Archive for November, 2010

The Next American City: A Response

November 29, 2010

By Vince Michael and Anthea Hartig

We regrettably missed Charles Buki’s Next American City speech at the National Preservation Conference in Austin, but studied it and it is a provocative scorcher, as the self-described “community developer” no doubt intended (see for yourself at and Buki congenially opens with his denouncing of the label preservationist, but goes on to share his valuable critique of our built environment – and of preservation’s seeming lack of care about community and over-privileging of architecture and its rehabilitation. We here writing don’t have the luxury of eschewing the preservationist label, although we are both active in the discursive movement afoot to change that label (see Forum Journal, Spring 2010, focused on “What’s Next for Historic Preservation,” in particular Donovan Rypkema’s headlining article, Michael’s and Muniz/Hartig’s pieces therein and the follow-up Forum On-Line discussion with Rypkema and Vince Michael.

Buki’s overall critique of our social built environment finds it Koyaanisqatsi-esque—an out of balance set of places in which interdependencies and interconnections have been lost. He also argued convincingly that distinctions between city and suburb are artificial and not helpful, especially in the wake of our efforts to rebuild such places through preservation, new urbanism, or even “old” urbanism, about which we couldn’t agree more, but for reasons different than his. Here goes.


Buki’s stated theme was diversity, and how we fail to achieve it and incubate it in designing cities and suburbs. He argues, again convincingly, that diversity and complexity provide the underpinnings of true sustainability. We dug this aspect of Buki’s critique because it resonated with Jane Jacobs’ description of the city as a problem of organized complexity. Jacobs said the city is a biological problem, not a statistical (disorganized complexity) or chemical (two variable) problem. Emphasizing the point, Buki quoted Wendell Berry to reinforce the biological analogy; we’re with you so far, to paraphrase The Eagles.

Buki talked a lot about “monochromatic” developments and places, be they city or suburban, red or blue states. We tend to live with people who act like us, and more importantly – consume like us, understandable but regrettable patterns of human behavior that reduce diversity and thus true sustainability. He talked about the fields of Subarus and Volvos that characterized the Berkeley, CA cityscape and the Ford F-150s and four-story high crosses of the Amarillo, TX architectural ecosystem and it seemed his point was the we who resemble Berkeleyite’s self-righteousness, hail the concept of diversity while failing to live it, or live in it. We’re not sure about his point regarding Amarillo.

He argued, again persuasively, that city and suburb are artificial distinctions, which rings increasingly true. One of us lives in a suburb that has two subway lines and a full range of consumer activities within walking distance, and can show you Chicago neighborhoods that lie further from the center along commuter rail lines or highways with complete separation of residence from commerce.

this is a suburb

this is the inner city

Environmental Determinism

Buki’s strongest arguments had less to do with preservation and more to do with New Urbanism, and we suppose, Old Urbanism as well. He decried the urban designers “trying disentangle a suburban dystopia” who in “their aggressive self –confidence” have “misreduced the entirety of the challenge of the built environment to a problem no more complex than its new urbanist solution is one-dimensional.” It took a while to work it out, but we finally think what he said was that the solutions to community will not be found in the realm of design, nor in the realm of rehabilitation for the sake of such.

This comes back to Jane Jacobs charge that “the city is not a work of art” and that any attempt to treat it that way is “taxidermy. She was the first to see the flaw in environmental determinism whether it was Beaux-Arts or High Modern, in fact she was the first to see the functional equivalence between those apparently divergent forms. Both failed at complexity and diversity. She looked beyond design, as Buki is trying to do. And she was a preservationist, as we are.

But many have a narrow view of preservation, of heritage conservation. It is not about “skeletal remains” as Buki says, and even if it was, they are generally better skeletons in historic buildings than can be built today for all money in Dubai. There is an inherent diversity in an inherited environment that is almost impossible to plan for, nevermind design at-once for. A key layer to this inherited above-ground archaeology is our familiar past of the last half of the twentieth century.

In a witty but weak and unfair accusation, Buki fretted about the Recent Past, lobbing that “tomorrow’s challenges facing preservationists’ is “what label to put on what was built between 1946 and 1964, a period not generally known for much of anything not straight out of some Soviet architect’s pattern book.” Well, it is today’s challenge and the global heritage conservation community continues to respond well and intelligently for the most part. In fact, debates, tensions, and outcomes swirling around understanding and conserving the recent past and weaving it into a sustainable future might be illustrative helpful for Buki and his team. For as we collectively understand the critical importance of both the remarkable design contribution of a remarkable range of architects, from the Neutras to Lautner, from Wright to Rudolph, from Yamasaki to Ossipoff. And the movements, choices, changes that took place in those two decades following WWII remain completely significant.

Gentrification and the Problem of History

Buki illustrated the failure of diversity in preservation through an anecdote about rehabbing a house in Alexandria in the early 90s and going to get glass at a local smoke-filled hardware store, not Home Depot, and hearing how the old men there did not feel welcome at the new coffee shop. It was a freeze frame in the gentrification that is so often associated with preservation, an historical moment when the old-fashioned charm of Jane Jacob’s Hudson Street locksmith and deli owner coexist with the beatniks and professionals. That moment passes in time and it seems that soon the old business guys are pushed out along with the hipster artists who started the whole process, and the gentrified community becomes more and more monochromatic.

Gentrification happens in more places and more often WITHOUT preservation, but Buki’s point is worth considering. How can a heritage conservation movement embrace diversity when we are, in his words, aligned with Panera Bread and Barnes and Noble and addicted to Whole Foods? Buki asks for “a restored building not with a Starbucks or Peets, but instead a local vendor but whose product line and pricing structure renders the business completely inaccessible to the people who live in the new building’s shadow.” To assume that those/we preservationists don’t think or care about the end use and users of place is to rob them/us of the tap root of our thinking—the histories and stories of people in places.

Can this be achieved?

Well, there is a history problem here. You can’t craft a community freeze frame, not via some inorganic affordable housing policy or equally inorganic New Urbanist form that is dependent on environmental determinism finally working. Even preservation, which is a form of community development more than anything else, can’t stop time, and more importantly, doesn’t want to.

You can slam New Urbanists for creating high-style and/or old-timey versions of the gated community and preservationists for leaning too heavily on coffee chains to save their precious architecture. But how do you achieve diversity without stopping time? Can you keep the quaint, inexpensive “real” community at the moment you discover it, or is the process of conserving buildings really simply the same as improving buildings? And was that community truly diverse at the moment you discovered it and began the inexorable shift toward improvement? Is diversity simply a characteristic of a community in flux? Can you plan it? Can you design for it? Pay a consultant to analyze your lack of it?

We would like to push Buki’s point further – we want diversity in our communities, but design – not Old or New Urbanism, not HABS drawings or boulevard electroliers – is not going to get us there. The solution won’t happen solely in the realm of design. But it will happen in the built environment, and most built environments that have a history have some diversity—we’d argue that most have histories more diverse than commonly known and that part of our collective charge is uncovering those diversities and their owners.

Buki’s search for the interdependencies that make up a truly sustainable and diverse community leads him to critique both affordable housing and preservation for confusing the ends with the means. He asks “what is the role of preservation in getting us there when preservation is not the end goal, but one tool among many aimed at creating a system the chief characteristic of which is diversity?”

This is an exciting time to be in conservation writ large, especially now with the new National Trust President, Stephanie Meeks, crafting a more inclusive – diverse – vision of preservation tethered both to environmentalism and history. It isn’t just about the buildings, it is about the community, and that is why we joined Don Rypkema in calling for a rebrand: heritage conservation. For almost fifty years, we toiled in these preservation fields, and it has never been just about the buildings. More importantly, it was never just about the laws or design review or certificates of appropriateness. Community preservationists worth their salt have always treated preservation in exactly the way Buki calls for: one tool among many. Diversity is not their goal, but conserving community is.

And why does every speech to preservationists contain a plea that we have to let some buildings go? Here is how he put it:
“If you are inclined to see our post Industrial system as broken – as I do – and in need of repair and love – as I do, then you must be willing to abandon the preservation of even the most beloved stones, if the price of their rescue is the perpetuation of what’s fundamentally broken and somehow, intended or not, the kind of community amnesia paralyzing our country today”
The responses to Buki’s online posting of his speech included a few that charged preservationists with being self-righteous and of course, the hoariest chestnut of all, that preservationists want to save everything. We hear this all-too often and it’s nonsense along with being a false choice. We challenge the self-righteous preservationists without challenging the precept that most – not all – buildings are better where they are than in the landfill. It is about striking balances, complex, multi-dimensional balances to be sure, about which Buki would concur.

And it is about community and about communities’ effects on the very essence of human identity, or as Buki writes, “we are nurtured by the communities that surround us and cradled by the neighborhoods where we live” ( ) Indeed. While one of us grew up and lives in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb to end all suburbs, the other was taken home from the hospital to a new track home in Alta Loma, California, where the year before had been acres of citrus trees. Surely both places, both communities shaped us, and probably both the longevity of Oak Park and the rapidity of change along with the pain of erasure in Alta Loma had something to do with our chosen paths and philosophies. As did our choices as adults—to work dirty jobs, to get Ph.D.s, or to buy one’s first house, a modest but sturdy 1921 bungalow in a once white- but at the time mostly Latino- working-class neighborhood living with Minwax-dyed fingertips for weeks after all the cherry-colored stain had been applied to all the clear-grained redwood and Douglas fir trim and two-dozen wooden windows, and being welcomed for coffee tinged with cinnamon at the local panaderia. Or a 1906 graystone in Chicago’s Logan Square before gentrification, fixing windows, retiling bathrooms and stripping woodwork between visits to the corner Borinquen tienda. We know these actions did build community, as the acts of reclaiming, renewing, and recycling often do. Conserving historic buildings is not the activity of one culture or another, but is a polychromatic instersection of complex and diverse cultures that can help construct a broader and more inclusive future.

photo: Maravilla Historical Society

When we assert that “This Place Matters” or “ Este Lugar Es Importante,” we hope that it represents a combination of connection to place, activism, scholarship, and respectful community building based on real people and their building of places. Sometimes these important community places were built brick by brick and are taking a reinvigorated and meaningful form of community-based advocacy to save, as in the case of the Maravilla Handball Court in East Los Angeles (check it out). Saving and restoring the oldest handball court in East LA matters and as the Maravilla Historical Society, the new non-profit that has emerged to work on this effort along with the Los Angeles Conservancy, claims as its mission: “Preserving history, Protecting our stories, Reclaiming our legacy, and Projecting into the future.”

Anthea M. Hartig, PhD is Director of the Western Regional Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Vincent L. Michael, PhD is John Bryan Chair of Historic Preservation at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.



November 25, 2010

One of the National Trust Committees I serve on is the Diversity Committee, and through that work I have learned a lot about diversity as a goal, in employment, in outlook, in project development, and in society as a whole. I was thinking about another definition of diversity, the one community developer Charles Buki brought up in his speech at the National Preservation Conference in Austin when he charged that too many of our developments – city, suburb, whatever, were “monochromatic” and thus lacking diversity. This is of course a different kind of diversity than the ethnic/racial/gender diversity we so often focus on, but they can be related. A monochromatic built environment can exclude ethnic and racial diversity. The “whitebread suburb” and the “inner-city ghetto” are both monochromatic communities culturally, but what of their architecture? I remember being shocked two decades ago by the built environment of “Boyz In The Hood”, the lawns and bungalows of South Central LA. I grew up thinking that inner-city ghettos had a different built environment. But they don’t. This building could be in a suburb all fixed up, but it isn’t.

It seems the old High Modernist idea of environmental determinism does not seem to be working. You can find Victorian neighborhoods that are fully gentrified and ones that are disinvested and crime-ridden. You can find suburban tract communities that work and – increasingly – ones that are sliding into desperation. Turns out it isn’t the buildings’ design that determines what kind of community it is. At the same time, diversity in buildings – certainly a sort of planning diversity that encourages a range of uses and types – would seem to provide more opportunities for stability that an architectural monoculture.

We have had interesting discussions in the Diversity Committee, and one of the more revelatory was when we discussed job descriptions and how the wording could exclude a more diverse pool of applicants. The normal response is to add language to such a description encouraging diverse applicants. But the problem is usually the language of the description itself, written in a culturally monochromatic way. How we describe what we do, how we talk, how we relate to people and environments carries a lot of cultural baggage, even – especially – when you don’t notice it. “Where do you live?” means the same thing as “Where do you stay?” but different people use different terms.

All of this leads to discussions about how we can make heritage conservation/historic preservation more diverse and we look at disappointing statistics and envision reaching out to youth and working to make our message more inclusive. These are all good and essential things but it reminds me how long we have been doing this. I first attended the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference in 1992 in Miami, which was the first time there were Diversity Scholars invited to join the sessions. This program continues to be a great success. I then went to the 1993 conference in St. Louis and for the first time presented a session as part of a panel on “Inner City Preservation”.

The premise of the panel was something like “How do we get more diverse inner city communities involved in preservation?” My response and my presentation was basically: “They already are – get involved and support them.”

I talked about several projects that Landmarks Illinois had been involved in since the early 1980s and my general experience as an advocate. I would get calls all the time from every kind of neighborhood in the city and people wherever they lived and whoever they were had an investment – emotional and financial – in their community and an interest in how it developed. That is a straightforward algorithm that exists everywhere. Whether the community is architecturally or socially monochromatic, that algorithm is there, and that algorithm as to the future of the community always has a community preservation angle. Because preserving the built environment is a decision about the future of the community, and if the community itself has a say in that decision, it is a MUCH more frequent choice than demolition and redevelopment.

I had numerous Chicago examples to tout back in ’93, and the one that had just come to fruition was the North Kenwood Multiple Resource District, where I had worked with the community for about five years as they fought to save their historic buildings. It was a typical inner-city community in some ways – it had lost about half of its buildings and a larger percentage of its population in the 1970s and those residents who had hung on amidst drugs, gangs, prostitution, violent crime and other ills were tired of city policies that treated those ills by demolishing buildings. Which is sort of a dumb solution anyway – how can you get rid of drugs crime and gangs by tearing down buildings? Do you lock them into the building while you are tearing it down? Don’t they just move down the street?

The community advocates fought even after they secured Conservation District status and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks proposed a Multiple Resource District protecting over 170 properties. It wasn’t enough for the community advocates, and they went back and forth with the Commission for 18 months before finally getting a district designated that included 338 properties, almost twice as many as the landmarks staff had proposed. I wrote this all up five years ago in Future Anterior in an article called “Race Against Renewal”.

The bottom line: people like to save their neighborhoods, and as they say, the only color that counts is green. Preserving the built environment of a community is a common, frequent impulse for anyplace that feels ownership of the community. One of the people trying to fight the landmarking accused the advocates of having “middle class aspirations.” HUH? Of course they do – who in history doesn’t?
Of course, North Kenwood today has gentrified, and the generation that saved the district has been supplanted by a new generation, and tons upon tons of new construction that has made it a success, and technically more diverse, since it is no longer ethnically monochromatic.

But the efforts go on. There are bungalow preservation efforts in Auburn-Gresham just as there are in Mayfair. People are always trying to save their houses of worship, sometimes because the congregation has moved out of the neighborhood. It happened with the Italians and the Ukrainians and the African-Americans and the Bohemians and the Mexican-Americans and even the Flems and Walloons and it keeps happening.

A new development is by its nature, by its genesis, by its financing and by its marketing, monochromatic. The inherited built environment of the inner-city or the inner suburb is diverse. The buildings themselves don’t carry the weight of cultural bias – I have seen people with no ethnic connection get excited about the old ethnic associations of a building they now steward. Why? Because they are the steward, the owner. They OWN that history as much as their own.

I said it 17 years ago and I will say it again. We don’t need to foster diversity in preservation as much as we need to find it and help it succeed.

Forgotten Chicago

November 20, 2010

I do several local Chicagoland coach tours each year for the Art Institute of Chicago (as well as an international tour every year or two) and this fall we came up with Forgotten Chicago, which explored northern and southern edges of the city and I tried – mostly successfully – to find sites that most people didn’t know about – or forgot.

First, we went up to the northwest corner of the city near O’Hare airport and drove past one of two old farmhouses in the area, the 1850s Wingert House on Canfield before stopping for a tour of Chicago’s oldest house. Now, most people think Chicago’s oldest house is the Clarke House, a heavy-timber structure built in 1836 and moved twice, most recently in the late 1970s when it was restored near the Glessner House Museum in Prairie Avenue, close to its original location.

Clarke House, 1836

But in 1833 Mark Noble, an English farmer, built a frame house (NOT a log cabin) in what would become Norwood Park, then several miles outside of the city. The home then had an Italianate addition in the 1860s and the neighborhood became part of the city in 1893.

The house was restored a decade ago by the Norwood Park Historical Society and we were greeted on our visit by my dear friend Susan Kroll, who was a key player in saving the house back in the 1980s when I was Chicago Programs Director at Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and someone wanted to tear it down and replace it with 12-18 houses on a cul-de-sac.

Today those houses would be over 20 years old, and thus once again obsolete

We then traveled east through Gompers Park and past Bohemian National Cemetery to the former Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium on Pulaski Road. The TB sanitarium closed in the 1960s, and the site almost became a strip mall and a couple thousand housing units.

Because a strip mall and a bargeload of houses is the most clever response humans can devise when confronted with a sight like this

Again, the community rose up and defeated the plan – actually they did built some new housing on a corner of the site, but saved all of the old TB buildings, converted them into an absolutely lovely senior housing complex, and created North Park Village Nature Center, 40 acres of lagoons, wetlands, prairie, oak savannah and animal habitat.

What, no Quizno’s?

We then had lunch at JAM, which is on Damen in our old Wicker Park/East Village stomping grounds and is a super hip place – I have to give credit to Aleksandra Matic and Michelle Hodalj at Member Travel because they picked it. From there we headed south, to see a place I discovered long ago when I was on Chicago Eddie Schwartz’ radio show in the 90s. We had a history panel of about six local experts (including me) and callers would try to stump the panel. The incomparable Ken Little knew every street in the city and talked about Winneconna Parkway, which winds along the Auburn Lakes, 8 acres of picturesque beauty just north of 79th Street.

Winneconna Parkway – Auburn Lakes

On yesterday’s tour we had a handful of people who had grown up in Auburn-Gresham, which changed dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s and still suffers from disinvestment and crime. This condition has added to its “Forgotten” quality but the landscape was appreciated by all. We drove down 79th Street, past the Nation of Islam sites and then St. Sabina’s off of Racine, and then visited Hamilton Park, a 1905 gem sandwiched between railroad embankments, one of the most lovely of the pioneering “Progressive Parks” developed by Chicago’s South Park Commission in the first decade of the 20th century.

The parks were designed by the Olmsted Brothers and the fieldhouses – a NEW building type at the time – were designed by Daniel Burnham & Co.

The fieldhouses hosted club rooms, auditoria, libraries, and all sorts of amenities designed to alleviate the conditions of crowded immigrant districts. They also tried to actively acculturate the immigrants with mural cycles that depicted and instructed in American history. The murals at Hamilton Park are by the great Chicago artist John Warner Norton and they have been marvelously restored.

The tour wrapped up with a drive through of Oak Woods Cemetery, every bit as lovingly designed as the more famous Graceland Cemetery on the north side, and with nearly as many famous burials, including a trove of Civil War history and the largest burial of Confederate soldiers in the north, the Confederate Mound Monument (1895) marks the grave of over 4,000 POWs who died in Chicago, mostly of cholera and typhus in Camp Douglas. I didn’t take a picture on this trip, but here is the mound in winter:

You can also find the graves of notables ranging from Mayors (Big Bill Thompson, Harold Washington) to mobsters (Big Jim Colosimo) to scientists (Enrico Fermi) engineers (George A. Fuller), and athletes (Jesse Owens, Cap Anson). They even have a lovely Arts and Crafts chapel by the architect who designed my house.

Lake Shore Drive up from 67th and home. What are your favorite Forgotten Chicago sites?

National Preservation Conference Austin

November 9, 2010

6th Street, Austin

Two weeks ago the National Preservation Conference began in Austin, Texas and I participated in many ways: as a presenter in an Education Session, as a participant on tours, in sessions, as a member of the National Council for Preservation Education (and outgoing Chair Emeritus) and of course as a Trustee. It is a very exciting time to be involved in the National Trust, because we have a new leader, Stephanie Meeks, whom we chose as our President this summer. You don’t have to go any farther than her speech at the Opening Plenary session to realize that there are exciting times ahead in the world of cultural heritage preservation.

Red River district, Austin, Texas

Notice her word choice: “cultural heritage conservation.” This reflects her discussion of the harmony between her role at the Trust and her years of leadership at the Nature Conservancy, but it also reflects a movement to rebrand historic preservation, which seems narrow, as heritage conservation, which is what it is called in the rest of the English-speaking world. Don Rypkema made this call last year in Nashville and he and I had articles about the topic in Forum Journal this summer (you can see my original blog on the topic here.)

State Capitol, Austin, Texas

Meeks’ speech focused on three needs: The Need to make preservation More Accessible, the Need to make preservation More Visible, and the Need for preservation to be fully funded. She described how historic buildings, sites and structures create a sense of connection that speaks to a primal human need for COMMUNITY that can be as strong as the need for shelter and sustenance. But beyond the high thoughts she had concrete proposals: expand the databases the Trust is developing on historic sites for African-American and other minority groups, since the vast majority of listed historic sites do not reflect the experiences of America’s diverse populations.

Texas two-door cottage, Clarksville, Austin

She proposed a national survey of historic sites which would build on the virally successful “This Place Matters” contest the Trust sponsored last year. That program was a model of accessibility and popular input – the winning sites were all about community and heritage, not architectural or patrician pedigree. Meeks referenced the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count as a parallel. Everyone is involved in conserving their community – that is what our movement REALLY is, not aesthetic police, not antiquarianism, not fine arts connoisseurship.

this one is from Oak Park, not Texas

Meeks’ also stressed visibility by stating that we need to “make the case” for historic preservation/heritage conservation. This has actually been the theme of my graduate Preservation Planning class since it started sixteen years ago. And in this context she made a point I have tried to make for the entirety of my professional career: we need to let people know that preservationists aren’t those saying “No!” but those providing creative solutions.

I react with great chagrin at the snickering I sometimes hear from otherwise balanced persons at a proposal to save certain buildings or groups of buildings. My chagrin stems from the fact that they see the buildings as an obstacle to redevelopment and of course I see them as an asset to redevelopment. Which is the more creative position? Who is the more creative artist – the one who faces a blank canvas, or the one who must make the art fit into the vaults and curves of a predesigned ceiling, as Michaelangelo did for Pope Julius II? In real estate development, there are a hundredfold more examples of dreck than genius built on clear sites. Working within an existing context requires an uncommon mental and artistic agility.

former Pearl Brewery, San Antonio

National Trust President Stephanie Meeks final call was for full funding of the National Historic Preservation Act, which has NEVER happened since it was passed in 1966. Even the programs started by the two previous First Ladies, Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America, are threatened.

Meeks called for the National Trust to build a movement that engaged one out of 10 Americans with cultural heritage conservation, and to move toward that goal as we come up to the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act in 2016.

She openly dreamed about a day when it would take a (historic) football stadium to hold the plenary sessions of the National Preservation Conference. Don’t know if I will see that, but I welcome that energy and enthusiasm, a sense of which was palpable in Austin.

For more information about the National Trust, to join or sign up for next year’s conference in Buffalo, go to

San Antonio and my Myth of Eternal Return

November 3, 2010

Now is always better than Then. That might seem like an odd statement coming from a historic preservationist/heritage conservationist, but it is especially true in our field. The decision to rehabilitate, restore or preserve a building, structure, site or community is a decision about the future, not the past.

Our reasons include the past: past history, past cultural achievements, even past architecture and design and art. But the decision is always about the future: we imagine the future will be better if we retain these elements of the past. And we are usually right. Now is better than Then because the best elements of the past are with us, enriching the Now, humanizing the Now, and making Now more beautiful.

the possibilities are endless

And there is also memory, personal and – if it exists – collective.

This is prologue to my own myth of eternal return in my journey last week to San Antonio. It is a myth for two reasons: first, it is not true, because it is always NOW and you can never go back really. Second, it exerts great power over what we do, like all good myths. And I couldn’t help but feel the myth as I drove seven hours from Marfa in West Texas to the Alamo city, which recreated, in part, a journey of 35 years earlier. In 1975 I drove with my cigarette-smoking ex-nun aunt 800 miles across Texas in a Porsche 914 Roadster. This time it was a rented Honda and I was listening to an NPR special on Townes Van Zandt as I cruised past the mesas along I-10.

I remember the mesas and I remembered all the dead animals on the road and I remembered signs that said “Drive Friendly.” Now the mesas are topped with wind farms but the desert looks pretty similar and there are still a few “Drive Friendly” signs. I also remembered Crockett County, partly because it was “dry” (I was 15?) but mostly because I-10, the interstate, WASN’T DONE YET, so we saw the county up close and personal.

I remember the Riverwalk in San Antonio, and seeing Euell Gibbons there, and recalling that I had been there when Hemisfair opened in 1968. The Riverwalk is actually the origin of preservation in San Antonio in many ways, even if portions of it are overwhelmingly commercial.

Certainly the Alamo was preserved at the dawn of the 20th century, but it was, and is, preserved as a shrine, a kind of war memorial. We saw excellent conservation work taking place there, recovering Spanish murals and early American wall finishes, and the interpretation of course extends into the street, since the church structure itself was a small part of the fortified mission where the 189 died.

But preservation – or heritage conservation – began in San Antonio with the riverwalk when the city adopted a typical 1920s Beaux-Arts modernist plan that would have paved over the curvy river and put in a nice gridiron over the meandering streets of San Antonio. The San Antonio Conservation Society formed to defeat that plan, arguing quite correctly that the river was the heart and origin of the city. The Riverwalk continues to grow to this day, expanding beyond the downtown out to the King William district.

The Conservation Society (note the name) then worked in the 1930s and 1940s to preserve the four missions south of the Alamo extending nearly ten miles from the city center. These are a real treasure, since the late 1970s interpreted by the National Park Service and the abandoned churches within the missions have become active Catholic churches again.

I was really glad I took the time to visit all of them, because they are lovely and evocative and pretty well interpreted, with models of the original complexes at each site.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission Concepcion

The interpretation is also appropriate, noting that the missions had a religious purpose but also very nearly enslaved the local population in the service of Spain. The ladies of the San Antonio Conservation Society were doing what all “preservationists” did in the first half of the 20th century, saving great sites of place origin, of memory and some form of patriotism.

Rose window, Mission San Jose

But San Antonio also witnessed one of the early stirrings of the community preservation movement that characterized the latter 20th century and made preservation (heritage conservation) a mass movement that was about conserving community, not patriotic shrines. The Conservation Society itself opened the Steves Homestead in King William in 1954 as a house museum.

But the district south of the downtown remained rough into the 1970s, despite the presence of really stunning limestone and brick mansions. Walter Nold Mathis moved in in 1967 and restored a home he called Villa Finale, which opened a month ago as a National Trust historic site.

Mathis also bought and sold 14 other properties in the King William District, which is certainly one of the most beautiful historic districts I have ever seen, and was key in transforming it from a dodgy rooming house district into a mirror of its historic self. The district has a nice range, from classic Texas cottages with their standing seam metal roofs and verandas to grand Italianate and Romanesque mansions.

Giles house 1883

Kaltyer House, 1892

Hemisfair in 1968 – a world’s fair – gave San Antonio its space needle and a combination of municipal buildings, exhibition halls and even some restored houses, both on site and moved, as was the pattern in 1968.

So it was really the 1960s when things took off – the Riverwalk thanks to Hemisfair, and King William thanks to Mathis, who also collected JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING and you can see it in his house – it is pretty amazing. You have to go there.

Harnisch House, King William District

But the Riverwalk was indeed my ritual of eternal return, for the tall buildings in San Antonio are Art Deco style from the late 1920s and 1930s and one of them, the Nix Memorial Hospital, is the building I was born in. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, and my geek joke during the conference in Austin was “But it is Criterion C, not Criterion B!”

My sister Clare visited San Antonio 10 or 15 years ago and noted that the Nix is on the Riverwalk, and indeed the insult bar and restaurant Dick’s Last Resort is located in the basement.

Clare called me at the time and said it figured that I was born in the only hospital in the country with a bar in the basement. So I went and had a drink and pondered the myth of eternal return and the reenactment of memory and yes, the memories were intriguing and the history is something I love and remember too, but what makes San Antonio great is NOW, and the fact that a big piece of NOW is the richness of a hundred rehabilitated, preserved and well interpreted THENs that give the place a richness certain other cities cannot buy.

Spanish Governor’s Palace

For love or money. You can’t buy this, you can only save it.