Why the San Antonio Conservation Society Matters

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Preservation enthusiasts will gather March 27 to celebrate resurrected buildings once thought lost, and honor heroes who fought to keep precious heritage alive. The San Antonio Conservation Society is celebrating its biannual Historic Preservation Awards for the Built Environment and its Texas Preservation Hero Awards at the Briscoe Western Art Museum in downtown San Antonio.

The 10 built environment projects, both residential and non-residential, are being recognized for the quality in their restoration. The preservation heroes are being honored for their accomplishments in historic preservation or conservation.

Sue Ann Pemberton, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society, feels this year’s awards are especially relevant.

Sue Ann Pemberton, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society. Photo courtesy of Mainstreet Architects Inc.

Sue Ann Pemberton, president of the San Antonio Conservation Society. Photo courtesy of Mainstreet Architects Inc.

“I think these awards in particular helped prove to our community that progress and development can happen while preserving those buildings that make our city unique,” she said.

Pemberton, a principal with Mainstreet Architects Inc., has 30 years professional experience in both private practice and state and federal government. She feels the awards consolidate her day-to-day work with what she committed to do when she embarked on her career.

“If we as architects can get the recognition from the San Antonio Conservation Society, that’s a strong endorsement,” she said. “It is fitting that the venue for our celebration is The Briscoe Western Art Museum, which is a prime example of an adaptive reuse project.”

Pemberton, who has served as president of the Conservation Society since June 2013, said there are two processes for award nominations.

“The heroes are nominated by members of the board, and then chosen by a committee that consists of former presidents,” she said. “Building awards can be nominated by whoever, and this year the winners were selected by three out-of-town architects.”

This year’s Texas Preservation Hero Awards go to:

Paul Barwick, Special Projects Director for the City of Boerne

Paul Barwick, Special Projects Director for the City of Boerne

Paul Barwick, Special Projects Director for the City of Boerne

Barwick’s accomplishments include projects noted for keeping Boerne history alive, such as interpretive displays along community trails and at the Patrick Heath Library, and stabilization of the Kuhlmann-King House. The Kendall County Heritage Passport was the largest event; it celebrated the county’s 150th birthday with monthly events for a year.

Barwick noted that much of the vision came from a weeklong visit from the American Institute of Architects in 2008. The AIA brought in a Regional Urban Design and Assistance Team that facilitated a public planning process.

“Their final report gave us a large wish list of things that the public would like to see happening in Boerne over the next few years and we’ve been using that as our guidebook,” Barwick said.

“There’s always hidden treasures waiting to be found,” he added. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t learn of another nugget of history. I’m in the public a lot and I’m always getting stories so I try to document them as best I can. “

Barwick has been with the city of Boerne for seven years. Before that he worked with the Nature Conservancy for eight years and the City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department for nearly five years.

“It’s been a team effort over many years,” Barwick noted, “so this award is not just for me. It represents all the people in Boerne and in Kendall County.”

Lewis F. Fisher, Author

Lewis F. Fisher

Lewis F. Fisher

You’d be hardpressed to find a bookstore without a Fisher book in its Texas section. The author is known for his many carefully researched books on Texas history, including several dealing with preservation. Nearly 18 years ago he wrote the history of the San Antonio Conservation Society in the book, “Saving San Antonio: The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage.”

Fisher established Maverick Publishing Company in 1996, and since then, has published more than 30 titles. Many of these books are used as texts for university classes on historic preservation. Fisher has also published books of postcard images of the plazas, Fort Sam Houston and the Spanish missions.

"Chili Queens, Hay Wagons and Fandangos: The Spanish Plazas in Frontier San Antonio," by Lewis F. Fisher. (2013) Maverick Publishing Company.

“Chili Queens, Hay Wagons and Fandangos: The Spanish Plazas in Frontier San Antonio,” by Lewis F. Fisher. (2013) Maverick Publishing Company.

His most recent San Antonio-based book is “Chili Queens, Hay Wagons and Fandangos: The Spanish Plazas in Frontier San Antonio.” Other local subjects he’s covered include the River Walk, the Monte Vista neighborhood, C.H. Guenther and HemisFair ’68.

Coincidentally, he also wrote a book about one of the building award winners: “St. Mark’s Episcopal Church: 150 Years of Ministry in Downtown San Antonio, 1858-2008.”

Suzanne Scott, General Manager of the San Antonio River Authority

Suzanne Scott

Suzanne Scott, San Antonio River Authority general manager

Scott is being recognized for her stewardship of the $245 million Mission Reach Ecosystem and Recreation Project.

Long before Scott took the helm of SARA, the Mission Reach was a dream of San Antonio citizens in the 1970s. They were alarmed by the environmental degradation caused by the initial channelization of the river by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Their hope was to restore the river but at the same time, maintain flood protection.

“Fast forward to the late 1990s when the Corps of Engineers embarked on a new mission of ‘ecosystem restoration’ and local governmental entities had completed studies showing that flood protection could be preserved in a restored river channel,” Scott said.

Her personal involvement with the project began in 1996 when she was employed at Bexar County and was responsible for presenting Capital Improvement Projects to the Commissioners Court for funding consideration. As part of this process, SARA presented the results of those early governmental studies. Scott was named to staff the Oversight Committee that was formed in 1998 when funding was authorized to begin additional feasibility studies.

“The committee gathered public input on the desires for the improvements to the river and recommended funding from the city and county toward the development of a Conceptual Design Guideline document,” Scott explained. “The passion of the San Antonio River Oversight Committee, the support by the city, county and SARA for the completion of the Concept Design Guideline document and the authorization by the U.S. Congress in 2000 allowing the Corps to explore environmental restoration on what we now know as the Mission Reach, combined to provide the foundational building blocks that launched the project.”

Blue bonnets along the trail help make the Mission Reach a great place to go for a run. Photo courtesy of SARA.

Blue bonnets along the trail help make the Mission Reach a great place to go for a run. Photo courtesy of SARA.

Scott, who grew up on San Antonio’s South Side, said she could see how the restoration of the river would give the treasured resource back to the community.

“The public support for the project was never in doubt and the persistent leadership of former Mayor Lila Cockrell and local architect Irby Hightower on the Oversight Committee gave the project a consistent voice,” Scott said.

She admitted that changes in elected officials and shifting in funding priorities were a constant risk to the project’s funding sustainability.

“A strong elected official to champion the project was required. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison became our champion for the federal funding that was critical to support the Corps through the design phase. Judge Nelson Wolff and the Commissioners Court were the local champions who secured the visitor tax as the funding source to ensure construction of the entire eight miles could be completed,” Scott said.

Leticia Vacek, City Clerk, City of San Antonio

Leticia Vacek, City Clerk, City of San Antonio

Leticia Vacek, City Clerk, City of San Antonio

When Vacek was first hired in May 2004, she was disappointed to find that there was nothing in place to maintain and protect the important papers chronicling San Antonio’s history. She started the city’s first archival program and had the full support of the mayor and City Council; shortly thereafter, she was able to hire an archivist to help her sort through all the articles, documents, historical letters and maps.

“You name it, we have it in our municipal archives,” Vacek said. “It’s just been wonderful to find so many great treasures that have been brought to life. When we find something, for example, an old map of the center of the city or the original Alamo plaque, we digitize that to preserve it, number one, and number two, we want it to be available to historians, to scholars, to authors or to anyone who’s conducting research. So they have it at their fingertips, instead of having to get into their car and drive out to our facility to take a look at it.”

One of the first things Vacek did when she started her job was conduct an internal assessment of her office.

“One morning I happened to walk into the breakroom where the employees were having their breakfast tacos and their coffee and I saw this letter hanging on the wall and I started to read it,” Vacek said. “And after I read it I said, ‘Oh my goodness, do you know what this is?’ And one of the employees said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s just a letter from Santa Anna.’ And I turned around and said, ‘Well, do you get those weekly around here?’”

Santa Anna's letter dated April 1843 for Angel Hinojosa. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Santa Anna’s letter dated April 1843 for Angel Hinojosa. Photo courtesy of the City of San Antonio.

Vacek took the letter to the History Shop near the Alamo and they were able to restore it and also reproduce it.

“So now, we have the reproduction hanging and we have the original in an acid-free folder behind lock and key, where it should be, because it’s priceless,” Vacek said.

“We have a 60,000-square-foot warehouse where we house active and inactive records, not just for the city departments, but also our archival program that we started,” Vacek said. “Before we house them in the proper acid-free folders and in the proper boxes, we digitize these documents so that they’re not buried again and someone else has to unearth them. This is something we’re trying to get out on our website so that everyone has access who is interested in the culture and the history of San Antonio.”

Vacek is quick to give credit to her staff. In addition to an archivist, interns from various colleges assist her department, and they’re able to hire an intern in the summer through the mayor’s ambassador program.

“We have a wealth of volunteers who also come out and help us unearth these wonderful treasures and help us identify and put this wonderful information online. Nobody does anything like this by themselves. I have a team that I must give credit to, and the IT department has been very supportive of our work,” Vacek said.

This year’s Historic Preservation Awards for the Built Environment (information courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society) go to:

Austin Hall, owned and located at Sam Houston State University 

Austin Hall is the oldest building on campus. It was designed in the Greek Revival style and completed in 1853. Sam Houston State University commissioned the exacting restoration of the building, including restoring and repointing brick, addressing the deterioration of the plaster-covered columns, and restoring original wood windows and shutters.

Bliss, owned by Jack and Liza Lewis

The restaurant Bliss began its life as a Humble Oil gas station in 1929. It was built in Zigzag Art Deco style by architect John Staub and served as a gas station for some 30 years before being retrofitted into an automotive repair shop. The owners, in collaboration with Chef Mark and Lisa Bliss,  took the abandoned station and turned it into a successful restaurant, revealing its brick veneer to expose the original plaster/tile details and the engaged pilasters. The original wood doors and steel windows also were restored.

Eagar House, Eagar Dependency and Hermann Carriage House, owned by City of San Antonio

The Hemisfair Park Redevelopment Corporation repurposed these three State Archeological Landmarks, showing leadership for potential exterior restoration and reuse of other historic buildings on the Hemisfair site. The Eagar House was built in 1870 for John H. Kampmann for Sarah and Robert Eagar. Sarah lived in her home until she died at age 105 in 1947. She and her daughter, Florence, were among the first women in San Antonio to undertake preservation of the Alamo.

El Rinconcito de Esperanza, The Little Corner of Hope, owned by Esperanza Peace and Justice Center

The multidisciplinary cultural center, consisting of three historic buildings, was carefully adapted to new uses using green building practices. The rehabilitation began in 2012 with more than 50 percent recycled wood from structures in the nearby neighborhood, including reclaimed oak planks recycled from St. Mary’s University’s baseball park bleachers.

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, owned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio

The intricately carved limestone façade of Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo was meticulously conserved, preserving a significant example of Spanish Colonial Baroque ornament, unmatched by any other colonial era stone carvings in the United States. Established at its current location in 1727, the present large masonry mission church was constructed between 1768 and 1782 by a variety of master masons from New Spain.

Pendleton Francis House, owned by Sidney J. Francis II 

The restoration of the board and batten vernacular cottage, rebuilt about 1890, included repair and replacement of various elements to match the original features as necessary, including siding, a corrugated metal roof, porch flooring and attic ventilation louvers. The Pendleton Francis House is one of several structures that comprise Dublin Plantation (the George Francis Farmstead) in the northeastern corner of Guadalupe County, and has been recommended for listing on the National Register of Historic Places by the Texas Historical Commission.

San Antonio Eye Center, owned by the San Antonio Eye Center

The Dietzmann House, located at 511 Dallas Street, sat vacant for 20 years before its restoration began in 2011. The building’s owners set a new standard in the River North neighborhood by introducing a new function to the historic wood frame house, incorporating a major addition and transforming it into a state-of-the-art eye clinic.

Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center, owned by the Witte Museum

The historic Pioneer Hall, designed by one of San Antonio’s most prominent architects, Ayers & Ayers, was constructed in 1936 to celebrate the Texas Centennial. It had the same use for more than 70 years, with few alterations made to the building. The challengeable restoration project was to design a sensitive addition that would enhance the beauty of this Beaux-Arts building. The addition, reminiscent of a 1930s era park pavilion, is full of light sweeping views of the river. The highlight of the new landscape surrounding the South Texas Heritage Center is the riverside amphitheater that uses cut stone benches and natural boulders to minimize the impact on the tree-covered park setting.

Steel House Lofts, owned by Dennis and Jill McDaniels 

The urban feel of South Flores Street was enhanced by converting the 1913 Peden Iron and Steel Company’s warehouse, designed by architect Atlee Ayres, into 67 distinct upscale loft apartments retaining unique character-defining features such as clerestory windows. The building served as the hub for raw iron and steel, which was brought in by rail on the south side of the building, then fabricated and loaded onto trucks on the north side, and taken to sites all over San Antonio and Central Texas. It served as a hardware company, General Motors parts division, paper company, wholesale furniture business, realty company, and then sat vacant for years.

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, owned by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

The recent project to address exterior maintenance and conservation issues returned the historic Richard Upjohn-designed Gothic Revival Style limestone church to a state which restores its appearance and condition as it was when completed in 1875. The restoration of the sanctuary and the surrounding site included updating functional aspects, while repainting and preserving important historic fabric that had been damaged by the passage of time and more acute maintenance issues, such as moisture infiltration.

The awards ceremony is open to the public. The celebration begins with Mariachi music and cocktails on the patio at 6 p.m. A full-course dinner will follow at 7 p.m., accompanied by music from Ashlee Rose, Female Vocalist of the Year 2013 at the Texas Music Awards. Cost is $90 per person, $720 for a table of eight or $900 for a table of 10.

Advance reservations and payment is requirement by Thursday, March 20, and can be made by contacting the Conservation Society headquarters at 210-224-6163, fax 210-224-6168 or conserve@saconservation.org.

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