Before and After

April 26, 2022 Blog, Intangible Heritage, Texas Comments (0) 24

Well, it has been over a month since my last blog, and that month has included all of Fiesta here in San Antonio, the first real Fiesta in two years and it was a blockbuster! A Night In Old San Antonio(R) our four-night event, was packed as usual for the food, drink, music and more celebrating San Antonio’s diverse cultural inheritance. This was our 73rd presentation of this event, which means it is itself a cultural expression worthy of preservation!

Doing the NIOSA shuffle

In addition to our signature Fiesta traditions, we also have a strong preservation ethic. So here are some buildings that might not make it in another city.

Up for demolition three years ago
The house two years later
Permit violations, stop work orders, what’s next?
Why, a full rehabilitation, of course.
2017
2018
Yes, this is one that relocated – we have at least one a year here
OMG a fire, you gotta tear it down, right??
That would be in second and third-tier places, not here. Preservation ain’t beanbag.

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Things are happening

March 3, 2022 Blog Comments (0) 59

March 2022 and all of a sudden I am doing tours again – Alamo, Missions, the Conservation Society’s historic house museums (Steves Homestead in King William and the Yturri-Edmunds House and Mill) and sites in between. I did a talk and walk with a Houston arts group, and all-day tour with a Houston boys school and a tour with Preservation Action auction winners this week.

Alamo chapel with new palisade and cannon. There are now five cannon on site, five more than a few years ago.

The 186th anniversary of the Alamo battle is in a few days, just as the world watches another hopelessly overmatched people try to repel an invading army, a parallel not lost on the speakers who celebrated the Texas Revolution at the Alamo yesterday.

They all got killed but then the war was won six weeks later. This cannon went in 3 years ago.

On March 16 at lunchtime we will be screening our videos on San Antonio’s historic 1960 lunch counter integration at the Instituto Cultural de Mexico in Hemisfair, followed by a panel discussion led by Sarah Zenaida Gould, PhD, of the Mexican American Civil Rights Initiative. Please join us for this free event!

Outline of the lunch counter still visible inside the San Antonio Woolworth’s, which will be part of new Alamo visitors center

This will be followed the very next night by our biannual Historic Preservation Awards honoring projects and people in and around San Antonio. This paid event has several highlights, including the restoration of City Hall and the incredible dome at Temple Beth-El. Also Texas Preservation Heroes!

Atop the hill!

This is followed by a blizzard of galas the final week of the month, including our own Capital Club event on the 22nd, the Brackenridge Park Conservancy Gala on the 23rd, and the Make It Your Mission gala on the 24th. And then it is less than a week to Fiesta!

NIOSA!!!!!!!!!

NIOSA is April 5-8 this year, so order your tickets now!

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Fire. It’s always Fire.

February 24, 2022 Blog, History, Texas Comments (1) 75

It was a cold night, dipping below freezing, and the morning saw another fire at the landmark site 503 Urban Loop, which had suffered a small one in December attributed to repeated infiltrations by homeless. This time it looks like a total loss, just two weeks after the owners asked the Conservation Society, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the Westside Preservation Alliance for another delay of our Request for Review of Significance to landmark the site. We submitted the request last August.

Courtesy Brandi Hayes, Conservation Society of San Antonio

An important visual link to important history has been destroyed. This history includes the only reminder of the city’s Red Light District as it was built originally in 1883 as a brothel by Aurelia Dashiell and hosted Fanny Porter and the Wild Bunch of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at the turn of the last century. It also had a much longer history as an orphanage and day dare center for the bustling Mexican-American Laredito district for over a century. Bishop John Shaw purchased and rehabbed the building in 1913 and the next year the Carmelite Sisters opened a day care and orphanage to serve refugees from the Mexican Revolution.

As it appeared last year, recognizable from a 1949 photograph.

The new orphanage and day care center brought Reverend Mother Mary Teresa to San Antonio and Mother Mary Felicitas took charge. The noted midwife Ramona Ramos ran the nearby Casa de Maternidad and was likely involved. Most importantly, the building was one of the ONLY sites associated with the Laredito community that survived. The other is Casa Navarro, which the Conservation Society saved in 1959.

Casa Navarro, a National Historic Landmark

The erasure of Laredito is nearly complete now, thanks to this fire. It is always fire, and it is always gut-wrenching to lose these visceral, haptic connections to our shared history. I remember walking the dog in Humboldt Park Chicago in 1992 and seeing that the stunning Humboldt Park Stables had burned in what turned out to be an arson fire.

The day after. It was eventually restored.

I remember 2006, when three Louis Sullivan buildings were lost to fire during the 150th anniversary of his birth, two by careless rehab contractors.

I actually saw Sullivan’s Wirt Dexter on fire from the L.

What makes this conflagration at 503 Urban Loop in San Antonio so disturbing is that it removes an important connection to a community that has seen far more than its share of erasure – deliberate and otherwise – for more than half a century.

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San Antonio Preservation Roundup, December 2021, or: Pity the Negligent

December 9, 2021 Economics, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 126

The main image here is our 1870 Wulff House, now for sale after 47 years of Conservation Society ownership. We maintain all of our properties with regular maintenance and cyclical maintenance for major systems and features like roofs, porches and facades. We need to be good stewards and set an example. This story is not about us.

A year ago I wrote a blog about how preservation laws and agreements were just being ignored. This week the ongoing story of the Whitt Building took another turn when the owners filed a press release (and a lawsuit) against the city for preventing their demolition of the Whitt Building. The Whitt made news back on Memorial Day Weekend when the City briefly ordered demolition of the structure after the roof collapsed a bit more, only to overrule itself when a structural report and the Historic and Design Review Commission held an emergency meeting to save it.

The Whitt

The story really begins in 1990, when prominent local family who owns the restaurant behind the building, bought the structure, which is a landmark in the Cattleman Square district west of downtown. So….they bought a LANDMARK and then left it out in the rain for 30 years, hoping for the worst. The problem is that this particular building has a concrete structure with mad cred, so much so that the roof does not hold the walls together as it does on many other buildings.

Won’t the walls bend just a bit?

The press release has already had an impact the trailing lawsuit likely can’t match, eliciting sympathy for the poor owners of this eyesore.

Which they bought thirty years ago. WHEN IT HAD ALREADY BEEN A LANDMARK FOR FIVE YEARS. You can see why I don’t have any sympathy – this didn’t sneak up on y’all.

But the press release is timed very well – there is another story about a guy who bought the shotgun house next to his own for the purpose of tearing it down so his kids could play in a bigger yard. Unlike the owners above and below, they were not aware that the building was being considered a landmark. Add the Whitt owners’ press release and the pity party gets some legs.

The insignificant rear of 503 Urban Loop

So maybe this year’s theme is not “Mejor perdon que permiso” but “Feel bad for me, look what I caused” or “Pity the Negligent.” Same story at 503 Urban Loop, which I wrote about last time, owned by ANOTHER prominent restaurant family. We got a tour not long ago and the homeless have taken it over and trashed the inside. They have not trashed the structure, but you got the sense that the tour was meant to make you feel bad for the poor owner, as in the Whitt Building press release.

Dude, I’m old. I’ve seen this muck a thousand times before and you can’t tell me this four-by-four 1883 column is going anywhere.

Yes, those are cut nails.

This is called demolition by neglect. The phrase correctly captures the agency involved – it is the owner’s responsibility, and no amount of press releases (or lawsuits) can paper over that.

Russell and Flores. Again. I couldn’t get away with this.

Meanwhile in the neighborhoods, out-of-town developers are famous for buying up properties and letting nature do their dirty work. This is the second fire at this house which has been laying fallow due to absentee owners.

I have heard building owners explain how hard it is for them to secure their property.

So why is it still their property?

Call me old-fashioned, but I take responsibility for my property and I feel cheated when others get away with doing the opposite.

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Alternativeless demolition

October 26, 2021 Historic Districts, Texas Comments (5) 301

This is the 1911 Hughes house at 312 W Courtland Street in San Antonio. It sits on a corner next to a parking lot and across from the epic and massive Koehler House. And it is up for demolition. Which is understandable, unless you look at it.

Nothing about this says “Please tear me down.”

It’s pretty. It’s intact. It is a solidly built, eminently adaptable house. Indeed, it has been owned by the Archdiocese for over half a century. They used it for a Catholic student center for most of that time, but now apparently it needs work. LIKE EVERY OTHER HOUSE IN HISTORY.

Gee whiz they even made it match.

So, we have an owner who feel they can’t rehabilitate a house they themselves have let go. What is the alternative? Are they going to build a new student center? A parking lot? What is the alternative? Nothing. Just like 503 Urban Loop, our brothel-cum-child care center that is up for designation December 2. The owners originally said they were building a residential highrise, not they are on to the NO ALTERNATIVE PLANS plans.

This old wreck is in the way of…um, nothing. Nothing you need to know about.

Does anything say “I’M A FLIPPER” more loudly than a request for demolition with no plan for a replacement?

I remember City Council members back in the 1980s in Chicago saying that they might vote against landmarking something if they saw that what it was going to be replaced with was better. That actually makes sense, because a legislative representative has to look at all the factors, whereas a landmarks commissioner focuses on whether the building meets the criteria for designation.

Oh yes, that looks much better.

If you aren’t revealing your plan, you probably don’t have one. In fact, you might just be shilling for the eventual owner, who has convinced you to do the dirty work of getting a demolition permit before they will ink the deal. It happens. But the Tobin Hill neighbors who are upset about the Hughes house are right, and the Council Member needs to have an alternative or he will be approving an Alternativeless Demolition.

Despite four non-profit and neighborhood organizations supporting the designation of 503 Urban Loop, it has its detractors because it is not conventionally pretty from all angles. Some might argue that the homeless are getting in and demolition is necessary. Because demolition solves the homeless issue?

312 W. Courtland is a very nice house so it might have even more friends, and fewer social ills in its Tobin Hill/Monte Vista neighborhood.

That’s real brick, man. You ain’t gonna be able to push it over. That’s a five or six figure demo.

No, the real issue at 312 W. Courtland is likely that a potential buyer is asking the Archdiocese to demolish it because, under state law, they can do it UNLIKE EVERY OTHER BUILDING OWNER because they are a church.

The building isn’t a church, of course, which is what the first religious exclusion laws in the 80s focused on. It’s a perfectly good house.

I know y’all property rich and cash poor, so why take the first bid from someone making you do the work/

Want to know the funny part?

The Archdiocese is likely getting hosed by the buyer – who is obviously making their offer contingent on the Archdiocese getting the demolition.

How many ways are there to be hosed in this situation?

  1. The property was never listed for sale, so all of those out-of-state transplants buying big lovely houses three blocks away have not had a chance to bid on this. The Archdiocese is leaving money on the table.
  2. The demolition and disposal cost on this is going to be high. Tile roofs are lovely, but heavy. Brick is also lovely, and you can’t push it over for $20k. Not a cheap demolition by any stretch. If the Archdiocese pays this bill for the under-the-market buyer, they are again….leaving money on the table.

So, what is the alternative? We don’t know.

Tobin Hill neighbors are asking for a Review of Significance, which you can support by contacting the Office of Historic Preservation, City of San Antonio. Again, State law allows the Archdiocese to prevail over landmarks laws, but let’s at least shine a light on it.

WHAT CAN YOU DO!

Visit the Conservation Society page on the Hughes House TODAY!

See the Conservation Society page on 503 Urban Loop now!

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Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice

August 9, 2021 Blog, Chicago Buildings, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Historic Districts, History, Intangible Heritage, Texas Comments (0) 217

Since late last year I have been Co-Chair of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice Working Group, one of four groups comprising the Preservation Priorities Task Force, a joint effort between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Preservation Partners Network. For most of my years (2006-2015) as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I was Vice Chair of the Diversity Committee and Diversity Task Force. This is an issue that is of profound importance to heritage conservation, especially in the United States.

Mural in Pilsen, Chicago, taken a decade ago.

Diversity is the need to represent the full heritage of a place for the full complement of its communities. Inclusion is the necessity of insuring that every member of every community has a hand in the decision-making of what gets saved, why it gets saved, and how it gets saved. Racial justice is the need to address an imbalance that the historic preservation field helped foster, beginning in the 19th century and continuing into recent memory.

University of Virginia, a World Heritage Site. Slavery was practiced here.

It made matters worse that we focused historic preservation on architectural history, which was the white-manniest of professions until a week or two ago. Moreover, many of the early preservation organizations in the 1920s, including my own, engaged in cultural heritage preservation of minority cultures without any input or involvement from those cultures. Commemoration of the Other simply reinforced power and hegemony.

Ida B. Wells home in 1990. Became a National Historic Landmark in 1972.

In June, James Madison’s Montpelier took it a step further and voted to share power with the descendants of those 3,000 American men, women and children who were enslaved at the sixth president’s sprawling home and plantation. You can read about it here. This is ultimately what it is about. When Juneteenth came to Texas 156 years ago, it was followed quickly by sharecropping, poll taxes, and a penal system designed to return recently emancipated slaves into a state of servitude. It is a testament to human resilience that so many rose above despite a multivalent and violent system designed to prevent them from doing so.

The 61st anniversary of the first peaceful and voluntary integration of a Woolworth’s lunch counter, organized by San Antonio Branch NAACP, March 16, 2021.

What Montpelier did is key, because the only way to achieve Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice is to hand power over. This is hard for any institution, any movement, any society. It is like the challenge I wrote about ten years ago as two of my preservation organizations struggled to figure out how to incorporate the next generation. The answer is simple. You hand them the steering wheel and get out of the way.

Leave the dancing to those who still have cartilage. Matachines at the Festival of the Virgin, Mission Concepcion.

It has been very rewarding to make some progress in this arena in San Antonio, especially our recent success in saving the 1921 Woolworth Building on Alamo Plaza. It was listed on the World Monument Watch List 2020 in part due to the “underrepresented narrative” of Civil Rights history. That publicity resulted in our finding out that famed sculptor Richard Hunt ate at the Woolworth lunch counter that day.

This was the corner where the African-American high schoolers formed their community, according to Dr. Gregory Hudspeth, President of the San Antonio Branch NAACP.

Our Coalition for the Woolworth Building has been the subject of several presentations and an upcoming article and this fall the Conservation Society will be honored for its “important contributions to to civil rights history in the City of San Antonio” by the San Antonio Branch NAACP. Here is a recent National Trust blogspot on the Coalition.

Dr. Tara Dudley speaking at our February 1, 2020 symposium on the role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights History.

It took centuries for us to get to this place, and the need for reckoning, for Truth and Reconciliation, is still apparent. Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert recently made an eloquent and personal plea to look to San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza as a place to begin that process in the U.S.

Remember, and Reconcile.

There is a long way to go for both society and the heritage conservation field, but at least we are facing in the appropriate direction.

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NIOSA is here!

June 21, 2021 Blog, Texas Comments (0) 282

14 months late, A Night In Old San Antonio(R) is finally here, June 22-25, 20-21! We are in our familiar La Villita venue, a wonderful historic village now being filled with food and drink booths and stages for the musical acts! Thanks to COVID-19, we had no Fiesta nor NIOSA last year and this year’s is coming late, but it is HERE!

Get your tickets and Blast passes here!

The pandemic has brought changes – we will operate at two-thirds capacity in the 4-acre historic village, with fewer booths and more space to spread out. We have eliminated our old money-for-tickets system with a touchless BlastPass system – you load up a wristband with money and use it to instantly pay for anything at the food and drink and souvenir booths. We still have our cultural areas, from Froggy Bottom and Mexican Market to Sauerkraut Bend and Villa Espana! It will be a tad warmer than our usual April festivities, but just as much FUN!

Get your tickets and BlastPasses here!

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Sinners, Saints and the Man in Black

June 15, 2021 Blog, History, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 271

Last week was quite busy with saving the Whitt Building, as recounted here. This week the focus was another near Westside building known for both sinners and saints. Everyone thought it was landmarked, but then no one could find the ordinance from 30 years ago, and the owners want to demolish it. But what a history.

The two-story portion to the right was built in 1883 by Aurelia Dashiell as a “boarding house” which meant of course, a brothel. For about five years at the turn of the century it was the home of famed madam Fannie Porter, who hosted the Wild Bunch including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, purportedly giving them a big party in 1901. This was two blocks south of San Antonio’s “Sporting District”, the third largest “red light” district in the U.S. and a highly regulated one with a defined zone, licensing and regular health exams for the sex workers. It provided one of the city’s largest revenue streams and attracted more tourists than any local site except for the Alamo.

Then the Archbishop bought it in 1913 and it spent over a century aiding the impoverished and neglected youth of the near Westside “Laredito” neighborhood, first under the Carmelite Sisters for over 70 years and then under Father Flanagan’s Boys Town from 1990 to 2017. The building had gone from one generation of sinners to five generations of saints. The structure itself had a major addition in 1931 by the Carmelites and more in ’51 and ’62 giving it its current look, roughly the same as a 1949 Jubilee yearbook photo published by the Archdiocese.

It is also a rare survivor of “Laredito” the near Westside Hispanic neighborhood that was deliberately decimated by highways and urban renewal. There are a tiny handful of Laredito buildings left, including this National Historic Landmark that the Conservation Society saved in 1959, Casa Navarro:

Anyway, there is more than enough information for it to be nominated as a landmark – which everyone assumed it was – and the Conservation Society will be pursuing that along with our friends at Westside Preservation Alliance, Tier 1 Neighborhood Association and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.

Meanwhile, I got intrigued about some buildings in my own Beacon Hill. I went looking for this little house maybe 150 feet behind my own.

This was the home of the Liberto family, including Vivian Liberto, who met Johnny Cash roller skating in 1951. They married at the nearby St. Ann’s Church, a cool mid-century modern built in 1948.

I assumed this was a late 1950s or early 1960s church but it was dedicated in 1948 (Julian and White, architects) and you can see those cool concrete textile blocks behind Johnny and Vivian in their 1954 wedding photos.

Speaking of 1948, I recently learned that a series of houses were built to promote the 1948 film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant, which I actually saw many years ago. And the one in San Antonio is still there and in seemingly excellent condition. Thanks to David Bush of Preservation Houston for finding this!

At last the 1948 house

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A busy week with some success

June 4, 2021 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (1) 422

Whitt Building on West Houston, San Antonio

It has been raining for what seems like forty days (a quarantine) in San Antonio and those rains became the excuse for an emergency demolition order on the Whitt Printing Building, a part of the Cattleman Square district west of downtown. Its modest Art Deco facade belies its community importance – this was the largest Spanish-language printing house in a city with more of that business than any other in the nation. Founded by Gilberto Whitt, one of many who came here fleeing the 1910 Mexican Revolution, the building has been deteriorating for more than three decades.

Whitt Building from the west.

The owners requested to remove it from the historic district and to raze it. The Conservation Society opposed both actions, fearing the precedent of “de-designation” and the loss of another building in the near West side where decay and redevelopment sit cheek by jowl. The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) denied both requests, which were set to go to Zoning when an emergency demolition order came out on the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend. They blamed the rain for more roof collapsing (not the 35 years?)

A dramatic view, although even from here you can see the concrete is solid and straight.

The Conservation Society hired a structural engineer on two hours’ notice who inspected the structure and reported that while the roof and other wooden elements of the building were in bad shape, its massive concrete piers and beams were solid and in no danger of falling. Indeed, unlike most buildings, the concrete frame did not rely on the roof to hold the walls up.

A mass of local preservationists held vigil over the holiday weekend, as demolition equipment stood by. A scheduled Tuesday zoning hearing was continued and an emergency HDRC meeting was held Wednesday night. Amazingly, the HDRC, owners and preservationists all agreed that the structure of the Whitt Building would be saved, its roof and non-original infill walls removed. A save!

But wait, there’s more! Last Friday as I brought our structural engineer over to the Whitt Building, our two videos on the history of the first peaceful and voluntary integration of Woolworth’s and other lunch counters during the 1960 Sit-In movement premiered online! You can see the videos here. On Tuesday morning we went to Bexar County Commmissioner’s Court to receive a proclamation celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Woolworth Building, which opened June 3, 1921.

Looking good for 100!

We got to thank the Commissioner’s Court for their timely contribution of $25m to rehabilitate the Woolworth and Crockett Buildings for the new Alamo museum, including a free exhibit on the lunch counter integration AT THE SITE. Turns out that the Woolworth is the only one of the six surviving lunch counter buildings that retains physical evidence of the serpentine lunch counter!

We even found some drawings from the period!

As if that wasn’t enough for the week, it kept raining and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) reconsidered a plan that would have run a new sewer line over two conservation easements designed to protect the recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer. Now if we can only get them to do the same on another chunk of recharge land.

Congratulations to all who helped make these victories possible – there were a whole lot of people pulling in the same direction here and it made a difference!

But wait, there’s more! Just got Texas Supreme Court decision upholding Houston’s preservation ordinance! Happy weekend!

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San Antonio Roundup April 2021

April 25, 2021 Blog, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (0) 291

Almost a month since my last blog, which was shared 255 times but only read 69? Here in San Antonio we are cautiously emerging from the pandemic. This is normally Fiesta Week, the greatest celebration in San Antonio since 1891, but it has been put off until late June. Taking a cue from New Orleans as we so often have, the King William district (first in Texas!) encouraged residents to decorate their houses like parade floats, allowing Fiesta to live in a socially distanced way.

This was my favorite, combining the traditions of medals and luchadores.
Quetzalcoatl in Baja King William
This is my favorite house in King William.

As I have noted many times over the last year, the work of heritage conservation has not slowed down a bit as the pace of construction and development continues speedily in our fast-growing city. The old El Mirador restaurant was largely demolished, although we helped insure that five old stone walls within the complex will be preserved in the new Rosario’s restaurant (best roasted tomato salsa IMHO).

Four walls are being preserved in place, while this one is being carefully dismantled for reerection with the new structure.

The town is full of new construction, which tends to pack many units on small lots, like these stick-built zoning envelopes going up on Evergreen on the edge of Tobin Hill, replacing some nice early 20C houses. We have four new hotels opening downtown, at least two of them quite luxurious. We are also seeing more highrise housing planned for the central area, confirming what I said a year ago about what the pandemic means for urban density.

The Arts Hotel & Thompson residences
The Canopy lurking over the Riverwalk

The other development I have been watching on my morning bike rides is the construction of a replica rampart at the southwest corner of Alamo Plaza for a temporary (really?) exhibit of a replica 18-pounder cannon used in the unsuccessful defense of the Alamo in 1836. It also includes a replica of the Losoya house which was in the Alamo compound.

Watching it being built kinda kills the illusion.
The code compliant elevator and stair do not enhance the illusion of authenticity.
Very close to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not

The Alamo project appears to be moving forward in a more community-minded way under new leadership (see blog before last).

Oh! I almost forgot! Thanks to the Power of Preservation Foundation, the lovely 1935 Pure Oil gas station on Nogalitos now has a new roof! This was the subject of my most popular blog ever a couple years back.

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