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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
History is about Everything
“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”
- Mark Twain
I have always loved history because it contains everything. It is full of contradictions, replete with exceptions that prove the rule, and layered with conflicting motivations, unintended consequences, and outright paradoxes. Those of us who promote history by preserving historic sites revel in this depth and complexity. It isn’t simply that more stories can be told from each place. You can also attract more visitors, and thus complexity adds money as well.
This was one of the big arguments we made about preserving the Woolworth Building with its important Civil Rights history across from the Alamo (see this blog for example). Under the old plan, you would get Alamo battle tourists only. By adding another layer to the depth of history told, you get more tourists. That means more money. That’s why everyone was so excited when the Alamo and the other San Antonio Missions became a World Heritage Site in 2015 (my blog at the time).* Because that adds another story – the story of the missions, the Franciscans, soldiers and indigenous people who first populated the city in the 18th century. More stories = more tourists = more money.
I bring this up because some tabloids and their online siblings have been attacking various National Trust historic sites for being “w*ke” or adopting “CRT” or some other cryptohistoric political claptrap they invented. Being tabloids, they strive to paint sites onto one side of the political spectrum by outright lying that they are only interpreting these sites one way.
Wrong. Also stupid. Also you lose money because you shut out stories that attract more and different people. Diversity is always going to be economically richer. One of those maligned by the knuckle-draggers was Montpelier, which I visited as a Trustee of the National Trust some years ago.
The main point of interpretation was James Madison and the Constitution, which it still is. So don’t believe the tabloidiots who said otherwise. Another story being told is that James Madison could not maintain 100 buildings all by himself and had enslaved people do it. That story is also told. I saw the preparations for both of those stories – and many more about nature and gardens and decorative arts and lifestyles. That’s how successful sites work – they have depth. Otherwise people would see them once for an hour and never have to return.
The problem with “culture wars” is that they are driven by ideology. Ideologies, as I explained before (and despite their verifiable agency) are always wrong BECAUSE they are static and thus ignore history. History is dynamic, diverse, complex and contradictory. That’s why it is so fun. You can’t get it all in an hour. Or a day. Or a week. Or a lifetime.
When the mouth-breathing tabloidiots is that when they say “w*ke” or “CRT” they are making it up. These house museums and historical societies are about preserving and interpreting history, and the more the better. Their agenda is telling a deep, rich and complete story of everything that happened over time.
Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
*FUN FACT: The 1836 Battle for the Alamo is not part of the World Heritage nomination for the missions.
San Antonio Roundup February 2022
Big news last week was the weather, which was a paler shade of last year’s Soviet-style winter, lasting only a day and closing a few roads due to ice. Big news the week before was the State reneging on 7 years of cooperation to steal Broadway back from the City just as it attempted to make it a pedestrian and bicycle friendly thoroughfare. Scuppering a plan approved by over 70% of the voters, the Governor took State Loop 368 back. The buggery of Broadway is just plain cruelty – the “reasons” wouldn’t pass elementary school muster – “97% of Texans drive cars” and “we need to keep as many lanes as possible” which are fictive, flippant, and factually false.
Even the Governor’s big business supporters wrote him a letter saying PLEASE DON’T but the guy can’t pass up a chance to bash a city, especially one that understands how traffic actually works. Adding lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to deal with obesity.
This is a little like our discussion last time about how the argument that land use regulations suppress housing construction. It kind of makes logical sense. Unless you test it. Or look for EVIDENCE. It seems to make sense that if you add lanes you reduce congestion, but if you test “road diets” they work. If you give people options, they take them. I have ridden my bike up Broadway – sorry, State Loop 368 – faster than driving. If a trip is a mile or a mile and a half, it’s faster on a bike once you factor in parking.
WHAT ELSE? Well, there has been a hullabaloo about tree removal in Brackenridge Park, including nie or ten heritage trees, which are the bigger ones protected by ordinance – which the Governor spent 2017 trying to remove. But this is not about him, it is about trees and the public desire to keep them versus projects – like the restoration of the 1776 acequia and 1877 Pump House No. 1 – that threaten them. Some of the trees are undermining our historic structures, so it becomes a classic tradeoff.
WHAT ELSE? San Antonio College backed off any interest in acquiring the Hughes House on Courtland, owned by the Archdiocese, which thanks to a 2019 law, can demolish it despite any landmarking attempts. They are still taking offers for it. Meanwhile, the erstwhile developers of the 503 Urban Loop building promised a design this week and then did not deliver one, instead offering a legal agreement to document the thing, put up a plaque and then presumably smoke Pall Malls while watching Gunsmoke because how could you get more 1965? I mean, my whole blog two months ago was called “Alternativeless demolition” because the one thing you need to convince people that you should demolish it is A DESIGN.
Dunno what y’all were doing all that time, but it shows.
San Antonio Roundup September 2021
Over a month since the last blog post, but I have been busy with my new UTSA class on World Heritage Management, as well as lots of regular work. The Conservation Society of San Antonio partnered with Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the Westside Preservation Alliance to promote 503 Urban Loop as a local landmark. Built as a brothel in 1883, it was home to the famous madam Fannie Porter, who hosted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid there in 1901 (Remember the song “Raindrops Are Falling on my Head”? – based on a San Antonio bicycle as far as we know.)
We have been promoting it as a rare remnant of Laredito, the near West Side Mexican-American neighborhood nearly obliterated by highway construction and urban renewal. Despite the media appeal of the building’s Red Light history, it was owned by the Archdiocese from 1913 to 2017 and served as an orphanage, day care center and community resource under the Carmelite Sisters and later Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. One generation of sinners and five of saints. The Historic and Design Review Commission voted unanimously in favor. The owner wants to develop a high rise there, which is easy enough given the size of the lot and the size of the historic building.
Our Coalition for the Woolworth Building met again this month and recently the Alamo chose architects (Gensler – the biggest) for the new museum in the Woolworth and Crockett Buildings. I will be telling the story of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building next week for the Texas Society of Architects, and the National Trust recently published my story/blog about the nearly 3-year long effort.
We have also started working on a White Paper that will tackle the issue of rampant violations of building permits or work done without permits (or beyond the scope of the permit), which I dealt with in my blog last December “Mejor pedir perdon que permiso”. I recently read about a business owner back in Oak Park, Illinois, who totally built a fence around his business without a permit because he didn’t want to wait a couple months for a permit. This kind of knuckle-dragging personality is appearing everywhere and is seemingly emboldened by the dumbing down of the Zeitgeist. On the plus side, it looks like two of the cases that were in my blog last December, at Labor Street and at Florida Street, both in Lavaca, appear to be following the law now! Wow!
And then we have another building that we would just as soon remove, because it should never have been built in the middle of a park back in 1989. This is in Hemisfair, at the crucial juncture between the sparkling new Yanaguana Garden and Tower Park around Tower of the Americas. It is also adjacent to the Confluence Theater/Wood Courthouse, a superior 1968 structure long on our Most Endangered List.
So, the Park Police were supposed to build a new headquarters just north of downtown, but some public official flubbed the land purchase, so the Park Police did what all good government people do, they started looking around for free land in a public park. This is a tactic almost as old as parks, and I can give you two dozen examples of it in Chicago, with the school in the middle of Washington Park being the most egregious.
Turns out it isn’t just the biggest built intrusion into Hemisfair Park that the police want – they also need 300 parking spaces because because. Oh and bulletproof glass because nothing supports the child-friendly Yanaguana garden development like a fortress! We offered a statement opposing the intrusion. It is not far from the Kusch House, recent beneficiary of a high six-figure grant from Bank of America for restoration.
Meanwhile, the Conservation Society nervously awaits the news about the ongoing construction at Alamo, Nueva, and King Philip Streets around Maverick Plaza. We had been planning A Night In Old San Antonio(R) last year without Maverick Plaza, but the construction on the adjacent streets has a much bigger impact on our event, scheduled for April 5-8, 2022.
Now some good news! The City Manager has reorganized and put a new “Transformation Project Division” under Office of Historic Preservation exec Shanon Miller! This includes Hemisfair, La Villita and many other downtown cultural projects. Shanon is an old friend and super competent, so this bodes well! More culture coming soon!
Oh, TPR did this great recording of us sharing the 97 1/2 year history of the Conservation Society!
Well, the parking spaces and bulletproof glass are gone, but it looks like the Park Police will be in that building in Hemisfair. Darn!
Hunka Hunka Burning Landmark
Fires have hit two historic houses in the last couple of weeks and it reminds me of the tragedy of losing landmarks to fire. The first was a stunning Alta Vista bungalow that was NOT occupied. Of course, if you have a building that is not occupied and not secured, it IS occupied by homeless. In winter, fire becomes even more likely.
Indeed, that is what caused the fire at the old Lone Star brewery a year ago. Sadly, this bungalow has not been cared for by the owners. The other fire was next to a landmark, but one man called to say the home had been visited by two presidents, something we are looking into.
Fire, fire, fire. One of the biggest gut punches I ever felt was returning to Chicago from New York in 2006 and seeing the news that Pilgrim Baptist Church had burned – an architectural landmark (originally KAM synagogue) by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler and a cultural icon as the home of gospel music founder Thomas Dorsey.
That year saw two of Louis Sullivan’s buildings burn and another demolished in a perverse and macabre celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. I blogged about it here and witnessed the second fire from the Loop train platform.
The two 2006 Sullivan fires were caused by dodgy tradesmen using torches where they should not have been using torches. Shortcuts. Fauler Mistkerl.
I saw it with an 1830s Greek Revival house in Lockport in 2000 when they used heat guns to strip paint, ignoring the 150 year old newspaper packed into the walls. They went to lunch and it burned down.
Sometimes it is deliberate. Another gut punch was a weekend we took the dog for a walk in Humboldt Park and saw that the stunning 1896 Fromman and Jebsen Stables Building had been torched.
Back here in San Antonio we had that dramatic fire in the historic gas station at Flores, Cevallos and Nogalitos a year ago. Fortunately the walls are still there and there is hope for a rebirth.
Interestingly, that old Pilgrim Baptist Church just got a big stabilization grant to help preserve those surviving walls nearly 15 years after the fire. Where there is a will, there is a way.
AME Church foundation – a discovery and an opportunity
The ongoing San Pedro Creek Cultural Park project has already added a lot to San Antonio, with marvelous public artworks, a pleasant walking path, and lovely plantings, all in the name of flood control.
Last week I participated in a panel discussing a very exciting archaeological discovery – the foundations of an 1875 African Methodist Episcopal Church just across from the Alameda Theater.
The design team had know of the site of the church and planned to interpret it, but they did not expect to find the full 40 by 60 foot foundation of the building, and the original 1875 cornerstone. According to newspapers, a “time capsule” celebrating the event was put into the cornerstone!
I participated in the focus group organized by the San Antonio River Authority because the original design for this section created a semicircular amphitheatre stepping down 6 feet from Camaron Street to the creek. This would eliminate all but the front fourth of the foundation, hence the need for the focus group. We are pushing for more.
In a time when people are marching to redress the injustices done to African-Americans then and now, it is more pressing that we save and interpret this significant historic cultural site in San Antonio. As Everett Fly has said, San Antonio does not have a strong record of preserving African-American history. This remains true in our ongoing efforts to save the Woolworth Building.
The AME Church site is a shining opportunity to conserve and commemorate a vital but underrepresented aspect of San Antonio’s cultural inheritance.
Spanish Governor’s Palace, San Antonio: preserving an interpretation
I am helping the City of San Antonio with a virtual tour of the Spanish Governor’s Palace, which is both the only remaining residential structure of the 18th century city and a fascinating document of how historic preservation was practiced 90 years ago.
When you look at this building, you may think of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and that was a big inspiration. The Santa Fe building was restored right about the time that Adina de Zavala started lobbying for the preservation of this San Antonio building in 1915. By 1930 the city had purchased and restored it and the Conservation Society was operating it.
The building is a rare and singular survivor, but it was never really a palace, and while one Spanish Governor did visit San Antonio in 1720, the building dates to 1722 as the comandancia, or home and office of the military commander of the presidio garrison.
Restored by architect Harvey Smith, he took numerous liberties we would not countenance 90 years later. Despite finding no evidence, he built a fountain and a walled back garden that even he knew never existed because it would convey a romantic sense of refined 18th century life.
This romantic vision of “The Spanish Governor’s Palace” cause Smith to add two rooms that never existed, and interpret other rooms with these elaborate plaques that described a courtly life that also didn’t exist. Each interpretive plaque is then explained by a contemporary plaque below explaining Smith’s romantic embellishments!
Old telephone poles became ceiling beams and old flagstone sidewalks became floors in the restored “Palace” and the whole was filled with period furnishings. The century that the building spent as a tinsmith shop, pawn shop, hide dealer, clothing store and saloon was not interpreted.
This was an era of nostalgic appropriation of historical styles, from the Spanish Colonial to the Georgian, Tudor and Renaissance Revival. This was the time when architect R.H.H. Hugman proposed “The Shops of Aragon and Romula” that would become the San Antonio River Walk.
It was a different aesthetic and a different goal for preservation. Smith did lots of research, but there was precious little to go on for an 18th century building that had been changed a hundred times. No international guidelines for preservation existed yet (they would come in 1932.)
A similar approach was taken by O’Neil Ford when he restored La Villita in 1939-41. There was so little documentary or forensic evidence about the vernacular buildings he was restoring that he simply tried to create “a mood.” Like Smith, he added lots of walls to enhance that mood.
I suppose the goal was to really demonstrate the importance of the historic building by giving it a more glamorous pedigree. There was one reference to a fandango or party in the salon of the Governor’s Palace, so like the 1930s Riverwalk tile mural by Ethel Wilson Harris, a singular incident became a chronic intepretation.
What is really fascinating about the Governor’s Palace – and other sites “restored” in the 1930s is that those acts of poetic license are now themselves historic, and they have added another layer of history.
To me history – basically the same word as “story” – is made richer by more layers of interpretation, by more stories. The primary story you get from the Spanish Governor’s Palace is a sense of 18th century life on the Spanish frontier. But you also learn about the civic life of the 1920s that sought to bolster civic pride with romantic tales of civic origin.
This is the “Child’s Bedroom” that Smith invented out of whole cloth in 1930. His impulse was to illustrate the luxury and gentility of the “Governor’s” lives with some creative construction. Like Adina de Zavala or the Conservation Society at the time, they wanted to glorify their forbears.
My favorite room is the Commander’s Office, not only because it reveals the original rubble stone construction, but because it also reveals the true nature of the building. The Commander used this space to command, but much more to sell household goods and necessities to his soldiers and the general public. Business was so brisk that he added a storeroom behind in the late 18th century, although if you go there today you see religious artifacts and other antiques in vitrine displays.
In the 21st century we understand heritage conservation as more than an architectural design problem, and are careful to find evidence for both the stories we tell and the physical fabric we restore – or choose not to. If somehow this last residential building of the Spanish city had survived until today, it might look very different. It would tell the stories of the presidio commanders with a little less embellishment, focusing perhaps on how the 19th century shops and saloons were a continuation of the comandancia rather than a rejection of it. It would perhaps be called the Presidio Captain’s Residence and it would be without its 1930 additions.
I like telling both stories – the true story of the presidio and its capitans, along with the equally true story of 1920s San Antonians puffing their chests and inflating their history just a bit.
Preservation in Lockdown
It has been over two weeks since The Conservation Society of San Antonio joined the bulk of the world in lockdown (here in San Antonio and Bexar County it is called Stay Home/Work Safe). There are certain things we can do remotely, and fortunately the world of preserving the built environment is still available – all those historic buildings are outside for you to view as you take your essential exercise, walk the dog, or make a rare dash to the store.
Indeed, we are taking the opportunity to share architectural quizzes – each day we show a building detail and people guess which landmark it is from. This has been a fun way to engage our members and supporters.
Emily Morgan hotel, originally Medical Arts Building, Ralph Cameron, 1926.
While it is great we can still appreciate our historic environment, there is also a concern. While many businesses are shut down, one area that is not is construction and contracting. And given that about half of the items we see each month on the Historic and Design Review agenda are for work done without permits, you can expect a significant caseload of “ask forgiveness, not permission” projects going on under quarantine.
It’s usually the windows
Now, there are still city inspectors out there, but if HALF of the permit cases going before the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) are violations, and the city is unable to hold an HDRC meeting for a month, there will definitely be a bunch in the coming months. There are some brazen violators who have even been instructed to do one thing and just willfully ignore the stipulations and do what they originally intended. I think our UDC needs a significant daily fine until the owner follows the law.
Skirting the issue….
Upcoming Events: World Monuments Watch Day!
Join us for these upcoming events celebrating the inclusion of the San Antonio Woolworth Building on the 2020 World Monuments Watch List!
🍩Friday January 17, 2020 🍩
10:30 to Noon – Talk, tour and donuts outside the Woolworth Building, 518 E. Houston Street. Gather next door at Moses Rose’s, 516 E. Houston Street to hear first-person recollections of the early Civil Rights era, the Woolworth’s lunch counter, and its famous potato donuts! Everett Fly will offer a tour of the civil rights sites in Alamo Plaza. We will distribute flyers regarding our official World Monuments Watch Day event January 31-February 1 and pass out free donuts!
🚶♂️Monday, January 20, 2020🚶♂️
10:00 AM – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. March. Join the Coalition for the Woolworth Building as we participate in the nation’s largest Martin Luther King march. Information about the campaign to Save the Woolworth!, an important African-American landmark, will be available in the park following the march.
👀Friday, January 31, 2020👀
3:00 PM – Press Conference featuring World Monuments Fund President Benedicte de Montlaur regarding the San Antonio Woolworth Building’s inclusion on the World Monuments Fund 2020 Watch List for the “underrepresented narrative” of Civil Rights history on Alamo Plaza.
🏛️Saturday, February 1, 2020 🏛️
10:00 AM to 3:00 PM – Symposium: “Integrating History: The Role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights Legacy.” Bexar County Courthouse, double-height courtroom. Scholars of African-American history, architecture and preservation discuss the important legacy of civil rights in the Woolworth Building and throughout Alamo Plaza.
VOLUNTEER: RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 210-224-6163
San Antonio Woolworth on World Monuments Watch List 2020
Notre Dame. Machu Picchu. Easter Island. San Antonio Woolworth. We are in good company.
The Woolworth Building was the heart of the first voluntary and peaceful integration of lunch counters in the South achieved a place on the World Monuments Fund Watch List 2020. #WorldMonumentsWatch
The list includes 25 sites around the world, from more than 20 countries. The San Antonio Woolworth is one of three in the U. S., and one of only seven featured in the World Monuments Fund video of the Watch List.
Why? Because the Woolworth Building in San Antonio tells the story of unique moment during the Sit-In movement when a community decided to integrate before any demonstrations were held. It is a story that Jackie Robinson, in town two days later, said should be told around the world. Today the story is finally being told around the world.
It was another big week for the Woolworth Building, with our prize winning ofrenda to NAACP Youth leader Mary Andrews, who spurred the integration over the weekend and the World Monuments Watch announcement on Tuesday. It was like May when we announced our compromise plan for Alamo Plaza one day and secured State Antiquities Landmark Status a few days later!
Kudos to the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, which includes the local branch of the NAACP, The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, the Westside Preservation Alliance, and many more. You can read about the Coalition here.
November 7 UPDATE: Great coverage from the Toronto Star this week!
Also a nice local TV spot from Kens5.
NOVEMBER 9 UPDATE: Judge Wolff supports the Woolworth and The Conservation Society plan!
NOVEMBER 23 UPDATE: San Antonio Express-News editorial endorses preservation of the Woolworth Building!
NOVEMBER 26 UPDATE: Elaine Ayala writes an open letter to Phil Collins!