San Antonio Conservation Society, together with city and county partners, achieved something amazing in only 9 years: Inscription as a World Heritage Site (SEE BLOG HERE). For the same reason. Here was a place that contained history not only in buildings, and waterways, but in people and traditions. Customs.
10th and 11th generation Canary Islanders at San Fernando Cathedral two weeks ago.
It is fun to look at my old blogs – when I had literally no idea I would be working here – and see how much respect and admiration I had for the Society, one of the oldest in the nation. When I applied for the job in early 2016, I was equally impressed by how the Society kept with the times, embracing modern landmarks less than 50 years old…
To be fair, it will turn 50 in two weeks…(Confluence Theater/U.S. Pavilion HemisFair ’68 – now Wood Courthouse)
And sites that represent the diversity of the American experience, a diversity that the historic preservation movement overlooked in its early days.
1921 Woolworth Building on Alamo Plaza, site of first successful (and peaceful) integration of a lunch counter in the South in February, 1960.
I suppose being founded in 1924 gave the San Antonio Conservation Society a certain modernity. This was a time of a booming, building downtown, and indeed the first effort was to save the Market House from street widening, which failed.
Widening of Commerce Street in 1913 – the Alamo National Bank Building of 1902 (center) was moved back 16 feet rather than shave off its facade like the others. Then three stories were added.
If you are in downtown San Antonio, the odds are a building the Conservation Society bought and saved is within a block of wherever you are standing. Here are a few from our 94 years, none of which we still own…..
Ursuline College/Southwest School of Art
Rand Building – the tech center of downtown SA
O Henry House
Casa Navarro, home of Jose Antonio Navarro, only Tejano signer of both Texas Declaration of Independence and Texas Constitution. We ran it for 15 years before turning it over to the state.
Emily Morgan Hotel. A block from the Alamo.
Maverick Building. Also a block from the Alamo.
Reuter Building. Half a block from the Alamo.
Staacke and Stevens Buildings
We aren’t the oldest preservation organization in the country – heck, we aren’t even the first one in San Antonio, where efforts to save the Alamo began back in 1883. But we are 94. And going strong!
This year at PastForward, the National Preservation Conference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation focused on People Saving Places. “People” is operative, because for many – notably wonky architectural historians like myself – it had often been about buildings. Even for those in the planning profession, it had been a technical question rather than a human one. That is wrong.
This is the Malt House in San Antonio. Dating to 1949, it is the classic car-service restaurant, known for its malted milkshakes. Generations experienced their localized version of American Graffiti with Mexican and American comfort food and the best malts in town. Continue Reading
This Friday I will deliver a keynote address titled “Path To The Future” at the National Trust for Canada conference in Calgary. The conference is titled “Heritage Energized” and the setting is the boomtown West, the kind of place that easily disregards the past in a rush toward the new.
Or is that just a stereotype? It is hard to find a city in North America or Europe that has not seen an economic “boom” from its historic buildings, especially if those buildings are conserved in enough concentration to spark revitalization. From Denver’s LoDo and Seattle’s Pioneer Square to Manhattan’s SoHo and Chicago’s Printers’ Row, it seems every town has an historic district that has turned into an economic engine. Continue Reading