Saving San Antonio: The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage

Saving San Antonio: The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage

Saving San Antonio: The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage

Saving San Antonio: The Precarious Preservation of a Heritage


Few American cities enjoy the likes of San Antonio's visual links with its dramatic past. The Alamo and four other Spanish missions, plus a host of additional landmarks and folkways surviving over the course of nearly three centuries, still lend San Antonio an "odd and antiquated foreignness." Adding to the charm of the nation's ninth largest city is a bend in the San Antonio River, saved to become a winding linear park through the heart of downtown and a world model for sensitive urban development. San Antonio's heritage has not been preserved by accident. The wrecking balls and headlong development that accompanied progress in nineteenth-century San Antonio roused an indigenous historic preservation movement- the first west of the Mississippi River to become effective. Its thrust has increased since the mid-1920s with the pioneering work of the San Antonio Conservation Society. Lewis Fisher peels back the myths surrounding more than a century of preservation triumphs and failures to reveal a lively mosaic that portrays the saving of San Antonio's cultural and architectural soul. The process, entertaining in the telling, has significant lessons for the built environments and economies of cities everywhere. Lewis F. Fisher came to San Antonio in 1969 as a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, covering among other issues, conservation and historic preservation. He later established a group of suburban San Antonio newspapers, which he published for twenty-one years. He is a graduate of Allegheny College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a former intelligence officer in the US Air Force. Fisher and his wife Mary, a fifth-generation San Antonian, have two sons and live in San Antonio.


San Antonio is a unique city in many senses. Perhaps the most important of these is that it is a city where much of the past still seems alive.

This has fostered a mystique rare in America, a feeling of living on historic, even sacred ground. San Antonio is not just a place in time but part of a continuum that stretches back to primitive Amerindian settlements beside its springs, to Spaniards discovering an oasis rising from the dusty plain, to a struggling frontier outpost flying the royal banners of Castile, to a town, many times destroyed—the most fought-over city in North America—which somehow survived and moved majestically into the Victorian era. San Antonio’s past is more than “the Alamo and all that;” it is a complex mix of European and native American, of Spanish royalist and Mexican insurgent, of sober German, civilizing French, and brash Anglo, all of whom have left both their blood and mark upon the city.

In San Antonio each era built upon the old, and somehow in its ambiance and architecture, glass towers rising beside adobe walls, something of the past has always been preserved. Some of this saved heritage came about by accident, some by grace, but much in modern times was due to the heroic efforts of many citizens.

This book, I think, is also unique, because it is the first I have read whose theme is an American city’s cultural and architectural soul, and whose heroes are those who strove, and are still striving, to save it. It is also history in the best sense of the word, a telling of the past, meticulously researched and documented, cutting through the accretions of myth and fable that have surrounded each preservation effort. While a history of historic preservation may seem dull to some, a tempest in a teapot, it is a story worth telling, both for what it reveals about our past and what it may presage for our future.

Historic preservation today is big business. Much tourism, an industry of the future, depends upon it. Every state, most major cities, have their historic preservation agencies; the federal government has recognized its importance through legislation and incentives. Yet it is still controversial. Many believe preservation stands in the way of progress. Civic governments have not . . .

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