Archive for the ‘intangible heritage’ 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.

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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.