Revisiting the Past

November 1, 2022 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Global Heritage, History, Interpretation Comments (0) 32

While in Bogotá I saw a news article about the Smithsonian Institute returning looted artifacts to Benin in West Africa, part of a growing trend to repatriate historic arts and crafts to the regions they were crafted in. This was of great interest to my students at Ean University, who asked me point blank what I thought about the repatriation of historic artifacts in museums. I said repatriate them. In a world of digital reproduction, museums can easily go back to the plaster casts from whence they came. Location is a key aspect of authenticity.

A selection of Caesars that never left Libya

This reminded me of James Cuno’s book of a little over a decade ago, perhaps the last piece defending the ideal of the encyclopedic museum by arguing that antiquities belong to everyone, not a particular contemporary nation state. Cuno left the Getty this year and now I see that the Getty is hosting a symposium on “The Multiple Reinventions of the Americas in Context,” a critical look at how the “New World” has been conceived and reconceived over the last 500 years. Turns out, I could see much of that reinvention right in Bogotá.

Warriors then and now.

Bogotá has some wonderful historic museums, but what really struck me was their interpretation, which is state of the art. My first visit was to the Museo Nacional, in a former panopticon prison. They have undertaken a reimagining of the museum by abandoning traditional chronology for juxtaposition, putting pre-Columbian artifacts next to telephones under the theme of communication, for example. Objects come alive as you see them simultaneously from the perspective of the colonizer, the colonized, the curator and the curious.

The former prison.
Tema: Comunicación
Observa los tapices de dos culturas

Colombia is a vast and diverse country in both people and geography. Like the U.S. it has Atlantic and Pacific coasts, a wide range of natural and mineral resources, a variety of indigenous groups, a history of African enslavement and a surprisingly long commitment to democracy. All of these themes were explored in the museum, with some clever interpolations by contemporary artists.

So this historic image was reinterpreted by a video artist who reenacted the work of carrying people through the mountains in this manner, only with the racial roles reversed so those of African origin were the ones being carried.

There was an exhibit on the history of the building, described as a 19C panopticon prison, and while it was not a true circular panopticon, the suggestion of Foucault and French structuralism was reinforced by the tiny gold exhibit in a literal safe across the way, which had this unexpected text on the wall.

We become what we contain. We form our tools and then our tools form us, be they molcajetes or microchips.

Whoa! I have not seen McLuhan quoted in a museum before, but it makes perfect sense. Where is the medium the message more than in a museum? You are even invited to put your own self and your own culture in the museum.

Been there done that. See this blog from 14 years ago.

MUSA, the Archaeological museum, was another example of interpretative elán, sited in one of the oldest surviving houses in Bogotá, from 1738. The collection is primarily ceramics from the many indigenous cultures that inhabited the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, the three ranges of Andes Mountains, the Amazon and various other regions.

Pretty much the oldest house in town
Nursing mother from Sinú region and culture
A man with folded arms jug from the Tairona.

Interpretive text asked us not to see these ceramics as the work of the Other but as human creations that contained foods and sounds. The text asked us further to empathize with each object, reimagining our relationship to our own foods and dolls and musical instruments. The text on the wall urged us yet further to imagine their uses for ourselves without the intervention of the archaeologist or curator. The text was not printed but projected, because the museum is not eternal but fugitive, an incomplete record of an incomplete conversation. The interpretation did not dictate but prodded us to think openly about what we take from the objects presented and how their makers may have experienced them.

The Colonial Museum has the largest task in a time of decolonization, and in many ways did it best. This one was busy, with a conference going on, a massive contemporary art display on the courtyard galleries, and school groups being led with laughter through the exhibitions. Again, there were deft insertions of contemporary art interpretations, but only a few, and their style deliberately played on historic forms and tropes. The best example took familiar 17C images defining racial categorizations resulting from the mixing of Europeans, Africans and Indigenous and then crafted modern ones playing on modern subcultures in a mirror of the antique style.

Again, the exhibit asks you to insert yourself into the content. On the left, the union of European and the African produces “Mulato” while on the right the union of Indian and European produces “Mestizo”.
The union of the Headbanger (Metalero) and the Disco produces the Emo. Art by Dimo García.
The union of the LGBTQ and the Hipster produces the (Harry) Potterhead. Art by Dimo García.

The opening exhibit sticks primarily to religious and art objects brought to the Americas from Europe as part of the conversion of the population to Catholicism, although almost immediately they give you the artist reimagining the retablo.

A colonial era retablo (altarpiece) reinterpreted by a contemporary artist in the Museo Coloniale.

The arrangement produced an understanding of the massive effort it took to transport huge numbers of paintings and sculpture to reinforce European traditions and religion. The journey to Bogotá, administrative center of the complex Muisca people who likely numbered a million, took many months both on sea and land. That is a lot of work for a collection of religious items, many quite bulky. I suppose it was worth it to the Spanish crown if they ultimately succeeded in establishing control.

It often takes only a single contemporary image playing with the forms of the historic image to open them up. Here a couple, followed by an artistic interpretation that again plays with racial reversal to make a point and open an eye, not unlike the work of Kehinde Wiley.

The Viceroy of Nueva Granada 18C
This is a painted version of this guy’s dissertation defense!
Who is worthy of a portrait? What does it signify to have a portrait?
Contemporary art lines the galleries outside the exhibit halls

They even linked the tradition of saints and martyrs to contemporary martyrs due to the various insurgent groups and narcotraficantes of the 20C. Again, juxtaposition of the old and new offered a view into parallel worlds of conflict, colony and conversion.

Even Botero, who has a whole museum himself, got in on this action.
Hagiography and Camouflage/Submission and Seduction

These museums were refreshing and interesting, because you looked at each piece longer and had a stronger sense of its purpose and intent than you would have 20 or 50 years ago when it was just another item that was supposed to be beautiful or persuasive. Contemporaneity and criticality opened up the items in new ways, exposing not simply the contradictions of colonialism, but the contradictions of cultural inheritance. You can return a piece from the museum, enacting social justice. Or you can recontextualize a piece, engendering understandings that will support the ongoing pursuit of that justice.

Investigating the attic of our cultural inheritance.

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.

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The Art and Craft of the Machine in the age of Digital Reproduction

October 14, 2022 History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 37

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.

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Fixing Mistakes

September 15, 2022 Chicago Buildings, Sustainability, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 60

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.

A Miesian mass sandwiched between Lake Shore Drive and the beach.

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.

Institute of Texan Cultures/Texas Pavilion, Caudill, Rowlett and Scott, 1968.

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?

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Texan cultures

August 15, 2022 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Texas Comments (0) 91

I wrote recently about The Institute of Texan Cultures, a unique museum created in the Texas Pavilion after the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio. The Conservation Society made Page 1 in the local paper with our announcement that we will be listing it on the National Register of Historic Places.

Institute of Texan Cultures

While the focus of the Conservation Society remains on reusing the building itself, the Institute, operated by the University of Texas at San Antonio, has over the years celebrated a diversity that most outside of the state – and many inside it – are unaware of.

For many Texas seems to be quintessential American (“Murican”) culture – pickup trucks, country music, ridiculously large portions, and of course oil fields and ranching. Many are also aware that Texas was Spain for over a hundred years and Mexico for another twenty, so there is an awareness of something called “Tex-Mex” and if you are in San Antonio, Fiesta – a 131-year old event that borrows heavily from Spanish and Mexican culture.

Beethoven Männerchor 1890. They are still singing at 155 years old.

Then there are the Germans. If you came to San Antonio in 1850, Germans were almost a quarter of the population, just behind those of Mexican descent at 30% and well ahead of the American and French at 15% each. Many of the surrounding communities like Castroville, New Braunfels, Fredericksburg and Comfort were settled by Germans and have retained many cultural traditions to this day.

The double illumination of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Mission Concepción. Oh! That’s today August 15!

I remember Dominic Pacyga describing the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago where there was spatial integration but social segregation between the many (mostly European) ethnic groups that lived and worked there. In San Antonio, there is a culture of blending. This goes back to its founding as a series of missions designed to convert the indigenous people living here into Spaniards. Founded by syncretism, every major event in San Antonio history centers on the idea of a confluence of cultures, a mestizo blending inherent throughout the Western Hemisphere, but not always as celebrated as it is here.

Matachines at the Festival of the Virgin, Mission Concepción.

This is not to paper over a long history of racism and oppression of people of color, that would be foolish. It happened here as it did throughout the state. San Antonio was quicker than other Texas towns to shed the worst trappings of segregation and racial oppression, as the Conservation Society explored in its videos on the 1960 lunch counter Sit-In movement.

Native American ritual and mariachis at groundbreaking of the Museo del Westside, San Antonio, 2022

When the Riverwalk was designed in 1929 and built a decade later, it’s goal was to capture the spirit of landmark cities along the Mediterranean, and the La Villita reconstruction undertaken at the same time (1939-41) had as its goal the unification of the countries of the Western hemisphere that had thrown off the European yoke, naming its principal places after Simon Bolivar, Benito Juarez and Miguel Hidalgo and promoting historic preservation of La Villita as a way to celebrate this shared heritage.

Plaza Juarez, La Villita, built 1939-41.

The Conservation Society’s event A Night In Old San Antonio(R) was created in 1948 and has over a dozen areas each representing part of the city’s cultural heritage, including Spanish, Mexican, African-American, Asian, French, German and even Cowboy.

It has been going on for 74 years, which is almost longer than Machu Picchu, so it needs to be conserved as well.

Some other examples of the syncretic nature of culture in San Antonio include the Alameda Theatre, perhaps the premier Spanish language cinema of the postwar era, developed by an Italian immigrant known for cowboy boots and designed by a Russian Jewish architect.

The mestizo nature of San Antonio continued in the 1960s. The theme of HemisFair ’68 was literally A Confluence of Cultures in the Americas. That’s puro San Antonio. We still have two murals celebrating that.

400,000 pieces by Juan O’Gorman – being restored soon.
by Carlos Merida (Guatemala)

There are so many other cultures that have become part of San Antonio it is dizzying. We have the largest Martin Luther King Day march in the country and the largest Diwali celebration. Don’t even get us started on Dia de los Muertos.

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Fire. It’s always Fire.

February 24, 2022 Blog, History, Texas Comments (1) 237

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.

Courtesy Brandi Hayes, Conservation Society of San Antonio

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.

As it appeared last year, recognizable from a 1949 photograph.

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.

Casa Navarro, a National Historic Landmark

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.

The day after. It was eventually restored.

I remember 2006, when three Louis Sullivan buildings were lost to fire during the 150th anniversary of his birth, two by careless rehab contractors.

I actually saw Sullivan’s Wirt Dexter on fire from the L.

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.

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San Antonio Roundup February 2022

February 13, 2022 Blog, Texas Comments (0) 187

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.

State Loop 368. You can see how all six lanes are being used.

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.

Any of these roads seem crowded to you?

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.

Which is why Siclovia – when they close the street to cars – is so popular.
Morning rush hour

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.

Should have nipped them in the bud

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.

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Alternativeless demolition

October 26, 2021 Historic Districts, Texas Comments (5) 469

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.

Nothing about this says “Please tear me down.”

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.

Gee whiz they even made it match.

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.

This old wreck is in the way of…um, nothing. Nothing you need to know about.

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.

Oh yes, that looks much better.

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.

That’s real brick, man. You ain’t gonna be able to push it over. That’s a five or six figure demo.

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.

I know y’all property rich and cash poor, so why take the first bid from someone making you do the work/

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

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Spanish Governor’s Palace, San Antonio: preserving an interpretation

May 12, 2020 House Museums, Interpretation, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1446

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.

1749 Salon/Living Room, Spanish Governor’s Palace

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.

Original 1722 comandancia with adobe brick wall

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.

It would also be an attractive place to rent for weddings and events – and it still is!

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!

An interpretive plaque for an interpretive plaque

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.

Late 18th century dining room with working original fireplace

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.)

Even this doorway is a 1930 invention – never existed.

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.

Guadalupe and Hessler Houses, La Villita
The cannon is even sillier (removed last year to Alamo)

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.

One sniper, one Texan (Ben Milam) shot during Siege of Bejar 1835.

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.

The Commander’s office built 1749, restored 1930

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.

The keystone with the Hapsburg arms of Ferdinand VI is original (1749) while the carved door is a 1930 work by Swiss woodcarver Peter Mansbendel

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.

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Preservation in Lockdown #2

April 17, 2020 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 831

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.

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94 Years and Going Strong!

March 23, 2018 Blog, History, Intangible Heritage, Texas Comments (1) 1940

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).

Espada Aqueduct.

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

Aztec Theater

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!

 

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