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Forty Years of Grassroots Advocacy at San Diego’s Chicano Park

April 15th, 2015 by
Photo Courtesy Teddeady

Photo Courtesy Teddeady

About the ‘Community-Driven Action’ Workshop at Chicano Park
The California Preservation Foundation, with support from a panel of speakers from the San Francisco Latino Historical Society, Los Angeles Conservancy, Stewards of the Chicano Park, and the California Office of Historic Preservation, will be looking at grassroots advocacy for Latino(a)/Chicano(a) heritage sites during our annual conference in San Diego. The session will occur Thursday, April 30th, from 2:00 – 5:15 PM and will conclude with a tour of Chicano Park. You can register for the tour by visiting our registration page or calling 415-495-0349


At one point in its history, San Diego’s Barrio Logan contained the “second largest Chicano barrio community” with a population reaching 20,000. City zoning laws in the 1950s incited changes to the community and Interstate 5 bisected its heart. In 1969, the Coronado Bay Bridge added on-ramps and pylons, leading to a population exodus. Around the same time, community members began fighting for a community park under the newly built freeway foundations. When construction commenced on a highway patrol station at the site, hundreds of community members organized in opposition to the proposed station. Instead, the community wanted a park on the site; thus the long struggle for Chicano Park began.

Artist Salvador Torres, a key figure in the murals at Chicano park, was in attendance at an April, 1970 meeting between government officials and residents who opposed construction of the Highway Patrol station on the site of the longed-for park. He spoke passionately at the meeting of his vision for the park, hoping that local Chicano artists could turn the concrete pylons and onramps into “things of beauty reflecting Mexican-American culture.” “We are ready to die,” Torres said in his statement.

A young man at the meeting followed Torres’ statement by directing his comments to the officials present: “To you, culture means Taco Bell and the funny Mexican with the funny songs. We gave you our culture of a thousand years. What have you given us? A social system that makes us beggars and police who make us afraid. We’ve got the land and we are going to work it. We are going to get that park. We no longer talk about asking. We have the park.”

Photo Courtesy Kellinahandbasket

Photo Courtesy Kellinahandbasket

As the park was occupied by the organizers, its three acres were planted with desert plants and grass. Chicano youth from Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and beyond traveled to the site to offer their support. On May 1, 1970, an agreement was reached and a land exchange for the proposed highway patrol station site was set in motion. Two months later, the city council authorized a contract to develop a park at the site.

The first annual celebration of Chicano Park Day welcomed one thousand people, and the park has since served as a symbol of one community’s establishment of a place for community events and artistic expression. Beginning in 1973, after protracted negotiations with public officials, Torres, along with a coalition of Chicano artists and advocates began using the drab concrete pylons as canvases. The murals along the abutments on Logan Avenue were completed by Los Toltecas en Aztlan, along with three hundred residents.

As Torres recalled, “Three hundred people… all of a sudden were all over the walls. It was done spontaneously. We exploded on the walls…At this early stage of the mural program, community involvement was important in obliterating the grayness from their park.”

Photo Courtesy Xelipe

Photo Courtesy Xelipe

In 1980, Chicano Park was designated San Diego’s Historical Site #143. Since then, Chicano Park has been painstakingly maintained by artists and community members under the aegis of the Chicano Park Murals Committee. In 2013 the site was designated on the National Register of Historic Places.

The California Preservation Foundation, with support from a panel of speakers from the San Francisco Latino Historical Society, Los Angeles Conservancy, Stewards of the Chicano Park, and the California Office of Historic Preservation, will be looking at grassroots advocacy for Latino(a)/Chicano(a) heritage sites during our annual conference in San Diego. The session will occur Thursday, April 30th, from 2:00 – 5:15 PM and will conclude with a tour of Chicano Park. You can register for the tour by visiting or calling 415-495-0349.

Note: Much of the narrative and historical information for this piece has been gleaned from “The Murals of Chicano Park, San Diego, California”, By Pamela Jane Ferree, San Diego State University, 1994, which – in turn – is available excerpted at

A Look at Laguna Honda: Loyalty to the Past and Openness to Change

April 9th, 2015 by
Mural of Laguna Honda's Historic Campus  Photo Courtesy Lawrence Li (creative commons)

Mural of Laguna Honda’s Historic Campus
Photo Courtesy Lawrence Li (creative commons)

Florence Nightingale Sculpture at Laguna Honda Photo Courtesy Smithsonian Inventory of American Sculpture

Florence Nightingale Sculpture at Laguna Honda
Photo Courtesy Smithsonian Inventory of American Sculpture

Since 1867, Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center has embodied San Francisco’s pledge to care for its elderly and disabled, “Obamacare before Obamacare”, as one staff member put it.  Since a major reconfiguration completed in December 2010, dust has settled enough to examine how residents feel about the changes, and the unprecedented role of plentiful art in the new buildings where they now all live.

Countless San Franciscans have enjoyed partial views of Laguna Honda’s graceful Spanish Revival buildings set amongst a densely wooded campus perched considerably uphill from Woodside Avenue and Laguna Honda Boulevard near Mount Sutro.   Many might agree with former resident David Pactor, brought to Laguna Honda in fall 2010, that buildings and backdrop suggested a mysterious, “kind of hidden” realm.   He was temporarily taken aback by the lack of privacy and coed nature of the Florence Nightingale-style wards, long rooms with beds at each side separated only by curtains.  But Pactor soon came to appreciate his facilities and the care he was given, both of which marked advances from original conditions.

Laguna Honda began not as a hospital, but as a simple “Almshouse” built by the city of San Francisco to serve its destitute, who grew their own food and made their own clothes.  Shortly thereafter it treated smallpox victims, and this was succeeded by a small mental asylum, but for many years it focused on shelter for the indigent, expanding as the city grew.  But after the 1906 Earthquake/Fire, it quickly became a refuge for many who had never considered themselves impoverished.  President Theodore Roosevelt dedicated a 1,000 bed pavilion for this purpose in 1909, and the next year Clarendon Hall opened, the first building meant expressly for long-term medical care.

By 1926, when the imposing California mission style buildings we see now were dedicated, today’s health emphasis was firmly established.  The University of California medical school designated Laguna Honda as a teaching center in the 1930s, a cancer research program and occupational therapy were later introduced, and the institution achieved hospital status in 1963.  But along with the years came heightened earthquake safety concerns, and increasing warnings that infrastructure did not meet federal standards.

The resulting regeneration replaced Clarendon Hall with two modern towers (a planned third tower was not fiscally possible.)   The key idea was to create personal, intimate communities within the hospital, minimizing the feel of a large, aloof institution.  Now 15 residents in single rooms or with one or two roommates compose a “household”, with four households per floor; the entire floor designated as a “neighborhood” anchored by a Great Room for shared activities.  All households have short hallways with turns and angles, as in a private home.

But Laguna Honda is no longer just a roof over the head of its residents, as it was in its beginning.  At the base of the new buildings is the “Main Street” Esplanade, with a multi-media library, theatre, art studio, barber and beauty shops, and cafeteria. One floor down is an eye-opening Rehabilitation Center with two pools, an outdoor park, and leading edge therapeutic equipment. To the rear of the new buildings is an accessible park with animals to pet, raised wheelchair-friendly planting beds, and secured gardens for those fighting dementias.   Many other services complete the picture, all of which were unavailable in the former Laguna Honda or have been greatly enlarged in the new buildings.

Lewis de Soto Tapestries at Laguna Honda Photo by Bruce Damonte

Lewis de Soto Tapestries at Laguna Honda
Photo by Bruce Damonte

To an outsider the choice may seem stark: the old Laguna Honda with its chlorine smells, windows that defied opening or closing, crowdedness, rampant noise, or the gleaming new one with its sense of “don’t worry anymore, you’ll be cared for.”   Yet some residents who’ve experienced both have mixed feelings.  They relish the greater cleanliness and light of the new buildings, not to mention the chance for privacy.  There are more reasons and opportunities for residents to leave their rooms, and there is more feeling of bustle and positive energy which can be contagious.  But one resident said that the old wards made it easier to get to know everyone, and were also easier for nurses to monitor.  More privacy, while highly valued by many, is less important to others than the chance to socialize with minimal physical effort, and some low-functioning residents are unable to appreciate it.  Another resident maintained that residents didn’t get input into the new buildings, but were simply told how great they would be in the months leading up to the December 2010 move-in.

Arlan Huang's handblown glass stones at Laguna Honda. Photo by Bruce Damonte

Arlan Huang’s handblown glass stones at Laguna Honda.
Photo by Bruce Damonte

Also expressed was a feeling that the new additions will always lack the sense of people suffering and healing, waiting and wondering, living and dying over the ages that permeates the traditional buildings.  David Pactor, who is now a volunteer, describes his ward as “spiritous”.   Those who had passed through before were still there to him, visible without any exertion or intent.  A current resident recalls the “clanging pipes” (which may have infuriated others) with some affection.  The character chasm strikes one before entering any building.  The steel and glass towers could be anywhere.  The 1926 edifices convey a Mediterranean tranquility, bringing to mind gentle, restorative, warm places.

Project designers did not deny this disparity, but aimed to mitigate it with ubiquitous original artworks, aided by a city ordinance requiring that 2% of building costs be spent on art, and by a large settlement obtained from tobacco companies by City Attorney Louise Renne.  Coordinated by Susan Pontious of the San Francisco Arts Commission, the collection took nine years to plan, develop and realize.  17 artists were selected after extensive review by the Commission, Laguna Honda staff, and residents.  Each artist was given two floors to enhance with art that was not only aesthetically pleasing but that provided sensory stimulation, orientation to time and potential easing of pain, stress and boredom.

Owen Smith's mosaic of the Golden Gate Bridge during construction.  Photo by Bruce Damonte

Owen Smith’s mosaic of the Golden Gate Bridge during construction.
Photo by Bruce Damonte

Major works were positioned at household entrances, to help residents locate them and impart a sense of place.  Artists Anne Chamberlain and Bernie Lubell approached this through two “Earth Air” tactile textile tapestries.  One depicts a brilliant night sky above a major city in shades of dark blue, with tan “firework” curving gashes above.   Another shows tan-gold contour lines similar to topographic maps with slight turquoise accents, suggesting fossils or perhaps a Native American influence. Centered between is a third work in laminated glass consisting of alternating long strips of the two tapestries angled so as partially to face each other (/\/\/\/\). Standing at one side of the center creation and looking across it, it shows only the night sky, but standing at the other side and looking across one sees only the contour lines—a mentally stimulating optical effect.

Artist Owen Smith drew inspiration from the 1934 WPA murals of modernist Glenn Wessels showing the four elements and relevant occupations (Fire-Furnacemen, Earth-Farmers, Water-Fishermen, Air-Hydroplane Pilots) which distinguish the front hall of the old Administration Building (this is still used for its original purpose, and the old wards are now office and storage space.)  Other works are interactive, such as those of Tony Hoff, with open-ended imagery such as chalkboards on which residents can write.  For resident rooms, prints of 24 different artworks (in addition to those of the general collection) are available, chosen by a staff/resident committee.

Painted collages by Merle Axelrad Serlin.  Photo by Bruce Damonte

Painted collages by Merle Axelrad Serlin.
Photo by Bruce Damonte

The Esplanade features 16 tapestries in earth colors by Louis de Soto covering Laguna Honda’s history, illustrated with historic photographs and artifacts shown with astonishing verisimilitude. Other artworks were contributed by the Friends of Laguna Honda Hospital, and some pieces previously on display in the older buildings were reinstalled in the newer ones. Overall, two of the most striking bodies of work are Owen Smith’s mosaics depicting Golden Gate Bridge construction in classic Thirties style, and the painted collages of Merle Axelrad Serlin, showing Land’s End cliffs, Bay Area foothills, and the Marin Headlands. Both of these are displayed in public areas, easily seen by visitors as well as residents.

How does all this art impact the residents?  It may be one reason why the great majority will respond positively to a friendly greeting, no matter how distracted or disabled they may appear.  As one said, “Art brightens people.”  But that is not to say residents accept it uncritically.  One opined that having a large sum to spend for it seemed to push things in a quantity over quality direction.  This resident, an artist, felt that some of the art funds might have been better spent on new laundry washers and dryers.  He also noted that residents cannot create any art in their rooms, and have trouble gaining permission to hang artworks there other than those already approved (there is an art studio for residents, and finished pieces are hung in the Esplanade.)  David Pactor, on the other hand, said that the art makes him happy, and that while he prefers certain works to others, there are none he dislikes.  When people expect pain and trouble, thoughts sparked by unexpected colors, shapes and textures are often welcome.  At Laguna Honda, the bittersweet soulfulness of old is answered by the vitality and piquancy of the new.


Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Susan Pontious, Program Director, Civic Art Collection and Public Art Program, San Francisco Arts Commission, and to Christopher Wong, Jr., Administrative Analyst, San Francisco Health Network, Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center.  Both provided invaluable coordination, information and advice.  In addition, David Pactor generously offered many insights on the ethos of the traditional Laguna Honda, the new art collection, and on his own approaches to volunteer service.  His contributions, and those of the other residents who met with the author, are greatly appreciated.

Note: Resident views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent a Laguna Honda resident consensus.

Historic California Live Music Venues – Absolute Treasures

December 4th, 2014 by

The first concert I ever attended was in October of 1983 at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley (est. 1903). The band headlining the historic venue that night was 80s juggernaut, Men at Work, from Australia. I must have been one of the youngest attendees there that autumn evening, as my sisters who brought my brother and I there that fateful night could not have imagined that I’d catch the live music bug that has stayed with me over 30 years later.

I had discovered something very special.

As I got older I began to realize that Californians are so very fortunate to have dozens of historic music venues throughout the state at our disposal, ranging from tiny theaters with a capacity of just a few hundred, to much larger venues that hold well over 10,000. The unique variety of venues and settings make for unforgettable experiences for both the attendee and the artist. For fans of live music, this is what it’s all about; the reciprocal experience and the magic that takes place on a night when all is well with the world.

I would like to share with you a list of some of the places I have been fortunate enough to attend, as well as a few that I have yet to visit but hope to visit someday…

Billy Bragg Marquee
Image Courtesy Volker Neumann
1. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., San Francisco (est. 1907) This elegant venue–with its sordid history–is arguably the finest of its kind and continues to host established bands and artists several nights a week (capacity 600). You can stop by Tommy’s Joynt on the way, which is just up the street.
Cafe Du NordImage Courtesy Thomas Hawk 2. Cafe Du Nord, 2170 Market St., San Francisco (est. 1907) Currently being remodeled during an ownership change, this cavernous venue is unique for both its underground hideaway feel and the fact that it was once a speakeasy during prohibition (capacity 400). It’s right on Market Street near the Church Street MUNI station and one of the City’s best bars: Lucky 13.
Paramount Theatre, Oakland, CAImage Courtesy BWChicago 3. Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland (est. 1931) This awe-inspiring theater, with its art deco details is truly a step back in time to a bygone era. Walking into the Paramount makes you feel like you are experiencing something much more than just a performance (capacity 3000).
Opeth @ Fox Theater - Oakland, CaliforniaImage Courtesy Al Case 4. Fox Theatre, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland (est. 1928) Miraculously, somehow this gem was shuttered from 1973 to 2009 and reopened to rave reviews. I remember just being in shock my first time there and being overwhelmed by its beauty (capacity 2,800).(Both the Paramount & Fox are conveniently located across from the 19th Street BART station)
Depeche Mode Santa Barbara Bowl 9/24/13Image Courtesy Mark Krynsky 5. Santa Barbara Bowl, 1122 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara (est. 1936) This historic outdoor venue has recently been extensively remodeled and a show there is a great way to spend a summer night in paradise (capacity 4,600). It is managed by the not-for-profit Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation.
Hollywood Bowl 2010Image Courtesy MargaretNapier 6. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N Highland Ave., Los Angeles (est. 1922) Widely considered one of the finest live music venues in the world. The history of The Hollywood Bowl is something so special, they have their own on-site museum. Everyone should attend a show there at least once in their lifetime (capacity 17,400).
Hollywood Music Box TheatreImage Courtesy 7. The Fonda Theatre/The Music Box6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood (est. 1926) This modest, quaint theater is the perfect size (capacity 1,200) to see one of your favorite bands. Right in the heart of Hollywood near the Frolic Room: one of the best bars in L.A.
DSC05494Image Courtesy Joshua Smelser 8. The Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood (est. 1957) Another L.A. music venue with an incredible amount of history, the tiny Troubadour (capacity 400) has been the starting point for some of the world’s most accomplished artists for decades and continues to be a vitally important venue for fans and artists alike.
Uptown TheaterImage Courtesy Amy Meredith 9. Uptown Theatre, 1350 Third St., Napa (est. 1937) This restored art deco gem is a historic landmark and is the ideal size for a venue of its kind (capacity 900). In the heart of downtown Napa, the Uptown hosts an impressive array of established artists.
CREST theater marquis : night neon, sacramento, california (2014)
Image Courtesy he who would be lost


Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento (est. 1912) In the heart of downtown, the Crest has survived many changes and been resilient throughout the decades, which continue today. Its neon marquee is one of the best of its kind, and is home to several annual film festivals (capacity 1000).

Memorial AuditoriumImage Courtesy Nick Ares 11. Memorial Auditorium, 1515 J St., Sacramento (est. 1927) Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Memorial Auditorium has hosted performances by some of the most important bands and artists for decades and also serves as a multi-purpose venue for many events throughout the year (capacity 3,800).
Balboa Theatre ~  San Diego ~ Ca ~ Historical Buildings ~ My FilmImage Courtesy Onasill ~ Bill Badzo 12. Balboa Theatre868 Fourth Ave., San Diego (est. 1924) Also on the National Register of Historic Places, The Balboa Theatre recently reopened after being shuttered for over 20 years (capacity 1,300). Restored to its former glory, this Mission/Spanish Revival masterpiece is arguably the finest venue in the city.
Ventura TheaterImage Courtesy Riff55 13. Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura (est. 1928) Another beautiful landmark, which hosts an impressive mix of artists, is a true treasure (capacity 1,200). Just off of Main Street in charming downtown Ventura, a better night out is hard to imagine.
SellandArenaInterior3709Image Courtesy Cadking3 14. Selland Arena, 700 M St., Fresno (est. 1966) Another large, historic multi-use venue that has hosted an array of concerts by some of the biggest names in music for over five decades (capacity 11,300). The Selland Arena recently underwent an extensive remodel to improve the visitor experience and continues to draw bands and artists of all genres.
Morrissey_Civic_140507-2Image Courtesy aron cooperman 15. City National Civic, 135 W. San Carlos St., San Jose (est. 1933) Located in downtown San Jose and just a few blocks from San Jose State University, the City National Civic is a Spanish California Mission style venue that has a long history of a wide variety of events (capacity 3000). A recent major renovation project has restored the venue and has drawn many established acts since.

The Survivors: The Last of the Great San Francisco Movie Theaters

September 30th, 2014 by

Growing up in the Sunset district at a time when VCRs and basic cable were still very much a household rarity, I would not have to travel very far to enter the magical world of cinema on the big screen. As a kid–and still today–the experience holds a certain rare and unique magic; It is an event, an escape, a diversion, and most of all, it serves a vital purpose in that it supports the arts, promotes social interaction, and supports local business. It can also be an unforgettable experience, especially when you have just seen a movie that changed your life.

I can remember as a youngster going to the Surf Theater on 46th and Irving, the Parkside Theater on 19th and Taraval, and the enormous Coronet Theater on Geary near Arguello (Star Wars, anyone?) just to name a few. These theaters and many others have long since perished, as have the movie-viewing habits of  most individuals with increasingly-busy schedules and/or a fixed budget, especially here in pricey SF.

Unfortunately, over the past few years SF has seen several more theaters permanently shuttered, much to the dismay of myself and others who value the experience of sitting in a pitch-black theater with fellow moviegoers and a small tub of popcorn on their lap… It is a shared experience; We are becoming more isolated and disconnected from one another with each passing year and each theater closure. Three of my very favorite theaters have closed recently– the Lumiere on California, the Bridge on Geary, and the Red Vic on Haight.

However, all is not lost. With preservation efforts from those who still value the theater experience and its numerous benefits, we are fortunate to still have a few historic theaters that feature classic films, as well as independent, documentary and first-run feature films.

Active participation in the arts includes supporting these remaining surviving theaters, because once they are gone, they are gone for good. All we will have left are the memories of a bygone era…

4 Star— Located in the heart of the Richmond district, this theater features two screens, ornate red ceilings, and is a family-owned operation. The red neon sign through the evening fog draws you in. Plenty of great restaurants in every direction.


Image: sf station

Castro— By far the largest and most elaborate of the existing SF movie houses. From the warm-up organ player (an actual person), to the quality and impeccable detail of the facility, to the vast array of classic films, going to the Castro Theater in an event like no other.

Image: Timothy Pflueger

Image: Timothy Pflueger

Balboa— A classic two-screener in the outer Richmond which has been recently refurbished and even hosts an annual Academy Awards party. They offer a nice mix of first-run films, classics, and documentaries. Pop into the Hockey Haven before or afterwards to discuss the film



Vogue— One of the oldest theaters in SF. An elegant, quaint, single-screen movie house tucked away in Presidio Heights.



Roxie— SF’s oldest continually operating theater in the heart of the Mission district. Offers an eclectic blend of documentary, independent and classic films.


Image: sf station

Clay— Another great single-screen neighborhood theater on Fillmore with midnight showings of cult classics on weekends.



Presidio— Small, classic multiplex located on Chestnut Street in the Marina/Cow Hollow. Great options nearby for lunch of dinner.


Image: jubilation photography


East Brother Light Station

September 25th, 2014 by

Across the northwest shores of Richmond, near historic Winehaven and the Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot sits National Register #71000138, the East Brother Light Station. Variously compared with “a Grandma Moses painting, a Victorian valentine, an Iowa-farm-on-an-island, and a transplanted Coast-of-Maine lighthouse” the beacon and its keeper’s house has long been owned by CPF award winner and Richmond city council-member, Tom Butt.

I had the privilege of having an exclusive look at the lighthouse and was treated to a special experience the day I was there; long-time volunteers at the light station fired up the generator equipment to provide compressed air for the historic fog-horn. The cord was pulled and the horn let out a loud belch.

The island does not have its own water supply, so an underground cistern, denoted by a large, white convex bulb in the middle of the island – along with a reserve water tower above the cistern (which I helped recently paint during a volunteer day) – provide all that is needed for guests. I say “guests” because the island serves as a Bed & Breakfast – a stellar example of how some architecture can be adaptively re-used while still serving its historic function (the station still operates under license from the U.S. Coast Guard).

The recent video posted by Jeff Foster serves as a nice counterpoise to the aerial video of Napa Earthquake damage we posted earlier. And if you’re ever able, I highly recommend a visit to East Brother!

Below is the quadcopter / drone footage of the station. Enjoy!

How “True” is New Mexico True: A New, Old Architectural Style – Part II

September 18th, 2014 by


Shortly after New Mexico became the 47th state, Santa Fe residents, city officials, architects, and artists, all agreed to promote a uniform style that would not only link the city with a romantic architectural image, but also through tourism, boost an economy that had slowly been in decline since the closing of the Santa Fe trail. By the 1920s, a uniformly distinct and exotic style known as “Santa Fe” emerged. It was based on local architecture found in the Indian Pueblos and Spanish Missions, and replicated the adobe architecture encased in lime plaster and stucco just a decade before. Respected architects such as John Gaw Meem, also a popular preservation advocate, and one of the founders of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation, helped spearhead the “Santa Fe” style and New Mexico’s first preservation ordinance in 1957. The ordinance prohibited the construction of buildings not built in Spanish-Pueblo, Territorial, or the subsequent Revival styles within the city’s historic districts, reversing the Americanization of its past, at least in architectural form.

I don’t think Mr. Meem realized at the time that this uniform building style would do more than just preserve the best of Santa Fe. The “Santa Fe” style has taken the city farther away from its historic roots and created faux-adobe structures. Structures framed with wood or metal, boasted adobe-like colors and features such as flat roofs, rounded corners, and projecting roof beams (vigas). Authentic adobe techniques that assemble sun-dried mud blocks by hand and require frequent re-applications of mud plaster became too time consuming and thus too costly to use in new construction and many renovations. Manufactured adobe bricks (mud mixed with concrete additives) and variations of cement mortar mixes were used instead. These new and improved adobe-like structures continue to give the city a general uniformity that is prized and what people come to expect. I certainly expected it upon my arrival. Looking out onto the Santa Fe landscape you barely notice the population of almost 70,000 thanks to this uniformity in style, color and texture.


From a Recognizable Style to Quasi-historic Destination

One of the reasons that Santa Fe is the most popular tourist destination in New Mexico is because of this style and uniformity, and because it gives tourists a simpler, digestible version of its complex past. But like many cities across the U.S. who have capitalized on their historic resources, Santa Fe rehabs beyond what is necessary by fitting things into a popular or current historic environment for the sole purpose of attracting tourists. Like other tourist-oriented cities, it is so single-mindedly pre-occupied with the aesthetics of building styles and surfaces that it has forgotten that preservation is about saving history so that others will connect to it – the pleasant, the unpopular, and the architecturally divergent. Adobe structures like the Chapel of San Miguel, considered one of the oldest churches in the country (1610 c and reconstructed in 1710 ), is now perhaps more popular than the Plaza with its etched-out narratives and its fanfare of cuisine and Puebloan wares. In 2012 a group led by Cornerstones Community Partnerships, removed tons of Portland cement from the exterior of the church and re-mudded its original adobe structure. San Miguel and other authentic buildings like it not only suggest a rich history but are true to it – in architectural form and interpretation.

How “True” is New Mexico True: Popular Visions of New Mexico’s Past Part I

September 10th, 2014 by


Observations from Santa Fe

The following opinion is based on observations during a two-month summer stay in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a trades intern with the Historic Santa Fe Foundation. The observations were made while restoring historic features and performing curatorial maintenance on multiple properties owned by the HSFF, attending meetings and lectures on how New Mexico manages its historic environment, and while exploring just why this city is so different –  what makes it a part of “true” New Mexico.

My first observation was of the Downtown and Eastside Historic District (one of five historic districts in Santa Fe). I saw a place that was rich in history, tourism, and good times, but reflected more of the city’s present needs and values than a realistic interpretation of its history. New Mexico residents boast of Santa Fe’s tri-cultural heritage of Indian (Pueblo), Spanish, and Anglo – even though its pioneering settlers were more multicultural, which included Japanese and African-Americans, among others.

Overall, I found the city of Santa Fe guilty of not only “façadomy” (preservation efforts that have taken more care to give the appearance of history by preserving only the façade of historic structures than to actually engage in preserving the history of the building), but of “interpretive bias” (presenting a history void of conflict, sanitized, full of romantic and socially acceptable ideas). It seems that “history is an obstacle to be surmounted” here in Santa Fe. In the bustling Plaza, the geographic and cultural center of the city, a former fort, and the end of three main early trade routes, stands an Indian war memorial with the original inscription “Savage Indians” carved out, leaving only the word “Indian.” It was removed when peace was established between the Natives and the early settlers, just one example of how historical social conflicts have been muted.

Beginnings of a Universal Style

Santa Fe, New Mexico is the oldest capitol city in the United States and has one of the oldest residential neighborhoods, Barrio de Analco, of European origin. It was settled in 1620 by the Spanish. Only a few buildings  in the Barrio district reflect how the working-class Spanish colonist, Tlascalan Indians, and other Indians lived in Santa Fe during the early 17th and 18th centuries, or from the pre-colonization era, remain. I have noticed that visitors are more enamored with the authenticity of the old adobe buildings than they are with the overall picturesque uniformity. I am as well. The James L. Johnson home – also known as El Zaguan , one of the properties owned and cared for by the Foundation and where I reside for the summer, is a tapestry of the early 1800s (pre-Johnson ownership) Spanish-Pueblo style, as well as the Territorial style which became prevalent in the late 1840s.

ElZaguan_16front facadeThe Territorial style was developed as new types of materials and methods were brought into the area via the Santa Fe Trail, westward expansion, and finally trains. Adobe structures were encased in stucco and lime plaster, and the exterior walls were capped with fired brick, initially to help prevent erosion. Home-made wooden door and window frames were replaced by milled ones and fixed glass was added. These additions/conversions can be detected among the exposed historic façades of El Zaguan – converted into apartments by Margretta Dietrich in 1928. Throughout the rest of the city, historic features as old as 400 years are successfully hidden beneath stucco, lime plaster, and concrete.

In 1912, tourism and statehood prompted a desire to mandate an architectural style that could represent the state. Prominent city members, artists and architects like Hamilton Rapp (designer of the Museum of New Mexico inspired by the San Esteban Mission, Acoma Pueblo), introduced the “Santa Fe” style that had been brewing since the close of the Santa Fe Trail. So far the city’s style remains in that trajectory, for good and for worst. My opinions on that can be found in the next blog.

Napa Earthquake from the Sky

August 26th, 2014 by

Below is a collection of aerial clips showing earthquake damage to historic following the American Canyon seismic event on August 24, 2014. The film was “intended for educational purposes, to show builders and building owners across the world the results of this earthquake.”

The Politics of Preservation: Who Decides the Relevancy of Resources?

August 20th, 2014 by

TowerRecordsRecognizing the need to protect historic and pre-historic resources in the United States began with the Antiquities Act, approved by President T. Roosevelt in June 8, 1906. The act gave President Roosevelt and all other presidents after him, the discretionary right to grant National Monument status to areas of federal public lands and waters that possess significant historical, scenic and/or scientific values (large and small). This act was prompted by civic-minded elites in response to the close of 19th century expansion and literally the end of the road for the American Frontiersman. Resources were chosen by the elite and protected by the president in order to preserve traditional American ideals supported by cultural politics based on class and nationality.

Today, potential historic resources can be nominated by scholars (including a State or Tribal Preservation Officer), private owners, or any interested member of the general public. Cultural politics continue to play a role in the process of historic nominations, but now it is a much more democratic process. The final say is no longer in the hands of the Commander in Chief. Rather, city commissions made up of community members determine what is regarded worthy, what history is remembered, what images of our nation are projected (and protected), and who is represented.

Distance Remains in the Political Process of Preservation

Despite the movement towards public participation in the  politics of preservation, the power to designate valuable resources is still too far removed from the neighborhoods affected by the approval, or denial, of a historic resource. Additionally, outside influences (developers, potential owners, city officials) often dissuade local government officials from designating valuable resources, usually for the sake of short-term profit or a misunderstanding the benefits of preservation. I argue here that there is further room for growth towards handing over the political process of preservation to neighborhoods; city council should have to answer to neighborhoods and not for them!

To back up my assertions, I will turn to three recent examples of City officials winning out over community advocates

  1. The Tower Records building in Los Angeles: Denied landmark status in 2013 because it only had ‘cultural significance.’
  2. Hanna-Barbera Studios in Los Angeles: Denied landmark status by the City’s Heritage Commission. Although the commission was reluctant to deny status, and received pressure from the Mayor’s administration, they were unanimous in their support of Time Warner to deny landmark status. Warner planned to sell the property to Universal Studios. 
  3. Gold Dust Lounge in San Francisco: Denied landmark status by a 5-2 vote in 2012. The mixed opinions regarding the bar’s significance came down to what all other landmarks that meet the fate of demolition face: it has cultural significance, but lacks architectural strength to stand out as significant.

Neighborhoods should have the final say on what resources are designated. The way that our political system currently works, it is likely that the system of nomination and designation will remain the same. In that case, neighborhoods need to be empowered with the knowledge and nomination tools to at least influence City Council concerning what is relevant (or not) to their communities – including but not limited to architectural and cultural resources of importance.

Last-Ditch Efforts to Save Miami’s Historic Art Deco District

August 7th, 2014 by
Image Courtesy Jasperdo

Image Courtesy Jasperdo

Historic Beginnings

The Miami Design Preservation League, founded in 1976, faced an uphill battle to save the modest buildings  of Miami’s south end (on land once used for coconut farming) because they were not only different from the elaborate luxury hotels and sprawling mansions developed further north, they were less than fifty years old and were not associated with significant events or persons. The 1930s Art Deco style buildings were also considered by many as garish. Despite these odds, the League was successful in getting the South Beach district on the National Register in 1979.  It was the first 20th century Historic District in the nation and protected the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world. By the 1980s, television shows like Miami Vice and photo shoots done by renowned fashion photographers such as Bruce Weber made the Art Deco District one of the most famous neighborhoods in the United States. Even Andy Warhol requested a tour.

As more attention and wealth came to South Beach, so did the desire to demolish the pre-1942 single-family homes and replace them with more elaborate ones. The League continued to advocate for historic buildings of South Beach by encouraging local designations in the National Register District as more and more demolition permits were being filed. In 1982, Miami Beach enacted its first local historic preservation ordinance, containing 100 percent owner consent provision (revised to only 51 percent in 1983). In 1992 the City Commission expanded the Historic District to the entire mile-square Art Deco district in South Beach and thus protected from demolition the full area entered into the National Register of Historic Places back in 1979. Still, many important resources remained undesignated and unprotected, leaving the door wide open for what happened next.

Proactive Preservation vs Reactive Preservation

The League has seen both lost and won battles to save historic properties in Miami, setting important precedents for preservation policy along the way. In 2013, there was a more rigorous campaign to save South Beach’s historic properties from demolition when one of Miami’s notable homes, built in 1925 by Walter DeGarmo who was a prominent Miami architect at the time, was purchased by Dr. Hochstein. After consulting with contractors and architects on the ability to salvage the badly dilapidated home, Dr. Hochstein submitted plans to raze it and build a new one three times its size – a growing trend for the growing wealthy population in Miami. Designation of private residences is usually initiated by owners, but in this case a member of the Miami Design Preservation League immediately filed a request to designate the house located at 42 Star Island Drive as historic in order to protect it from the new owner’s plans to demolish it.

The Preservation League in Miami has led many successful efforts to save threatened historic resources. However, their most recent response to the rampant demolition of Art Deco homes in South Beach, Miami involves a tactic that makes preservationists look like the (really) bad guys. Designating historic resources after they have been purchased leaves homeowners unnecessarily blindsided. Designating historic resources long before they are considered for razing or alteration gives both prospective buyers and preservation advocates an opportunity to have an open dialogue. Preservation advocates should stick to designating structures before they are slated for demolition. Last-ditch efforts often result in uneasy relationships between historic property owners and preservationists. Proactive preservation instead of reactive preservation could help quell any potential future conflicts before they become an issue.

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