Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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..

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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.

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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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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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San Antonio Conservation

June 26, 2016

“The entire mix of cultures was their birthright, the soul of their home city, and it was not to be taken away. Their goal became the saving not only of landmarks but of traditions and ambiance and natural features as well, the preservation of no less than San Antonio’s entire cultural and natural environment.”

Lewis F. Fisher, Saving San Antonio, p. 91-92

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For many years I have been pushing for “heritage conservation” as a superior term to “historic preservation” because it suggests a broader array of heritage beyond the architectural.  I have also been working to reform the National Register of Historic Places to better represent the diversity of the American experience.

La Villita cafe.jpgAnd now I am in a city that has recognized conservation as being about “place” more than buildings.   A city that has ALWAYS celebrated its cultural diversity.  San Antonio, Texas.

alamo detailS

Remember that detail?

When I told people I was becoming the Executive Director of the San Antonio Conservation Society every single one had something good to say about San Antonio.  What do you like about the city?  Chances are you have the San Antonio Conservation Society to thank for it.

miss san jose bestS

Mission San Jose

You like the Missions, which include the Alamo and four more (Concepción, San Jose, San Juan de Capistrano, Espada) that last year became one of only a couple dozen WORLD HERITAGE SITES in the U.S.?  Thank the San Antonio Conservation Society, which purchased mission lands in the first half of the 20th century and then gave them to the National Park that now operates there.

riverwalk14 bridgeS

You like the Riverwalk?  Thank the San Antonio Conservation Society, which fought plans to fill in its winding course and brought in the architect (R.H.H. Hugman) who designed this attraction in the 1920s.  Very few organizations have had such a concrete (or more appropriately, caliche block limestone) effect on their city for so long – 92 years and counting.

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Steves Homestead – opened as a house museum by the Conservation Society in 1954: in 1968 the surrounding King William area became the first historic district in Texas.

San Antonio was at the forefront of the national preservation movement by World War Two because the women who formed the society saw that heritage conservation was not simply buildings but all of the natural, built, tangible and intangible elements that make up place.  And we remain at the forefront, striving to preserve the first Woolworth’s lunch counter to be peacefully integrated in the South in 1960, and the stunning 1968 Wood Courthouse.

Alamo Plaza Woolworth .jpg

fed courthouse oblS

How’s that for Mid-Century Modern!

So I am very honored to be here.  I began June 13, 325 years after San Antonio was first named.  True settlement began in 1718, and the city was always a multicultural frontier town, amazing Frederick Law Olmsted in 1856 with its “jumble of races, costumes, languages and buildings.”   This is what inspired Emily Edwards – who had spent time at Hull House in Chicago – and Rena Maverick Green to form the San Antonio Conservation Society in 1924.  They wanted to save the Greek Revival Market House, but immediately began a campaign that was NOT your usual historic society – in fact they were frustrated when they incorporated that “cultural conservation” did not exist as a category!

riverwalk mapS

Wise business and political leaders thought the bends should be straightened out…

The Conservation Society was also key in the San Antonio Missions being inscribed as World Heritage last year.  The Missions have been preserved by an alliance between the San Antonio Conservation Society, the Catholic Church, the State of Texas, the National Park Service and now of course UNESCO.  People in San Antonio tend to work together.

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After mass today, the priest asked the parishioners to voteyourpark.org to help raise money for fresco restoration at Mission Concepción – you should too!!

It is wonderful to be part of such an excellent organization in such an excellent city, where growth and progress have always been based on heritage.  That is the most sustainable form of development.  As to my own history, you can read about my own Myth of Eternal Return from 6 years ago (myth no more!) and my talk on the How and Why of Preservation here in late 2014.

cathedral fntn bestS

I am more than a little humbled by those who have gone before me.  Like everywhere, there are losses and challenges and hard-won victories.  The nation’s 7th-largest city is growing, and that means our heritage buildings, landscapes, and traditions will be growing as well, sustaining a rich and diverse heritage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Integrity and Authenticity

March 16, 2016

I will presenting at the 7th National Symposium on Historic Preservation Practice this weekend at Goucher College, on the Diversity Deficit and the National Register of Historic Places.  I have written often about this subject over the last five years, but lately my recommendations are getting more specific.  One of those has to do with the concept of Integrity, which I have previously proposed needs to be replaced with Authenticity.

ellison bldg

My favorite example:  where Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man.  Authenticity?  Integrity?

But of course, it is not quite so simple, and I encountered a more nuanced approach recently courtesy of my friend and idol Donna Graves, who recently completed an excellent historic context statement on LGBTQ history in San Francisco with Shayne Watson.  Donna parsed the seven components of integrity, which includes elements of “feeling” and “association” that we associate with Authenticity, and which ACHP Chair Wayne Donaldson has stressed in relation to sites in Indian country and others where architecture is not the key to significance.

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It never looked anything like this when Jane Addams was there.  Wrong roof, new skin of 1960s brick – and more….

So the brilliant thing Donna did in her LGBTQ study was note which of the seven elements of integrity were important when dealing with social and cultural history, and which “are generally less important.”   Location,  Design, Feeling and Association are important when dealing with social and cultural history, although under Design “only the very basic features of a property are important, such as original form, and window and door configuration.”  She also notes “Integrity of style is not important.”  Preach!

Castro Fork Cafe

The Castro…

Setting, materials and workmanship are “generally less important for social or cultural histories.”  This is an excellent and important corrective to our architecturally-driven concept of integrity.  With LGBTQ history, and indeed with many sites of minority history throughout the U.S., these new approaches to authenticity and integrity can help reduce the Diversity Deficit in our National Register of Historic Places and in other local landmark practices.

canessa printing

So this is on the National Register for architecture as part of the Jackson Square district, but it arguably has thrice the significance under Criteria A and B as the site of the Black Cat Cafe, which was significant in 1.)the Early Development of LGBTQ communities in San Francisco; 2.) it’s association with gay rights pioneer Jose Sarria; and 3.) its role in Stoumen v. Reilly (1961) that essentially legalized gay bars. So there.

 

What Survives?

February 24, 2016

I recently saw the report of a “phylogenetic” study of fairytales that determined that some fairytales were 6,000 years old, reaching into the Bronze Age.  We have long known that certain tales – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, flood myths – are shared across hundreds of cultures and geographies.  I read the report (linked here) the same day I went to see the ancient Greek show at the Field Museum, where many tales are illustrated in the more durable forms of pottery and stone.

Greek vases Class.jpg

So fired clay survives, and of course metals, especially precious metals.  The most stunning items in the Agamemnon to Alexander show were gold diadems, wreaths worn on the head with the gold worked into intricately detailed simulacra of myrtle branches and leaves.  Unlike the rusted dagger and swords, the gold pieces looked brand new.

Greeks gold wreath and knivesIt reminded me of the incredible Scythian Gold show I saw at the Lavra (that’s a World Heritage Site and monastery in Kiev).  Yeah, gold survives.

Yet most of these artifacts are younger than “The Devil and the Smith” which is the tale researchers peg at 6,000 years ago.  Heck, it is even older that this ancient Egyptian dress.  In my professional career I have dealt with older artifacts and mostly with much younger ones, but the question kept coming back to me:  What Survives?

CP 39 terraces housesIn Ciudad Perdida in Colombia the rammed earth platforms and their myriad stone steps survive, but nothing else, because this is high jungle, ever humid.  Wood, reeds, thatch, cloth, leather, all resolves and dissolves in the dew.

CP i main iBest

You can see the blog post about it from 2013 here.

Part of the challenge is geographic – jungles tend to swallow and digest everything but stone, while deserts can even preserve someone’s 3000-year old scones.  It is not fair, but we get more knowledge from ancient societies that were in climates suitable to preservation, be they Scandinavian bogs or Iraqi deserts.

OI egyp breadSAnd I thought I kept stale bread too long.

Stone survives quite well, in both building form as well as sculptural form, although I can assure you that pretty much every Greek sculpture I have ever seen was a 2C AD Roman copy of a Greek original.  Perhaps we need a phylogeny of sculpture as well as folklore.

Greek bas reliefAnother challenge is that more permanent materials are more likely to be re-used.  The Collosseum’s marble coating was scavenged to build Renaissance Rome, and the 13th century Quwwat ul-Islam mosque in Delhi was composed of demolished Hindu and Jain temples.

quwwat islam2_1

Below is Fountains Hall, a lovely 18th century manor in Yorkshire, composed of marble stripped from the nearby Abbey, which had been “dissolved” in ecclesiastical terms and was then flayed in architectural terms for its skin.  A kind of Frankenstein building, if we can handle one more reference to the early 19th century forebears who gave us heritage conservation, museums and the modern discipline of history.

Fountains Hall

The heritage field has a bias against intangible heritage, evident in the Athens Charter of 1931.  We only really started integrating folklore, music, dance and other “intangible” cultural heritage in the last twenty years or so.    This is somewhat ironic because our very first efforts to save historic buildings and our efforts to preserve fairy tales dates from the same time, time of Frankenstein, the Brothers Grimm, the Elgin Marbles and the Louvre. The onset of the 19th century when an emergent modernity spawned a great fear of loss.

dark sat mills ltAhh, the dark Satanic mills of Coalbrookdale – no wonder the Devil and the Smith survived

In the Western tradition and especially in the United States, we favor tangible heritage like buildings over intangible heritage like folklore.  We especially like architecture.  I used to assign this to the peculiarities of American preservation practice from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in the Progressive Era and  the Historic American Buildings Survey in the Great Depression, but I think it is actually broader than that.

UVA lawn west.jpg Architecture becomes a “real” profession in the 1890s.  So when something becomes official and important you want experts. Architectural history is of course even younger.

entrance bldgsThe fabulous stone architecture of the Ossola Valley, Italy.

We needed a proper social science to guide our conservation work, and architecture fit the bill.  Even where there is a professional practice based on archaeology (France, Western U.S.) that is more interested in the broad material culture than in architecture, there is still a bias against the intangible – witness all the conflicts between archaeologists and indigenous peoples.

El_Paso_Museum_of_Archaeology

It has become increasingly clear to me that we need to redouble our efforts to save intangible heritage, and this phylogenetic study is a great example – because some stories do survive as well as stone and at the end of the day culture in any form is transmitted by people.  As my late colleague Dr. Clem Price noted, there are stories and oral traditions that are essential to the conservation of African-American cultural heritage.  Intangible heritage.

afric ceme 2 sign

I just noticed this morning that the house where Medgar Evers lived – and was assassinated – is being considered for National Historic Landmark status.  I applaud the preservationists I have worked with over three decades who have sought to save Rosenwald Schools and Civil Rights sites and landscapes sacred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  This is a good step but we will not reach historic truth and contemporary reconciliation through tangible heritage alone.

caden rosenwaldRosenwald school, Kentucky

We have to redouble our efforts because the many of the most important missing landmarks of American history were erased – by conquest and racism.  In my years of working on the Diversity Deficit in heritage, I regularly encountered What Does Not Survive Because We Buried It.

Slave-Trade-Commerce-Street

Recently installed, thanks to Equal Justice Initiative

Slowly, people are working to uncover this once-tangible heritage.  We must remember that many sites were forcibly, deliberately removed.  These were acts of cultural oppression and until we make their truth known widely, we cannot move forward the process of reconciliation.  This is one of many reasons that intangible heritage remains important today as it was two centuries ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding the East out West

August 21, 2015

When I spoke to the National Tribal Preservation Conference two days ago, my host Bambi Kraus of the National Association of Tribal Preservation Officers introduced my talk by noting that the Tribal Historic Preservation Officers should “be themselves” and offer alternatives to the “Western” approach to historic preservation .

view from prow to mcdowell

This was a perfect introduction to my talk “The Future of the National Register: Addressing the Diversity Deficit” not only because many of the most significant heritage sites for American Indian tribes are natural features and routes (think Mount Taylor, which has made it onto the National Register) but also because much of my own work on this topic has been informed by a dozen years of work in the Far East, especially China.

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Mount Taylor.  Photo by my dear friend Theresa Pasqual.

In the Western world we prize the fabric of the artifact – the piece of the True Cross to use a medieval Christian metaphor. In the East it is the skill, the craft, the performance of craft that is valued highest – the Passion Play to continue the medieval Christian metaphor. Our historic preservation practice, established in the 1960s, grew out of our object-based approach.

relic trucross

Don’t worry, there is plenty to go around

For the last 15 years, international heritage conservation practice has been informed by the Eastern approaches to both broaden its process to allow ALL cultures a voice in identifying, evaluating, registering and treating heritage sites, practices and traditions and specifically to look more closely at intangible heritage and natural sites that have cultural significance.

Duomo Museo gold book

We like our books too.  They are sooo tangible.

The challenge for tribes and others has been that much of their cultural and natural history was deliberately effaced. Intangibles – language, song, spiritual practice – are often all that is left after the destruction. Place can be compromised, or inaccessible or sold for short-term gain. It is essential that we take the examples of international practice so we can conserve what is most important, even if it doesn’t involve buildings.

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Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.  No, Richard Dreyfus did not build it..

The other great takeaway is the idea of continuity, which was an insight I had between my July presentation in Washington DC and August presentation outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Our National Register, and indeed 1960s preservation practice, assumed a gulf between the past and present. The Eastern approach, the American Indian approach, the Australian Aboriginal approach all stress continuity.

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Heck, it’s even the Transylvanian approach

In the absence of continuity, we focus on the impossible concepts of integrity and period of significance, an idea of the past set at a far remove. This is not only insurmountable from an interpretive and design point of view, it is death to community engagement and economic support.

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Ah, the Parthenon, just as it was (kind of) in 1897.

As an undergraduate, I recall arguing with my roommate – also a history major – that things don’t begin or end on certain dates. We need dates and categories to begin to understand history, but as you progress in history, the antecedents and effects multiply. There are no neat beginnings and endings.

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Acoma Pueblo.  A thousand years of habitation.  Windows are newer.

Bob Stanton, who spoke before me on Wednesday, recounted how he began his first National Park Service job in 1962 – before the Voting Rights Act – that began to give him and other African-Americans a fuller stake in the ongoing struggle of the American experience. He told me later that the great American historian John Hope Franklin was a great mentor and I shared my appreciation for that man who was my teacher, who also broke boundaries in the decades before African-Americans had equal protection under the law. And it is stunningly clear today that this history is not over. #BLM.

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My definition of history is something that began in the past and is not over yet. Culture is created and recreated each day and the expertise we wield as historians or technologists or folklorists or architects or landscape designers is not a luxury but a fundamental aspect of being human and living in time and space.

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Heritage is about continuity, and heritage conservation is a future-oriented activity.

That is what I have been writing about in this blog for over a decade.

World Heritage in Texas!

July 5, 2015

This is the time of year new World Heritage sites are inscribed by UNESCO.  The total number passed 1000 last year, after over 40 years of the program.  As I have noted before, the United States has not taken advantage of World Heritage status in many years, partly due to a political funding dispute.  Absurdly, the U.S. has refused to pay its UNESCO dues for many years, so even though we can arguably afford to take care of our sites, at World Heritage level, we are deadbeats.

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The Alamo.  Remember?

Many developing nations sought WH inscription to promote sites for tourism and development, but lacked the resources it takes to produce a verifiably management plan for each site, hence groups like Global Heritage Fund.

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Sacro Monte, Ossola valley, Italy

I had the honor of speaking on the subject of architecture and heritage at this World Heritage site in Italy on my birthday last week.  Italy has more WH sites inscribed than any other country, which is not surprising given the influence of its histories and designs on the rest of the world.  Still, it is good to finally see U.S. sites attaining this status and it is especially exciting for me that a site a few hundred yards from my birthplace now has been recognized for its outstanding universal value.  Plus, many of my dear friends, like Shanon Shea Miller, have worked on this project for several years, and many other friends, like Andrew Potts, were on hand in Bonn, Germany, for the inscription.

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Now I guess the rest of the world has to remember the Alamo too…

The five Franciscan missions that include the Alamo were inscribed yesterday and they represent not only a very interesting period in world history, they also are an important chapter in the history of heritage conservation (historic preservation) in America.  After the fledgling preservationists of San Antonio were formed to fight a plan to pave the river downtown and insert a new street grid – hence creating the famous Riverwalk – they next turned their attention to saving the four missions that run in a line from the Alamo south.   The San Antonio Conservation Society remains one of the most important heritage groups in the country.

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Mission San Jose, built 1768

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And its famous rose window….

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Mission Espada

Five years ago I made a point of visiting each of the missions (and blogged about it) and was struck by the consistency of their conservation, style, and rich interpretation, which is key.  The California missions – mostly founded by another Franciscan friar, Junipero Serra – form a much longer chain along El Camino Real but their history is more diverse, and you certainly can’t visit them all in a day.

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Mission Concepcion

While the history of the Alamo has always focused more on its role as a bastion for Anglo Texan settlers against the Mexican Army in 1836, the other missions present the rich – and complicated – history of how these missions were founded to convert and economically exploit native populations.  They were not churches as much as Indian towns centered on churches that functioned like haciendas or plantations.

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Interpretive panels at Mission Concepcion

It is not a simple or moralizing history, and we might say the same for their initial preservation 90 years ago, when heritage sites tended toward the saccharine and idealized in their stories.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano

Several San Antonio dignitaries were on hand in Bonn to celebrate the inscription, including Mayor Ivy Collins.  They feel the inscription will bring as much as $100 million in new tourism and development investment to the city and area.  Certainly these are fascinating sites, both visually and historically, and they make a trip to this excellent city more valuable.

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Foundations of church at Mission Espada

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Church interior, Mission Espada

One of the interesting facts about the inscription is that many of the missions are still active churches, or have been reactivated, and thus present over 250 years of human use.  At several of them you can see remnants of the other buildings that made up these towns/plantations, and there has been an active and effective archaeological investigation at the sites for a long time,  They predate the California missions by a few years, and their ongoing conservation and interpretation (four are part of a National Historic Park created over 30 years ago) has been of high quality.

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Arch and ornamental entrance, Mission San Jose

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Stone entrance detail, Mission Concepcion

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Gate at Mission Espada

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Courtyard area with stove, Mission San Jose

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Mission Concepcion

So Remember not only the Alamo, but the five San Antonio missions that together describe centuries of history, settlement, belief and community in a unique North American cultural place!

Transforming the Heritage Field

May 7, 2015

The first of two blogs on my plan to transform the statutory and philanthropic foundations of heritage conservation.  Today we deal with the statutory in the United States…

As I prepare to move on from Global Heritage Fund after three years, I am committed more than ever to the transformation of the field of heritage conservation.  In the distant past, heritage conservation was a curatorial activity that sanctioned and even encouraged the removal of physical – and intangible – artifacts from our economic everyday in order to conserve them as if under a bell jar.  But, as I demonstrated in my dissertation, that approach began to die as historic preservation (in the U.S.) and heritage conservation (everywhere else) were infused with community-based activism and organization in the 1960s.  I had the good fortune of coming into the field during the creation of the first heritage area in the U.S. 32 years ago.

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Lockport, Illinois, part of the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor

This was the era of Reaganism and the public-private partnership.  Heritage areas not only married historic preservation to natural area conservation, they confirmed preservation as an economic development strategy, an idea which Mary Means started with Main Street a few years earlier.  Dozens of heritage areas, Main Streets, and tax credits later, heritage has become so successful that real estate developers now ape the types and styles of past architectures in order to insure their economic success.

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Brand new house, 100-year old style

I have had the great fortune to work internationally over the last 17 years, and that work has reinforced my conviction that heritage is a community and economic development strategy.  Even the other motivations we ascribe to wanting to save history – education, identity, community – have an economic component.  You can’t maintain property values without an educational system.  You can’t attract human and financial investment without identity.  You can’t sustain development beyond five years without community.  Rehabilitating old buildings gives you all three.

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Fort Collins, Colorado – making downtown vibrant

The evolution over time has been thus:  early in the 20th century, heritage was a curatorial pursuit, and architects dominated especially after the creation of federal programs during the Great Depression.  Heritage was also focused largely on tourism, with places like Charleston and New Orleans and Natchez and Tombstone saving buildings to attract tourist dollars.

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The Vieux Carré, with fully clothed tourists

That started to change in the 1950s in places like Georgetown and Beacon Hill and Brooklyn Heights, where highly organized communities became historic districts in order to preserve their property values and promote sensitive new development that would not destroy their community, their identity, and indeed their economic investment.

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Georgetown, Washington DC

The next four decades witnessed the increasing involvement of communities, and community organization and development, in the creation of historic districts and other forms of zoning that did what all zoning does: preserves investment.  The extent of community involvement meant that districts that may not have had the highest architectural INTEGRITY (bad word – will explain in a moment) were designated because the community had a strong identity and a strong investment in historic architecture and landscape.

By the onset of the 21st century, neighborhoods considered “slum and blighted” in the 1960s and 70s were now historic districts, exercising the great middle-class value shared by all:  a say in the disposition of your home environment.  Preservation (Heritage Conservation) had become a democratic tool.

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148th and Convent, Hamilton Heights, New York City

But had it?  Many of the activist communities that sought local control through historic zoning ran up against architectural rules that seemed arcane and illogical.  The vast majority of designated landmarks and historic districts fell under the architectural category, and a whole set of architectural rules – the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – had been created back in the 1970s, when the basic historic preservation textbook still had “curatorial” in its title.

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Not historic enough in 1991 – North Kenwood, Chicago

Several of my recent blogs have discussed the idea of revamping the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which haven’t had much update in a quarter-century.  Reading the Standards is a little like watching an old movie  or reading a 19th century novel.  There are many discussions about this topic going on right now, and my own contribution flows from my international experience and my lifelong understanding that heritage conservation (historic preservation) is above all a community development tool.

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Han Li in Dali Dong village, Guizhou

Preservation is a Process, not a Set of Rules

For the last 15 years the best heritage conservation practice follows the Burra Charter, which does not preach community outreach but in fact requires community engagement and input into the entire PROCESS of IDENTIFY, EVALUATE, REGISTER, and TREAT.  This came out of the fact that many different cultures value different kinds of heritage and the context statement that is SUPPOSED to be at the beginning of every preservation survey and plan must be DEFINED in part by the local culture.  In China, the greatest art is calligraphy.  In the West, some believe it to be architecture.  Some tribal cultures find it in the landscape and some minority cultures find it in festival and performance.  The process of the Burra Charter deals with all of that.

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After all architecture is just frozen music anyway

The Problem of Integrity

So why did Australia get this right before the U.S.?  Because their native populations had a particularly non-tangible approach to heritage?  I would argue it was also the Asian context, where heritage lies more in the performance and craft than in the artifact.  But we also have the problem of integrity, in that the U.S. is the only place that uses that word.  Everyone else uses authenticity, which by its nature is more accommodating to a broader range of significances.  Integrity refers almost exclusively to architecture and formal, visual concerns, although we do have verbiage about “feeling and association” in there, but let’s be honest, we didn’t commit to it.

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Smells like teen spirit  Los Gatos, CA

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Here is Jane Addams Hull House Museum, the Dining Hall, which is an absolute travesty in terms of architectural integrity.  The building was moved off its foundation, rotated 90 degrees, moved 50 feet, and covered with a veneer of red bricks IT NEVER HAD in 1965.  But each week in the Dining Hall they engage in discussion of the social, political and environmental issues of the day, just as Jane Addams and the residents did a century earlier.  From a performative, intangible perspective, this building has more HISTORICAL integrity than almost any other in the land.

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The Forum on 43rd in Chicago.  Light on Integrity, Super heavy on history.  Preserve It!

The other problem is that we treat integrity as an on-off switch, which is, prima facie, cray cray.  I wrote about Ray Rast’s approach to this before here.  Integrity is no more a YES/NO question than history is a singular narrative. But, nearly 50 years of National Register practice in this country has reinforced the architectural legacy in our system.  In some ways, if we actually took the time and trouble to do proper context statements prior to every survey and every community plan, we would start to address the diversity deficit in our own landmarks, but we don’t.  We tend to rest on a set of standards and practices written at a time when new buildings were High Modern and old buildings were old-fashioned.  All of that has changed completely.

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Architecture of its time, 1996.  Los Gatos, CA

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Architecture of its time, 2014.  Los Gatos, CA

So, we swap authenticity for integrity, work to create a series of serious historic context statements with a special focus on minority history, intangible heritage, and non-design based conservation treatments.  We should revise the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards to be in line with international practice and we should ACTUALLY FOLLOW the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Preservation Planning.  They should reference the Burra Charter and they should insist on stakeholder engagement in each step of IDENTIFY, EVALUATE, REGISTER and TREAT.  That would be a start.

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So we landmarked the Zephyr Skate Shop but that is a building??? Why not landmark the cultural performance and practice they invented there and in the empty pools of the 1970s California drought???

If we adopt this process, it will make more room for preserving HISTORY as well, where that history is not contained in neat or attractive buildings.  As my dear friend and hero Donna Graves says, ‘Interpretation is the fourth leg of preservation.”  To capture the diversity of American history we need to reclaim lost sites from oral traditions, from the depredations of disaster and urban renewal.  Donna pioneered this a quarter-century ago with a project that garnered my immediate attention even though I was at the other end of Route 66 and would not see it in person for over a decade.

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Interpretation is a part of preservation because it preserves intangible, lost and oftentimes deliberately buried history.  It activates the power of place, which is what LA’s Biddy Mason park was and is, and it can activate and sustain community.

Activating and sustaining community is the fundamental work of preservation.

Next time:  A new heritage practice for a new philanthropy