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

May 12, 2020 House Museums, Interpretation, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 438

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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Does Living History Have A Future?

September 18, 2018 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums, Interpretation Comments (1) 1230

In the 1950s, Colonial Williamsburg was the number one tourist attraction in the United States.  Its “living history” displays within the carefully curated town landscape were a novel attraction, and many other sites across the U.S. from Mystic Seaport to Lincoln’s New Salem followed their lead.  It was the dawn of television and big-finned automobiles: living history was hot.

That was seventy years ago.  Last year, Colonial Williamsburg reported it had lost $277 million in five years, laid off 71 staff and sold properties to avoid further hits against its endowment.  This summer it celebrated avoiding layoffs and reducing its debt to $317 million.  Conner Prairie in Indiana boasts of 11 years of breaking even after an economic debacle in the early 2000s.  Old Sturbridge Village brings in $2 million in admissions but breaks even on a $12 million budget thanks to investments, property sales, and major gifts.  Plimoth Plantation has seen ticket sales drop 30% in the last 30 years and now has a labor dispute with its suddenly unionized interpreters.  Civil War reenactments draw a fraction of the spectators they did in their 1990s heyday.  Living history is no longer hot.

Don’t get me started on the coureurs de bois

Sound management is helping Colonial Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village and Conner Prairie survive, but are they thriving?  Clever programming has some sites increasing attendance, but none are approaching the quantities of visitors found in the heyday of living history in the 20th century.  Premier sites like Colonial Williamsburg or Ironbridge Gorge in England draw half a million visitors a year.  But they used to draw twice that.  $20 million in admissions might seem like a lot until you compare it to an annual operating deficit of $50 million.

good old days in New Jersey

The advent of the Millennial generation, whose interactions with the physical world are mediated through smartphones, raises the question:  Is there a future for living history?  The demographics are worrying:  In 2012 20.5% of Americans 18-24 visited a historic site, down 8 percentage points since 2002.

with Inn four miles of Denver

Many sites have raised ticket prices to overcome declining attendance and Colonial Williamsburg is considering building a fence around the site to capture more ticket sales.  Some sites excel with school groups, but school groups rarely pay, exacerbating the economic challenge.

There are positive reports from some sites about developing more “immersive” experiences that appeal to more people.  This runs counter to the trend in house museums, where the guided tour and costumed interpreter have given place to the self-guided tour.

It isn’t simply generational – it is also technology.  For 30 years, technology has been giving individuals more control (at whatever quality) over printing, photography, navigation, communication, and determining how you spend your day.  Most tourists today expect to control their experience in a way unimaginable 30 years ago.

In the next five years we will learn whether a new generation wants to witness and interact with costumed interpreters or just keep their finger on the pulse of their smartphone.

Does Living History have a future?  And how much will it cost?

Sources and Further Reading:
“Historic Sites Face Modern Day Pressures” Virginia Gazette, September 16, 2018
“The Decline of the Civil War Re-enactor” New York Times Magazine, July 28, 2018
“Americans Declining Interest in History is Hitting Museums Like Colonial Williamsburg Hard” The Federalist, August 22, 2017.
“Colonial Williamsburg is still $317 million in debt, but things are looking up”  The Virginian Pilot September 15, 2018
“CEO: Colonial Williamsburg’s financial outlook improves; no layoffs planned.”  Daily Express, September 16, 2018
Old Sturbridge Village 2016 Annual Report
Conner Prairie 2016 Annual Report

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Evidence and Storytelling

October 26, 2017 Blog, History, Interpretation Comments (0) 1303

I wrote a blog inspired by Don Rypkema’s presentation at the Living Heritage Symposium in September.  Here is one inspired by Donna Graves at the same event, who urged the audience to embrace storytelling.  This is why we save places, because of the stories they tell.

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Transforming Heritage Philanthropy

May 13, 2015 Economics, House Museums, Sustainability Comments (0) 1224

President Lincoln’s Cottage, Washington DC

Last week in this blog I presented some concepts on how we can create a more democratic, diverse and inclusive heritage conservation in the United States, largely by applying the lessons of international heritage conservation over the last twenty years, notably the Burra Charter.  Preservation is a process, not a set of rules. Continue Reading

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Commercial and Interpretive

November 15, 2013 House Museums, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (3) 1321

I was at a meeting of the National Trust and several citizen preservation groups in Monterey concerned about the future of the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a house museum in Monterey, one of the treasures of California’s Spanish capitol. I blogged about Cooper-Molera two and a half years ago here, and what I said remains true – the site has been largely shuttered due to state budget cuts, cuts which are not going to be reversed.

When the National Trust announced it was working with a developer to come up with restaurant and other commercial uses at the site, there was a fair amount of community uproar, especially among volunteers who felt the site should stay interpretive. And this debate: “Commercial versus Interpretive” was still active when I was there last month. And it is a false dichotomy. This is NOT an either-or situation. It is a both-and situation. Continue Reading

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Filoli, Cooper-Molera Adobe, and the Gamble House

April 28, 2011 Economics, House Museums, Interpretation Comments (5) 1510

A month ago I posted about visiting three National Trust historic sites on the east coast, and last week I was on the opposite coast visiting our California sites, Filoli in Woodside, California, and Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey. I also got the chance to tour the famed Gamble House in Pasadena and I am including it here, since the Trust does not (YET) have a site in Southern California.

Filoli has an interesting history, insofar as its GARDENS were donated to the Trust by Lurline Roth in 1975, and there is still a great focus on the gardens, which cover some 16 acres and employ over 1,300 volunteers! There is also a successful garden shop and the site has maintained that attraction for Bay Area residents. Continue Reading

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Hull House Reopens!

September 8, 2010 Chicago Buildings, House Museums, Interpretation Comments (0) 1081

Hull House Museum reopened September 9 with a day-long celebration that started at Noon in Daley Plaza, celebrating the 150th birthday of Nobel-prize winning social activist and Hull House founder Jane Addams.

Come see what Lisa Lee and Mike Plummer (and my good friend Bob Johnson, who redid the interior) have done with the interpretation, which I reviewed last night:

IT’S GREAT! There is an openness to the overall design that is inviting and a contrast to the ancient stereotype of the house museum. It also more realistically conveys the use of the house, which was full of people and activities, and not a traditional Victorian house. Continue Reading

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President Lincoln’s Cottage

May 19, 2010 History, House Museums, Interpretation, Sustainability Comments (0) 891

We held the retirement party for longtime National Trust President Richard Moe at President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., one of the newest National Trust historic sites and a fitting place to pay tribute to a leader who helped transform the preservation movement into a vital, relevant force for how people decide the future of their communities in this country. Dick Moe took a collection of mansions and made it a representation of our multiple cultures, from Acoma Sky Pueblo to the East Side Tenement Museum, from Tuoro Synagogue to the Gaylord Building, from the Farnsworth House to the Hotel De Paris. He ushered the fight against sprawl and the struggle for sustainability into the heart of the preservation movement. You can’t posit a more transformative leader. Moe will remain involved at Lincoln Cottage, an 1840s Victorian cottage where the 16th President spent a full quarter of his Presidency.

I was intrigued by the interpretation of the Lincoln Cottage. First, a separate historic building, a lovely tile-roofed Renaissance Revival building from 1905 serves as the Robert H. Smith Visitors Center. This was one of the first LEED certified Gold historic rehabs, fulfilling the sustainability mission Moe set out for the Trust three years ago. Continue Reading

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Pleasant Home

March 25, 2010 Chicago Buildings, History, House Museums, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1069

I have been involved with the Pleasant Home Foundation in some fashion almost since it was set up in the early 90s by a group that included former SAIC President Tony Jones. I moved to Oak Park in the later 90s and had a regular gig talking to groups there every May, offering insights into the relationship of Pleasant Home’s architect, George Washington Maher, and his more famous contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright. Maher designed Pleasant Home in 1897 and you could argue he achieved many aspects of the Prairie School idiom a year or two before Wright. (The name comes from the streets – Pleasant and Home – whose intersection it occupies.)

The house has the broad eaves, overhanging hipped roof and decidedly horizontal massing of the Prairie School. It also has urns flanking the entrance and is centered on the hearth/fireplace, a device Wright also used.

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Roger Brown Study Collection

December 15, 2009 Chicago Buildings, House Museums, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (1) 1326

I have blogged several times about Hull House and its approaches to interpretation of historic sites – in fact, “Hull House Again” is my most-visited blog post. I have also blogged about the Gaylord Building on several occasions, where I served as Chair of the Site Council for six years. Another role of mine this decade has been as a member of the Roger Brown Study Collection Steering Committee, involved in the preservation, interpretation and educational implementation of the property and collection at 1926 N. Halsted in Chicago. Continue Reading

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