Redefining Preservation in a City on the Rise

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Interior hallway, "Peacock Alley," at the St. Anthony Hotel. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Interior hallway, "Peacock Alley," at the St. Anthony Hotel. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Preservation for preservation’s sake is a proven dead-end for cities and citizens hoping to revitalize neighborhoods – historic or not. Preservation has come to mean more than protecting old buildings, as is evident in San Antonio, although sometimes it takes an outsider to  frame what is underway here in the city, yet not necessarily visible to those living and working here.

Global Heritage Fund Executive Director Vincent Michael shared with Centro San Antonio members and guests more than 30 years of preservation experience from around the globe during a luncheon program Friday afternoon. Preservation done right is a process, not a set of rules, that contributes to a community and ultimately the economy.

“There is a good critical mass here,” Michael said during his presentation at the St. Anthony Hotel, itself going through the final stretch of a historic renovation. “Just look at what (San Antonio) did in the 1920s. Preserving 2.5 miles of the River Walk and now you have (15) miles.”

Michael referred to the push to pave over the River Walk in the 1920s in order to channel the river and modernize the street grid, essentially turning the river into a concrete drain. The San Antonio Conservation Society, founded in 1924, was instrumental in saving the San Antonio River. By keeping that urban connection to the river, San Antonio has built its identity around it. It’s also a lot easier to care about a natural resource if you can see it and use it.

San Antonio's famous River Walk was developed as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures.

San Antonio’s famous River Walk was developed as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures.

“At its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future,” Michael quoted William J. Murtagh, the first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, at the start of the program.

The origins of conservation are rooted in an architectural approach – preserving old buildings because something big happened there. But in the 20th century, societies have begun to shift towards a cultural heritage approach to conservation.

“That’s something that isn’t going to have a physical form, but it’s always going to need a physical place to be,” he said.

Fortunately for San Antonio, the city has both architectural and cultural heritage to preserve and capitalize on as it grows and evolves.

“San Antonio has good bones,” said Centro San Antonio CEO Pat DiGiovanni in his opening remarks. “People take care of things they have an emotional attachment to. In that regard, San Antonio has a strong record.”

And it’s more than cool old buildings. It’s landscapes, patterns, and styles that develop. The definition of preservation has expanded to include identity, community, economy, and education.

Global Heritage Fund Executive Director Vincent Michael at the Centro San Antonio Urban Renaissance Luncheon. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Global Heritage Fund Executive Director Vincent Michael at the Centro San Antonio Urban Renaissance Luncheon. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“It’s hard to imagine San Francisco without the cable cars,” Michael said. “It’s hard to image Greenwich Village in New York without front stoops and brownstones.” Cities develop “icons of place … historic places that we know and love are places that you can get an image of (in your head).”

Communities gain a deeper connection to their surroundings if history is visible to people, giving them a shared sense they belong in that place, Michael said. People want to connect with a place, have a sense that they belong.

“Preservation is an economic redevelopment strategy,” Michael said. Real estate value is a function of place, of location. “Real estate is the only economic asset whose value comes from outside of it. What is outside of it? The other buildings around it.”

That’s how special places and historic districts come about, to preserve the value of the singular building by preserving the surrounding areas, he said.

One reason for historic conservation is education. “When we’re preserving buildings, we’re preserving physical textbooks … history can be boring in books. But it’s something I can walk down the street and find.”

So how do we figure out what to preserve?

“What makes a place important to each generation is different,” Michael said. A community conversation should serve as the catalyst to identify the key symbols of the past that give a place and its people a unique identity. “Figure out what it is that conveys the historical significance. It depends on a lot of things and it’s a decision that is not the same from one place to the next.”

The Keep SA Real team was on hand to share how its social media campaign, #keepsareal, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, has spread across San Antonio as a place where people can share images of what authentic places, people, and events are preserving San Antonio – puro San Antonio, if you will.

“The cool thing about a social media hashtag is that it’s immediately owned by the public,” said Steven Darby of Heavy Heavy, a design firm based out of Geekdom that runs the Keep SA Real campaign. “We want to celebrate what is unique and what is special to individuals. Using a #keepsareal hashtag, people post their take on what is important – what’s worth saving.”

One of the most important parts of preservation, after public ownership, is funding. “How do you make (what’s worth saving) work in a new economy?” asked Michael. “Recognize that the historic economy that built these buildings is not identical to today’s economy.”

Warehouses are reborn as lofts, historic theaters become churches, department stores become educational institutions – breweries become mixed use developments.

An economic impact study is currently being done on historic preservation in San Antonio, said Shanon Shea Miller, director of the Office of Historic Preservation.

“So many people ask, ‘Why do we preserve?’ We preserve because it tells the stories of our people, of our neighborhood, of our city as a whole. It protects the character of our neighborhoods,” Miller said. “We preserve because it’s sustainable, environmentally sustainable, but also culturally sustainable and economically sustainable. No downtown revitalization in this country has happened without preservation as a part of it.”

*Featured/top image: Interior hallway called “Peacock Alley,” at the St. Anthony Hotel. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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City Offers Workshop on Texas Historic Preservation Tax Credit

Progress versus Protest: The Path to Smart Preservation and Development

Care of Old Spanish Missions a Citywide Calling

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