Shoppers line up outside the historic Joske's building for H&M's opening day. Photo by Scott Ball.
Shoppers line up outside the historic Joske's building, now occupied by H&M, a clothing store.

Several high profile historic building renovations in San Antonio, including the Joske’s Building at the rechristened Shops at Rivercenter, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, and the City of San Antonio’s Plaza de Armas complex, have revealed how meaningful interior spaces contribute toward a building’s sense of place.

In a city increasingly owning its heritage as its brand, thought must be given to the extent to which interior spaces matter, and to the delicate effort required in balancing transformation with preservation. Two of these renovations in particular – the Joske’s Building and The Tobin Center – illustrate the challenges the city faces.

The sight of the Joske’s Building’s gutted interior is the image that perhaps most clearly announces how easily a beloved structure can remain on our stage while at the same time be completely eradicated. Façadism, the popular term for the practice of hollowing out buildings, has proponents and detractors whose arguments both lead back to the same challenge of renewing historic buildings so that they continue to represent the unique character of a community while still being compatible with present day use.

Following years of underutilization and at least one high profile flameout involving the addition of a condominium high rise, Joske’s Building owner Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation proceeded with a transformation plan that ensured maximum retail floor plate flexibility while also setting up infrastructure capable of supporting an eventual high rise. The developers pursued a pragmatic approach in recasting the Joske’s Building as the rightful epicenter of San Antonio’s retail and entertainment scene, while leaving open options to further transform the building.

San Antonio Light Collection, L-5058. Santa descending from atop Joske's department store building. Circa mid 1950s. Courtesy of Hearst Corp. to UTSA's Institute of Texan Cultures
Santa descends from atop Joske’s department store building. Circa mid 1950s. UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures San Antonio Light Collection, L-5058.

However, in an era when brick and mortar retailers are looking to create compelling shopping experiences in order to counter the pull of online shopping, Ashkenazy incomprehensibly chose not only to gut the building’s interior, but to purposely make the new interior banal. What is left is a building thoroughly drained of its character; the willfully forgettable interior and the harvesting of the building’s long leaf pine floor joists for other local renovation projects perhaps the greatest indignities to the historic virtue of this building.

Architects and planners often refer to a city’s built environment as fabric, an apt metaphor describing the complex warp and weft of streets, landscape, and built-scape that compose cities. Much like fabric it is sometimes necessary to cut, stitch and refashion these elements to meet the changing needs of the community. The question then for San Antonio is, in a city increasingly embracing its place in the world as a heritage site, how much of that rich fabric can be left on the cutting room floor?

What has become evident in San Antonio is that there is a wide range of preservationists, developers, and architects willing to answer the question, and a similarly wide range of building programs capable of being expressed within the envelope of historic structures. In some cases such as the Bexar County Courthouse, where the programmatic requirements of the Commissioner’s Court meshed perfectly with the original building, San Antonio’s fabric has been smartly modernized and completely restored back to its former glory.

Similarly, the Plaza de Armas complex, which after years of indifferent remodels had been reduced to a rabbit’s warren of offices and cubicles, has been restored to an unexpectedly refreshing space worthy of its proximity to the city’s center. This project demonstrates the promise of what is possible when both sides of a building, inside and out, are seen as a solution rather than a problem. Plaza de Armas’ central gallery space, in particular, with its limestone walls, original cast iron columns, and exposed timber construction still bearing the Steves & Sons stamp, is imbued with warmth and intimacy while unequivocally maintaining its sense of place.

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In other cases, such as the Tobin Center and Hotel Emma, the city’s relationship with its own fabric continues to mature into new and exciting spaces. It is in projects like these that the city’s long-held comfort with shifting around inside its own set of clothing is evident.

The former Municipal Auditorium, long moribund and incompatible with modern performance requirements, suffered from a combination of nostalgic affection and benign neglect. The transformation of that space from an auditorium into a multi-venue performing arts center while still retaining the former lobby and rotunda spaces can be read as a translation of what has always been there. To be sure, an argument can be made that the new Tobin Center runs dangerously close to façadism, but there are compelling contrasts between what transpired at the Tobin versus the Joske’s Building.

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The differences between the Tobin Center and Joske’s Buildings can be illustrated by taking a third historic location in San Antonio into account – the Texas Theater. The Texas Theater, an early twentieth century movie palace in the same class as San Antonio’s Majestic, Empire, and Aztec theatres, was mostly demolished in 1983 to open up space for the construction of the Republic Bank Plaza (now AT&T Building). Litigation from the conservation community ensued in an effort to preserve the theater, but the outcome was a miserable failure for all involved.

The theater was demolished, save the Houston Street façade, and a modern office building went up in its place. The theater’s preserved façade, thanklessly tucked into the southwest corner of the building, seems to press into the mass of the newer building. The two parts have no discernible relationship and is one of the most frayed parts of the city’s fabric.

The historic Texas Theater facade on East Houston Street. Photo by Scott Ball.
The historic Texas Theater facade on East Houston Street. Photo by Scott Ball.

The failure of this pairing is that they ignore each other completely, and much like the street level experience of walking into today’s Joske’s Building, the outside and inside have no apparent reason for being together. In contrast, the Tobin Center makes no pretense of remaining the Municipal Auditorium, yet effectively answers the call of the visitor’s expectation by using the face and lobby of the familiar auditorium to ground a cutting edge space that is consistent with its original purpose. The wonder of the Joske’s renovation is in how it manages to eschew its location in the heart of San Antonio in favor of an utterly placeless interior.

In light of developments like the Joske’s renovation, the recently recognized UNESCO World Heritage status of the San Antonio Missions, and the effort to transform Alamo Plaza, perhaps it is time to engage conversation about the degree to which the adapted interior spaces of historic structures should relate to the historic context of their exteriors, and more meaningfully, what is lost when that fabric is obliterated.

At this time, the citizenry of San Antonio deem it fair and appropriate for regulation of historic structures to not extend past building facades into interiors of public spaces. This policy has given developers the flexibility to create such acclaimed successes as the San Antonio Museum of Art, the H-E-B Arsenal Campus, the Briscoe Western Art Museum, the Rand Building, and the Hotel Emma at the Pearl.

As developers contemplate the next wave of development in such historic structures as the Friedrich complex, the Hot Wells Resort, and the soon to be abandoned United States Federal Courthouse, perhaps the insistent challenge should be centered on transformation that preserves a building’s sense of place not only with the city but with itself.

San Antonio’s fabric contains ample potential to be refashioned in new and exciting ways that continue to contribute to the city’s uniqueness. There is opportunity to match the city’s renown for what is old, with renown for that which is old and made new again.

https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

Top image: Shoppers line up outside the historic Joske’s building for H&M’s opening day on February 11, 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.

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Marcus Huerta

Marcus Huerta, a resident of San Antonio since 1998, received his bachelor’s degree from the University of the Incarnate Word and is a student of architectural history. He can be reached at marcus.huerta@ymail.com.