Only downtown landmark by a Mexican-American architect to be demolished

April 19, 2024 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 5

San Antonio, Texas has always been a majority Hispanic city, but for most of that history, Mexican-Americans faced legal and cultural discrimination and exclusion. Now, sadly, the only major downtown building designed by a Mexican-American architect is going to be demolished. The University of Texas at San Antonio recently announced its plans to demolish the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building designed for Hemisfair ’68 by William Peña of Caudill, Rowlett and Scott.

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but as smart people know, that is not enough to save it, despite the enticing prospect of 45% investment tax credits (see my recent blog here). The media speculation for the last decade has been that the site is ideal for a new Spurs stadium (Spurs IV – A New Hope) even though it is smaller than their current stadium site by a lot.

The Spurs were asked to meet with the City a year ago, which has fed a bevy of speculative articles over the last year (Pro Tip: Read them carefully and see who is quoted.)

ITC in foreground, Spurs II (Alamodome) in background left.

Who was Willie Peña and why is he the only Mexican-American architect who designed a major building in downtown San Antonio?

Born in Laredo, Peña was a student at Texas A & M when World War II broke out. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and lost a leg, earning both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star medal. The French gave him the Croix de Guerre. Finishing his architecture degree in 1948, he became the first employee of the influential Houston architectural firm Caudill, Rowlett and Scott and became a partner the next year. He became a national pioneer in architectural programming, literally writing the book (Problem Seeking – now in its fifth edition) on it.

William Peña, Courtesy CRS Center, Texas A & M University

Many of our downtown landmarks were designed by Anglo architects like Alfred Giles, James Riely Gordon, Atlee Ayres, Ralph Cameron and O’Neil Ford. The Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta designed the Central Library, and the Conservation Society has honored Humberto Saldaña for his downtown restorations, but there are no downtown buildings designed by a Mexican-American architect except the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures.

So why does UTSA want to tear it down? Probably because it is easier for them. As a unit of the State, they don’t even need to ask for a demolition permit. The demolition is currently scheduled for Summer 2025.

They will need to get the demolition money, which could easily approach the $7 million they have deferred in maintenance on the structure. They plan to move some portion of the collections to the Frost Tower and hope to build a new museum behind the Alamo for $100 million.

That means they need to net over $107 million on the sale of the land, which I suppose is doable for a $1.2 billion stadium.

Casa Navarro

Sadly, the city has a long history of erasing the history of its most numerous population. The famed Laredito neighborhood was destroyed in the 1950s and 60s, and only a last-minute effort by the Conservation Society saved Casa Navarro in 1959. It became a National Historic Landmark in 2017, yet even today Hispanic history and design is referenced in less than 4% of National Register of Historic Places listings, even with the recent inclusion of the Texas Pavilion. In 2014, the first Spanish language TV station – Univision – was demolished downtown.

It is time for this erasure of Latino history to end.

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Early 2024 photos

March 15, 2024 Blog, Historic Districts, Vision and Style Comments (0) 39

Old Naval Hospital, Washington, DC

Just a collection of images from the first 10 weeks of 2024, mostly in San Antonio.

Fachwerkbau details with a bit of Prussian Blue, New Braunfels

Cruise ship in Galveston, January

Addition to historic house, Roosevelt Park neighborhood, San Antonio

Landa Library, Monte Vista, San Antonio (1928)

Fireplace detail, also in Monte Vista

Five O’Clock Tea by Julius Stewartm 1894, San Antonio Museum of Art

The alley buildings of Capitol Hill, Washington, DC.

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San Antonio Roundup February 2024

February 21, 2024 Blog, Texas Comments (0) 43

It is February so the rodeo is in town. Here at The Conservation Society of San Antonio we have been trying to wrangle a month-long move of our offices from one historic building to another. Not easy to do when your organization has been around for 99 years and 11 months and everyone who ever served had their own set of files. It has been much bigger than the last time I blogged about moving, which I think was in 2008 here.

But, the preservation world marches on. In news this week, this lovely 1912-13 Prairie-influenced house got saved again for the second time in a couple years. It was the subject of my blog here in October 2021.

This blog helped save it the first time, because May Chu read the blog and wanted to save the building, as did local chef Andrew Weissman. The two teamed up and bought it in 2022 and made plans for a wine bar. They got the zoning change and it was landmarked as well, but then I brought the Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to see it in early 2023 and it had been vandalized.

Then the building was put back on the market and May Chu even called to say she was sorry. Fortunately, Chad Carey and Ed Byrne bought it recently and are following through on the zoning change and landmarking. It is right across the street from the really over-the-top Koehler mansion, which is also becoming a venue thanks to Weston Urban.

Meanwhile, the Alamo is a larger construction site than ever, with the Cenotaph scaffolded, the vast majority of the plaza fenced off (with very serious fences) and – good news – scaffolding going up on the Woolworth Building, which is now saved and will be home to both the Alamo Museum and the Civil Rights exhibit where the famous lunch counter stood.

And today the scrim on the scaffold has an image of the building!

More to come once we extricate ourselves from these boxes

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Brackenridge Park

January 18, 2024 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 80

I have been on the Brackenridge Park Stakeholders Advisory Committee for the last half year and was one of the facilitators at the public hearing January 8 which drew some 114 people for two hours of discussing what Guiding Principles should be used for evaluating future projects in Brackenridge Park. We will be having another public meeting January 30 where we will share the revised criteria. There is also an online survey you can fill out before then here.

Urban parks have inherently competing interests within them. They are designed to preserve and promote nature. They are also designed to promote recreation. Those two elements can be at odds. They are home to wildlife, but also part of human life and again, those two uses will be in conflict at times. The Guiding Principles are designed to help negotiate these inherent conflicts. Here is what I said at the meeting, according to the San Antonio Express-News: “When you are dealing with a place where people are doing things, and there’s also nature and wildlife, there will always be conflicts at some point. So, respect for compromise is one of our guiding principles.”

Here is a bird eating a fish in Brackenridge Park recently, so we have those conflicts as well.

Brackenridge Park is kind of unique. The Brackenridge Park Conservancy (founded by the Conservation Society of San Antonio in 2009) did a Cultural Landscape Report for the park a little over a year ago. See, unlike most parks – Central Park in Manhattan, or Jackson Park in Chicago – the park was not undevelopable land that was transformed by a landscape architect into a community amenity. That is how most urban parks are formed.

Central Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted AFTER he visited San Antonio.

Brackenridge Park is actually a natural area near the source of the San Antonio river that was preserved as a park. The largest part of it was donated to the city by George Washington Brackenridge in 1899. He owned it because he owned the first public water system in town, so it is kind of a real estate development story, but it is still unlike most urban parks in that many elements of the landscape are NOT designed.

The 1877 Pump House in Brackenridge Park, built for the first public water system.

Consequently, the Cultural Landscape Report and our Guiding Principles include reference to 12,000 years of human interaction with the park, long before it became part of New Spain. One of the reasons we are in this whole community process was the strong reaction to proposed tree cutting by citizens concerned with both the environment and traditional spiritual practices of indigenous people. I covered the tree issue, and my own participation in traditional cultural practice regarding trees here last year.

View from the river to the golf course. Like many urban park golf courses, it is one of the oldest in the area.

So, unlike most urban parks, there are portions of Brackenridge Park that are arguably “wilderness”. “Wilderness” is where both natural area conservation and historic preservation began 150 years ago.

Here. Well, also Yellowstone. 1872.

Today the wilderness model of natural area conservation is as outdated as the house museum model in historic preservation. Over a decade ago the two started coming together to create a new, more practical and less Puritanical approach to conservation as a whole, as I described here in 2013.

Goats in Brackenridge Park in 2023 to help clear undergrowth. Sheep – designed to eat grass and thus “mow” the lawn areas, were part of the original 19th century design of many large Chicago parks.

Brackenridge Park not only has 12,000 years of human history, but a lot of interesting cultural practices as well, such as Easter weekend, when many many families camp out in the park for three days.

So the whole exercise is setting up principles and criteria to help negotiate between natural, cultural and other environmental wants and needs. As I explained at the opening of the public meeting, these goals will be in conflict and the principles and criteria are a way to balance their competing interests.

Well, that is a lovely waterfall! But unlike some parts of the park, there is nothing natural about it. This is an industrial site – a quarry – that was transformed into a Japanese garden over a century ago. This part of Brackenridge Park was designed, and it was an adaptive re-use of an abandoned industrial quarry. Heck, there are even lime kilns surviving from when the dimension stone gave way to gravel.

The Japanese Tea Garden is one of the highlights of San Antonio I always bring visitors to see. I am a frequent user of the park and my bike rides through it at least once a week offer a variety of natural and cultural highlights. We begin coming up the concrete ditch along Avenue A next to the golf course, which again is not a very natural landscape.

We continue across the Mulberry bridge and past the Witte museum. Last year the egrets had taken over the next section of trees to the level of public health hazard.

We then stop to enjoy the river flowing over the Low Water Crossing, built in 1937 for automobiles to get from one side of the park to the other. Probably not ideal for water quality to have cars splashing through there, and it hasn’t been allowed in some years. We will often see the Zoo mini train in the distance at this point.

We then follow the river south through a portion of the park that is undesigned save for picnic tables and walkways and a road. In addition to dog walkers and picnickers we occasionally see trapeze artists and jugglers in a small meadow as we near Mulberry Avenue again.

We follow the river south of Mulberry along Avenue B between the golf course and the River Road neighborhood until we come to another 1937 crossing, scheduled to be replaced. Here the artificial waterfall attracts migratory waterfowl.

Soon we are back in the neighborhood reveling in the aftermath of the forest bath and commenting on what we may have seen – tents, jugglers, low riders, family picnics, fishers and historic buildings. It is a swirl of competing uses that is richer for its complexities and contradictions. One of the participants in the January 8 public meeting said, we should maintain the “romantic and quirky” character of the park.

Joske pavilion, 1920s.

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“A Little Learning…

December 29, 2023 Blog, Economics, Texas Comments (1) 172

is a dangerous thing” said Alexander Pope, and he recommended going whole hog (until Alps on Alps arise) or abstaining. Heritage conservation/Historic preservation is a specialized field, and like many specialized fields, the wider world has misapprehensions or misunderstandings about it. We can try to impart a little learning. There are pitfalls though, because misapprehension often rings truer than fact.

A case in point is the National Register of Historic Places. Its name is often misapprehended as “The National Registry” just because that sounds, well, classier. When a building, site, district or structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places that means it can’t be torn down, right?

Wrong. Also, Wrong. And Wrong again. The list has been around since 1966 and provides no protection against demolition. It DOES provide a review process that MIGHT make demolition less likely, but that is only if it is literally a federal case. It is kept by the Secretary of the Interior, who will have no idea if anyone is going to tear it down unless a federal agency tells the Secretary they are going to. And they can still tear it down, but only after going through the process.

310 W Polk, Chicago, demolished 1991 by the Postal Service because they knew that the National Register doesn’t prevent demolition.

Now, you can explain that time and time again, but it won’t stick, because the misapprehension is so much more plausible. That’s what it SHOULD mean, right? What really amazes me is that people in high positions dealing with real estate and so forth not only don’t get this, but they suspect there is some weird detail of the National Register that is going to somehow – magically – thwart them. Because it is a specialized field. Fear is always based on lack of knowledge.

Even though the National Register can’t prevent anyone from tearing down anything (there I said it again, but you still don’t believe it, right?) it can provide – since 1976 – preservation tax incentives that can be used to restore the resource. Part of the reason we have so many buildings on the National Register is that real estate developers put them there in order to get a 20% investment tax credit. $2 million off your taxes for a $10 million rehab. Not bad.

But wait, there’s more! In Texas, you can get an additional 25% tax credit ON TOP of the federal one, so your $10 million rehab only costs you $5.5 million. Or, in the case of the St. Anthony above, more than $24 million in tax credits. So who wouldn’t want the National Register – it can finance your rehab or, you can ignore it and tear it down! No downside, right?

Another historic tax credit project, right across the street.

And another, across the street again. Not rocket science.

No downside unless you are a victim of misapprehension, or magical thinking. Case in point: the Conservation Society of San Antonio has nominated of the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building (1968, Caudill, Rowlett & Scott) to the National Register of Historic Places. Its owner, the University of Texas at San Antonio, is going to oppose the nomination because they want to “monetize the site.”

Okay. Site. Money. Weren’t we just talking about a tax incentives worth 45% of rehab cost? That would be an attraction to someone buying it. BUT, they assume it will be torn down so Spurs Stadium IV (A New Hope) can be built on a smaller site than the Spurs II and III. So? You are the UT System, you can do what you want. In fact, the State and the UT system don’t even have to ask the city for a demolition permit like the rest of us.

As they proved with the Sutton Building in 2019.

So why would you oppose National Register listing if it adds potential incentives and doesn’t prevent demolition? How could you be so powerful and not understand your power? You don’t quite believe that truth because it doesn’t feel true – this is the National Registry (sic) after all!

Civilization and the current moment are saturated with people following courses of action that contradict their fiduciary responsibilities because they have a better storyline. This National Register thing has got to be a big green dragon – it can’t be as innocuous as they say, right?

Oh look, another historic tax credit project!

A good storyline beats the bottom line any day.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

JANUARY UPDATE: We got a unanimous vote from the State Review Board so now it is up to the State Historic Preservation Office to forward the nomination to the Keeper of the National Register (or not). We had 9 speakers in favor at the hearing in Galveston and they also received 47 letters of support and many more online expressions of support. UTSA provided the sole opposition to the listing.

FEBRUARY UPDATE: University of Texas Board of Regents voted in secret to either lease or sell the ITC to the City for a new Spurs arena. No one is talking, though.

The Spurs probably have enough tax liability that they could use the historic preservation tax credits themselves, avoiding a syndication!

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Selling House Museums

December 14, 2023 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums Comments (0) 130

The Historic Charleston Foundation has decided to sell the 1808 Nathaniel Russell House, which the Foundation has owned and operated as a house museum since 1955. The news has sparked a backlash from those who want it to stay open to the public. Yet many, including house museum expert Donna Harris, have lauded the Foundation’s decision as a way to bring preservation into the 21st century.

I get it. Last year the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation sold the 1876 Steves Homestead, which it had owned for 70 years and operated as a house museum. As we removed furniture from the house, someone asked if I was sad that it would not be open to the public. I said: “No, my goal is to preserve buildings. Will it be preserved better by having four people live in it or having 40,000 people tromp through it each year?”

Unlike the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Conservation Society Foundation did not decide to market the house museum we sold. We responded to an unsolicited offer and now it is being returned to its original use as a home. That is in line with #1 of the 10 Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which states that a building should be used for its original purpose. No house museum can, by definition, meet this standard.

That bit of petty legalism aside, it is important to remember the basic facts of house museums over the last twelve decades. First, they lose money. Typically, visitation can cover no more than 20-25% of operating costs. That was true in 1910 and 1930 and 1950 and 1980 and it is still true. William Sumner Appleton was subsidizing 80% of his house museum costs in the 1920s. The Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings – also in Charleston – learned the pitfalls of the house museum solution in the 1920s and 30s when they bought and saved the Manigault House three times. That’s why Charleston created the first historic district in the United States – because house museums don’t work.

The house museums that thrive make up that 75% operating deficit one of three ways:

  1. An endowment (Glass House, Gaylord Building, Villa Finale)
  2. Very high ticket price (Biltmore, Taliesin)
  3. A gift shop/merch operation that can add a $35 book or handkerchief to every $12 ticket (Frank Lloyd Wright sites).

For the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation, which has almost a century of its own history to look back upon, we can see that our mission – saving buildings – is not best served by owning everything. We bought Casa Navarro in 1959 and sold it to the state in 1974. We bought the Aztec Theatre in 1988 and sold it to a private owner in 1993. We have bought another dozen buildings in the heart of San Antonio and turned them over to forever owners with a preservation easement on each to insure their long-term conservation. That’s how you do it.

I served many years as Vice Chair of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Sites Committee. The Trust was created by Congress in 1949 to receive house museums. But by the early 2000s it was already clear that the house museum model was not functional, as I blogged about in 2008 and 2012. When Stephanie Meeks became National Trust CEO her first question to me was “Would you ever consider selling one of our historic sites?” and my answer was “In a New York minute, if it was better for the preservation of the building.”

Cooper-Molera Adobe, Monterey, California. One of the National Trust Sites we helped evolve from traditional house museum. I blogged about it in 2011 and then again in 2013. 95% of preservation is adaptive re-use and as that 2013 blog explains, new productive uses do not necessarily impede the learning mission of a site. In fact, they can enhance it and bring it to more people.

To quote from my own blog ten years ago: “The only way to preserve something over the long term is to make it useful and productive for its community. Then the community will preserve it sustainably over the long term. There is no amount of money that can save a building forever – none, even if you put it indoors somehow and encase it in amber. Everything deteriorates. The only way to truly save something is to make it vital and central to enough people that they will keep investing in it forever.”

JANUARY UPDATE: Well, the backlash was so strong that HCF reversed its decision. Enough people showed up with enough “investment” of one kind or another.

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Brutal Choices, or, running away to join the circus?

October 31, 2023 Blog, Economics, History, Texas Comments (1) 124

For the first time in six years, the University of Texas at San Antonio revealed what it really wants to do with the Institute of Texan Cultures, which was radically defunded a few years ago and is a shell of its former self. Located in the 1968 Texas pavilion from Hemisfair, designed by Caudill, Rowlett and Scott, the Brutalist building is now in the position of being “monetized” by its owner.

Last Friday UTSA announced that they would be evaluating a series of potential sites to move the museum exhibits and presumably the archives of the ITC. The archives included the largest historic photographic collection in the city, with over 3 million images. They also include a massive amount of architectural drawings and a lot of historic artifacts. The permanent exhibits on dozens of cultures that contributed to the creation of modern Texas were a prize project of state government, which still allocates a $1 million per year to the museum. Despite that provision, the museum has been underfunded for more than six years.

Folklife Festival 2019. Most of the historic buildings on “The Back 40” are not actual antiques.

“Monetizing” the 14 acres that include the Texas Pavilion building will not be simple. There is a lot of concrete and who knows what other lovely 1968 materials to transfer into other parts of our biome, and given the Brutalist architecture, that will be a significant discount to the monetization. Interestingly, UTSA released some statistics about how much money they will lose if they stay in their current location versus moving into a new facility behind the Alamo. They actually lose money in both scenarios, but they lose LESS behind the Alamo.

I did dissect the fallacy of the rehabilitation cost argument nearly a year ago in this blog. Basically, a big building needs to be treated like a city block, not like a house. You don’t rehab it all in one go – you spread it out and let the market develop organically. But, most folks generally don’t have that patience.

The more curious preference UTSA described in their article (and it is theirs – no byline) yesterday is their preferred site. So, the scenario for the last couple of years has been that they are analyzing three scenarios – stay where they are; move to another location in Hemisfair Park, or move to another location entirely. Now, it would make sense if that other location were on one of the UTSA campuses, ideally the one on the west side of downtown. So I can’t figure why they said they preferred the “Crockett lot,” a parking lot next to the Crockett Hotel just behind the Alamo.

If you haven’t been to Alamo Plaza lately, you should go, because they have added a lot of stuff – an “interpretation” of the South Gate (1724-1871) and Lunette (1835-36) added this year following the re-creation of the palisade (1836) and Southwest Rampart (1740-1836) and a fair amount of cannon. There is also the red information booth that moves around the plaza and the various statues of defenders that are sometimes in the plaza and sometimes back in the garden.

Interestingly, the “Crockett lot” was one of the locations the City proposed for the “Entertainment Zone.” You see, back in 2014-2018, part of the goal was to move the sensationalist/tacky amusements out of Alamo Plaza to reclaim a sense of “reverence.” You can judge for yourself whether the many recent installations are succeeding at that. But the Entertainment Zone land is still there.

Recent photo – you can see the green neon of “Crockett Hotel” just to the right of the Alamo chapel.

So why does UTSA prefer behind the Alamo for ITC? Certainly they will get more foot traffic than they do in Hemisfair. Still it is an odd preference, given that UTSA has simultaneously announced the re-integration of the ITC into the academic and library program. Why isn’t it on campus, especially since that campus now includes buildings on the San Pedro Creek Culture Park? That seems like better synergy. Perhaps the public outreach and the research archives will be in different places?

The Conservation Society and others will be promoting the re-use of the building. If it receives its National Register of Historic Places status on January 13 in Galveston it will be eligible for 20% federal investment tax credits for historic rehab and 25% Texas historic tax credits, meaning a $100 million rehab only costs $55 million. Stay tuned!

NOVEMBER 5 UPDATE, OR

DO YOU WANT FRIES WITH THAT NOTHINGBURGER?

The Sunday Express-News headline was Exclusive: Hemisfair emerges as possible site for new Spurs arena followed by another sourceless, breathless screed of “likely” and “appears” without any actual quotes from the Spurs or the city or the county. We went through this in August, when newspapers cost less. Still trying to find a scrap of something real here, folks.

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San Antonio Update September 2023

September 22, 2023 Blog, Global Heritage, Intangible Heritage, Texas Comments (0) 137

Here is the Sommers saloon as it looked 2 months ago, then a month ago, and now.

Which is sad, and saving the stones is not true preservation. But it is puro San Antonio, because this is a place where preservation of something is the first thought, even if that is preservation by relocation or reconstitution. You can argue that those are not true preservation solutions, and you would be right. But in this city, landfill is never the first option. The plan is to have some of the best architects in town re-use the old limestone and caliche for a new development.

I continue to worry about the Hughes House, 312 W Courtland. We worked to save it and found two willing buyers a year ago. They did landmark it and get a zoning change for a wine bar, but vandals/obdachlos broke in last winter and now it is for sale again. In addition to its architectural beauty, it was the home of Russell Hughes, known as La Meri, whose dance was internationally known.

This is when 503 Urban Loop burned in February 2022 on the coldest night of the year. The building was a very famous brothel and then spent a century as Catholic institutions helping women and children in the impoverished Laredito district of San Antonio. We worked with Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and Westside Preservation Alliance to landmark it and were delayed again and again until it burned. Now, the purported developer of an 8-story building there is selling the site. The landmarking process is supposed to insure three things:

  1. Archaeological investigation of whole site
  2. Preservation of any items recovered at a local museum
  3. Permanent interpretation visible from the public ROW.

Will they do it? And who is they? The new owners or the ones when it was burning? Stay tuned!

To address the surfeit of accidentally burned buildings, the City Council yesterday expanded the Vacant Building program beyond historic districts and upped the fines to $500 a day. Now maybe those Austin developers will modify their tactics. But there is still a lot of charcoal in the landscape.

Much of the carnage happens in the area just north of downtown and west of the Pearl, including the Tobin Hill Historic District. Basically everything not in that district is a candidate for demolition. The latest attempt is an interesting ensemble of five Victorian buildings that feels like a little historic district. The trick is that only two are landmarked. Can you guess which?

If you guessed Numbers 1 and 3 you are right! But they really do look like a district. Let me show you the rear building that they also want to demolish.

So this is another interesting development strategy. Pick off the buildings one by one, so that the context is diminished and you can start arguing that there is no “there” there.

I think the Folk Victorians at Number 1 (210 Lewis – not landmarked and slated for demolition!) and Number 2 (215 Poplar, landmarked) are pretty cool, and 225 Poplar (not landmarked) has that impressive double porch with Classical details. Again – stay tuned!

It will be a busy fall – November 1-3 we are having a World Heritage Symposium which will not only recall our status as one of only 25 World Heritage sites in the US, but also recall the UNESCO San Antonio Declaration of 1996, which was the Americas’ response to the Nara document on Authenticity in 1994. Together these statements led to the community- and culture-focused approach to heritage conservation that has characterized all the advances in our field in the 21st century. It is called Affirming Cultural Identity: World Heritage in the 21st century (nice title if I do say so myself).

Read about it here!

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San Antonio Update June 2023

June 15, 2023 Blog, Historic Districts, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 197

I would always tell my students that you don’t save buildings once. You have to do it again and again. Back in the 1980s and 90s when I worked for Landmarks Illinois (it had a longer name then) we helped save the Hotel St. Benedict Flats (James Egan, 1882) four times in six years – with a National Register nomination, appeals to zoning changes, and finally a landmark designation followed by a phone call from a developer who ended up buying and restoring it using the historic tax credits and an easement donation.

Last year here at the Conservation Society of San Antonio, we lobbied San Antonio College and the Archdiocese – then the owner – to offer the building for sale. We collaborated with the Tobin Hill neighborhood group and even with this blog, which led to two persons purchasing the building for rehabilitation as a wine bar. You can see my blogs on it here and here. Now, a year later, it needs to be saved again as the owners have put it up for sale following a little rehab and some damage from intruders.

I actually discovered that people had broken in back in February when I was taking Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Chair Sarah Bronin on whirlwind tour of San Antonio preservation. I immediately alerted one of the owners, but some damage had been done and now there is a protective fence and several boarded up windows.

Damage does not always mean the end of an historic landmark, and at least the Hughes House was officially landmarked by the City Council in the interim. It also got a zoning change for the wine bar, no mean feat given its location near schools and houses of worship. Still, the process starts again, the building is a bit banged up and the future is uncertain….

In other news, a landmark I drive past every day had a fire recently, again courtesy of the obdachlos, who also tried to block firefighters from responding. Fortunately the firefighters succeeded and only a portion of the rear of the house was damaged. We were interviewed by a tv station about the house, since it is a Texas Historical Landmark and associated with Venustiano Carranza, one of the big four of the Mexican Revolution along with Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Carranza was President for most of 1915-20 (and actually got rid of Zapata). The house was built by his niece 1913-14. Both Madero and Carranza spent significant time in San Antonio early in the decade, although the houses they visited before 1913 are all demolished now. There is a statue of Madero on the River Walk near King William. So the Carranza house is our only physical connection to this history.

Fortunately the house has been secured, but thanks to the KSAT reporters, we learned that there is another building associated with this important chapter in San Antonio history, and it is right across the street. And it is being rehabbed. Now we have two buildings, whose history is intertwined!

Turns out this simple industrial structure was the publication site of La Prensa, an important Spanish language newspaper in San Antonio for a century. La Prensa was front and center during the Mexican Revolution, and having it right across the street doubles down on the value of this landmark. Here are two buildings that hosted important visitors central to a defining moment in Mexican history. They had discussions and strategized here, and the press put their words into action.

If these walls could talk……. The good news is the building is secured, so perhaps it will not suffer the fate of so many others – perhaps a dozen a year – lost to demolition by neglect.

The issue raises the larger question of why the city can’t do more to prevent the loss of vacant buildings, especially since San Antonio passed a Vacant Building Ordinance nearly a decade ago. According to KSAT News, over 250 vacant historic buildings exist in the city, and we have certainly seen many of them succumb to fire after squatters take up residence. We had the sad story of 503 Urban Loop last year, the Lone Star Brewery before that. Heck, 800 W. Russell in my neighborhood (pictured above) burned twice. Like many of the others, the owners were neither local nor attentive.

Above: Site of 212 W. Dewey owned by an Austin developer who bought like 8 houses in the Tobin Hill area which are all subject to demolition by neglect. This neglect is not a lack of capital or supply chains or anything – it is a business model, one that harms neighborhoods.

So why doesn’t the Vacant Building ordinance solve the problem? Representatives of historic neighborhoods have been asking the city that very question in recent days. If neighborhoods alert the Office of Historic Preservation about a vacant building and get it on the Vacant Building list, shouldn’t Development Services be enforcing code violations? Or, is it because it is on the list that everyone thinks someone else is taking care of it? Stay tuned!

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Trees

April 20, 2023 China Preservation, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Sustainability Comments (0) 217

The other night at the Beethoven Männerchor Halle und Garten the choir came out to read a poem in German and English and sing briefly to a tree. The large pecan tree will be cut down on Friday because it is cracked and a hazard. Meanwhile, a major project for Brackenridge Park was heard by the Historic and Design Review Commission following a couple of years of protests to “Stop the Chop” of older trees in the park. While the number of trees to be cut down has been halved since the protest began, the protestors remain at full strength and more than two dozen crammed the hearing room.

Why do trees have this power over people? They lie at the center of most religious traditions, not just the Germanic ones. There are sacred trees throughout Asia and Africa. Trees are oracles, places to expiate illness or sin, gods and goddesses and even human souls. You would find a similar spoken homage to the tree about to be cut along the Irrawaddy River as we saw last night along the San Antonio River. And one protestor at the hearing interrupted with “they are sacred,” voicing a human perception that dates back tens of thousands of years.

Not technically a tree but a centuries-old camelia flower, Weiboashan, Yunnan, China.

No wonder it has always been easier to landmark trees than buildings, such as I often experienced in China, where trees were tagged red and green for how old they were and more zealously preserved than any building. Same in the U.S. where real estate developers are only happy to tell you they will save trees on the site but the buildings have to go.

I am also reminded of the pisog trees of Ireland, where ribbons, articles of clothing, glasses or other objects are tied to a tree as a prayer for healing. This is also found in many other cultures, for examples Arab folklore and Greek mythology.

So is it the religious associations, the idea of a world tree, or the idea of human transference into and out of trees that causes this level of worship and attachment? Perhaps it is simply the basic environmental impulse, the mythology of the Avatar movies. Trees symbolize our entire environment, tended by avatars of our better selves, wrapped in a harmony myth.

Naiju tree gods, Ise, Japan, 2004.

Trees were symbolic to ancient Egyptians and African farmers. They are pretty darn near universal, on par with kittens and puppies. Like kittens and puppies, they symbolize “nature” but are generally farmed and thus a part of human culture. In parks especially the vast majority of trees were planted. The goal of great landscape designers was to make these places feel that they were natural even though they were designed. Parks are designed just like a Shinto temple or the Parthenon, but we tend to categorize them as “nature” because they are alive. And of course, trees breed new trees which are unplanned – like the ones now subject to removal in Brackenridge Park. Volunteers, they are called.

Framed. Farmed. Symbolic.

Frederick Law Olmsted designed the landscape above in great detail. He curated our experience and manipulated our views. Brackenridge Park was similarly designed, and the pecan tree at the Beethoven was curated and planted in the early 20th century. Yet unlike other human designs, these living things embody a mythology and passion that buildings do not.

Mural at Weibaoshan, Yunnan “Dancing under the Pine Trees”

There are of course natural areas, some great forests where the trees aren’t farmed. Occasionally burned, yes. And yes, the indigenous like the Ohlone would burn other species to focus on the oak.

Note how the forest burned here in modern times is described: “fuels had been building up for 117 years”. That is because normally (whatever that means) fires occurred every 8-10 years. Tree lovers tap into a long human tradition of tree worship, but there is an equally long human tradition of tree farming. The advocacy arguments are made in moral terms, but the moral realities are ambiguous. We have a preference for human-designed species, like dogs and cats, and we have made similar selections of our arboreal friends.

No one designs trees like the Japanese.

What I used to call “weed trees” up North are called “trash trees” here, but in either appellation the hate is great and the implication is that we humans did not design these trees into our environment. They were, as we say, “volunteers.” The lack architectural or historical value. We tend to curate our trees as we curate our cats and dogs.

I guess the Chinese crested is considered uglier than the Mexican hairless. This one is Peruvian.

Kittens, puppies, trees. In Brackenridge Park they have signs warning against the dumping of animals. They also have had a massive feral cat problem slowly being solved by humane spaying. Feral. That’s what you call your designed creatures when they escape the farm.

Christmas Tree farm, Los Gatos, California, ten years ago.

But why the zero-tolerance policy? That’s what I don’t get. Not a single speaker who protested last night admitted to the need to remove even one tree. Maybe that would violate the moral imperative. All or nothing. Asceticism. Not my vibe – heck I compromise on historic buildings all the time.

They were concerned about moving a large old live oak. I was not concerned about moving this 1880 limestone house across the street and rotating it 90 degrees. I’m crap at asceticism.

I sang the revised lyrics of Der Lindebaum to our Beethoven tree the other night and I will happily sing it to those park trees that are being removed because they are breaking down walls and threatening historic buildings. I can’t make more historic buildings.

Oldest industrial building in San Antonio. Note the volunteer trees, which are younger than me.

My students always chided me for handing out thick reams of readings and assignments, telling me I was “killing trees”. The implication was that I should do things digitally and save trees. My response? “I can plant more trees. I can’t plant the coal, uranium and lithium powering your digital device.” *

We planted all of these trees. You wait 20 years and there they are. I remember when the river birch on the right was in the back seat of the car.

Man kann den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen

  • – I guess the proponents would imbue each tree with its own identity and personality, be it volunteer, trash, designed, or sculpted. They might say we can always build more houses, and just to add a layer of overlapping irony, I would respond that the new houses won’t be made of old growth wood, which is straighter, denser, and more disease-resistant than any modern farmed wood. So, there is that.

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