Has Alamo Plaza fallen in the hands of ‘reverential’ caretakers?

New signs directing riders of scooters, bikes and skateboards to steer clear of Alamo Plaza are a welcome change from the Texas General Land Office, which assumed a long-term lease of the plaza on Jan. 1. The state has also opened a small welcome center to help guide visitors, who no longer must endure the rants of street preachers….

These are all small changes, foreshadowing much larger ones. Although small, these changes already have made Alamo Plaza a more respectful place where visitors can reflect on the historic battle and feel the weight of history.

They also portend bigger changes for the site that will bring proper reverence. Streets will be closed. Carnivallike businesses will be moved….

These initial small changes have already made a welcome difference.

“Changes at Alamo Signal Bigger Ones,” Editorial, San Antonio Express-News, March 5, 2019

The goal is to encourage visitors to reflect on the sacrifices and struggles for Texas independence without those modern-day distractions….

“Alamo Plaza is being transformed into a place of dignity and reverence,” Karina Erickson, interim communications director with the Land Office, said in an email.

“Alamo Plaza Makeover Underway,” Scott Huddleston, San Antonio Express-News, February 19, 2019

March 6, 1836. A date seared in the memory of all Texans and many others around the world as the date the Alamo fell. So March 6 seemed an appropriate time to witness this new “reverential” treatment of Alamo Plaza now that the City of San Antonio ceded the city’s historic park to the management of the State of Texas.

The reenactors of the battle who were still around were downright friendly. Despite the fact that they had been up since the wee hours of the morning to “kill” or “be killed” at dawn, they somehow still rallied to patiently answer any visitor’s questions in as much detail as the inquisitive one desired.

But, what slams the visitor in the face no matter what approach to the plaza is taken is the fire-engine-red “The Alamo Welcome Center” plopped down in the middle of it by the new stewards from General Land Office. This booth appears almost carnivalesque, particularly given its dignified location.

In fairness, I took a photo of David Crockett (Yes, that really is his name, and he says he is the original’s third-great-grandson.) in front of the Alamo to demonstrate it is still possible to snap a photo of the former chapel without the red shed intruding. But as you can see from numerous other angles, it is very much in the way.

But surely it must serve a very important purpose. If you examine the front view, you might notice a video screen running. At the moment this image was taken, the carved figures of Alamo heroes on the Cenotaph are captured for visitors to observe. Wait, they can see the actual Cenotaph about 50 steps away.

There also is a brand new (not to be confused with the large Alamo Gift Shop adjacent to the Alamo) Official The Alamo Store located less than 50 steps away in the handsome limestone Crockett Block. Official The Alamo Store occupies a space right next to the San Antonio Visitor Information Center. The purpose of the red attention-getting booth must be pretty urgent if it serves needs neither of those could meet.

Naturally, it turns out, that the function of the Welcome Center is not simply to extend a Texas-size howdy to visitors. It is sales. While entry to the Alamo is free, the purpose of the Welcome Center is to serve as a stop sign before entering to convince you to open your wallet and purchase tickets for a tour. This will be so much easier after the General Land Office fences off the plaza to ensure everyone is funneled through one entrance to achieve maximum solicitation opportunities prior to reaching the Alamo door.

One could argue that this red wart is not a permanent structure. It can me moved, so is harmless to the integrity of the historic site. But if it does not get moved to attain the proper reverential mood and sense of authenticity during the all-important commemorations of the 13-day siege of the Alamo, it probably is not budging any time soon.

In the meantime, how many people per month are subjected to the sight of this sales booth in front of the Alamo? Conservatively, way more than 200,000 people monthly get their first glimpse of the Alamo through the openings in the Welcome Center.

Among other “improvements” is a long bank of illuminated vending machines located at the rear of the Alamo property in a concession area, the area where visitors are encouraged to visit to view a free film. Sadly, not a raspa stand among them.

If the Welcome Center is evidence of the state’s tasteful approach to design, we all should worry. Many San Antonians still hope a decision will be made to reuse the state-owned historic landmarks stretching along the west side of Alamo Plaza from the Crockett Block to the former Woolworth’s as the site of a new Alamo Museum. (Visit the website of the San Antonio Conservation Society to learn more about the coalition to save the former Woolworth’s.) because of its crucial role in peaceful integration in San Antonio in 1960. One of the major objections offered to doing so is the different levels of the floors in the buildings complicate inner connectivity. Architects facing equal or larger such challenges have managed to give us the San Antonio Museum of Art and numerous successful examples of adaptive reuse at the Pearl.

One of a triumvirate of decision-makers affecting the future of Alamo Plaza is District One Council Representative Roberto Trevino. In another editorial this week, the Express-News sought to portray him as an ardent preservationist:

As an architect, Roberto Treviño wears his love for old buildings on his sleeve.

“Approve Beacon Hill Agreement,” Editorial, San Antonio Express-News, March 6, 2019

The Welcome Center fails to inspire confidence in the design standards to be applied in the coming year or two or in the General Land Office’s sincerity in considering sparing the landmarks on the west side of the plaza.

Community trust would be somewhat enhanced by the immediate removal of the booth. Even put it to adaptive reuse where it belongs: The Alamodome Parking Lot for the upcoming Fiesta Carnival.

2018 Roundup: Remember Alamo Plaza

Every six months this blogger reviews what posts people have been reading most during the past year.

San Antonians’ Alamoobsessiveness was ignited by the state’s determination to fence in a designated city park – Alamo Plaza. Related posts dominate this year-end list. A battle lost. Time to move on as the plaza’s fate appears sealed. Hopefully the New Year will bring glad tidings about preserving historic landmarks on the west side of the plaza.

On a more upbeat note, cannot wait for the completion of Margarita Cabrera’s “Arbol de la Vida: Voces de Tierra” on the river near Mission San Francisco de la Espada.

The following list represents the posts you clicked on most, with the numbers in parentheses representing rankings from six months ago:

  1. Alamo CEO applying armtwisting pressure to secure gated plaza, 2018
  2. Forging consensus for the Alamo Comprehensive Plan: Don’t fence us out, 2018 (2)
  3. ‘Tree of Life’ bears bountiful crop of tales from the past, 2018 (4)
  4. King William Home Tour: Historic houses whisper stories of early residents, 2018

    523 King William Street, riverside

  5. The Madarasz murder mystery: Might Helen haunt Brackenridge Park?, 2012 (1)
  6. Please put this song on Tony’s pony, and make it ride away, 2010 (5)
  7. Street art entices venturing under the overpass, 2018 
  8. Marilyn Lanfear buttons up a collection of family stories, 2018
  9. Centenarian Santa still burning bright, 2018 
  10. Postcard from Rome, Italy: A numbers game sparked by the baths, 2018
  11. Postcard from Mexico City: Shimmering with colorful experiences, 2018
  12. Postcard from Genoa, Italy: Hey, don’t knock the peanuts, 2018

Thanks for visiting and your patience with my wanderings via this blog.

Would love to hear from you, so please feel free to “chat back” some. Every post has a comment box at the bottom.

All tuckered out now. Thinking I might need a post-eve-celebration nap.

Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno, Genoa, Italy

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere! (my trusty friend)
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught, (good-will draught)
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

“Auld Lang Syne,” Robert Burns, 1788

King William Home Tour: Historic houses whisper stories of early residents

This blog’s most recent post left you touring palaces in Genoa but now is flying you back to San Antonio for the King William Home Tour.

The King William Association has arranged for a peek inside six private homes, two museums and its own offices on Saturday, December 1, in the historic neighborhood just south of downtown. The residential streets were surveyed by the City of San Antonio in 1859, and the historic district’s namesake King William Street honored Kaiser Wilhelm I (1797-1888), King of Prussia and the first German Emperor.

This blog tour begins at the southern end of King William Street at house number 524, the Albert Moye House, because it is one of two places you can purchase a ticket, $25 per person, on the route. Mathilda Louise von Bartheld (1821-1896) and Albert Carl Moye (1820-1899) arrived at Indianola, Texas, with their two oldest sons in tow in 1845. The Moye family were part of a wave of immigrants attracted by the overblown promises of the German Emigration Company. By 1850, the saddler and his family had made their way to San Antonio. The Moyes built their symmetrical wood-sided house with Doric columns across the front porch in 1881, with Albert residing there until after Mathilda’s death.

The featured photo above is the riverside view of the Harnisch House, 523 King William. Prussian-born Carl Harnisch (1833-1920) entered into a partnership in San Antonio with a pair of immigrants who married in 1853, shortly after their arrival in Texas – Josephine Brentano (1823-1917) and Christian Baer (1824-1882). Harnisch and Baer elegantly displayed its cakes, pastries, and ice cream in glass cases and provided upscale full restaurant service in its palm-filled location at 109 West Commerce Street.

“Harnisch and Baer Restaurant,” Reflections on Texas Video Collection, KMOL-TV, UTSA Special Collections

The successful business partnership was cemented more closely by the marriage of Carl to the Baers’ Texas-born daughter, Louisa (1853-1917), in 1876. The yellow brick home with red accents the Harnish family built on three lots was designed by architect Albert Felix Beckmann (1855-1900). Although Beckmann was born in San Antonio, he studied architecture in Germany before returning to Texas in the early 1880s. Completed before 1892, the residence was listed with an address on Pershing Street at the time of Carl’s death. During World War I, the street name temporarily was changed from honoring the Kaiser to an American hero, General John Pershing (1860-1948).

The Victorian-style house was occupied by Harnisch descendants until 1963. More than a century after its construction, Debra and Steve Walker purchased and began to renovate it. Just prior to completion of the major undertaking, a fire swept through the structure. The Walkers persuaded the city not to proceed with condemnation of the heavily damaged house and managed to oversee a second, more massive renovation project transforming the burned-out shell into their home.

The next palatial structure on the tour, 401 King William, has a humble four-room limestone house at its core. Born in Texas while it still was a republic, hardware merchant Russell Cogswell Norton (1844-1928) and his wife Ellen Hayes Whiteley (1846-1899) had their home erected there in 1876. A Missouri-born stockman, Edwin Polk (1849-1918), purchased the home in 1881 and added a two-story brick wing and a porch.

But it would be cattleman Isaac (Ike) Thomas Pryor (1852-1937) who added the architectural flourishes enlarging the home in 1896 to accommodate his family and that of his second wife, a widow, Myra E. Stafford Early (1863-1943). The addition of the three-story tower and adjacent two-story porch reflect the immense success his Texas and Colorado Land and Cattle Company enjoyed leasing land and running cattle in Indian Territory.

Numerous owners lived there through the years as the neighborhood suffered ups ad downs, with perhaps one of the most colorful being Billy Keilman (1875-1925). Keilman owned the seedy Beauty Saloon, developed a hangover cure billed as “patent plugs for pifflicated people” and published The Blue Book, a 1911-1912 guide for visitors to San Antonio’s “sporting district.”

When Walter Nold Mathis (1919-2005) purchased the house in 1967, it had fallen upon hard times and was subdivided into a boarding house. Mathis restored it as his home, Villa Finale, and went on to restore numerous other houses in the neighborhood. Mathis bequeathed his home with furnishings and collections to the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a museum, and Villa Finale retains the interior furnishings and art exactly as he had them arranged during his lifetime.

Vergie Gibbs (1875-1912) and her new husband Dr. Alfred Clifton McDaniel (1866-1944) moved into a grand Victorian Richardsonian Romanesque brick home courtesy of her father in 1896. The next stop is 130 King William Street, the original, much altered, carriage house for the McDaniel House behind it on Madison. The doctor converted the former carriage house into a duplex in 1926.

Kaye and Charles Scheer harvested hardware, windows and banisters from Victorian-era tear-downs in an attempt to make the house measure up to others lining the street. The property was purchased by the San Antonio Art League and Museum in 1987. Founded in 1912, the Art League has more than 600 works in its collection. The current exhibition features paintings by Sylvia Benitez and Vikki Fields.

Thirsty? Time to take a cookie and wine break at the offices of the King William Association, 122 Madison Street, the second location where tour tickets can be purchased beginning at 10 a.m. During tour hours, the Stray Grape Urban Winery will be offering a wine-tasting.

Plus, by now you will want to know about every house you have walked past so you are ready to invest in the updated, expanded and now in color version of Mary V. Burkholder’s 1973 The King William Area: A History and Guide to the Houses. Resident Jessie N.M. Simpson updated and expanded Burkholder’s original narrative, and photographer Al Rendon added contemporary photographs of the neighborhood. The price of the guide, published by the King William Association, is discounted to $20 for ticket holders on tour day.

After wining, step across the street to 202 Madison. A married couple from Iowa, Pauline Witting (1864-1949) and attorney Isaac Bradford Henyan (1856-1922), agreed to pay Ed. Steves and Sons $3,500 to build the brick home designed by architect Beverly Welford Spillman (1885-1977). With its raised porch and upper door to nowhere, eclectic architectural details lend the property an unusual Swiss chalet appearance. Several subsequent owners of the now-renovated home repeat stories that it served as a house of ill repute during the 1940s.

George Alexander Chabot (1864-1941) was born in San Luis, Potosi, Mexico, while his English-born father was employed with the British foreign service. In 1885, he purchased lots across the street from his parents, Mary Taft Vanderlip (1842-1929) and George Stooks Chabot (1821-1902).

It is unclear when George Alexander Chabot built upon the property at 402 Madison, but he and his wife, Lucile Stapp (1875-1962), moved in after their 1893 marriage. The crockery merchant, according to the 1900 census, and his wife relocated to California before 1910, where he was employed as an accountant with the Southern Pacific Railroad. The career move led the couple to rent out their Victorian Queen Anne style home, distinguished by its hexagonal porch.

The final tour stop is a contemporary townhome, modern infill located on a lot formerly occupied by a wing of the defunct St. Benedict’s Hospital. The single-family residence was designed by architect Jim Poteet and then modified to fit the clients’ needs by Darryl Ohlenbusch.

Phew. Maybe you will be lucky enough to snag some more wine at the King William office before 5. Or maybe plan to adjourn to one of Southtown’s numerous watering holes within walking distance.