Posts Tagged ‘San Antonio’

The How and Why of Preservation

November 11, 2014

This is the title of a presentation I did for the Office of Historic Preservation, Centro San Antonio and over a hundred luncheon attendees in San Antonio last week.  I went through four thematic reasons WHY we save things:  Identity – Community – Economy – Education. 

cathedral fntn bestS

San Antonio is a beautiful town

I then detailed the HOW, which includes National Register designation and local landmark status and so forth.  I focused on my mantra, which readers of this blog are familiar with:  Preservation Is Not A Set of Rules But A Process.

La Villita cafeS

The more I work internationally, the more this is true.  The Burra Charter is to me the Magna Carta of heritage conservation.  It outlines how to engage the local community and local culture into the PROCESS of IDENTIFYING what is significant in the past that the community wants to bring into the future; EVALUATING the nature, materiality and essence of that significance that needs to be preserved and/or transmitted; DESIGNATING it through a workable local mechanism; and TREATING the resources tangible and intangible in a way that conserves the significance.

La Villita clsS

Lotsa yellow stone reminds me of dolomite

There is great variety in the United States about how local historic preservation commissions and laws work – many places have only advisory and not binding review, but the legal force of the local ordinance never seems to affect the negative reactions one often gets to preservation.  Some of that is caused by preservationists who take an extreme position of wanting to put something into a time capsule, but mostly it is caused by a lack of understanding of HOW we review treatment of historic resources to insure they maintain their significance.

theatre facade14S
So, that is the facade and….?

So, WHY we preserve is actually a great focus, because it is something the planners and builders and businesspeople and politicians can understand.  The history of preservation in San Antonio actually points to this.  Back in 1921 there were killer floods in San Antonio which led to a proposal to bury the river and give the downtown a nice new regular grid that would be more welcoming to business and development. 

riverwalk mapS
Because business can only follow straight lines???

The San Antonio Conservation Society formed to oppose this and indeed by 1929 the town had not only preserved the squiggly river, irregular streets and other supposed job-killers, they had created what is now the heart and soul of San Antonio: The Riverwalk.

riverwalk14 bridgeS

Even those who were concerned about that crafty canard “too much preservation” could not imagine San Antonio without its Riverwalk.  Indeed, since I was last in the city four years ago, they have extended it several miles further.  You can now walk or boat or ride from the downtown to the redeveloped Pearl Brewery site, itself a model of the vitality of doing redevelopment based on historic buildings.

pweral hotel emma rvrwalk

Then in the 1930s the Conservation Society then turned its focus to the missions (five including the Alamo) that extend ten miles south of town and represent the earliest European settlement of the region. This sort of put them into familiar preservationist territory – saving monuments of founders and isolating landmarks from the economic everyday – but it is instructive that they began with a planning and revitalization effort, one that continues to this day.

Kress main2014S
This building was undergoing restoration when I was here in 2010 – now it is done.

Someone – maybe it was my longtime friend and colleague Shanon Miller, who invited me to speak – asked an excellent rhetorical question: How many city centers do you know that were revitalized WITHOUT historic buildings? You know, those places where they managed to build enough six-story parking garages and convention centers that everyone came downtown again even though there were no old buildings?

parking lot24
That is so hip!

I was preceded in my lunch talk by Stephanie, Erik and Darby from Heavy Heavy, a local design firm that has created a campaign called “Keep San Antonio Real” and you should use the hashtag #keepsareal. I loved this because they were young and they were defining the authenticity they loved and wanted to keep in their community. Every generation needs to do this, as I explained in an important blog a few years back.

luminaria pop wallS
Luminaria, San Antonio

It made my discussion of WHY we preserve easier, because here was the next generation collecting Instagrams about what people loved about their city and fighting to maintain that sense of community, belonging and rootedness that we call “authenticity.” I see it in buildings old and new, in streetscapes and colors of stone, in the trees that loomed over the riverwalk, and in the tiny two-door bungalows that could only exist in Texas.

vaca bunga 2doorS

The good people concerned with the business development of downtown San Antonio were very interested in what I had to say. I tend to be the guy that says preservation needs to pay for itself, which reassures businesspeople, but they need to understand that usually it can and does.

Sometimes you have to move it

The failure to preserve a building is rarely the failure of a law or a review. It is usually the failure of imagination on the part of a developer or city planner to figure out how to save what is significant and make it pay for itself.

fed courthous

Imagination is freed not by understanding the HOW of preservation in all of its technicality, no more than a real estate development succeeds by understanding the HOW of zoning in all of its technicality. It is the WHY that does it. Preservation is the form of economic development that reinforces local culture, sense of place, community identity, and the economic excitement of a rebirth nurtured in local soil with local roots and the tender care of a local community.

carve bus stopS

vaca stone schoolS

shop row facing alamoS

A quarter century ago, driving my yellow Chevy in Humboldt Park, Chicago, I pulled over and wrote down: “Landmarks serve a community by providing a point of reference, an element of 
identity, and a source of pride. The community serves landmarks by providing
 for their protection, interpretation, and enhancement. We preserve landmarks
 because our history is part of us. Our historical built environment tells us
 where we came from and why we do what we do. When we lose landmarks, we lose a
 part of ourselves.”

cathedral quote2S

But like the Spanglish of the Riverwalk quote above, my focus today is less on the lost and more on the rebuilding, a rebuilding that is ever sustainable if it is done in the form, fabric and fullness of the local community and culture.

Why we preserve is much, much more important than how – if we focus on the why, we will find the imagination and creativity to create the how.


A New LEED for Preservation?

December 6, 2011

Four years ago the National Trust for Historic Preservation jumped firmly into the sustainability fray with then-President Dick Moe’s speech at the National Building Museum. (Here is my blog from that time.)

The Trust will continue its leadership in this arena next month under Stephanie Meeks when it reveals the Life Cycle Analysis of historic buildings undertaken by the Preservation Green Lab in Seattle. This provides a perfect complement to the Life Cycle Analysis of new buildings recently undertaken by the American Institute of Architects, and one of my own initiatives of late is to try to bring the AIA and National Trust together on these complementary initiatives.

Life cycle analysis takes us into REAL sustainability because it asks the straightforward question: how long does an investment in a building last? My classic replacement window conundrum is a good example. If a restored wood window costs 3 times as much as a cheap plastic replacement window but last 5 times as long, it is cheaper over the life cycle of the building.

The same is often true of other elements from historic buildings, like tight-grained old growth wood, high clay content bricks, real terra cotta, dimension stone, and wall construction with natural thermal properties.

On the face of it, sustainability in preservation is obvious: what could be more sustainable than keeping a building in place rather than dumping it in a landfill and hauling a new one in from the forest? The greenest building is the one already built, as we say.

Shedd Park fieldhouse, William Drummond

But there is a problem in that historic preservation (more properly called heritage conservation) has long been defined in a regulatory way. Trust President Stephanie Meeks has been outspoken in trying to move historic preservation out of the “those who say no” category and I have previously blogged about this issue here and here.

A new angle has emerged, however, courtesy of my longtime friend Mike Jackson, Chief Architect for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which is our State Historic Preservation Office. Mike has also been a leader in talking about sustainability in preservation.

old bank building, Savanna, Illinois

So I lectured to Mike’s class at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana a few weeks ago and afterwards we talked about Mike’s latest idea. He said I could blog about it, but it is his idea (I like to pretend that there are still viable protections regarding intellectual property or privacy or any of those things. I know! How quaint!)

Mike’s sustainability lectures go on at great length about LEED and the US Green Building Council. But this time he focused on an interesting aspect of LEED. It is not regulatory. USGBC is a private organization. Yet everyone but everyone HAS to be LEED certified and every new building has to get its LEED ratings. This thing has appeared and become dominant in less than 12 years, which is like iPods or iPads or zoning. And none of its is regulatory.

Mike suggested the Trust adopt a voluntary listing program for owners of historic buildings. As precedent, he cited the Texas Historical Commission plaque program, whereby owners voluntarily complete detailed nomination forms for their properties, get certified, and then purchase and display a THC plaque on their building. The cost of the plaque funds the program. There is little protection beyond a 90-day demolition delay, but it is popular and successful.

Hotel Cortez, El Paso, and its THC plaque

This is basically how LEED works: building owners and their architects complete a nomination form, get LEED certified, and then put a USGBC plaque on their buildings. It is a private organization (like the Trust) but everyone wants in on the action. It is a marketing challenge – to create a cachet that everyone wants to buy into – but so is every aspect of the preservation/conservation field.

Every year thousands pay $90 to stand in long lines at Wright Plus, so why not?

The smart thing about this idea is that it allows a non-profit preservation/conservation organization to do what it is supposed to do – save buildings – without mistakenly being seen as a regulator, as often happens with both the Trust and statewide groups like Landmarks Illinois (where I am also on the Board).

Altgelt, King William District, San Antonio. And its THC plaque.

Because we aren’t the ones who say no. We are the ones who offer creative solutions. We are the ones who offer more sustainability than is possible in a new buildings. We are the ones who help communities retain their identity and attractiveness, which leads to reinvestment and thus economic sustainability.

San Antonio and my Myth of Eternal Return

November 3, 2010

Now is always better than Then. That might seem like an odd statement coming from a historic preservationist/heritage conservationist, but it is especially true in our field. The decision to rehabilitate, restore or preserve a building, structure, site or community is a decision about the future, not the past.

Our reasons include the past: past history, past cultural achievements, even past architecture and design and art. But the decision is always about the future: we imagine the future will be better if we retain these elements of the past. And we are usually right. Now is better than Then because the best elements of the past are with us, enriching the Now, humanizing the Now, and making Now more beautiful.

the possibilities are endless

And there is also memory, personal and – if it exists – collective.

This is prologue to my own myth of eternal return in my journey last week to San Antonio. It is a myth for two reasons: first, it is not true, because it is always NOW and you can never go back really. Second, it exerts great power over what we do, like all good myths. And I couldn’t help but feel the myth as I drove seven hours from Marfa in West Texas to the Alamo city, which recreated, in part, a journey of 35 years earlier. In 1975 I drove with my cigarette-smoking ex-nun aunt 800 miles across Texas in a Porsche 914 Roadster. This time it was a rented Honda and I was listening to an NPR special on Townes Van Zandt as I cruised past the mesas along I-10.

I remember the mesas and I remembered all the dead animals on the road and I remembered signs that said “Drive Friendly.” Now the mesas are topped with wind farms but the desert looks pretty similar and there are still a few “Drive Friendly” signs. I also remembered Crockett County, partly because it was “dry” (I was 15?) but mostly because I-10, the interstate, WASN’T DONE YET, so we saw the county up close and personal.

I remember the Riverwalk in San Antonio, and seeing Euell Gibbons there, and recalling that I had been there when Hemisfair opened in 1968. The Riverwalk is actually the origin of preservation in San Antonio in many ways, even if portions of it are overwhelmingly commercial.

Certainly the Alamo was preserved at the dawn of the 20th century, but it was, and is, preserved as a shrine, a kind of war memorial. We saw excellent conservation work taking place there, recovering Spanish murals and early American wall finishes, and the interpretation of course extends into the street, since the church structure itself was a small part of the fortified mission where the 189 died.

But preservation – or heritage conservation – began in San Antonio with the riverwalk when the city adopted a typical 1920s Beaux-Arts modernist plan that would have paved over the curvy river and put in a nice gridiron over the meandering streets of San Antonio. The San Antonio Conservation Society formed to defeat that plan, arguing quite correctly that the river was the heart and origin of the city. The Riverwalk continues to grow to this day, expanding beyond the downtown out to the King William district.

The Conservation Society (note the name) then worked in the 1930s and 1940s to preserve the four missions south of the Alamo extending nearly ten miles from the city center. These are a real treasure, since the late 1970s interpreted by the National Park Service and the abandoned churches within the missions have become active Catholic churches again.

I was really glad I took the time to visit all of them, because they are lovely and evocative and pretty well interpreted, with models of the original complexes at each site.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission Concepcion

The interpretation is also appropriate, noting that the missions had a religious purpose but also very nearly enslaved the local population in the service of Spain. The ladies of the San Antonio Conservation Society were doing what all “preservationists” did in the first half of the 20th century, saving great sites of place origin, of memory and some form of patriotism.

Rose window, Mission San Jose

But San Antonio also witnessed one of the early stirrings of the community preservation movement that characterized the latter 20th century and made preservation (heritage conservation) a mass movement that was about conserving community, not patriotic shrines. The Conservation Society itself opened the Steves Homestead in King William in 1954 as a house museum.

But the district south of the downtown remained rough into the 1970s, despite the presence of really stunning limestone and brick mansions. Walter Nold Mathis moved in in 1967 and restored a home he called Villa Finale, which opened a month ago as a National Trust historic site.

Mathis also bought and sold 14 other properties in the King William District, which is certainly one of the most beautiful historic districts I have ever seen, and was key in transforming it from a dodgy rooming house district into a mirror of its historic self. The district has a nice range, from classic Texas cottages with their standing seam metal roofs and verandas to grand Italianate and Romanesque mansions.

Giles house 1883

Kaltyer House, 1892

Hemisfair in 1968 – a world’s fair – gave San Antonio its space needle and a combination of municipal buildings, exhibition halls and even some restored houses, both on site and moved, as was the pattern in 1968.

So it was really the 1960s when things took off – the Riverwalk thanks to Hemisfair, and King William thanks to Mathis, who also collected JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING and you can see it in his house – it is pretty amazing. You have to go there.

Harnisch House, King William District

But the Riverwalk was indeed my ritual of eternal return, for the tall buildings in San Antonio are Art Deco style from the late 1920s and 1930s and one of them, the Nix Memorial Hospital, is the building I was born in. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, and my geek joke during the conference in Austin was “But it is Criterion C, not Criterion B!”

My sister Clare visited San Antonio 10 or 15 years ago and noted that the Nix is on the Riverwalk, and indeed the insult bar and restaurant Dick’s Last Resort is located in the basement.

Clare called me at the time and said it figured that I was born in the only hospital in the country with a bar in the basement. So I went and had a drink and pondered the myth of eternal return and the reenactment of memory and yes, the memories were intriguing and the history is something I love and remember too, but what makes San Antonio great is NOW, and the fact that a big piece of NOW is the richness of a hundred rehabilitated, preserved and well interpreted THENs that give the place a richness certain other cities cannot buy.

Spanish Governor’s Palace

For love or money. You can’t buy this, you can only save it.