crockett block palace theatre

When it seems way too quiet on the western front

The western front of Alamo Plaza. Is no news good news, or just a well-guarded secret?

It has been almost two years since the Alamo issued its request for qualifications to hire a firm to conduct an historical assessment of the significance of the Crockett Block (above, a personal favorite), the Palace Theatre and the Woolworth Building on Alamo Plaza. The RFQ included an evaluation of their appropriateness for reuse as a visitor center and museum for the Alamo.

The historical assessment is easy. These structures are well-documented as part of an historic district included in the National Register of Historic Places.

As for their reuse? That might depend on how the issue is approached. The illustration used on the Alamo website only highlights obstacles.

The illustration on the Alamo website stresses the architectural challenge presented in adapting the historic structures on the west side of Alamo Plaza for a museum.

Concerned, the The Conservation Society of San Antonio hired Alamo Architects to develop a conceptual plan illustrating the potential for incorporating more of the existing rich historical fabric into a museum complex. This potential compromise was unveiled to the public in May of 2019.

The Conservation Society of San Antonio retained Alamo Architects to develop a conceptual Alamo Museum Compromise Plan to help people visualize the potential of adaptive reuse of historic structures on the west side of Alamo Plaza.

If the Alamo-commissioned assessment of the buildings is complete, the recommendations have not been made public. A little troubling since the schematic design for the museum is supposed to ready by this fall.

But there is hope. The firm hired by the Alamo, John G. Waite Associates, Architects PLLC, has deep roots in “the preservation, restoration and reuse of historic properties.” From the firm’s website:

Preservation and stewardship of historic structures is fundamentally tied to the tenets of sustainable design, and is critical to the protection of our environment. Reusing and adapting historic structures has wide-ranging benefits across all areas of society, realizing energy and material savings while preserving our cultural and architectural inheritance. JGWA’s LEED-accredited architects, historic interiors specialists, and building materials conservators look at each project as an opportunity to implement sustainable design within sound preservation approaches. JGWA is committed to developing innovative solutions to protect the nation’s historic architectural resources for generations to come.

John G. Waite Associates, “About the Firm”

Glimpsing their offices appears promising that no matter what, the firm cannot overlook the potential this row of historic structures offers for reuse.

Dallas-based HKS, Inc., is the architect of record. The Alamo website boasts HKS is the third largest architectural firm in the United States. Their website does show some stunning civic and cultural projects, but most appear built from ground-up. They do, however, talk the right talk for dealing with a plaza that has long been important for San Antonians for a multitude of reasons, and I found one reassuring project connecting a new ballet centre to an historic theater in Salt Lake City.

Venues of distinction embrace local character and context, drawing people together for key civic moments. Increasingly, we see our civic and cultural clients leveraging sustainable design to reflect community values, and our design teams find innovative ways to express each venue’s community. We enhance urban environments by integrating interior design, architecture, open spaces and streetscapes through sustainable strategies. In each project, we create places noted for building community and celebrating culture.

Website of HKS, Inc.

But the most important member of the team assembled by the Alamo is Machado Silvetti Associates. The principal of the firm has a page dedicated to explaining his approach to “The Architecture of Cultural Heritage.” The page is devoted to words that are soothing music to ears that cherish all the layers of history found on Alamo Plaza: “Preservation. Restoration. Conservation.”

…people’s customs, people’s ways of behaving, people’s ideas about rights, with the performance of rituals, etc. All those “intangibles” that have an influence in architecture. This more inclusive perspective to cultural heritage is very new. And this is really the key idea of conservation to me—you have to be aware of this intangible dimension that accompanies material culture. These are the ways in which people used to or have used spaces or have conceived of spaces and have occupied the spaces that are part of the culture.

Machada Silvetti on firm’s website

Although Silvetti’s remarks on the website date from 2015, they are amazingly appropriate for Alamo Plaza. The architectural firm is keenly aware that the project cannot be approached purely from a design angle.

There is one big issue and one thing we are very good at understanding, wherever we are working, that is that all projects and particularly public projects of cultural heritage, have a political agenda. No matter what. Because it has become one of the resources to call into play in the political arena when issues of identity are at stake: ethnic identity. Cultural identity, national identity, group identity. Everything. And architecture must be part of that discourse too. Buildings and environments, particularly those that are perceived to have historical significance become symbols to people and as such they are sources of a certain power that different forces may want to control.

Machada Silvetti on firm’s website

Wowsers. You hit the nail on the head, Mr. Silvetti. This project promises politics aplenty. A veritable quagmire.

All of the above credentials are presented by the optimist side of me. The part trying to view the glass as half-full. Maybe the lack of updates – meeting minutes do not appear on the Alamo website – is not bad news.

Creative architects can solve any adaptive reuse issues. There are museums throughout the world that stand as positive examples.

I am hoping for a major public update from the Alamo soon because that glass-half-empty side of me frets. The side offended by the prospect of closing off a major park. The side that thinks the General Land Office’s fire-engine-red welcome center is the most offensive change to Alamo Plaza in a century.

But, while we wait to find out the fate of the west side of Alamo Plaza, look at how far Machada Silvetti is going in its efforts to preserve ruins at Menokin in Warsaw, Virginia.

Maybe we won’t have to stand in front of a wrecking ball after all.

1 thought on “When it seems way too quiet on the western front”

  1. Thank you for sharing the status of the western plaza.  I hadn’t read about it in such a long time.  Thanks, also, for the links to the architects’ sites.  Your half-full viewpoint gives hope.

    Liked by 1 person

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