Archive for September, 2016

What is the Fabric of Cultural History?

September 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

Mission Espada aqueduct.jpgEspada Aqueduct

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

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

DECEMBER UPDATE

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.

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World Heritage Festival and Saving San Antonio

September 13, 2016

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

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Except for that five weeks in the Wachau in 2005…

wh-banners-at-yeThis is where I live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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Authenticity, Technology and more places in the heart

September 1, 2016

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

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

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

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

7 sidewalk bricks

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

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Or see yourself in the landscape…

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.

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

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

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

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

Guide at MasonicSMendocino, California.

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

free quak mtg hs lvg hsty copy copyPhiladelphia, Pennsylvania

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Trenton, New Jersey

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

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

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milano trams

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

 

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