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.
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?)
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.
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!
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!
Last week the reports that the Alamo had commissioned regarding the three buildings the State purchased in 2015 were finally released more than two years after they were announced. The reports vindicated preservation.
The report from highly respected John G. Waite & Associates, Architects, confirmed what we had expected – the buildings are structurally sound and adaptable to a variety of uses, including a museum. Another report by Trinity University historian Dr. Carey Latimore was commissioned later, after the efforts of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building documented the history of San Antonio’s famous lunch counter integration, which occurred at seven sites on March 16, 1960. As a bonus, the Waite Report also noted that the Woolworth Building was the only one of the five surviving buildings that actually had physical traces of the lunch counter.
A third previously unknown report was designed to specifically counter the Conservation Society’s argument that the photographs taken March 16, 1960 all depicted the Woolworth lunch counter. I dealt with this conflict between documentary and visual evidence ten months ago here.
Just before the release, the Alamo announced the construction of a new exhibition hall at the east end of the existing gardens behind the shrine. The reason for this is that they have a deadline to exhibit Phil Collins’ Alamo collection.
The Conservation Society has been advocating for the re-use of these buildings for over five years, and the release of the reports vindicated our position, a position that also led to State Antiquities Landmark designation for the Woolworth Building, and its landing on the World Monuments Watch List 2020. We had been requesting these reports for over a year and we are glad that they have been finally made public.
NOVEMBER 13 UPDATE
City Council was briefed on the Alamo plan yesterday and there has been a lot of discussion of “unwinding the lease” between the city and the state. Political battles at the state level between GLO Commissioner George P. Bush and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the Texas Historical Commission’s denial of the plan to move the 1940 Cenotaph, and the departure of most of the project’s high profile private donors have put the whole project in question.
Here are three very nicely designed highrises one after the next. They are the Gibbs Hotel (1909) in a Renaissance/Chicago Commercial style, the Classical 1937 Courthouse and Post Office, and the Deco Gothic verticality of the Emily Morgan hotel (1926). This is in the heart of town just north of the Alamo.
In fact, these three buildings cover the north wall of the fabled mission and fortress. The famous 1836 battle began when Santa Anna successfully stormed the north wall, breaking in roughly between the Courthouse and the Emily Morgan. Commander Lt. Wm. Travis fell but a minute and a half into the battle, also on the north wall, to the left of where the streetlights are in the lower center of the photo.
The chapel, which everyone knows as the Alamo, was the first building preserved by the public west of the Mississippi, in 1883, less than fifty years after the battle. Already this had become the center of town and the large commercial Crockett Block was in place facing the chapel.
The Conservation Society began advocating for the re-use of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings when the state purchased them nearly five years ago for a new Alamo Museum. This was part of the larger reimagining of the Alamo that began in 2014. Sixteen months ago we presented a concept showing how the buildings could be added onto to make the new museum.
All this is preface to a curious push right now by the Save the Alamo Foundation to garner public support for their Alamo Plan. The most curious aspect of this push is that they don’t have a final design for the plaza. Nor even a preliminary design for the museum. How do you sell that?
Well, they are selling the idea that they will reclaim the footprint of the battlefield/mission walls. A portion of where the west wall was is 10 feet under the Crockett and Woolworth buildings. WHERE IT WAS – these buildings have 15 foot basements so there is NO remnant of the wall.
But let’s go back to the north wall, where all the action happened. Are they planning to take down the Gibbs Hotel and the Courthouse? No.
So what are they selling? An invisible museum? It seems they are selling the idea that the famed 1836 battle will – by itself – attract all sorts of tourists. Calmer heads, like CM Roberto Trevino, are arguing that the 110 years of history before the battle need to be interpreted as well. After all, it is the mission era that made the Alamo part of a World Heritage Site.
The Alamo spent 80 years as a mission, 50 as a fort, and 170 as the commercial heart of a growing city.
The most curious thing of all about the Alamo Plan is not the absence of a design, nor the decision to expose some wall sites rather than others, but the fact that it is driven by an interpretive message that appears to be scripted by a 10-year old boy in 1950.* I visited as a 15-year old and thoroughly enjoyed the tales of heroism and sacrifice. But that is a small demographic.
The 1836 battle is just the starting point for a much richer tale with stories relevant to all peoples and all times. Why don’t they sell that? The more you include, the more money you make – what am I missing here?
*Thanks to Evan Thompson for this quip.
AUGUST 25 UPDATE:
Well, they have a drawing now! The drawing shows the plaza reconstructed as a reenactment of the 1836 battle, with a second story on the Long Barracks, a rebuilt southwest rampart, and lots of cannon and palisades. The drawing, from their Facebook page and in the news, is rendered from a position above the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings, so no news on the museum.
While still clearly aimed at that 10-year-old, it is the first new illustration of the plan in two years, so that is something. The drawing shows reconstruction of the second story of the Long Barracks as well as an earthen rampart at the southwest corner with cannon. I have dealt with the folly of reconstruction in the digital age previously. The drawing also shows lots of living history reenactors, making the whole thing a curiously large investment in a moribund industry.
In a month the Texas Historical Commission will make a decision about moving the Cenotaph, which is a publicly funded portion of the project. No news yet on the museum or other privately funded projects.
FUN FACT: The reason Clara Driscoll insisted on taking down the second story of the Long Barracks in 1913 was that it dominated the plaza and overshadowed the shrine – the same argument for moving the Cenotaph today! So they move the Cenotaph and then overwhelm the Chapel with a reconstructed second story of the Long Barracks???
FUN FACT: Do you know that in 1997 when it closed, the proposal was to turn the Woolworth Building into an aviation museum? True!
The protests last night (June 2) ended up violent again, as they had on Saturday, both times unusual for San Antonio. As commentator Rick Casey said “We don’t do riots in the streets.” The last significant one was at Municipal Auditorium in 1939. Now he realizes he can’t be so categorical, because we have just doubled our riot total for the last century.
The contrast to other cities remains significant, and the wise words of both Police Chief McManus and Sheriff Salazar have reinforced the sense of community that has always defined San Antonio.
These are the most challenging times I have experienced and the contrast to something that happened three months before and three blocks away from my birth is significant.
On March 16, 1960, seven lunch counters on Alamo and Houston Streets desegregated voluntarily and peacefully, without protest. It happened in the same place as the unrest Saturday night, as Scott Huddleston of the Express-News noted. An amazing college freshman, Mary Andrews, had written the lunch counters asking them to allow blacks to sit and eat.
The sit-in movement had started at a Woolworth’s in North Carolina only a month before. A meeting was held and a sit-in was planned. Then, the community of San Antonio kicked in. Religious and civic leaders got together with the businesses and they integrated a day before the planned sit-in.
The story of Mary Andrews is puro San Antonio, which makes the events of the last few days even more disheartening. At the Conservation Society of San Antonio, we have been fighting to save the heart of that peaceful integration – the Woolworth Building – since 2015. This month we will celebrate Juneteenth with testimonials from residents regarding the importance of the Woolworth Building and San Antonio’s unique role in Civil Rights history.
In times of fear and violence, it is even more important to remember the triumphs of peace and community.