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

May 12, 2020 House Museums, Interpretation, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1000

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.

Continue Reading

Preservation in Lockdown #2

April 17, 2020 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 576

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.

Continue Reading

94 Years and Going Strong!

March 23, 2018 Blog, History, Intangible Heritage, Texas Comments (1) 1720

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!

 

Continue Reading

People And Places And People

December 6, 2017 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 1584

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.

Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Latest Issues in San Antonio

March 10, 2017 Blog, History, Interpretation, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (3) 2622

Things have been busy at the San Antonio Conservation Society, not only because our major fundraiser Night In Old San Antonio® is coming up next month, but because it is Spring already and a host of development and legislative issues are heating up.

Continue Reading

Continue Reading

What is the Fabric of Cultural History?

September 24, 2016 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation Comments (2) 1524

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

Continue Reading

Path to the Future

October 20, 2015 Economics Comments (1) 1117

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

Continue Reading

Investing In the Future

December 3, 2014 Global Heritage Comments (0) 936

The investments that pay off over time are ones that are made with a complete understanding of the context. What or who are you investing in? What is the potential for growth? What are the obstacles, and conversely, the opportunities? The act of investing is future-oriented, so there is always risk, but successful investors learn to minimize risk.

Philanthropists often look on their donations as investments, especially here in Silicon Valley. This makes it incumbent on organizations like Global Heritage Fund to measure those investments for our donors. We need your help, yes, but we know we need to prove to you how much you can help. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Beyond the Bounds of Conservation

November 20, 2014 Global Heritage Comments (2) 1249

I hope you are a member of the organization I run, the Global Heritage Fund.

Our goal is to help save world heritage sites in impoverished regions by activating them as assets for the local community. Our methodology combines Planning, Conservation Science, Partnerships and Community Development, which we term Preservation By Design®. Our goal in our second decade is to make our Community Development more robust and replicable. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Planning for the Future; not Scrambling for the Past

September 21, 2014 Economics, Global Heritage, Historic Districts Comments (1) 1176

I was re-reading one of my blogs from nine years ago (430 posts now – I guess I am about consistency and endurance whether I like it or not) and was struck (again) by my (consistent) non-ideological approach to heritage conservation. That blog “Heresy and Apostasy” basically took to task the concept that preservation had some kind of ideological purity and that those who didn’t try to save absolutely everything all the time were not “true” preservationists.

I recalled my youth in the field, when I did come close to that position, but it was never one I was completely comfortable with. First, ideologies sit outside of history and thus fail all tests of time. Second and more to the point, I began my career working on a heritage area – the first in the U.S. – and the goals there were historic preservation, natural area preservation, recreation, and economic development. Preservation was part of planning for the future. Preservation was a wise economic decision, especially in a post-industrial economy. Continue Reading

Continue Reading