Opinion: San Antonio’s Historic Preservation Problem

By the members of the Westside Preservation Alliance

This article is collectively written by the members of the Westside Preservation Alliance, a volunteer organization that works to preserve the history, culture and historic structures of San Antonio’s primarily Mexican American West Side. The article provides a larger context for the Historic and Design Review Commission’s recent vote to allow demolition of the Univision building at 411 E. César E. Chévez Blvd.


On Sept. 4, in a 3-5 decision based on the recommendation of the Office of Historic Preservation, the San Antonio Historic and Design Review Commission voted to permit the demolition of the Univision building. Charged with sustaining our city’s rich historical and architectural heritage, with decisions such as this one, the HDRC erases our city’s history, particularly as it pertains to Mexican American history. We strongly object to this decision precisely because it is another grievous case in which, over the years, we have borne witness to the demolition of numerous buildings of historic, cultural, and architectural significance to the Mexican American community, both national and local, and to San Antonio.

For example, the 1986 Villa de Guadalupe Historic Resources Assessment, prepared for the city of San Antonio, declared 71 buildings from Guadalupe Street to South Tampico Street to be of social and cultural significance. Today, only 20 of those structures survive. The city approved all of the others for demolition. Other historic buildings we have lost include downtown theaters Nacional and Zaragoza, and La Gloria dance hall.

More recently, we staved off an attempt by the OHP to introduce historic designation guidelines that excluded Mexican American and working-class design aesthetics. The loss of culturally and historically significant buildings, coupled with the on-going struggle to help the OHP leadership grasp the value of San Antonio’s Mexican American heritage, and now the pending demolition of the Univision Building, lead us to believe that the city of San Antonio, and more specifically, the OHP and HDRC, still have a long way to go to fully appreciate, protect, and preserve the history, culture, and structures of Mexican American communities. This willful neglect is particularly the case for post-Spanish Colonial Mexican American history, especially the 20th century, which lacks recognition and preservation. To be fair, OHP’s paltry recognition of Mexican American history is consistent with that of traditional historic preservation agencies at the local, state and national levels. The current conceptual and interpretative frames for historic preservation, at all levels — but beginning with San Antonio — need to be updated and changed to be consistent with recent scholarship and interpretation. Specifically, with respect to the Univision Building, the Texas Historical Commission and San Antonio Conservation Society, among others, concur that, based on the city’s own guidelines for historic designation, this building meets the designation criteria. Thus, it appears that in the case of the Univision building, the OHP has decided to ignore its own guidelines in favor of a developer with no previous experience with adaptive reuse. That the OHP apparently deemed insignificant how KCOR founder Raoul Cortez built this structure — specifically to house the nation’s first full-time Spanish language, imminently successful television station — signals, at best, benign neglect. That this happened in San Antonio in 1955, when one of three households nationwide did not even own a television, and that the OHP did not deem this innovative media approach significant enough to recommend saving the structure further signals willful neglect. That the OHP did not deem it significant that this business venture with national impact happened in San Antonio, where a local audience in 1955 could support a full-time Spanish language television station adds to a pattern of willful neglect. To be content to replace this vital part of San Antonio history with a plaque, as OHP has recommended, is telling of not only a limited commitment to preserving Mexican American history, but also, concomitantly, reveals an adherence to an outmoded interpretation of U.S. history and an antiquarian preservationist approach to San Antonio history.

The Westside Preservation   Alliance

Additionally, this plaque — the stipulation that OHP presented to the developer Greystar — begs the question, why even have historic preservation if a plaque is an adequate replacement for an historic structure? Would a plaque adequately replace the Alamo, the Missions, Joske’s, or the Majestic Theatre? Of course not! So why is the Univision Building any different? It certainly is not the lack of local and national significance to the history of American media. It’s not the architecture. The Texas Historical Commission has recognized the Univision building for exemplifying Mid-Century Modern architecture, and as one of a few remaining examples of Mid-Century Modern design in downtown San Antonio. It’s not the lack of identification with persons who contributed to the development of the community. Mr. Cortez was not only the founder of Spanish-language media in the U.S., but also a two-time national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens and tireless advocate for Mexican American workers. It would seem that our history is being sold so that we can give up to $4.7 million in city incentives to a South Carolina-based land developer.

Greystar, the developer in question, promises a “green building.” Yet preservationists, conservationists and architects the world over know that the greenest building is the one that already exists. To be sure, some retrofits of the grand mid-century Univision building would be necessary, but research shows that building reuse offers greater environmental and monetary value than demolition and new construction. With it decision the HDRC not only undermines our history, but also undermines our environment. The HDRC’s job is to retain the authenticity of our city by sustaining the life of buildings that express our city’s cultural values. To do so, it must review the assumptions that underlie its undemocratic policies to ensure that no community is excluded ever again.

It is not too late to change course. By contacting your City Council person, Mayor Julián Castro, and the OHP with your stories of the importance of KCOR/Univision to our history we can call upon our city to save the Univision Building and redesign its approach to historic preservation so that our historic city of San Antonio can truly be a leader in historic preservation.