This week marks forty years since I began my career in heritage conservation, a journey over much time and vast space. I am incredibly blessed. Last week I got to take Sarah Bronin, the Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation on a quick tour of preservation challenges and successes in San Antonio at her specific request. I recently visited by Zoom with my 7 roommates from the 2018 Harvard Business School Non Profit Management class and next week I will be in Washington DC lobbying for the Historic Preservation Fund, among other things.
Forty years is a long time, and a fun thought experiment is to take another 40 year chunk – for example the century before, 1883-1923 and see what changed. That period witnessed electrification, automobiles, movies, radio, analgesics, relativity, psychoanalysis and modern architecture. Mine witnessed personal computers, the internet, digital photography, smartphones, microbreweries, quantum entanglement, global warming and email. Both had global pandemics and both ended up with eight planets in the solar system.
The last forty years in heritage conservation/historic preservation have seen the rise of heritage areas in the 1980s, the expansion of historic tax credits in the 1990s, new approaches to intangible heritage and cultural history in the 2000s, to the current focus on affordable housing, climate change, diversity and historic trades. Some things persist, like the importance of public-private partnerships, public relations, and networking, and some things evolve, like architectural history and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards (we hope).
I am usually struck more by similarity than difference, but there has been some serious evolution in the field, even though you can find preservation initiatives dealing with trades, diversity, affordability and climate all the way back in the 1970s. To me the most significant shift has been the ongoing arc away from museum curation to community activism, and the attendant emphasis on the economic everyday.
In my dissertation, I traced the evolution of preservation from a museum-focused antiquarian enterprise in the early 20th century to a part of the neighborhood activist’s toolbox in the 1960s and 1970s. Historic districts, which were still a new thing in the 1960s (in the 1960s the Municipal Arts Society imagined there would be no more than three or four historic districts EVER in New York City). The next step came with the invention of Main Street in 1975 by Mary Means, where traditional architectural preservation was only 1/4 of the cocktail, combined with promotion, organization and economic restructuring. I arrived in the field in 1983 as the first heritage area was introduced in Congress, where again traditional preservation was only a 1/4 of the cocktail, combined now with natural area conservation, recreation and economic development.
I was asked in 1990 by Metropolitan Review to write an article about the coming decade of preservation and my answer was couched in terms of expanding audiences and expanding targets for preservation – more modern buildings, more diverse constituencies, and a greater focus on the community issues that had driven districts, Main Streets and heritage areas.
Architectural history had always lagged the community activists who had saved the Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1961 when all the experts hated High Victorian Queen Anne design. By the 1980s and 1990s the pesky public were not only fully on board with Victorian and 1920s bungalows, but they were already going after Mid-Century Modern and dragging the eggheads along reluctantly, as Richard Longstreth pointed out.
Probably the most dramatic fact of 40 years is that we are already trying to save buildings that were built during that period, some of which were decried at the time of construction, like the maligned and then beloved State of Illinois/Thompson Center in Chicago.
Diversity is perhaps the most important, and has been a leitmotif throughout my preservation career, from working for landmark designation of North Kenwood 1988-1993 to serving on no less than three diversity committees and task forces for the National Trust in the last 15 years. For the last ten years I have been leading panels and trying to find ways to bring more diversity to the National Register of Historic Places, efforts embraced by many that are starting to bear fruit. I am also very grateful to have been a part of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building here in San Antonio and today a part of the Alamo Museum Planning Civil Rights Exhibit Subcommittee planning that portion of the rehabilitated Woolworth Building. (See our video on the history here.)
Diversity is essential to the private sector for innovation and to the public sector for justice. It is essential to the heritage conservation field because our basic mission is not simply to save historic buildings, sites and places, but to save those places that will continue to have meaning to subsequent generations. After forty years in this fascinating field, I have seen many historic places “saved” more than once.
Since my first day I have understood that a key to heritage conservation is conveying the importance of a preservation ethic. Preservation is a process that a community uses to identify what elements of its past are essential to its future. Demographics have shifted significantly in 40 years, and the communities of today are measurably different than 1983.
Preservation is always a future oriented decision, and the diverse generations of the future are key. How do you insure that the next generation also believes in the importance of saving places? Listen to them and give them power.
Baguettes and Zoom
The ubiquitous French baguette was inscribed as Intangible Cultural Heritage this week, and our reaction must be: Why did it take so long? It has been nearly 30 years since UNESCO adopted the Intangible Cultural Heritage convention and started cataloging music, dance, costume, food, crafts and other elements of cultural heritage from across the globe. One would think the baguette would be high on the list but at least it takes it rightful place next to couscous, Turkish coffee and Belgian beer. Oh! And slivovitz, the plum brandy often central to Passover, just got listed as well.
For the second Fall in a row, I have been teaching a Zoom course to UTSA Architecture students on World Heritage Management. I have had the good fortune to have some great guest speakers – Dr. Paul Ringenbach, who wrote the World Heritage nomination for the San Antonio Missions, Christine Jacobs, Superintendent of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and Nada Hosking, my former colleague and Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund.
It has been fun to teach again after a decade-long break, and I am impressed by how well the Zoom interface works. Of course, it began due to COVID but it continued because now I can teach from anywhere. I taught a course at UIC in Chicago in the Spring, and I taught two of my UTSA courses this Fall while I was on my Fulbright Specialist trip to Bogotá.
It also allows me to relive many sites I visited and worked at around the world, collecting and reflecting on how heritage conservation happens and what it means for a community’s growth and health. We focus mostly on the cultural World Heritage sites, although several students have done papers on the Natural World Heritage Sites and we did cover Intangible Cultural Heritage as well.
I am impressed with how attentive the students have been and how effective the medium actually is for a class like mine which is essentially a lecture class with a lot of powerpoints – the students presented their own powerpoints on three occasions. I try to keep it interesting and connected with some basic themes, like my bottom line: Heritage conservation is a process that a community used to determine what elements of its past it wants in its future. And how.
The semester comes to an end next week, and I have learned a lot as well as – I hope – shared a lot. You learn by teaching, seeing the connections and themes that emerge even from projects and examples that you worked on long ago. From new questions and old questions (gentrification?) asked again in a new year. The added Fulbright Specialist tour (see previous blogs) added more students and insights to the mix.
Revisiting the Past
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My Fulbright Specialist work at Ean University, Bogotá
My two week Fulbright Specialist time at Universidad Ean in Bogotá, Colombia is coming to an end in a couple of days. This has been an excellent experience, thanks in large part to Ean faculty member Juan Camilo Chaves and over a dozen excellent students in Cultural Heritage Management. Thanks also go to Fulbright Colombia, celebrating 65 years, and Paola Basto Castro of Ean’s International program, Sergio Sanchez and Laura Hernandez of Fulbright Colombia and Alejandro Torres of Ean.
First off, Ean has a brand new building with an incredible facade-screen passive heating and cooling system, facial recognition technology to enter and exit the building, and a host of other high-tech items, including a nap room, study rooms with color matched to your study style, etc. Even the old (2012!) building has a green roof of the type we were designing with School of the Art Institute of Chicago students in Lima in 2012, complete with hydroponics, beehives and greenhouses.
My weeklong workshop of five lectures was called “Heritage As Process” and included lectures on the long history of heritage conservation in San Antonio; People and the Preservation Process; Conserving World Heritage; History of Historic Districts and of course the amazing story of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building. I was also asked to have a Q & A with a larger group of student last week, and guest lectured on the San Antonio World Heritage Missions for another class. Tomorrow I will do my Fulbright presentation summarizing this.
So what did I learn, aside from what a modern university looks like? First, I am again lucky to live in a city with a long heritage conservation tradition, because Bogotá seems a bit like Houston or Singapore with endless highrises backed up to the mountains and little concern for the few remaining historic buildings. The students are working on cultural districts, but the idea of historic districts or preservation zones seems to have little traction here.
I visited the house museum of Simon Bolivar, the father of South American independence. It is a well interpreted site set in a lush garden. Especially impressive was the dining room, done in a French style – indeed, due to the timing, the whole place has an Empire feel to it.
Of course the classic tourist visit is a ride up the funicular to Monserrate, the hill above the city. The whole city sits smack dab against the mountains, and of course Monserrate is a pilgrimage route as well, with its church featuring a Christ figure descended from the cross.
I am off this morning to report on my Fulbright Specialist experience! Stay tuned for the next blog on the wonderfully challenging approach to interpretation in the museums of Bogotá!
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.
The Good, the Bad and the Interesting
A child characterizes the world in broad strokes to make it understandable. There are good guys and bad guys. If we mature, we see more nuance. We see the good and bad in many people, and while some remain largely good or bad actors, most are more interesting than the simple dichotomy because we are able to see them as a bundle of interests. That is more interesting.
Here is the Hughes House on Courtland Avenue, an absolutely beautiful 1912 Prairie Style home here in San Antonio (by a St. Louis architect) that was threatened by demolition last fall. A demolition permit had been applied for by the Archdiocese of San Antonio, which had owned the property for 50 years. The obvious purchaser was San Antonio College, which owned the adjacent parking lots.
A lot of neighborhood activists and the Conservation Society of San Antonio opposed the demolition and asked that it be considered as a landmark. Ricki Kushner of the Tobin Hill Neighborhood Association and Michael Carroll put together a detailed history of the house. In addition to its lovely architecture, it was where Russell Hughes grew up, a famous international dancer who was celebrated for her skills.
So, depending on your point of view, you could say there were good guys (preservationists, or the two institutions) and bad guys (the two institutions, or the preservationists). But that view requires some kind of obliteration of one side or the other. That’s not how you save a building.
You save a building by finding where the various actors’ interests lie, and seeing if there isn’t a way to ally those interests into a solution. So, in this case, the preservation folks asked San Antonio College to NOT purchase the property for demolition since the site was valued by the community. We distributed yard signs saying “SAVE THE HUGHES HOUSE”. San Antonio College agreed not to pursue acquisition of the site because good community relations is in their financial and public relations interest. Then we asked the Archdiocese to consider selling the property on the market, since their interest was to make money off the deal.
They did that and found a buyer who is interested in preservation. Now, everyone gets to be the good guy, because all interests have all been considered and the landmark lives on.
Many thanks the May Chu and Andrew Weissman for teaming up to save this landmark! Look for a new venue that will allow you to see the fabulous interiors – like these fireplaces! The Conservation Society introduced May to our local legendary chef Andrew and the whole community is excited about the possibility!
Things are happening
March 2022 and all of a sudden I am doing tours again – Alamo, Missions, the Conservation Society’s historic house museums (Steves Homestead in King William and the Yturri-Edmunds House and Mill) and sites in between. I did a talk and walk with a Houston arts group, and all-day tour with a Houston boys school and a tour with Preservation Action auction winners this week.
The 186th anniversary of the Alamo battle is in a few days, just as the world watches another hopelessly overmatched people try to repel an invading army, a parallel not lost on the speakers who celebrated the Texas Revolution at the Alamo yesterday.
On March 16 at lunchtime we will be screening our videos on San Antonio’s historic 1960 lunch counter integration at the Instituto Cultural de Mexico in Hemisfair, followed by a panel discussion led by Sarah Zenaida Gould, PhD, of the Mexican American Civil Rights Initiative. Please join us for this free event!
This will be followed the very next night by our biannual Historic Preservation Awards honoring projects and people in and around San Antonio. This paid event has several highlights, including the restoration of City Hall and the incredible dome at Temple Beth-El. Also Texas Preservation Heroes!
This is followed by a blizzard of galas the final week of the month, including our own Capital Club event on the 22nd, the Brackenridge Park Conservancy Gala on the 23rd, and the Make It Your Mission gala on the 24th. And then it is less than a week to Fiesta!
NIOSA is April 5-8 this year, so order your tickets now!
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!