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.
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.
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.
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….
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 email@example.com or call 210-224-6163
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 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!
This weekend there is an ofrenda honoring the life of Mary Lilian Andrews, the 17-year old Our Lady of the Lake student and youth NAACP President who spurred the integration of lunch counters in San Antonio. Just a month after the first sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, she wrote to seven downtown lunch counters urging integration.
A mass meeting was held a week later and demonstrations planned for Thursday, March 17. City, business and religious leaders got together on Tuesday and the lunch counters were integrated Wednesday without incident. Two days later Jackie Robinson spoke at La Villita and compared San Antonio’s achievement to his integration of Major League Baseball.
In a Page 1 New York Times article on March 20, 1960, Robinson said what San Antonio did was a “story that should be told around the world.” For her part, Mary Andrews was photographed getting a Coke at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in the March 31, 1960 issue of Jet magazine.
Mary Andrews sadly passed away 20 years ago but the Coalition for the Woolworth Building worked with her family to develop the ofrenda, aided by artist Chris King and spearheaded by Beth Standifird of the Conservation Society of San Antonio. Even her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority contributed.
The top of the ofrenda is designed to mimic the cornice of the famed 1921 Woolworth Building, which became a State Antiquities Landmark in May.
Papel picado banners down the side spell out “Civil Rights”.
The front of the ofrenda is designed like the Woolworth lunch counter, complete with salt and pepper shakers, Woolworth’s menu and representations of the legendary Woolworth’s donuts. The “Woolworth’s” legend on the sidewalk at the entrance (still visible on Houston Street) forms a floor in front of the altar.
Mary’s other passions, from piano to Ford Mustangs, are also represented, along with a multitude of flowers and lights.
Placemats with calaveras quote the letter Mary wrote to the lunch counters nearly 60 years ago.
Members of the Coalition and the local branch of the NAACP will be on hand today to answer questions about Mary. We are located right on Alamo Street south of Nueva right at the entrance to the Muertos Fest.
Please come visit during the free festival this weekend and vote for our ofrenda!
For more about the Woolworth Building effort, see The Conservation Society website here!
SUNDAY NIGHT UPDATE: Our ofrenda won second place!
YEAR LATER UPDATE: It’s Mary’s birthday and we memorialized her on our webpage here.
It’s July in San Antonio, which means it is probably hot and it is definitely time to demolish landmark buildings. In addition to the unexpected demolition of the G.J. Sutton Building which began last week without an alibi, this week we are also witnessing the needless removal of two homes on Evergreen near Tobin Hill that are going to be replaced by nine units. (Nine? You have two buildings PLUS a vacant lot and you can’t manage nine units by rehabbing? What development school did you go to?)
To add a heaping schlag of cruelty to this demolition sachertorte, they have little kids cheering the demolition of the 1915 Beacon Hill School. Sad. The School District promised to rehab the building three decades ago, let it rot that whole time, and then manipulated schoolchildren and their parents into calling for its demolition by putting up an unnecessary fence and pretending the building was a hazard to the nearby playground.
In another era, that would be called lying. Anyway, there were the kids in cute little hardhats, egging on the claws and dumptrucks and firehoses.
Who is responsible? The Sutton Building was a State decision that excluded the City. Evergreen and Beacon Hill were City Council decisions, and Almaguer was a Historic and Design Review decision. Meanwhile, check out this heat map showing demolitions near the Tobin Hill and Monte Vista historic districts.
So, come to San Antonio in the summer! Where else can you get so many different and delightful demolitions going on at the same time? The sun might feel hot but we got lots of fire hoses running round the clock!
I was quoted in the news several times this week, thanks to the sudden demolition of the 1912 G.J. Sutton Building on the East Side, as well as the unanimous vote to demolish the 1958 Almaguer Dance Studio at Woodlawn Lake. Both cases were exercises in Bad Excuses.
The Sutton Building demolition began suddenly and without warning. In fact, when a community member emailed us Tuesday afternoon saying it was being demolished, we prepared to forward a news article from the weekend that indicated it would be rehabilitated. But, by then, several news reporters had discovered that the opposite was true.
The building is owned by the State of Texas, specifically the Texas Facilities Commission. After rejecting several bids from developers who would have saved the solid brick structure, they decided to proceed with remediation and demolition. The state does not even have to get local demolition permits, so there was no warning. Not even the local officials elected to represent the interests of the East Side knew. There were, however, Bad Excuses.
The worst of the Bad Excuses was the kind of bureaucratic insanity that makes people want to get rid of government. Remember I said there were bids from developers who would have saved the property? Well, the Texas Facilities Commission can’t do residential, and the three bids (18 months ago) included developing residential uses.
That’s nuts. Transfer the property to another agency. Sell it to the city. Sell it to the developer without a plan. Change whatever regulation caused that. This building served as an industrial site before G.J. Sutton, the first black Texas legislator from San Antonio, championed its transformation into a state office building. Why can’t its next reuse include residential?
The Bad Excuses continued with the familiar environmental shibboleths of lead paint and asbestos and even mercury switches to make it a perfect trifecta. I wrote about these bad excuses nine years ago here. Simply put, the more you demolish, the more you have to remediate.
Not only that, but the state is paying millions to do the abatement and demolition rather than putting those expenses on the final buyer, an expensive decision County Commissioner Tommy Calvert questioned in an article Tuesday.
And then there is everyone’s favorite Bad Excuse: It’s too expensive. Huh? The private developers (more than one!) who bid on the site could have taken advantage of state and federal tax incentives totaling 45% of rehab costs. This Bad Excuse is usually accompanied by numbers that show how expensive it would be to rehabilitate. To be safe, you should always go with $300 a square foot. That’s what you tell the engineers when you hire them.
Heck, you don’t even need to get an official report. It is 2019 after all, so evidence is hardly necessary – just make the claim. That’s what happened with the 1958 Almaguer Dance Studio, which the Historic and Design Review Commission voted to demolish on Wednesday. We met with the Parks Department about their demolition plan months ago and they showed pictures of cracks and leaks.
Well, you can do that with any building. It is a Bad Excuse. We told them at the time we have seen many worse buildings brought back. We wanted to see actual evidence, but none was forthcoming. It obviously was a safe and sound building hosting dozens of classes where people dance about.
The decision ultimately turned on the desire for upgraded dance studios with sprung floors and a new community center. That was translated into “unreasonable economic hardship” during the hearing, which is another Bad Excuse. There is actually a standard for this – “reasonable rate of return” which doesn’t really apply to public entities.
So, this week, the tale of two governments who tore down landmarks while serving up nearly the full portfolio of Bad Excuses. Retain for future reference.
“The U.S. Civil Rights Trail was designed to motivate people to learn more, see more and feel more. The website can tell the stories, but the emotional weight of those stories cannot be fully absorbed without standing in the exact spots where sacrifices were made and the direction of history was changed.”
The Civil Rights Trail combines sites that have been significant in the battle for Civil Rights, especially the 1950s and 1960s. Launched in January, 2018, the Trail includes over 100 sites in 14 states. Given the incredible popular success of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and the fact that Civil Rights tourism is a growth sector demanding honest history, the identification and interpretation of such sites promises to be an economic boon to communities where these resources are located.
In San Antonio, we have the story of the first voluntary and peaceful integration of a Woolworth’s lunch counter on March 16, 1960, a story that Jackie Robinson said “should be told around the world.” He was quoted in the New York Times on March 20, 1960, but the story did not have the “legs” of the more confrontational protests in other cities.
In addition to Woolworth’s the sites of the Kress, H.L. Green, Grant’s, Sommers and Neisner’s stores survive, sans lunch counters. The beginnings of a Civil Rights trail are right in front of us, although the concern is that at least two of these could disappear soon.
Thanks to local landscape architect and historian Everett Fly, more overlooked sites in San Antonio are now being uncovered. You could see markers for the Rincon School near the River Walk, but Fly’s work has really illuminated the importance of downtown – notably Alamo Plaza, in a struggle for equal rights that goes back to the early 1880s.
The challenge now is to bundle these sites – and many more, into a package that can attract tourist investment. In San Antonio we already have the largest Martin Luther King Day march, active contingents of Buffalo Soldier interpreters, and Everett Fly’s impressive research into African American cemeteries.
The opportunity is there. The question is: Do we embrace it?