Don’t let battle zealots overrun the Crockett Block

Alfred Giles (1853-1920) left England for Texas in 1873 for health reasons, according to historian Mary Carolyn Hollers George, author of The Architectural Legacy of Alfred Giles.

A page 1 article in the March 26, 1883, edition of the San Antonio Evening Light related that the young architect found few opportunities in Austin and was “in very reduced circumstances.” So, the Light continued, Giles and a newly found friend:

…determined to come to San Antonio. Their wealth did not admit of the ordinary expense of travel, which in those days was large, so they elected to walk from Austin to this city. When they arrived here, the prospects were little better, but they got employment cotton picking.

Things began looking up. Giles was commissioned to design houses by some of San Antonio’s most prominent families, numerous commercial structures, an addition to the Bexar County Courthouse and a new courthouse in Wilson County. According to a biographical sketch of Giles provided by the University of Texas Libraries of the U.T. Austin:

…Giles’ work reflected a great variety of styles derived from architectural forms of the past, usually in more or less new combinations. Giles’ own means of expression, however, always took precedence over novelty of fashion. The sobriety and simplicity with which he adapted and combined these stylistic elements suggests that he exercised strong control over his work and that he preferred restraint. A reserved use of ornament and a strong feeling for symmetry, even in asymmetrical compositions, characterize his approach.

Giles produced unpretentious domestic residences and showy mansions, as well as commercial and institutional structures for clients who were the makers of San Antonio, especially the Mavericks, the altruistic developers of Alamo Plaza and Houston Street for whom Giles designed twenty major structures, and the Terrell family for whom he designed at least seven. Indeed, San Antonio was a Giles town with forty structures to his credit in the central city alone by 1900. Families in other Texas towns were also loyal clients, especially Captain Charles Schreiner of Kerrville and the Faltin and Ingenhuett families of Comfort.

This introduction to Alfred Giles is meant to establish his credentials in preparation for a battle to save one his landmarks on Alamo Plaza, the Crockett Block.

Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870) was among the signers of the Declaration of Independence at Washington-on-the-Brazos in 1836. As soon as Texas was established as a republic, his name appeared constantly in deed transactions filed in Bexar County. The freedom he found in the new republic allowed him to quickly purchase land grants awarded by Texas to those who had fought for independence and a multitude of lots along both banks of the San Antonio River and the “Alamo Ditch.”

Although he personally knew men who perished at the Alamo, his acquisitions and building projects demonstrate no attachment to preserving the spots where they died. Only five years after the fall of the Alamo, in fact, he purchased property immediately beside the church itself from Mariano Romano. And he built his home on what is the northwest corner of Alamo Plaza.

Perhaps those closest to war long to move on to more peaceful times. Perhaps this explains why Maverick is thought to have a cannon from the Alamo forged into a bell for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

Unfortunately, Sam’s son, William Maverick (1847-1923), made a major mistake. He sold part of the Romano property to Augustine Honore Grenet (1823-1882) in 1878, adding to land Grenet purchased from the church. Grenet commissioned what William Corner’s 1890 guide termed an “inartistic erection” and an “atrocious lumber building” atop the foundation of the convent and used the Alamo chapel for storage. The Grenet building was later sold to Hugo & Schmeltzer.

Directly across the plaza from the Alamo, however, William and his brother Albert Maverick (1854-1947) did better. In 1882, they hired San Antonio’s most in-demand architect, Alfred Giles, to design a modern structure to supplement the Maverick Building on the northwest corner of Alamo Plaza.

At three stories, the handsome Italianate limestone Crockett Block was low-slung compared to its original neighbors. Both its height and coloring were complementary to the building directly across the plaza from it, the Alamo Chapel. The first-floor commercial bays and windows are flanked by Corinthian columns; the tops of the windows on the second floor appear to take their shape from portions of octagons; while the third-floor windows are arched with keystones.

Among the first Crockett Block tenants was Rafael Diaz, according to undated notes from the Historic Preservation Office of San Antonio in files of the San Antonio Conservation Society Library. Exiled from Cuba for political reasons in 1868, Diaz manufactured what was once the most popular cigar in San Antonio, La Flor de Diaz. He “returned his profits to Cuba to finance the revolutions of his homeland for 32 years.” Another early tenant was Heuermann & Brothers Grocers.

The Crockett Block was a prestigious address for businesses for many years. The vintage postcards of Alamo Plaza demonstrate her subtle presence, as well as the city’s changing treatment of the plaza itself.

But the old girl’s façade suffered some abuse during a period of urban decline. The century-old landmark needed a facelift by the 1980s. George considers the monumental restoration of the Crockett Block undertaken in 1982 to be a Cinderella story, a preservationist’s dream come true. Investors led by developer Bill Schlansker hired architect Humberto Saldana to reclaim the classical details of Giles’ original design.

Now well over a century old, the Crockett Block stands as an important landmark on the plaza. The only flaws in its appearance are the City of San Antonio’s lax enforcement of its signage regulations. Every first-floor tenant has more signage than allowed. Alamo Trolley and Del Sol have plastered some of the handsome windows with self-promotional posters, and even the City of San Antonio’s Visitors Center violates the city’s own rules. “Visitors Center” easily conveys what it is, yet additional messages advertising “Gifts and Souvenirs” have been plastered onto storefront windows.

But the Crockett Block has a new steward. At the end of 2015, it was purchased by the General Land Office of Texas. Perhaps Land Commissioner George P. Bush can rein in his tenants to meet more tasteful standards appropriate for the historic district.

There is only one reason I am telling you all of these things now. It seems as though there is a huge target painted on the façade of the Crockett Block. And it also seems as though the San Antonio Express-News has a giant slingshot loaded with a wrecking ball tautly pulled and aimed that way.

On January 9, the Express-News Editorial Board set forth “Our Agenda 2016 issues and goals.” The Alamo is one of three things the Editorial Board plans to focus on repeatedly this year. The timing of this is to influence the outcome of the master planning process for Alamo Plaza undertaken jointly by the city and the state. The paper is pushing its vision:

We envision a restoration of the site to its 1836 footprint as much as possible, a world-class Alamo museum and visitors center, and surrounding businesses that don’t disrespect the history attached to the Cradle of Texas Independence.

Our Agenda 2016 editorials will be urging bold action.

All that sounds well and good until you follow the track of the original western wall of the Alamo compound at the time of the 1836 battle. Yes, it cuts right through the front portion of the handsome Crockett Block.

1981 excavations on the south side of the Crockett Block opened up Paseo del Alamo linking Alamo Plaza and the San Antonio River through the new Hyatt Regency Hotel. Archaeologists were able to expose foundations of walls of the original Mission San Antonio del Valero, better known as the Alamo. But during the original construction of the Crockett Block, according to George, “surviving wall fragments would have disappeared with excavation of the structure’s basement.”

The Crockett Block could serve a multitude of purposes on a reconfigured plaza. Certainly nothing could make the job of a development officer for the Alamo Endowment easier than positioning potential donors in a third-floor office squarely facing the Alamo itself.

The Crockett Block also stands as a major shield, not just sheltering the plaza from the stark 1980s’ design of the Hyatt Regency, but also its parking garage. A photo of the parking garage is difficult to take because, fortunately, it is screened from view by the Crockett Block.

The Crockett Block is too valuable a part of San Antonio’s history of urban development to lose, and moving it would be absurdly expensive.

And, if a return to appearances before the 1836 Battle of the Alamo is truly a goal, the distinctive parapet would have to go. The unfinished chapel had a flat top at the time. The now-iconic roofline was added 14 years after the fall of the Alamo by the United States Army.

Obviously, the small readership of this blog is no match for the voice of a major newspaper. I feel armed with a peashooter against the onslaught about to be launched by the editorial board.

But maybe someone influential, someone who understands layers of history are as important as any one event, will stumble across this post and take up the charge to spare the Crockett Block.

January 26, 2016, Update: Letter to the Editor from the Express-News

To demolish the historic buildings facing it would be an act of urban design — vandalism in favor of a Disneyland approach to history.

June 27, 2016, Update: The San Antonio Conservation Society has posted a two-part statement, Defending Alamo Plaza:

Alamo Plaza’s importance as a cultural hub… is what we should strive to reclaim and restore, not with re-created structures that function as props, but with compatible adaptive use of existing historic buildings, innovative interpretation, and strategic revitalization that enhances the overall experience for locals and tourists, alike.

 

 

 

 

Cornyation strips down to bare kernels of comedy in current events

A century ago, a San Antonio businessman dressed in drag to parade around as the Duchess of Frijoles to lampoon Fiesta royalty. That Fiesta San Antonio tradition continues somewhat in the form of the rowdy and bawdy Cornyation – now 50 years old.

King Anchovy reigns over the colorful pageantry in the Empire Theatre. King Chris Hill arrived on stage crowned with a slice of lime and perched on his throne, “rocks” in a salt-rimmed margarita glass. As appropriate for someone who recently purchased El Mirador, Hill’s royal court was Especial Number 2. The ingredients pranced around separately before reclining on a platter to create a whole enchilada dinner. The only complaint with his court was the giant, protruding, glitter-covered jala-penis of one of King Anchovy’s attendants continually blocked camera shots, resulting in extreme camera angles (although I often shoot that way).

No current event, politician or celebrity is too sacred to escape being targeted by the elaborate skits, amplified by commentary from emcees Rick Frederick and Elaine Wolff. This year included the ride-sharing versus taxi battles, with ride-sharing representatives wearing chestlights and taxis stripping down to reveal their checkered undies. The conflict was lorded over by the Duchess of Bumbling Bribes and Bumming Rides.

The Duchess of “I Hunt. It’s Legal. Get Over It, HUNTIES!,” represented “the positively true adventures of the selfie-taking, varmint-wasting Texas cheerleader.” Skits captured the tumultuous transition of Bruce Jenner and the ample hindquarters of Kim Kardashian. Along with Ricky and Lucy, the Castro brothers of Cuba appeared, although, on their flipsides, they assumed the roles of the Castro brothers from San Antonio.

At one point in its history, Cornyation was performed in the Arneson River Theatre as part of the San Antonio Conservation’s Society NIOSA. Not sure what transgressions caused the event to be banished from the NIOSA kingdom, but the 50th anniversary edition certainly wouldn’t have passed the society’s rating system without yards upon yards of additional costuming.*

The costuming is elaborate, although, by the end of numerous skits, much of it is barely there. You find yourself praying for no wardrobe malfunctions, as you already are viewing more than you want. Everything is so fast-paced, though, you generally only get quick glimpses. But still photos seem to focus and freeze on lots of butts, without the benefit of the accompanying music and moves, bringing back memories of being on the front row during a showing of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos as Divine lowered “her” bottom towards me.

 

Director Ray Chavez has been staging the choreographed chaos of Cornyations since 1982. He lost one of his major collaborators this past year with the death of Robert Rehm, so the final skit honored him in a fittingly wild fashion. Robert definitely lived his life as a “the-show-must-go-on” kind of guy. I briefly was able to make his acquaintance and interview him when working on a December 2012 feature on Jumpstart for ARTS on KLRN-TV.

Since becoming a nonprofit organization, Cornyation has contributed close to $2 million to charities and to underwrite scholarships for theater students. It continues through Friday night.

Hey, Ben and Tim, thanks so much for including us!

*Although many of the defenders of the Alamo were exposed to San Antonio’s wild fandangos, I was relieved to see no cormorants in attendance. Think they’d be better prepared for haunting NIOSA.

 

 

 

 

Weather Forecast: 11 Days of Confetti Showers Ahead

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Royalty from Fiesta San Jacinto, 1915

Thousands of eggshells from February’s Cowboy Breakfast are recycled annually by volunteers from the San Antonio Conservation Society who stuff them full of colored confetti, transforming them into cascarones to crack over the head of revelers at A Night in Old San Antonio. During NIOSA alone, 200,000 cascarones are cracked. Can’t imagine what the overall total is for the entire 11-day run of Fiesta San Antonio, April 16 through 26.

Although San Antonians continue to exuberantly embrace the more than 100 events packing the calendar, few pause to remember the origins of Fiesta. The festival was founded as a salute to the Texian victory at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.

Perhaps a reporter, though, writing a century ago in the San Antonio Light best summarized what the annual event means for natives: it transports San Antonians “from the prosaic, work-a-day world to a wonderful fairyland” – a ten-day escape from reality.

King Antonio I, 1915, San Antonio Light

King Antonio I, 1915, San Antonio Light

The year 1915 was the first year the king assumed the name of King Antonio. Following his ceremonious arrival aboard a whistle-blowing Southern Pacific train, Dr. T.T. Jackson’s chariot drawn by six milk-white horses transported him to Alamo Plaza to kick off Fiesta San Jacinto.

Queen of Arcady, 1915, San Antonio Light

Queen of Arcady, 1915, San Antonio Light

Later in the week, Josephine Woodhull was crowned as “Her Majesty, the Queen of Arcady” at the Majestic Theater. She wielded her scepter over the “Court of Old Romance.” Edged in ermine, her peacock blue velvet train was embroidered heavily with gems, shimmering as a peacock’s feathers.

Numerous parades filled the week, including the “Pageant of Caliph,” a burlesque night parade staged by the Fiesta Association. The first float in 1915 bore the “Duchess of Frijoles,” satirizing the high society coronation of the prior evening. Politicians, local to international, received “a goodly share of ‘guying,’” including a “Floating Vote” float with politicians portrayed aboard as “pulling the strings.”

A century ago, the Battle of Flowers Parade represented the high point of the week, with floats and carriages laden with thousands of fresh flowers. During the mock battle circling Alamo Plaza, even visiting Governor “Pa” Ferguson was pelted with flowers.

battle-of-flowers-11

Somehow, the flower-pelting tradition was allowed to continue, despite its tumultuous first year. The following is pulled from a post from several years ago. Sarah Reveley transcribed the description of the 1891 melee from an April 25, 1891, edition of the San Antonio Daily Light:

…The procession contained over 100 carriages and other vehicles, all gaily decorated and many containing decorations of real artistic merit. Mr. Madarasz’s carriage, decked in pure white lilies and variegated grasses, with honeysuckle was plain, pretty and neat. Col. H. B. Andrews’ pony phaeton, with four Shetlands drawing it, was exquisite, and J. J. Stevens’ children in a four-in-hand Shetland surrey, representing a yacht, was also very pretty….

On arriving at the plaza the police divided the procession into two lines, each half going in opposite directions and passing around the park were brought, face to face with each other. The crowd on foot pressed the carriages closely and the fight began and waged furiously for nearly an hour. The occupants of the carriages had all the ammunition while those on foot had none. They began picking the fallen roses from the pavement, and even tore off the trimmings of the carriages, and soon had the best of the fight.  Heavy bunches of laurel thrown soon had their effect, and many ladies lost their temper and used their carriage whips indiscriminately on the crowd. One lady struck Mr. Doc Fitzgerald, a passive spectator, a severe blow on the face with her whip, but did not see fit to apologise for her mistake. Mr. H. P. Drought made an ugly cut with his whip into the crowd…. One young angel with white wings appealed to the crowd for protection from the missiles saying, “I wish you men would make them quit….”

The police were powerless to keep the people off the park beds, and prevent them from tearing off the flowers. One outright fight occurred. Mr. Phil Shook, one of the horseback party, lost his temper, and cutting a man in the face with his riding whip, was assaulted, and a fist fight on the pavement resulted. Both combatants were arrested by the police. Mr. Charley Baker used his umbrella for defense. While the crowd was very dense on the plaza, waiting for the procession to come along, Mr. Cristoph Pfeuffer’s splendid team and carriage took fright on South Alamo street, at an electric car. The carriage was decorated and contained several ladies, a child and the driver. Dashing into Alamo street, past and into the crowd of people and vehicles, it overturned a buggy and horse at the corner, and its driver jumped out and was dragged under the carriage by the lines. The lady on the front seat caught one of the lines and held it, but the horses made straight for the crowd of women and children in the park and struck a very deep mass of them, it being impossible for them to move out of the way. The ladies were thrown out and their clothing was badly torn. One little boy was knocked senseless, another was bruised, and one little girl had her apron torn off.  Other children were trampled by the frightened people. The plunging horses were secured and the carriage was taken to a side street….

Some irrepressible small boys arranged a dog fight in the midst of an interested crowd of spectators, during the battle, and a regular stampede ensued. Some of the combatants whose supply of ammunition had exhausted, resorted to buggy robes and quirts for aggressive warfare, and umbrellas and parasols for the defensive….

The battle was a success, but if it is given next year, more police will be needed, carriages must not be allowed on the plaza at all, and the participants must not lose their temper.

Let the chaotic merriment begin. Viva Fiesta!