Keeping San Antonio's historic character intact requires sweat, sawdust and special knowledge
The Living Heritage Trades Academy teaches a new generation about preserving San Antonio’s historic character.
San Antonio's layers of history come in a variety of colors: yellowed limestone, red brick cobblestones or, in this case, peeling white clapboards. At Port San Antonio, an oak lined boulevard of historic bungalows from the 1920s lies just across the street from one of the city’s newest modern attractions, Tech Port Center + Arena.
The Bungalow Colony, on the National Register of Historic Places, is where the city’s Living Heritage Trades Academy is currently housed (excuse the pun). This unique program of the Office of Historic Preservation holds courses here to train a new generation in historic construction skills. What Shanon Miller, the director of the office, claims is a craft in need of revivification as the pool of skilled tradespeople begins to phase out.
“We know that a lot of contractors and skilled craftsmen are older and more people are aging out than are coming in with those skills. And so we're really trying to help address that shortage of contractors,” Miller said, noting that many younger contractors lack the proper knowhow for rehabbing San Antonio’s historic structures.
Starting on July 18, the Academy hosted a weeklong course for students to learn about historic wood window restoration. The day TPR showed up to the workshop, students were diligently engaged in removing the grids of square window panes – what’s known as the sash in technical terms – from their frames. Tools scraped away paint that had sealed gaps shut while vacuum hoses sucked up shavings and sawdust.
The workshop’s instructor, Steve Quillian, explained that the students were engaged in the first step in learning window restoration: restoring the window’s functionality. Calling this part an “exploratory process”, he used the student’s work as a reference.
“You know, these have been painted shut for who knows how many years,” Quillian explained. “And we don't know how well they work or not. Right? So the first thing you have to do is take out that element with the glass called a sash…and get it so it goes back up and down again.”
Once that’s achieved, then the focus turns towards the cosmetics of the individual panes - what’s known as the glazing in technical terms. This skill of replacing faulty panes within the thin wooden skeleton is a tedious one. Quillian explained these windows were designed to regularly replace the glazing.
So what’s so notable about windows? Quillian, who not only specializes in their repair but is also an evangelist for their preservation, was ready with his sermon.
“I think that I can demonstrate that the windows that we're working on right here, right now were the best windows ever made in the history of the world,” he said.
“America grew, I mean, just exponentially fast and they start pumping out these windows like crazy. And how did they make them? They made them based on the same basic design that humanity came up with and evolved over thousands of years to be the best and most long lasting, efficient, workable windows ever made. And that's why it's still here.”
In other words, it’s so much more than just the thing one looks out of.
Students touted his enthusiasm as one of the workshop’s highlights so far. Nicolas Ciolli appreciated Quillian’s in depth explanations.
“It’s really interesting to me to kind of learn about the development and the history behind (the windows),” Ciolli said.
Ciolli originally was attracted to the workshop for personal reasons but then realized there are fewer people entering this trade.
“Recently I've been starting to look for a home. And because San Antonio is such a historic city, a lot of the places I'm looking at need work. And so I'd like to be able to do a lot of that myself. ….But I didn't realize how in-demand of a skill it was and that, you know, it was a fading trade. And so I'm really happy to be able to kind of keep that alive.”
Maddy Willms, who moved to San Antonio from Austin in order to afford a historic home of her own, has a similar story. In the process of buying her home, she too discovered a career field that aligns with her interests.
“I love architecture, and I think that it's something that is so unique to San Antonio specifically,” Willms said. “There are so few cities that have this many historic districts, this many beautiful historic homes. And being able to be a part of preserving that is really important to me.”
Kathy Rodriguez, who oversees the Academy for the Office of Historic Preservation, explains that the benefits for participating in this workshop don’t stop at the weeklong hands-on instruction. Students will receive OSHA certification, and they will be connected to a 10-week paid apprenticeship with local contractors, after which they become level III certified.
Standing along the shady street of white clapboard homes, some constructed with reclaimed shipping crates, she encouraged the public to come view the Bungalow Colony for themselves. Here, the vision for this partnership between the Office of Historic Preservation and Port San Antonio extends beyond training courses.
While students will continue to work on the structures so that they might eventually be occupied as offices, there is a plan to house a tool lending library for the public in one of the structures.
Another will house a “material innovation center” that will collect and store salvaged construction material. Calling it “the last stop before the landfill,” Shanon Miller explained that “anything that is able to go back into affordable housing production and rehabilitation is the priority for that material.”
As it turns out, keeping San Antonio’s historic character intact takes a lot of work. But to Maddy Willms, it’s the noble kind.
“This is really a dying art…(and) there’s work to be done,” Willms said. “And I think more people should really know about this program.”