Posts Tagged ‘Texas’

National Preservation Conference Austin

November 9, 2010


6th Street, Austin

Two weeks ago the National Preservation Conference began in Austin, Texas and I participated in many ways: as a presenter in an Education Session, as a participant on tours, in sessions, as a member of the National Council for Preservation Education (and outgoing Chair Emeritus) and of course as a Trustee. It is a very exciting time to be involved in the National Trust, because we have a new leader, Stephanie Meeks, whom we chose as our President this summer. You don’t have to go any farther than her speech at the Opening Plenary session to realize that there are exciting times ahead in the world of cultural heritage preservation.

Red River district, Austin, Texas

Notice her word choice: “cultural heritage conservation.” This reflects her discussion of the harmony between her role at the Trust and her years of leadership at the Nature Conservancy, but it also reflects a movement to rebrand historic preservation, which seems narrow, as heritage conservation, which is what it is called in the rest of the English-speaking world. Don Rypkema made this call last year in Nashville and he and I had articles about the topic in Forum Journal this summer (you can see my original blog on the topic here.)

State Capitol, Austin, Texas

Meeks’ speech focused on three needs: The Need to make preservation More Accessible, the Need to make preservation More Visible, and the Need for preservation to be fully funded. She described how historic buildings, sites and structures create a sense of connection that speaks to a primal human need for COMMUNITY that can be as strong as the need for shelter and sustenance. But beyond the high thoughts she had concrete proposals: expand the databases the Trust is developing on historic sites for African-American and other minority groups, since the vast majority of listed historic sites do not reflect the experiences of America’s diverse populations.

Texas two-door cottage, Clarksville, Austin

She proposed a national survey of historic sites which would build on the virally successful “This Place Matters” contest the Trust sponsored last year. That program was a model of accessibility and popular input – the winning sites were all about community and heritage, not architectural or patrician pedigree. Meeks referenced the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count as a parallel. Everyone is involved in conserving their community – that is what our movement REALLY is, not aesthetic police, not antiquarianism, not fine arts connoisseurship.

this one is from Oak Park, not Texas

Meeks’ also stressed visibility by stating that we need to “make the case” for historic preservation/heritage conservation. This has actually been the theme of my graduate Preservation Planning class since it started sixteen years ago. And in this context she made a point I have tried to make for the entirety of my professional career: we need to let people know that preservationists aren’t those saying “No!” but those providing creative solutions.

I react with great chagrin at the snickering I sometimes hear from otherwise balanced persons at a proposal to save certain buildings or groups of buildings. My chagrin stems from the fact that they see the buildings as an obstacle to redevelopment and of course I see them as an asset to redevelopment. Which is the more creative position? Who is the more creative artist – the one who faces a blank canvas, or the one who must make the art fit into the vaults and curves of a predesigned ceiling, as Michaelangelo did for Pope Julius II? In real estate development, there are a hundredfold more examples of dreck than genius built on clear sites. Working within an existing context requires an uncommon mental and artistic agility.

former Pearl Brewery, San Antonio

National Trust President Stephanie Meeks final call was for full funding of the National Historic Preservation Act, which has NEVER happened since it was passed in 1966. Even the programs started by the two previous First Ladies, Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America, are threatened.

Meeks called for the National Trust to build a movement that engaged one out of 10 Americans with cultural heritage conservation, and to move toward that goal as we come up to the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act in 2016.

She openly dreamed about a day when it would take a (historic) football stadium to hold the plenary sessions of the National Preservation Conference. Don’t know if I will see that, but I welcome that energy and enthusiasm, a sense of which was palpable in Austin.

For more information about the National Trust, to join or sign up for next year’s conference in Buffalo, go to www.preservationnation.org.

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.


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