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.
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).
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 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.
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.
I have been aware of Richard Hunt – the sculptor with more public commissions than any other in U.S. history – for well over 40 years. When I attended the University of Chicago, his flamelike metal sculpture Why? was in Harper Court which I walked past almost daily in the late 70s and early 80s. I liked it – it seemed kind of like a fire, kind of like a hand and it epitomizes the spirit of inquiry there.
I got the chance to spend a lovely lunch with Richard Hunt about 15 years ago at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago when I was doing a presentation on Hubert Ropp, who was Dean of the School when Richard attended in the 1950s. Just recently I noticed that sculptor Preston Jackson, whom I also know from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, had posted a painting of Richard and he online.
Now, here in San Antonio, as you know from my last blog, we have been waging a campaign to Save The Woolworth Building, not only for its drop-dead gorgeous Chicago Commercial style architecture, but because it was the focus of the only voluntary and peaceful integration of lunch counters during the Sit-In movement of 1960. Following letters sent by Mary Lilian Andrews, NAACP Youth Council Chair, in early March, and a mass meeting of 1,500 held March 13, 1960 at Second Baptist Church, Woolworth’s and 6 other lunch counters quietly and peacefully integrated on Wednesday, March 16, 1960 before any sit-in demonstrations could be held.
Last week, Jon Ott of the International Sculpture Center telephoned me and asked about the Woolworth campaign. I related the recent shift in leadership that seemed to bode well for the building and its role in Civil Rights History. Then he asked me whether we knew of any African-Americans who ate at the Woolworth lunch counter that day and I related the story of the photographer who captured a young black man looking in the window but only found blacks and whites eating together mid-morning when he wandered down to the Kress cafeteria on Houston Street. That story was related here.
Then Jon Ott informed me that Richard Hunt ate at the Woolworth lunch counter on that day, March 16, 1960. I was floored. Then Jon told me the rest of the story. Richard Hunt had graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957 and gone to Europe on a Traveling Fellowship while preparing for an exhibit at a New York Gallery. In Paris he received his draft notice, was given extra time to report in order to prepare for the New York show, which he missed due to basic training.
Hunt was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston as a medic but quickly became an army illustrator. Friends with modernist architects O’Neil Ford and Allison Peery, Richard and his wife Betty Scott managed to rent a brand-new home at Fort Sam for NCOs, despite the fact that he was a private and African-American. He and his wife went to the NAACP rally on Sunday, March 13, 1960 at Second Baptist Church when the sit-ins were planned for Thursday, March 17.
When the lunch counters peacefully and voluntarily integrated on Wednesday March 16, Allison Peery and his wife Mimi drove to Fort Sam and brought Richard down to Woolworth’s for lunch. He had a ham sandwich.
Richard Hunt is the first identified African-American we can place at the Woolworth lunch counter that day. By that time, he was sharing the Mill Race Studio – where Gutzon Borglum designed Mount Rushmore, with artist Chester Toney. He had also just returned from Louisiana, where he had his first public sculpture commission at Southern University. He has had some 150 such commissions over his lifetime, more than any other American sculptor. His first was crafted in San Antonio.
Jon Ott has been interviewing Richard Hunt for a year and a half, and he asked Richard why he had never told this story before. In his typical humble manner, he said “I wasn’t a Freedom Rider.” He had an uneventful lunch on the first day of integrated eating at Woolworth’s. But then again, that was the whole point.
Featured photo by Martha Mood courtesy Richard Hunt and Jon Ott.
Aaronetta Pierce, a lion of civic life and civil rights in San Antonio, was named one of the Tri-Chairs of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee last week. Shortly thereafter we learned that Council Member Roberto Trevino had been replaced on the management committee for the Alamo by Council Member Rebecca Viagran, a descendent of Tejano Alamo defender Toribio Losoya. Dr. Carey Latimore was also appointed to the Citizens Advisory Committee following his detailed study of Civil Rights around Alamo Plaza, specifically the famed lunch counter integration of 1960 – the first peaceful and voluntary integration of lunch counters in the South during the Sit-In movement.
The Mayor made it clear that the buildings facing the Alamo chapel/shrine – the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings – are to be saved. This is huge news and a validation of the position taken by the Conservation Society in the fall of 2015. It is also huge for our Coalition for the Woolworth Building, formed in 2018 and including the aforementioned Aaronetta Pierce. The milestones of the Coalition: State Antiquities Landmark status in May, 2019; the release of a plan showing how to repurpose the buildings that same month; a prize-winning ofrenda honoring civil rights leader Mary Lilian Andrews in October 2019 and the listing of the Woolworth Building later that same month as one of only 3 U.S. buildings on the World Monuments Watch List 2020, have now come to fruition. A year ago we held a Donut Day at the Woolworth and then an all-day seminar on the role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights history. We spent the pandemic year continuing to lobby, collecting video testimonials and crafting a series of short videos about the lunch counter integration that are now in production.
The Mayor is also revisiting a few more ill-conceived and unpopular elements of the 2018 plan, including lowering the plaza (which makes the archeologists CRAZY) and permanently closing the streets (which makes the businesspeople CRAZY). San Antonians have heaved a sigh of relief as the Alamo plan enters a new era that will remember the long arc of its history by preserving all of its layers and getting comfortable with the fact that it is in the middle of a city.
And soon we will reveal the story of a young black man who ate lunch at Woolworth’s on March 16, 1960.
For as long as historic preservation ordinances have been judged appropriate exercises of the police power (40+ years) they have included provisions for economic hardship. This makes sense, if a building is so far gone that it cannot be economically rehabilitated, there should be an exception. But how did it get there? And what are your (legal standard spoiler alert!) “reasonable investment-backed expectations?”
See, San Antonio is pretty good at fixing old buildings that people in other towns won’t. So, when you hear that someone is trying to tear down a salvageable house, odds are they aren’t from here. And their claims of economic hardship? Even sillier.
So, let’s say you owned this house for eight years. During that time you could have invested a couple thousand dollars a year and slowly brought it back to life. Or you could ignore it, allow the homeless to congregate there, and hope that your investment would turn – magically – into a lucrative vacant lot. Except it’s not magic and it is very deliberate. Even the well-worn phrase “demolition by neglect” sounds more benign than malignant, and this behavior is malignant.
See, this isn’t some poor guy who can’t maintain a house. This is an out-of-town investor who has more than a dozen business entities, each of which owns one of these houses in the neighborhood. This isn’t economic hardship – this is malignant neglect and a business model built on NOT taking care of the assets you own.
How do you argue economic hardship when you have created all of the conditions that made the building expensive to rehab? What are the “reasonable investment-backed expectations” of this business model?
And how do the neighbors like it? Well, if you are behind one of these single-house-owning-LLCs, you should reasonably expect that your investment and your business practice model are going to piss off the neighbors. Indeed, that is one of many reasons for putting the asset into a one-off corporate entity – to hide from the neighbors.
Heck, those pesky neighbors might insist that the city enforce the same regulations on you as they do on them. What’s that called? Equity?
No, not that kind of equity.
Time for a new business model.
An even better business model: Buy a perfectly lovely old house, DO NOTHING to the point of actively resisting neighbor’s attempts to lease it, encourage vagrants to collect on the property, and then WAIT for the neighbors to demand demolition because of all the problems the property is causing. YOU aren’t causing the problems, the property is. Did I mention you needed to excise your moral compass and human integrity to follow this business model? No problem? Good!
In 2006 I wrote a blog called “The Fallacy of Primacy” focused on the idea that the “first” to discover something was not necessarily historically important. The Vikings got to North America and the Chinese maybe got to Peru before the Spanish, but it doesn’t matter. They didn’t affect the trajectory of history like those who came later. In addition to the fallacy of “firsts” and “discoveries,” there is also the problem of category and context.
This is San Pedro Springs Park in San Antonio, sometimes claimed as the second oldest park in the United States after Boston Common, since it was set aside as public land by King Philip V of Spain in 1729.
That fact is not true in two ways. First, there are older public lands in places like St.. Augustine so San Pedro Springs Park is more like 10th oldest. Second, there is no context for public parks until the 1830s – the category of a city park simply did not exist. If you look it up, San Pedro Springs Park is the oldest city park in Texas, dated not 1729 but 1852.
The urban park as a type begins no earlier than 1827 when they start redesigning St. James Park in London. The oldest “parks” in U.S. cities are more like the squares in Savannah, which were open space but not parks. There was no context for “park” as a place of recreation and relaxation outdoors. If you wanted that, you went to a cemetery.
So here is the oldest city park in the U.S., Boston Common, and you can see that it is also a cemetery. When it was created in 1634 it could be used for celebrations, militia drills, burials, and yes, even picnics and sport. Interestingly, the design of “parks” in the 19th century begins with the design of the first rural cemetery at Mount Auburn outside Boston in 1831. It then inspires the first generation of park designers.
So, we have a whole new context emerging in the second quarter of the 19th century. Parks. By the end of the 19th century, Boston has its Emerald Necklace of Parks, New York has the massive Central Park, Chicago has a boulevard and park system stretching 30 miles and even Los Angeles had the 575 acre Elysian Park. Parks, like museums, were an idea less than century old.
We have a similar movement in the current century to create urban linear parks from old railroads or other rights-of-way. Think New York’s High Line, Chicago’s 606, or San Antonio’s San Pedro Creek Culture Park. Rails or canals to trails is also roughly a century old, and getting more and more elaborate.
When you ask whether something is first, or oldest or original, you are in fact asking a present day question about how a place is perceived and categorized. It is kind of like the difference between fact (to aléthes) and truth (alétheia) in Greek. A fact – to aléthes – is that San Pedro Springs Park became a public space in 1729. Alétheia is truth in the sense of a body of truth, like urban parks were started in the 1830s and 40s. Boston Common is the oldest park – to aléthes – but it is also a collection of other ideas about public space between 1634 and 1834 – Alétheia.
FUN FACTS: A San Antonio native, Robert Hammond, was behind the High Line in New York! Also, another San Antonian, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, founded the Central Park Conservancy!
I vividly remember when many of the early 1930s federal housing projects became eligible for listing on the National Register in the early 1990s. People made fun of the idea that public housing could be historic, but here we are a quarter-century later and it is no longer unusual. Indeed, a decade ago I was historic preservation consultant for the redevelopment and conservation of the Julia Lathrop Homes in Chicago (1937).
Today the National Trust for Historic Preservation released its list of the 11 Most Endangered Landmarks in the United States, and San Antonio’s Alazan-Apache Courts, started in 1939, were at the top of the list. Kudos go to Sarah Zenaida Gould, PhD, who mounted an exhibit on the project over a year ago and has been a vigorous preservationist with the Westside Preservation Alliance, Museo del Westside, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the Coalition for the Woolworth Building.
The San Antonio Housing Authority is threatening the demolition of the last of the federal public housing projects in San Antonio. Indeed, they are on a spree, having planned the demolition of the only surviving building from the Victoria Courts complex (1940) just last week.
I get it. The public housing that was a radical upgrade in the 1930s (indoor plumbing) is now behind the times (air-conditioning). Even in our Lathrop Homes project, we could not save all of the buildings. But several other of the 1930s Chicago projects were demolished completely, like the Ida B. Wells Homes and the Jane Addams Homes (except for one building, soon to be the National Public Housing Museum).
Public housing often gets heavily altered over time, but that is why we have been refining the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards specifically in regard to definitions of integrity at sites of cultural significance. (You can see my work on this from 2015 here, and from my 2018 chapter here.) Even though all of these federal housing projects were designed by an A-list of local architects (it was the Great Depression – they needed jobs) their significance is cultural.
The projects reflected the segregated space of the time. The Alazan-Apache Courts were built on the Westside for Mexican-Americans. At the time, the courts were a dramatic contrast with the tiny, tightly-packed houses of the area. Their recognition by the National Trust also points to another historic inequity: preservation and landmarking on San Antonio’s West Side.
This is part of the Rinconcito de Esperanza, which contains several award-winning historic buildings, the modern adobe Mujer Artes center, and the emergent Museo del Westside. It just became the first historic landmark district on the Westside. That is crazy. A large historic district called Buena Vista is being proposed, but historically the West Side has been overlooked.
I hope that this important National designation brings more attention to the history and culture of San Antonio’s Westside. And of course I hope it helps save the Alazan-Apache Courts.