Archive for August, 2016

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.

SanAntonioHumbleGasStation202

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

Slimp Oilb.jpgSlimp Oil, 604 Carolina

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

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

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

Flores S, 3124-6a (2012)

3124 S Flores

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

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202 Fredericksburg

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

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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.

DECEMBER 2016 UPDATE – AND THEY DID!

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!

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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.

hull-house09s

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.

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Alfred Giles, Architect

August 5, 2016

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

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.

maverick-bldg

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….

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