What is the Fabric of Cultural History?

September 24, 2016

Malt House horizS.jpgThis is the Malt House in San Antonio.  Dating to 1949, it is the classic car-service restaurant, known for its malted milkshakes.  Generations experienced their localized version of American Graffiti with Mexican and American comfort food and the best malts in town.

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At the San Antonio Conservation Society we have not yet formulated a statement on its proposed demolition, but it is becoming apparent that much of the significance of the site is its cultural history – it was a place where things happened and memories were made for many decades, and it is clear that the architectural forms, in this case, may not contain or represent that history.

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You could have experienced the restaurant without ever going inside.  Perhaps its distinctive neon sign is the most designed and most recognized aspect of the site.  Certainly converting the building does not preserve this cultural memory – so how do you conserve it?

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The Malt House is part of a larger question.  What is the fabric of cultural history? Sometimes it is architecture, but in many cases it is not.  The San Antonio Missions were inscribed as a World Heritage Site not because of the architectural refinement of the mission churches – although some are very fine – but because they were a cultural landscape.  They are World Heritage because they illustrate a confluence of civilizations visible throughout the landscape not only in churches but also ruined walls, agricultural fields, acequias and even a working aqueduct (which your San Antonio Conservation Society saved many years ago!)

Mission Espada aqueduct.jpgEspada Aqueduct

Readers of this blog – and attendees of National Trust conferences – will recall that I have been working on the issue of diversity in our historic sites for many years now.  Earlier this year I gave an important paper at Goucher College describing a series of (fairly minor) reforms in the National Register of Historic Places (which is 50 years old) and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties (40 years old, with the last reform 26 years ago).  You can see some of my thoughts here and here.

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I think we have a solution for the integrity problem, thanks to the work of Donna Graves and Wayne Donaldson and others, but we still have an architectural problem in preservation because our regulatory and – especially – our incentive  programs are designed around architectural concepts.  IF we understand sites of cultural and historical significance as not being defined by architectural forms, how do we “preserve” them?

S21 survivorPhnom Penh, Cambodia

WHAT is being preserved is not a building, but a collection of cultural events, memories and associations.  Perhaps the answer is to require an interpretation on the site as part of its re-use, much as a city might require public art as part of an infrastructure improvement to a road or waterway.

UG RR maywood insSMaywood, Illinois, underground railroad site at a McDonald’s

Now the Malt House is on a busy corner surrounded by various chain retailers and restaurants, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do effective interpretation.  In Maywood, Illinois, they discovered a documented Underground Railroad site near the Des Plaines River.  The building was gone and a McDonald’s was going in.  So they created an artistic installation on the corner of the site that preserves that important historic event and cultural memory.

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Of course substituting an interpretive requirement for a rehabilitation requirement presents a significant challenge, since the range of interpretive installations and elements is quite broad.  Perhaps again the “percent for art” formula used by public buildings and public improvements could be a guide, at least for the question of tax incentives.

Franklin Court vw w scoop copy copyFranklin Square, Philadelphia

The challenge for the heritage conservation community is to insure that identification and evaluation of cultural history sites determines what elements of a site are necessary for the conservation of its history at the time of designation.  This way we would not treat architecturally significant sites with the exact same tools we use for cultural history sites.

W Guadelupe house w history c.jpgWest Guadelupe Street, San Antonio

As I rode my bicycle home from the Malt House this morning, I noticed a long stretch of West Guadelupe Street where fences and buildings had large signs describing the histories – personal and communal – of the area.  They were part of nice buildings and worn-out buildings, of fences and lots.  Cultural history is about place, but it isn’t always about architecture, and we need to provide a new set of tools to reclaim the fullness of our inheritance.

W Guadelupe history signsS.jpgWest Guadelupe Street, San Antonio

 

World Heritage Festival and Saving San Antonio

September 13, 2016

Last weekend was the first annual World Heritage Festival here in San Antonio, celebrating one year since the inscription of the San Antonio Missions as a World Heritage Site.  Having spent my career in heritage, this is exciting for me because now I live, work and play in a World Heritage site for the first time in my life.

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Except for that five weeks in the Wachau in 2005…

wh-banners-at-yeThis is where I live

The festivities for the World Heritage Festival began on Thursday with the groundbreaking for the new San Pedro Creek project.  You may recall that San Pedro Creek, which feeds into the San Antonio River down near Mission Concepción, was what the Spaniards first named San Antonio 325 years to the day before I moved in.   Thursday’s event included an opera commissioned by the County celebrating the confluence of cultures that is San Antonio, and a water fountain, because how else do you “groundbreak” a creek?

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Friday we had the second example of “Restored By Light”, a projection that drew thousands to San Jose Mission to see its original colored facade restored by light after dusk.  Last year Mission Concepción got similar treatment, and this year they upgraded,  illuminating both the main facade and both facades of the tower.  It was both a spectacular communal event and an object lesson in how best to treat heritage in the 21st century.

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Saturday was the 22-mile Tour de las Misiones bike ride, which I quite enjoyed, and while I ride the Mission Reach of the River Walk daily, this was a chance to do surface roads with about 400 others (including a police escort).

heritage ride at alamo.jpgTour de las Missiones hears about the layers of history at the Alamo from a costumed interpreter.

There were more festivities on Saturday night and on Sunday the four missions which are active parishes held masses celebrating World Heritage, so of course I was at Mission Concepción, because Father David Garcia is the Director of the Old Spanish Missions, a superior speaker, and the mariachis there are the BEST!

mission-concepcio-mass2sI used to go to a church built in 1909.  This one is 180 years older.

Now, right in the middle of all this festivity, the new edition of Saving San Antonio by Lewis F. Fisher (Trinity University Press) was released, which brings the story of preservation in San Antonio up to the present day.  This was great, because it quotes our President Janet Dietel about important contemporary issues like the effort to save the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings on Alamo Plaza, as well as the 1968 Wood Courthouse/United States Pavilion.

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Crockett Building (left) and the first peacefully integrated Woolworth’s lunch counter in the south, two buildings to the right.

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Wood Courthouse/United States Pavilion

The Rivard Report covered the festival extensively (that guy is everywhere!) and expressed the hope of many San Antonians that it become an annual affair.

 

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Authenticity, Technology and more places in the heart

September 1, 2016

Last month I wrote about Colin Ellard’s work, the neuroscience of why historic buildings and good design are better for your physical and mental health than the frequent monolithic stretches of our contemporary streetscape.  You can read it here.

At that time, I promised a follow-up blog about how technology – including the kind that allowed Ellard to do his studies – also offers new possibilities for interpretation.  I taught historic interpretation classes for more than a decade, and I have always been fascinated by every kind of historic interpretation, from big bronze signs and statues, to performances and interactive displays.

kentucky sign copyOld school.  Not enough room on the sign for the whole story, so you have to turn it over…

o henry plaqueThe sidewalk sign, where most people are looking anyway..

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Or this sign at Lincoln’s New Salem, which allows you to see a building in the landscape without foolhardy reconstruction.

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Or see yourself in the landscape…

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So, at the World Heritage San Antonio Missions, you have the typical graphic interpretive signs used by the National Park Service, which do a nice job conveying how things were when we are faced with largely ruins, and like a magazine they combine drawings or photos with text to engage people.

San Jose metal plaq model

You also have the metal models that have been used for decades to help interpret sites for the vision-impaired, and indeed at some of the missions (San Jose and the Alamo) there are large dioramas and models of the missions interpreted at various points in time.  Indeed, this sort of interpretation dates back 80 years to when the San Antonio Conservation Society was helping save the missions for the first time.

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Other interpretive elements include the 21st century version of  those trippy narrated “laser light shows” you would see at historic sites in the 1970s.  Here in San Antonio you can go down to the San Fernando Cathedral on a weekend evening and see the history of the city projected onto the cathedral facade.  Next weekend (September 9) you can go to Mission San Jose and see its original 18th century colorful al seco decoration reappear “Restored by Light”.

San Jose decorative plaster.jpgA bit of the decoration tat Mission San Jose, recreated mid-20C

Now back to Colin Ellard.  The promise of our current era, which is less than a decade old, is the interpretive potential of our smartphones.  I remember discussing the use of cell phone for interpretation at an international conference back in 2007, in Sweden, and that was before the advent of the photographic and videographic potential of the smartphone.

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At that point, your phone could be a narrator only.  But that has all changed.

For a century or more the most immersive way to interpret history was the living history museum, the first being Skansen, founded by Artur Hazelius in 1890 in Stockholm, Sweden replete with relocated buildings and costumed interpreters.

skansen modelDiorama model of Skansen AT Skansen (kinda meta, huh?) 

Living history museums remain popular because they follow the old museum model of preservation, where places are removed from the economic everyday and put under glass, if you will.  And first person interpreters give you the feeling of being in another realm, another place, another time.

Guide at MasonicSMendocino, California.

This kind of “first person” interpretation was popular because it was immersive, three-dimensional, and employed costumed interpreters who made history “come alive” because they were, indeed, alive, and we are more likely to engage with people than buildings.

free quak mtg hs lvg hsty copy copyPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania

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Trenton, New Jersey

When I worked with Richard Rabinowitz of the American History Workshop 20 years ago we talked about “peopling the landscape” in a way that would mimic or substitute for an actual guide telling you the history of the place, or an actual actor reliving the history of the place.  Ellard calls this “presence” and looks to the technology of the 21st century as a way to bring the first-person perspective to interpretation of historic sites in our user-defined world.

Vince Michael - SACSSince even before Sweden in 2007, we have been touting Virtual Reality, a personal immersive environment that mimics the sights, sounds, and haptic experience of actually experiencing something.  Thirty years ago in York, England they created an indoor Viking village of AD 1000 full of smells and sights and sounds, kind of a carnival ride of immersion.  But that was nothing like what you can do today, where the user’s actions and movements actually manipulate the experience.

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But in some ways we live in the age not of virtual reality but augmented reality (AR) like Pokemon Go, a game that inserts characters into our environment.  How hard can that be to do with historic characters and sites?

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We can chase history in real space and real time with the aid of our own smartphone, which can easily provide images of any period or event in the history of a place.  You have probably seen those devices – they are little more than a box – that turn your smartphone into a mass-market VR device for your head.

vr-lasoyaHere it is just a block from the Alamo.

The future is here, and it can illuminate the past better than ever.

Today a visitor to a historic site like, say, the Alamo, expects to be able to take their own mobile device and experience the battle of 1836, along with the founding of the mission, its original construction in the early 18th century as well as its iconic rebuilding in 1849 with the roofline that now defines this city.

In fact, San Antonio hosts some of the most amazing firms whose VR can take you all over the world.  Taking you to March 1836 can be done.  Now.

Alamo selfieUnlike physical reconstruction, current technology allows you to adapt the interpretation with every new bit of factual evidence that comes along.  Instead of freezing a place in a singular interpretation based on one set of ideas or information, it is endlessly adaptable, and – in the parlance of historic preservation – eminently reversible.

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Plus it caters to current consumer/tourist demand, which is to see sites on individual terms.  In the Information Age, people happily trade Quality for Control.  We have become used to being able to control our experiences for ourselves.  Apps appeared a few years ago – in fulfillment of the idea expressed at that Sweden conference in 2007 – that allow people to hear or see elements of place history from their own mobile device.

Milano trams

The future is here, and it makes the past more accessible than ever.

 

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Gas Station Heritage

August 22, 2016

Back in 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held a national contest called “This Place Matters” where people voted on sites that mattered to them – to their history, their identity and their community. As I noted in my blog at the time, the winner was not a grand mansion or a pathbreaking design by a famous architect.

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It was a Humble Oil gas station in San Antonio. The San Antonio Conservation Society started surveying the city’s historic gas stations back in 1983. We built up a database, which has led to the City proposing the designation of some 30 of these significant community landmarks.

Slimp Oilb.jpgSlimp Oil, 604 Carolina

Happily, there has been a trend for years of converting the stations into restaurants. The typical design with a large canopy creates a welcoming feel (and an outdoor dining spot!)

St. Mary's N, 2334e (2012)North St. Mary’s

Some have been converted into ice houses (that is a kind of outdoor bar/restaurant for you Northerners) and auto shops and even churches and residences.

Flores S, 3124-6a (2012)

3124 S Flores

Many of those proposed for designation are in need of rehabilitation and have lost some bits of detail here and there, but all are certainly capable of being restored.

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202 Fredericksburg

I have long been interested in historic gas stations, but they are especially relevant in South Texas where the industry really took off following Spindletop and the Model T. These are a central part of our regional heritage.

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Our initial 1983 survey was updated and expanded in 2012 through a web portal that allowed for public access. The Society and the City hosted an event in May celebrating gas station architecture.

Nogalitos, 0901 - 26901 Nogalitos

Which is why it is curious that one of the largest and best of the list was ignored in a Business Journal article today touting the new development on the East Side by Varga Endeavors and Harris Bay.  They have a large site planned as a ring of 5-story buildings with a courtyard retail terrace centered on a vertical urban farm.  It has a kinda Silicon Valley “wow” factor for San Antonio.

The article lauds the fact that there were no historic buildings on site, as if such would somehow detract from the development concept.  Not true.  They would enhance it. As I explained in my recent blog “The Vacant Stare”, vacant sites do not inspire more creative solutions.Slimp Oil2b

Also curious is who told the developers that there were no historic buildings on the site. We’ve been aware of these treasures for decades.  They have been on a publically accessible website for four years.  And compared to many of the others on the list, this station is in excellent shape.

Carolina, 604 - 10 (2014)

We explained the significance of the site to Mr. Varga last week and encouraged him to work it into his new development.   It could be a drive-in entry to the project, or even part of the retail marketplace. Its “Alamo” roofline creates a great branding opportunity for the project just south of the Alamodome.  Here’s hoping that his architects see this superior example as an opportunity to enhance their project.

 

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A Reconstruction Avoided: Tustan

August 7, 2016

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Ten years ago this November.  My blog covered the event.

That is Vasyl Rozhko at the end of the table with me to his right.  I was in the Ukraine at the invitation of Myron Stachkiw (pointing at left) and other heritage experts, including Henry and Chris Cleere and Taissa Bushnell.  Rozhko’s father had spent his life documenting over 4000 post holes carved into 55-million year old rock outcroppings along a river in the Carpathian mountains.

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L1000367_1Photograph copyright Felicity Rich, 2006

The elder Rozhko had basically mapped out the extensive wooden fortress that guarded this site as a toll post from the 9th through 14th centuries, and it had been his dream to reconstruct the fortress.

vasyl tustan'Our team of international experts urged them not to attempt reconstruction.  Architecturally, in the absence of plans or photographs, it is generally impossible to know exactly what things looked like.  Moreover, the medieval wooden fort at Tustan had been added onto regularly for centuries.

tustan interp5The layers of construction at Tustan.

You also have the interpretation problem caused by reconstruction, which George Skarmeas identified last week at the Alamo Plaza presentation:  once you build something, docents and tour guides which soon describe it as authentic.  You create a false sense of history.

L1000413_1At the time of my 2006 visit, I had already been teaching courses in interpreting historic sites for some time and I knew something about audience engagement.  I pointed out that visiting the rocky outcrops, seeing the carved post holes and stair channels and even historic graffiti, gave tourists a sense of discovery.  When they saw the artifacts in the museum and the illustrations above, they could re-create the site in their mind.

tustan gate w-illoS This is the most effective kind of interpretation because it requires the active imagination of the visitor, creating a much richer experience and insuring that what is learned is retained.  You build your mind muscles.

L1000417_1You can also build other muscles climbing the rocks.

This was not always an easy sell in the Ukraine, which had rebuilt an important church destroyed by the Soviets (which they had good documentation of) and where they even proposed reconstructing the Desiatynna church that had been destroyed 800 years earlier by the Mongols (for which they had NO clue beyond the foundations).

governor's palace, williamsburg virginiaold postcard of the Governor’s Palace, Williamsburg, Virginia

Reconstruction used to happen here in the West, especially during the period between the Athens (1931) and Venice (1964) charters when our field was in its infancy.  Skarmeas pointed to the famous 1930s example of Williamsburg, where the Governor’s Palace was reconstructed based on the foundations and a SINGLE 17th century drawing of the exterior.

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Thirty years later, Jane Addams’ Hull House was reconstructed based on an 1897 painting that showed a hipped roof, despite the fact that 1893 PHOTOGRAPHS of the actual gabled roof existed.  (I did the definitive research on this back in the day)  You see, reconstruction can reinforce a false interpretation and thus take you in the direction AWAY from authenticity.  That’s why we avoid it.

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Besides, we live in the age of virtual reconstruction, when you can assemble bits into wonderful renderings of how things looked and make it available to everyone with a phone.  In fact, I was excited to learn that this is exactly what has happened at Tustan, where 3D models and virtual renderings of the fortress over time have obviated the need for misleading reconstruction.

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It is encouraging to see how technology has helped reverse the more destructive tendencies of early-20th century heritage conservation.  It is very encouraging for me personally to see the progress at Tustan (and the advancement of Vasyl Rozhko!).  Preservation has always been a future-oriented enterprise, and the 21st century is proving that out which each new decade.

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Alfred Giles, Architect

August 5, 2016

Alfred Giles emigrated to America in the 1870s after studying architecture in his native England.  Moving to San Antonio from New York in 1875, he became one of the most prolific and important architects in San Antonio.  In 1875 he designed the stunning Second Empire Steves Homestead in the King William District, which is open daily for tours.

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Nice.  How about a little detail of the rope molding on the windows?

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There you go – great ashlar limestone too!

Steves front porchGiles built his own home on the same street, although decidedly more modest.

giles83 306-8 KWsThe Steves Homestead was the first of several commissions in the tony King William district.  Giles also completed the Groos and Sartor houses here.

k william biggieSGroos House, built 1880.

He had an extensive career designing courthouses for a number of Texas counties in the popular eclectic styles of the last quarter of the 19th century.  One of my favorites of course is the one in Marfa, show below.

marfa to cthsSGiles was the key architect at Fort Sam Houston in the 1880s, which also followed late 19th century eclectic stylings designed for the local climate.  This includes the Officer’s Quarters and Stillwell House.

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Stilwell main facade

Just outside Fort Sam, which has 900 buildings on the National Register, is the massive Romanesque “Lambermount” that Giles designed for Edwin Terrell in 1894.

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Alfred Giles also contributed several significant downtown commercial buildings during his era, with the most prominent survivor being the stunning Crockett Block facing the Alamo.  Actually 4 connected limestone buildings with a common cornice, the block was completed in 1882, the year before the Alamo became the first landmark saved by a public entity west of the Mississippi.

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This southernmost building survived intact along with the northernmost.  The middle two had false fronts added in the 1950s but were brought back in 1980.

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They excavated to the south in 1980 and found a piece of the old Mission wall, which can be seen through a “window”.  They recently excavated again and found it again.

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This little gem is right around the corner from Alamo Plaza and is the Albert Maverick Building, designed by Alfred Giles just before the Crockett Block.  It was even more heavily altered and nearly unrecognizable in 1979 when the San Antonio Conservation Society stepped in to conserve and restore it as the oldest commercial building in the downtown.  Giles designed a number of residential and commercial buildings for the Maverick family over the years.

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Giles expanded an 1857 Greek Revival house for Louis Oge in King William in the same year he was building the Crockett Block, 1882.  I will be adding more of Giles works to this blog in the coming weeks – as the 19th century turned into the 20th, Giles like other architects adopted the more restrained styling of Craftsman houses and even a little Collegiate Gothic church completed in 1918, his penultimate commission.  It is just around the corner from me!

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Dunno what they did with windows and doors tho….

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Moving Buildings – San Antonio

July 20, 2016

I am living in an historic building that was moved more than a mile from its original location, from the King William district, the first historic district in Texas.

Oge Carriage House YE.jpg

This is the 1881 Oge carriage house, now located near the Yturri-Edmunds house, which is in its original location near Mission Road.  Our San Antonio Conservation Society moved the house here in order to save it.  On the same property we also have the Postert House, an 1850 palisado cabin which was similarly moved in order to save it from demolition.  In fact, I remember very well in 1985 when San Antonio set a record for moving the largest building that had ever been relocated on wheels, the 1906 Fairmount Hotel.

Fairmount Moving a 3.2 million pound building was an impressive feat, and like most preservation feats in San Antonio, it was an achievement of the San Antonio Conservation Society, who instigated the move, got the City behind it, and loaned developers money to cover operating shortfalls.  It was the largest building moved ON TIRES and it made a huge splash, but we need to recall that moving buildings – on rails or logs, was exceedingly common in the past.  A few blocks away you can see the former Alamo National Bank building, a five story building constructed in 1902 and then moved in 1913 to accommodate the widening of Commerce Street.  It then had three more stories added.

Commerce Bldg3

Moving buildings was much more common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, even though the technology was more limited.  Part of the reason is economic – back then the improvements could be more valuable than the land.  Also, people prior to 1946 were less wasteful.  And those buildings were built to last.  I actually lived in an 1872 house that had been moved – only a hundred feet or so – in 1878.

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This is the only non-San Antonio photo in this blog.  Obviously.

Some San Antonio buildings have moved more than once.  Trekking from the Main Plaza past City Hall toward Market Square, you will encounter the O. Henry House (not to be confused with the O. Henry House in Austin) where the famous writer lived while editing his newspaper The Rolling Stone.

ohenry house

Well this is one peripatetic house.  Originally it was over a mile away on South Presa Street, and threatened with demolition in 1959, the San Antonio Conservation Society arranged to have it moved to the Lone Star Brewery where it was part of a museum collection until the brewery closed in 1997, at which point it moved to this downtown location and is again a museum.

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San Antonio has been saving buildings by moving them for so long that when they staged their World’s Fair in 1968 its distinctive feature was the re-use of some two dozen historic buildings.  Many more were lost, and some of those promised to be saved, like the stunning Greek Revival Groos House, were demolished by neglect or deceit.  Yet at the end of the day it was the first World’s Fair to invite historic buildings to the party, a fact celebrated by no less than the New York Times’ architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable.

hemisfair ent n strfrtS

Now that the fair is approaching its 50th anniversary, some of those buildings are being saved – and in some cases, moved – again.  Interestingly, some of those buildings will actually benefit in the new Hemisfair plan by being moved AGAIN, because they will be placed in their original orientation and in fact streets are coming back so the buildings will have a more sensitive context than they did in 1968.

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This is the stone Twohig House, built in 1841 and reconstructed on the grounds of the Witte Museum in Brackenridge Park exactly one hundred years later, with furnishings provided by the San Antonio Conservation Society.  The Witte actually has several buildings in what I once derisively called “a petting zoo” of historic buildings, including this lovely Onderdonk Studio and the Ruiz House, which is adaptively reused as the Witte’s gift shop.

Witte Onderdonk .jpg

I have been to the first “petting zoo” which Artur Hazelius created in the 19th century in Stockholm Sweden.  The purpose there was to preserve an understanding of rural heritage in an increasingly urban society.  The houses at the Witte are connected to the interior exhibits on local history and thus well interpreted, but the whole question of moving buildings is problematic in the heritage conservation world.

The basic idea is that moving a building destroys the CONTEXT, the sense of PLACE.  We do not consider these art objects as much as PLACES, so our laws reflect that.  My carriage house and the little Postert House behind me are NON-CONTRIBUTING structures to the Yturri-Edmunds National Register nomination because they are not original to the site.

YW grist millll.jpg

This is the Grist Mill at the Yturri-Edmunds complex, and it is in its original location – but it is not the original building but a 1970s reconstruction on the original foundations.  Like relocated buildings, reconstructions also have a hard time becoming landmarks.  The challenging conceptual bind is this – by relocating and thus saving the structure, we retain more knowledge and information about the past and can interpret it for the public.  But we have a harder interpretive job, because context has been lost, much as in the relocation of precious archaeological treasures.  Relocation is indeed a last resort, but sometimes it makes sense, like in the case of the Stuemke Barn, which we relocated behind our headquarters in King William because it was the only remaining building left on a downtown block being readied for a skyscraper.  In 1982.  The skyscraper isn’t up yet, by the way.

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That’s the thing about big real estate developers – they don’t move as fast as us.

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Ruiz House at the Witte Museum

Perhaps San Antonio has moved so many buildings because it feels the power of preservation much more than most cities, and has done so for much longer.  This is a community that will not stand by when an element of its built heritage is threatened.  Even if we have to number the stones and reconstruct it, even if it must move a mile or more, we are not willing to simply document what was – we want it as part of our future.

 

 

 

Places of the Heart Part 1

July 8, 2016

I just read Colin Ellard’s Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life because I saw a reference to his studies, which measure how buildings and landscapes affect our bodies and minds, our thoughts and emotions.  He famously tracked persons’ stress levels as they encountered blank and forbidding urban scenes versus human-scaled and interesting ones.  Blank and forbidding facades increase cortisol and stress.  Varied and humane ones trigger dopamine.

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Where are the people?  Why don’t they flock here?

Large Cairoli curving facade

Oooh, that’s better, yes, right there…

The book is an excellent survey of recent advances in neuroscience that further demolish the old mind/body and brain/heart dichotomy.  We all know that architecture and design can affect our feelings, but it turns out that affect – our feelings – are also part of the infrastructure of our thoughts.  Ellard describes his own reactions to places like Stonehenge and St. Peter’s in Rome and traces the history of built structures from the pre-agrarian ceremonial structures of Göbekli Tepe which are for him “prima facie evidence of our early understanding of the power of built structure to influence feelings.” (p.15)

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Celtic stone circle in the Wachau, Austria.

The book is rich in references to a wide variety of studies in neuroscience, including Giacomo Rizzolatti’s discovery of mirror neurons in the early 1990s, where even the adoption of a pose (or the witnessing of that pose) can affect one’s affect. This reminded me of my work over 20 years ago developing a wayfinding system for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor, where consultant Richard Rabinowitz’s American History Workshop developed interpretive systems that altered your posture to make history come alive.  Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright used pathways, compression and release of space to direct our attention.

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We walk the walk with Wright

Ellard very early quotes John Locke (the new one, not the old one) in regard to WALLS – which Locke notes were not just created for protection but also “to protect us from the cognitive load of having to keep track of the activitites of strangers.”  The enterprise of psychogeography is thus the commodification of ATTENTION.

farns lvg to deck1109s

Who needs a TV?

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Attention is itself an amazing illustration of the interconnections of mind and body.  Ellard notes that we “form preferences for certain types of faces within 39 milliseconds of their appearance” and we extract the gist of a landscape scene within 20 milliseconds, which means that these processes are happening faster than our “rational” mind can process them.  But we process them nevertheless.

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Eppur si muove

Living in San Antonio the famed River Walk is an excellent example of the kinds of things that appeal to our basic neural emotions and thoughts.  Curving lines, a variety of materials and images, an ever-evolving perspective.  This is even codified in the River Improvement Overlay that requires design variety at the River Walk level, a perfect codification of Ellard’s thesis that “by simply changing the appearance and the physical structure of the bottom three meters of a building facade, it is possible to exert a dramatic impact on the manner in which a city is used.” (p.110)

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Even if it is a parking garage…

This is rooted in our basic neural processes, according to Ellard “we are biologically disposed to want to be in locations where there is some complexity, some interest, the passing of messages of one kind or another.” (p.113)  It is not simply variety, but the URGE TO KNOW.

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I love the San Antonio River Walk.  Also, I think it.

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This knowledge of the psychogeography of everyday life is in fact a powerful tool for heritage conservation; for preserving the detailed, human scaled buildings of the past that accomplished information variety and integrated attentiveness.  This is much more than aesthetics.  It is mental health.

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Fort Collins

STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO WHERE WE DELVE INTO TECHNOLOGY (and Authenticity) (and how all cognition utilizes ellipsis)

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Alamo Plaza and Modern Archaeology

June 30, 2016

One of the great things about being in San Antonio is that they have 300+ years of history and a city archaeoligist.  My years at Global Heritage Fund brought me into contact with a lot of archaeologists, just at a time in history when the field was being revolutionized by LIDAR, ground-penetrating radar and all sorts of other high-tech options that allowed us to evolve beyond simply digging things up, which is inherently destructive.  Here is a blog about LIDAR from a little over a year ago.  I also did a lecture at the Pacific Union Club a while back on the latest in archaeological technology, and another blog last year titled Heritage in the Age of Virtual Reconstruction.

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It seems that the investigation of the Alamo Plaza to determine the 1836 battle boundaries is focusing on digging.  There is one good reason for this – they are planning to engage the public in the discussion, and having actual pits will foster curiosity and engagement, as this recent article describes.  There has been and will be use of ground-penetrating radar as well, and we can hope they use the full range of 21st century technology for such an important site.  As George Skarmeas said in the article – it is like Athens in terms of the layers of history!

In fact, there is an excellent summary of the latest developments in archaeology – and historic interpretation – just up the river at the Witte, which has an excellent exhibit on the Maya.

Witte Maya show overlay

Actually, the technique here is pre-digital.  Those older blogs show examples of the kind of virtual reconstructions that have been available to visitors for decades.  The excellent thing about this type of interpretation is it does the same thing as digging in terms of engaging the public.  You do more than simply look at a single thing: you see the layers and allow your mind to reconstruct the historic view.  This is, in fact, how your mind works.

 

 

 

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San Antonio Conservation

June 26, 2016

“The entire mix of cultures was their birthright, the soul of their home city, and it was not to be taken away. Their goal became the saving not only of landmarks but of traditions and ambiance and natural features as well, the preservation of no less than San Antonio’s entire cultural and natural environment.”

Lewis F. Fisher, Saving San Antonio, p. 91-92

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For many years I have been pushing for “heritage conservation” as a superior term to “historic preservation” because it suggests a broader array of heritage beyond the architectural.  I have also been working to reform the National Register of Historic Places to better represent the diversity of the American experience.

La Villita cafe.jpgAnd now I am in a city that has recognized conservation as being about “place” more than buildings.   A city that has ALWAYS celebrated its cultural diversity.  San Antonio, Texas.

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Remember that detail?

When I told people I was becoming the Executive Director of the San Antonio Conservation Society every single one had something good to say about San Antonio.  What do you like about the city?  Chances are you have the San Antonio Conservation Society to thank for it.

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Mission San Jose

You like the Missions, which include the Alamo and four more (Concepción, San Jose, San Juan de Capistrano, Espada) that last year became one of only a couple dozen WORLD HERITAGE SITES in the U.S.?  Thank the San Antonio Conservation Society, which purchased mission lands in the first half of the 20th century and then gave them to the National Park that now operates there.

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You like the Riverwalk?  Thank the San Antonio Conservation Society, which fought plans to fill in its winding course and brought in the architect (R.H.H. Hugman) who designed this attraction in the 1920s.  Very few organizations have had such a concrete (or more appropriately, caliche block limestone) effect on their city for so long – 92 years and counting.

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Steves Homestead – opened as a house museum by the Conservation Society in 1954: in 1968 the surrounding King William area became the first historic district in Texas.

San Antonio was at the forefront of the national preservation movement by World War Two because the women who formed the society saw that heritage conservation was not simply buildings but all of the natural, built, tangible and intangible elements that make up place.  And we remain at the forefront, striving to preserve the first Woolworth’s lunch counter to be peacefully integrated in the South in 1960, and the stunning 1968 Wood Courthouse.

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How’s that for Mid-Century Modern!

So I am very honored to be here.  I began June 13, 325 years after San Antonio was first named.  True settlement began in 1718, and the city was always a multicultural frontier town, amazing Frederick Law Olmsted in 1856 with its “jumble of races, costumes, languages and buildings.”   This is what inspired Emily Edwards – who had spent time at Hull House in Chicago – and Rena Maverick Green to form the San Antonio Conservation Society in 1924.  They wanted to save the Greek Revival Market House, but immediately began a campaign that was NOT your usual historic society – in fact they were frustrated when they incorporated that “cultural conservation” did not exist as a category!

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Wise business and political leaders thought the bends should be straightened out…

The Conservation Society was also key in the San Antonio Missions being inscribed as World Heritage last year.  The Missions have been preserved by an alliance between the San Antonio Conservation Society, the Catholic Church, the State of Texas, the National Park Service and now of course UNESCO.  People in San Antonio tend to work together.

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After mass today, the priest asked the parishioners to voteyourpark.org to help raise money for fresco restoration at Mission Concepción – you should too!!

It is wonderful to be part of such an excellent organization in such an excellent city, where growth and progress have always been based on heritage.  That is the most sustainable form of development.  As to my own history, you can read about my own Myth of Eternal Return from 6 years ago (myth no more!) and my talk on the How and Why of Preservation here in late 2014.

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I am more than a little humbled by those who have gone before me.  Like everywhere, there are losses and challenges and hard-won victories.  The nation’s 7th-largest city is growing, and that means our heritage buildings, landscapes, and traditions will be growing as well, sustaining a rich and diverse heritage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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