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.

Postcard from Saluzzo, Italy: Transforming a former prison into contemporary gallery space not a problem

Located at the top of the highest hill in Saluzzo, Castello dei Marchesi – La Castiglia was an obvious choice for a fortified castle in the 13th century. Beginning with the French occupation in the 1500s, the once grand brick quarters and towers began to spiral into decline, culminating with their transformation in the 1800s into a high-security prison.

In 2006, the prison was converted into a museum. Portions of the former castle are dedicated to displays relating to life in the Middle Ages, while former prison cells now serve as exhibition space for IGAV – Garuzzo Institute for the Visual Arts, dedicated to contemporary Italian art.

Medieval castles. Former factories. Old prisons. Contemporary Italian architects view transforming existing structures into striking museums as ideal challenges for displaying their talents. Adaptive reuse of existing structures is expected.

Yet in Texas, the General Land Office seems so skeptical of the capabilities of architects that the fine historic landmarks on the west side of Alamo Plaza are deemed impossible to convert into a museum for the Alamo. Absurdly wasteful, unimaginative and disrespectful of the past. So, so very sad.

Adding a Contemporary Backdrop to a Municipal Landmark

A flood control project eliminating some of the bends of the San Antonio River as it snaked through downtown created a new plot of land enabling the City of San Antonio to cobble together the real estate needed for the Municipal Auditorium, with a distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival profile designed by architects Atlee B. Ayres, Emmett Jackson and George Willis. The $1.2-million Municipal Auditorium opened, lit “from pillar to post” according to the San Antonio Express, on April 19, 1926, with the Texas Pioneers’ Ball:

The result is an auditorium which Mayor Tobin declares without reservation is the finest in the country. Every sort of modern, practicable device has been installed to make the building the last word in structures of its kind….

Since its doors opened, the Municipal Auditorium hosted a huge variety of events – high school graduations, political rallies, boxing matches, concerts, Elvis, Fiesta coronations and even “midget women’s” wrestling – meaning many San Antonians have strong sentimental attachments to it. Which translated to emotional opposition when architects returned with recommendations that demolition of almost all but the distinctive façade would be required to create a facility appropriate for theatrical and musical productions of today. Layered atop the normal historical concerns was sensitivity over its prominent River Walk location.

But the stunning, contemporary solutions presented by the architectural team of LMN of Seattle and Marmon Mok of San Antonio won over many and secured approval.

Was fortunate enough to take a tour guided by Steve Souter and Morgan Williams of Marmon Mok this past week, and the transformation is amazing. Wood paneling the color of a Stradivarius violin is combined with cutting-edge programmable lighting around the upper decks of seating.

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When the Municipal Auditorium opened in 1926, the Express bragged about its seating; although it doesn’t sound as though fire codes on the number of people who could be stuffed into a room were quite as rigid as today:

The capacity of the auditorium is 6,000 persons who can be seated in the comfortable opera chairs. In event of an extra large attraction, more than 3,000 persons could be seated in extra chairs in the auditorium and on the stage. The stage alone can accommodate 500 people seated in chairs of 1,000 standing. The opera chairs in the auditorium alone represent an investment of $60,000. They are all extra large chairs, 20 inches across the seat. There are 18 oversize chairs for extra large persons. Such big people can find chairs that will accommodate them comfortably if they ask especially for them.

Seating on the ground floor in what will be the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts easily will top that, although not numerically. The main theatre will accommodate 1,750. The wooden ground floor in the photos represents a $12-million investment. But it’s a rather magical floor. Each segment contains seating on its flip side and can be individually rotated and/or elevated to allow for a multitude of configurations. Found a handy-dandy video of this online (Don’t be misled by the video heading; the operation of the Tobin seating will closely resemble that of this theatre in British Columbia.).

For a more intellectual analysis of the Tobin Center’s assets, turn to Mike Greenberg.

The first year’s bookings for the Tobin are as diverse as the Municipal Auditorium entertained and can be found here. The doors will swing open for the first events in September.

(Thanks for providing some of the interior shots, Janet and Allison.)