Archive for July, 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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?

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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.

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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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Milano

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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