Latest news on Alamo Plaza

December 3, 2016

The big news this week is the long-awaited release of the Alamo Master plan, following a process that took most of the year.  Actually, the real master plan won’t be done for another six months, but the summary that was released to City Council and civic groups finally takes some clear positions on what the Alamo area will look like in the future.

Alamo 7;12 AMl

This image I took about five months ago in some ways summarizes the plan, offered by George Skarmeas of Philadelphia and a large local team.  The goal is to restore focus not simply on the Alamo church but the plaza in front of it.  They propose to remove traffic from Alamo Street, which while presenting a traffic challenge (there will be no northbound street route for half a mile) will reclaim the original ground level and create a coherent plaza to interpret both the mission period and the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.

shop row facing alamo

Of key importance to groups like the San Antonio Conservation Society, the historic buildings facing the Alamo across the plaza will not be demolished, as had been proposed by some who wanted to reconstruct the west wall of the compound (for stunning views of a 5-story parking garage, I guess).  Indeed, the team proposes turning the 1882 Crockett Block (see my blog on architect Alfred Giles) into a new high-tech Alamo museum, a double win for preservationists, who have advocated not only for the building but also for high-tech VR interpretation.  (Another blog reference.)

Crocket facade detail

The only cautionary note here is that the proposal guarantees preservation of the facades but foresees indeterminate change inside, due to potential demands of the new museum.  Hopefully they find a clever architect who can meet modern demands while minimizing disruption of historic fabric.  The plan also preserves the Woolworth Building, site of the first successfully and peacefully integrated lunch counter in the south, back in 1960, although those interiors are long gone.


In addition to closing the street, the plan is to create a single, lower and more original level to the plaza, as opposed to the accretion of parks, gazebos, curbs and so forth that have cluttered the plaza and given visitors the impression that the church is where all the history happened, as opposed to the plaza, where it actually did.

alamo-plazasThe trees are slated to go as well….

To reinforce the importance of the plaza, they will put a wall and entrance in the position of the original, primary South Gate.  The full plaza cannot be restored, since almost a third of it lies north of Houston Street, under the stunning Federal building and Post Office.

po-courthousesYeah, so about 20 yards into this building  is where Santa Anna broke through the Alamo wall…

Probably the most controversial proposal is to move the Alamo Cenotaph erected in 1940-41 and designed in marble and granite by sculptor Pompeo Coppini.  The cenotaph is fairly large and vertical, so it does contribute to the sense that the Alamo church is “too small,” a common visitor impression.  And while it might be located near where many fell, it is a cenotaph, which means no one is buried there.  They propose moving it to a greensward on the Riverwalk about three blocks away, where recent research has shown that the funeral pyre was likely located.  Despite this rationale I expect this aspect to be hotly debated in the coming months.


On balance the plan will help create a more coherent interpretation, as opposed to the accretion of many layers, which does little to orient or educate visitors.


It is significant that this work is happening in 2016 after the Alamo became part of the the San Antonio Missions World Heritage inscription of 2015.  Creating a coherent plaza will help interpret not only the great battle for Texas freedom, but also its long mission history.

sama-gentliz-alamo19cThis is what the church looked like in 1836 – that distinctive campanulate top to the church was added by the US Army in the 1850s.  From Gentilz painting in San Antonio Museum of Art.

In fact, the church was built fairly late in the mission’s history and never completed (an earlier one collapsed). As Skarmeas said, the goal is to create a sense of reverence and solemnity on a site that is now a jumble of commercial concerns and random pathways ill-suited to contemplation.  To achieve it – in the center of the nation’s seventh-largest city – remains a great challenge.



The Future of Heritage Conservation

November 20, 2016

Well, it finally started to happen, and in Houston of all places.  PastForward, the National Preservation Conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, witnessed the emergence of the next generation of “preservation” practitioners and highlighted the future of the movement.  Featuring inner-city artists who save places like Houston native Rick Lowe and Chicagoan Theaster Gates, it felt to many of us like the movement had finally turned the corner and embraced the future.

project-row-houses-the-shotProject Row Houses by Rick Lowe – I finally saw it 20 years after I met the man.

It was the conference in Nashville in 2009 when Donovan Rypkema exhorted us to stop calling it “historic preservation” and embrace “heritage conservation”.  I immediately agreed with him and wrote a blog and article about it after Nashville.  In the years since we have labored to create a more diverse National Register of Historic Places, an effort I have written and spoken about often.  Around 2010 I was involved in strategic planning efforts on the boards of both Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the short answer was: we need to let the next generation define and lead this movement.  And now it seems we are beginning to do so.

theaster-at-pfTheaster Gates speaking at PastForward, Houston 2016.

I had two opportunities to participate in this discussion at the conference in Houston.  First, I was asked to talk about the Future of “Preservation” practice as the keynote of the Partners luncheon.  My message in some ways was simple:  It is heritage conservation, and we need to become urbanists and culturalists more than architectural historians.  We need to embrace place and people and move away from the rules-driven world of preservation regulation and into the future-building world of community engagement and empowerment.

20th st murals

As I have been saying for years, heritage conservation is a PROCESS that begins with engaging community in what elements of their past they want in their future.  The tools of engagement are many, as are the results, because a rule or standard that works for one cultural community may not work for another.  I have worked all over the world and I know this process can work ANYWHERE and I know equally well how to fail.

L1000417_1It’s always an uphill climb… Tustan, Ukraine, 2006.  They did not fail, as I reported earlier this fall.

I organized the talk around specific changes happening now and in the future that effect our field, like the nature of commercial real estate in an internet-and-drone world, where there are fewer stores and more restaurants, and where physical space is not for meeting needs but creating experiences.

luminaria night bright2

There is climate change and rising sea levels which will drown many resources and force very difficult triage decisions.  We will be forced to abandon certain resources or go to great lengths to save others.  Despite this,  heritage conservation is well suited to this future, because it has always been future-oriented.  It has always been about planning.  And – for at least the last 50 years – it has been all about adaptive re-use.  The greatest urbanist successes worldwide in recent decades have come from whole districts repurposed for new uses.

lodo 083_1.jpgLower Downtown, Denver.

For half a century heritage conservationists have been revitalizing downtowns and Main Streets.  While the organization men of commercial real estate were fleeing to the malls and declaring downtowns dead, we crafted new downtowns out of old buildings and bequeathed to millenials something they can’t live without.  We learned long ago that the most sustainable development model is rehabbing old buildings.  And now the organization men have turned tail and are glomming on to our historic centers.

pearl-brewerysEspecially in Texas where this Pearl has added luster to a whole city…

I also touched on technology, which is giving us new, less-damaging ways to identify and document historic resources like LIDAR and ground-penetrating radar.  It is also giving us new non-destructive ways to interpret historic sites, like the recreation of the paint colors at the Missions here in San Antonio during “Restored By Light.”  Technology is allowing us to avoid irreversible decisions in both documentation and interpretation.


Technology is also letting us know why our brains prefer historic places, and why we need the sense of human connection that heritage conservation gives us, but that mechanistic analog approaches to economic development often fail to do.

I then dealt as I have for many years with the need to be inclusive in an increasingly diverse society.  This has been an important issue in our field for a quarter-century, and we are finally formulating solutions.  We learned during the opening plenary at Houston that Houston is actually the model of a diverse city, with various groups represented at roughly the same percentage as the world at large.  So I have been saying this, but it became evident in this conference that we have started DOING it.


It became apparent to me in a panel I had the honor of moderating on Friday, called “We The People..” which had three young heritage conservation professionals describe the new tools they have developed for engaging community in conservation, and how those tools of engagement are reshaping the field.

14732353_1420491561312319_1200806351050471464_nMe, Emilie Evans, Briana Grosicki, and Claudia Guerra.

Briana Grosicki talked about the parcel survey done in Muncie, Indiana, which is creating a database that involves the residents in collecting information not only about buildings but other aspects of place-based life.  This helps address the 70% of older buildings that define most cities, not the 4-5% that are landmarked.  Emilie Evans talked about Brick + Beam Detroit, a program that helps property owners, contractors and rehabbers develop their capacity to transform their environments through positive action.  Claudia Guerra spoke about her efforts to collect oral histories and other intangible heritage elements that define the lives of those around San Antonio’s historic missions, whose UNESCO World Heritage inscription was earned not through architecture but through a cultural landscape that defined a meeting of civilizations that began 300 years ago and IS STILL GOING ON.  Continuity with the past.

MIssion Concepcio after massMission Concepcion after Sunday mass.

Claudia’s cultural mapping project is one all “preservationists” should support, because it brings us into the current millennium in terms of our heritage conservation tools, techniques, and objectives, and because it activates the community to help direct and steward that effort over time.  People ARE connected to place, and thanks to technology and an understanding of the conservation process, we can all work to help them identify those elements they need to continue to connect them to place.

seminar group1sMy SAIC students at Roger Brown Study Collection, Chicago, December 2009.

I have been fortunate to work in this field for more than three decades and I am even more fortunate to witness how the next generation is transforming and expanding heritage conservation to make a more meaningful life for everyone.

PS I actually saw at least three of the above students at PastForward in Houston!

Japan Ancient and Modern

October 17, 2016

There is a wonderful aesthetic unique to Japan.  It is spare and austere. Like some modern architecture, there is a reduction that forces you to focus.

Kodaiji zen garden2.jpg

This is more than the Western wannabe of the Zen garden, which appealed so much to the warlords of the Kamakura period.  Like modern Americans, they subscribed to a code of self-centered self-reliance.  Perhaps there is more room for the self when the field of view is not cluttered.


There is an ancient aesthetic in Japan that is more than simply simplicity.


It is more than the voids in the landscape scrolls and screens which are not voids at all, but undelineated space for the viewer to enter.


It is an understanding that art, like nature, is there to direct your attention, and that the object and viewer only exist together.


But what strikes me on this tour as we bask in contemporary art and architecture, is the unbroken connection between ancient and modern Japanese art, architecture and aesthetics.  I have always seen how Tadao Ando loved concrete the way a temple builder loves wood, and to see the stacked bark roofs and the lovingly polished Ando concrete is to see an appreciation of materiality that goes back a millennium or more.

Bark roof at Kasuga Shrine .jpg


Benesse House concrete det.jpg

We visited the Miho Museum in Shiga prefecture, lovingly designed by the American architect I. M. Pei with reference to and reverence for place.  This was a stunning museum experience not only because the building was primarily underground, but because each gallery focused on a limited number of items and displayed each to its fullest, beginning with a Syrian mosaic and a massive leaning Gandhara Buddha (photography is not allowed in the exhibits so we will have to make do without the objects.)


Each room had perhaps six to eight pieces – Greek sculpture, Persian relief, Egyptian statuettes but the lighting and presentation were exquisite and you realized you saw more and retained more than the typically more “full” gallery.  Perhaps you can see the forest through a single tree.


Our Japanese guide is constantly reminding us that our amazing meals are meant to be enjoyed with our eyes as well as our mouth, and even the bento box caresses each item with its own frame, its own box to present it as a more satisfying experience.


We went to Naoshima island and saw Chichu museum, designed by Tadao Ando a dozen years ago.  Again, the museum is largely underground and was designed to display but three artists – the Frenchman Claude Monet and the Americans James Turrell and Walter de Maria.  Again, no photographs are allowed, but each artist had a space and there were a total of eight works – five Monet, three Turrell and one de Maria, and the experience was fulfilling.

Chichu pondS.jpg

The Benesse Museum on Noashima has been around a quarter-century but it, too, is very spare in presentation – an entire triple-height room devoted to a single Bruce Nauman piece, a skylit courtyard devoted to another piece, and Sugimoto’s photos that are displayed on exterior walls and even a mile away in the distance.

benesse-museum-sugimoto-upThe Japanese aesthetic was perhaps most pronounced at the Teshima Art Museum on a nearby island.  It is a concrete shell structure of the most exquisitely polished concrete I have seen, meant to house a single work consisting of water droplets that emerge from the floor and flow at various speeds in various directions.  Architect Ryue Nishizawa and artist Rei Naito.  Mesmerizing, liberating.


We saw much more and I could say more, but I won’t right now.

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.

Malt House Zarza faceS.jpg

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.


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?


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.

relive moments

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.

UG RR maywood plqS.jpg

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


The Malt House is now subject to purchase by 7-11 and the City wants to insure that 7-11 creates a facility that will maintain the spatial relationships – carport, etc.  of the Malt House.

Predictabily, many of the local residents are pushing for a Malt House-style business in the location, not a 7-11.

Perhaps if we consider the preservation concept of Reversibility, we could construct a 7-11 that would not only retain the sense of place there today, but could also be adaptively re-used as the Malt House at some point in the future.


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.


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?


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.

San Jose miss facadeS.jpg



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.

shop row facing alamo

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

fed courthouse oblS

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.





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..

7 sidewalk bricks

lincn new salem

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

lincn new salem2.jpg

Or see yourself in the landscape…

MIssion Espada church founds

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.

miss san jose model2l

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.

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


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.

VM infinity mirrorS

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?


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.

716 S Alamo

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.


Kudos to developer Efraim Varga, who has now announced that the Slimp Oil building will indeed be the entrance to his project – an excellent decision that preserves the best of the past while ushering in an exciting new development!



A Reconstruction Avoided: Tustan

August 7, 2016

tustan conf 2s

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.

tustan f below

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.


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.

HH model bestS

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.

tustan ctyd

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.


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.

steves houseS

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

Steves rope molding2.jpg

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.

Fort Sam officers c

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.

Longermont side.jpg

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.

Crocket facade detail.jpg

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.

shop row facing alamo.jpg

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.


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.

mitchell oge57-82 209 wshgtnS.jpg

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!

Presa Carolina church.jpg

Dunno what they did with windows and doors tho….


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.

915 snowS

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.

hemisfair 2stry stone.jpg

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.

WITTE stone house.jpg

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.

Wulfff barn.jpg

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

Witte Ruiz house.jpg

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.