Don’t let battle zealots overrun the Crockett Block

Alfred Giles (1853-1920) left England for Texas in 1873 for health reasons, according to historian Mary Carolyn Hollers George, author of The Architectural Legacy of Alfred Giles.

A page 1 article in the March 26, 1883, edition of the San Antonio Evening Light related that the young architect found few opportunities in Austin and was “in very reduced circumstances.” So, the Light continued, Giles and a newly found friend:

…determined to come to San Antonio. Their wealth did not admit of the ordinary expense of travel, which in those days was large, so they elected to walk from Austin to this city. When they arrived here, the prospects were little better, but they got employment cotton picking.

Things began looking up. Giles was commissioned to design houses by some of San Antonio’s most prominent families, numerous commercial structures, an addition to the Bexar County Courthouse and a new courthouse in Wilson County. According to a biographical sketch of Giles provided by the University of Texas Libraries of the U.T. Austin:

…Giles’ work reflected a great variety of styles derived from architectural forms of the past, usually in more or less new combinations. Giles’ own means of expression, however, always took precedence over novelty of fashion. The sobriety and simplicity with which he adapted and combined these stylistic elements suggests that he exercised strong control over his work and that he preferred restraint. A reserved use of ornament and a strong feeling for symmetry, even in asymmetrical compositions, characterize his approach.

Giles produced unpretentious domestic residences and showy mansions, as well as commercial and institutional structures for clients who were the makers of San Antonio, especially the Mavericks, the altruistic developers of Alamo Plaza and Houston Street for whom Giles designed twenty major structures, and the Terrell family for whom he designed at least seven. Indeed, San Antonio was a Giles town with forty structures to his credit in the central city alone by 1900. Families in other Texas towns were also loyal clients, especially Captain Charles Schreiner of Kerrville and the Faltin and Ingenhuett families of Comfort.

This introduction to Alfred Giles is meant to establish his credentials in preparation for a battle to save one his landmarks on Alamo Plaza, the Crockett Block.

Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870) was among the signers of the Declaration of Independence at Washington-on-the-Brazos in 1836. As soon as Texas was established as a republic, his name appeared constantly in deed transactions filed in Bexar County. The freedom he found in the new republic allowed him to quickly purchase land grants awarded by Texas to those who had fought for independence and a multitude of lots along both banks of the San Antonio River and the “Alamo Ditch.”

Although he personally knew men who perished at the Alamo, his acquisitions and building projects demonstrate no attachment to preserving the spots where they died. Only five years after the fall of the Alamo, in fact, he purchased property immediately beside the church itself from Mariano Romano. And he built his home on what is the northwest corner of Alamo Plaza.

Perhaps those closest to war long to move on to more peaceful times. Perhaps this explains why Maverick is thought to have a cannon from the Alamo forged into a bell for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

Unfortunately, Sam’s son, William Maverick (1847-1923), made a major mistake. He sold part of the Romano property to Augustine Honore Grenet (1823-1882) in 1878, adding to land Grenet purchased from the church. Grenet commissioned what William Corner’s 1890 guide termed an “inartistic erection” and an “atrocious lumber building” atop the foundation of the convent and used the Alamo chapel for storage. The Grenet building was later sold to Hugo & Schmeltzer.

Directly across the plaza from the Alamo, however, William and his brother Albert Maverick (1854-1947) did better. In 1882, they hired San Antonio’s most in-demand architect, Alfred Giles, to design a modern structure to supplement the Maverick Building on the northwest corner of Alamo Plaza.

At three stories, the handsome Italianate limestone Crockett Block was low-slung compared to its original neighbors. Both its height and coloring were complementary to the building directly across the plaza from it, the Alamo Chapel. The first-floor commercial bays and windows are flanked by Corinthian columns; the tops of the windows on the second floor appear to take their shape from portions of octagons; while the third-floor windows are arched with keystones.

Among the first Crockett Block tenants was Rafael Diaz, according to undated notes from the Historic Preservation Office of San Antonio in files of the San Antonio Conservation Society Library. Exiled from Cuba for political reasons in 1868, Diaz manufactured what was once the most popular cigar in San Antonio, La Flor de Diaz. He “returned his profits to Cuba to finance the revolutions of his homeland for 32 years.” Another early tenant was Heuermann & Brothers Grocers.

The Crockett Block was a prestigious address for businesses for many years. The vintage postcards of Alamo Plaza demonstrate her subtle presence, as well as the city’s changing treatment of the plaza itself.

But the old girl’s façade suffered some abuse during a period of urban decline. The century-old landmark needed a facelift by the 1980s. George considers the monumental restoration of the Crockett Block undertaken in 1982 to be a Cinderella story, a preservationist’s dream come true. Investors led by developer Bill Schlansker hired architect Humberto Saldana to reclaim the classical details of Giles’ original design.

Now well over a century old, the Crockett Block stands as an important landmark on the plaza. The only flaws in its appearance are the City of San Antonio’s lax enforcement of its signage regulations. Every first-floor tenant has more signage than allowed. Alamo Trolley and Del Sol have plastered some of the handsome windows with self-promotional posters, and even the City of San Antonio’s Visitors Center violates the city’s own rules. “Visitors Center” easily conveys what it is, yet additional messages advertising “Gifts and Souvenirs” have been plastered onto storefront windows.

But the Crockett Block has a new steward. At the end of 2015, it was purchased by the General Land Office of Texas. Perhaps Land Commissioner George P. Bush can rein in his tenants to meet more tasteful standards appropriate for the historic district.

There is only one reason I am telling you all of these things now. It seems as though there is a huge target painted on the façade of the Crockett Block. And it also seems as though the San Antonio Express-News has a giant slingshot loaded with a wrecking ball tautly pulled and aimed that way.

On January 9, the Express-News Editorial Board set forth “Our Agenda 2016 issues and goals.” The Alamo is one of three things the Editorial Board plans to focus on repeatedly this year. The timing of this is to influence the outcome of the master planning process for Alamo Plaza undertaken jointly by the city and the state. The paper is pushing its vision:

We envision a restoration of the site to its 1836 footprint as much as possible, a world-class Alamo museum and visitors center, and surrounding businesses that don’t disrespect the history attached to the Cradle of Texas Independence.

Our Agenda 2016 editorials will be urging bold action.

All that sounds well and good until you follow the track of the original western wall of the Alamo compound at the time of the 1836 battle. Yes, it cuts right through the front portion of the handsome Crockett Block.

1981 excavations on the south side of the Crockett Block opened up Paseo del Alamo linking Alamo Plaza and the San Antonio River through the new Hyatt Regency Hotel. Archaeologists were able to expose foundations of walls of the original Mission San Antonio del Valero, better known as the Alamo. But during the original construction of the Crockett Block, according to George, “surviving wall fragments would have disappeared with excavation of the structure’s basement.”

The Crockett Block could serve a multitude of purposes on a reconfigured plaza. Certainly nothing could make the job of a development officer for the Alamo Endowment easier than positioning potential donors in a third-floor office squarely facing the Alamo itself.

The Crockett Block also stands as a major shield, not just sheltering the plaza from the stark 1980s’ design of the Hyatt Regency, but also its parking garage. A photo of the parking garage is difficult to take because, fortunately, it is screened from view by the Crockett Block.

The Crockett Block is too valuable a part of San Antonio’s history of urban development to lose, and moving it would be absurdly expensive.

And, if a return to appearances before the 1836 Battle of the Alamo is truly a goal, the distinctive parapet would have to go. The unfinished chapel had a flat top at the time. The now-iconic roofline was added 14 years after the fall of the Alamo by the United States Army.

Obviously, the small readership of this blog is no match for the voice of a major newspaper. I feel armed with a peashooter against the onslaught about to be launched by the editorial board.

But maybe someone influential, someone who understands layers of history are as important as any one event, will stumble across this post and take up the charge to spare the Crockett Block.

January 26, 2016, Update: Letter to the Editor from the Express-News

To demolish the historic buildings facing it would be an act of urban design — vandalism in favor of a Disneyland approach to history.

June 27, 2016, Update: The San Antonio Conservation Society has posted a two-part statement, Defending Alamo Plaza:

Alamo Plaza’s importance as a cultural hub… is what we should strive to reclaim and restore, not with re-created structures that function as props, but with compatible adaptive use of existing historic buildings, innovative interpretation, and strategic revitalization that enhances the overall experience for locals and tourists, alike.

 

 

 

 

Two Roads to the Alamo* and the Conservation Society Book Awards

book-awards-closeupThere we were, sitting beside each other. Phil and I.

I’m talking about Phil Collins. But I just call him Phil now. Because I sat beside him for about one minute.

As you can tell this is leading to one of celebrities’ worse curses: people who don’t know them writing about them.

But, of course, this is different. Because I know him. Because I sat beside him for about one minute. And he politely introduced himself to me and shook my hand.

That, and we have several things in common.

Davy Crockett, for one.

When Phil Collins was a kid growing up in a London suburb, he would often watch an amazing show on his family television.  There, in black and white, was Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.  As he matured, Collins not only acted out the exploits of his new hero, but he often refought the Battle of the Alamo with his toy soldiers.

Texas History Store introduction to The Alamo and Beyond

While I’ve never sure been it’s psychologically healthy to adopt Texans’ fascination with the battle they lost, playing Alamo seems a better alternative than the Davy** Crockett chapter that influenced me as a child in Virginia Beach.

I sat alone in my room, playing the record. Over and over and over.

It wasn’t this one, or, if it was, it was part of a much longer recording. I can’t find the version in my mind online.

Perhaps what I remember didn’t exist except as a compilation in my jumbled file cabinet of a mind. But it was Davy Crockett. Or Fess Parker. And it was a life and death struggle with bears and Indians… and the part that haunted me.

I have no idea how many times I listened to that recording, but definitely many times too many.

Even I knew my mother was exasperated.

I would wet my bed. We’re not talking about a three-year old. I was six.

But I had my reasons.

I ran screaming to my parents one night about the bears in the house – my visiting Great Aunt Mary snoring.

There were Indians in my closet. I finally learned keeping the light on in the closet kept them at bay.

But the light filtering through the louvered door did not help with the Crockett family’s other adversaries.

Alligators.

http://blog.nyhistory.org/davy-crockett-almanacs/

Davy Crockett’s Almanack, 1837. Tenn. 1837 .D38 N3. New York Historical Society Museum and Library. http://blog.nyhistory.org/davy-crockett-almanacs

The women then slacked the rope a little and made it fast round a hickory stump, when my oldest darter took the tongs and jumped on [the alligator’s] back, when she beat up the “devil’s tattoo” on it, and gave his hide a real “rub a dub.”…My wife threw a bucket of scalding suds down his throat, which made him thrash round as though he was sent for. She then cut his throat with a big butcher knife. He measured thirty seven feet in length. (Davy Crockett’s almanack,*** of wild sports in the West, life in the backwoods, & sketches of Texas. 1837, p. 10).

My self-preservation instinct was strong. Who in their right mind would risk getting out of bed with alligators on the prowl? Alligators hungry for a “tongariferous” fight. Bladder be damned if I would.

Not only would I not set foot on the floor when alone in my room at night, I would not let a pinky slip over the edge because…. Snap! Those alligators were fast.

And I had a family to protect – a toucan whose name now escapes me; George the green monkey whose rubbery pink hands and feet were comforting to chew nervously upon when trying to make it through dangers lurking in the night; and Nipper, a huge RCA dog who took up easily half of my single bed. I never once let George’s tail hang over the edge. I would sleep rigidly, never ever tumping one over the edge into the alligator pit.

To dream of an alligator, unless you kill it, is unfavorable to all persons connected with the dream.

“Dream Interpretation,” spiritcommunity.com

The flaw, of course, was no one understood this was why I wet the bed. And, when I finally managed to explain, no one took the danger seriously. Of course, now they have books about this. But that was the late ’50s, and they had not yet been written.

Finally, midway through first grade, a solution was found. A path of folding chairs was set up each night between my bed and the bathroom. Somehow, I was able to summon the courage to imperil myself by crawling across this wobbly bridge to the safety of the bathroom, and, of course, everyone knows alligators would never cross the threshold onto the tile floor.

So, as I was writing, Phil’s interest in perpetually fighting – probably trying to change the outcome – the losing battle at the Alamo seems a preferable Davy chapter in which to be stuck.

And Davy seems to have stuck with both of us, Alamobsessive souls that we are.

I focus on and fret about the Alamo as the city’s front door. I constantly nag, in blog form, the city to enforce its historic ordinance to keep illegal signs from multiplying at night. I have even used some of the historic postcards I have assembled to create protest collages.

weve-lost-the-alamo

Postcards from San Antonio ~ No. 21 ~ “We’ve Lost the Alamo.” 2010 edition of 25. Yes, Numbers 21 and 22 are the ugliest collages ever to reflect the overwhelming commercialization of Alamo Plaza. Even Waldo (Yes, he’s there.) is easier to find than the Alamo. An early 1900s postcard of a parade float, “Save the Alamo,” and “Letter from the Alamo” from a plaque on the grounds are surrounded by some of the plaza’s clutter, including a dinosaur, Stumpy, snow cones, the Odditorium, the t-shirt bearing the unheeded message “Don’t Mess with Texas, San Antonio” and even the Daughters of the Republic of Texas’ own unsightly addition of a pop-up tent pushing their “Live the Drama”‘ guides (Fortunately, this pop-up was removed). http://www.postcardsfromsanantonio.com

“They’ve Breached the Walls.”

Postcards from San Antonio ~ No. 22 ~ “They’ve Breached the Walls.” 2010 edition of 25. Mary Bonner’s tasteful woodblock print originally made to help raise funds for the San Antonio Conservation Society is paired with an inscription from the Cenotaph, “In Memory of the Heroes…at the Alamo, March 6, 1836.” The images are overwhelmed by surrounding offers to shop at “Liber-T,” view repulsive world records, obtain henna tattoos or consume ice cream cones and hoagies. Sorry to have left out the coonskin cap. http://www.postcardsfromsanantonio.com

These efforts have had limited effect. And, not surprisingly, these particular collages have not resonated well with art collectors.

Now, legislation has been filed to form a commission to study the state of Alamo Plaza. Good news to some, but the bill would go farther than my Alamobsession wants by giving the commission the mission to “reclaim its original footprint.” I might not love Ripley’s, but I love the Alfred Giles’ Crockett Block.

Plus, if returning Alamo Plaza to its appearance at the time of the battle is taken literally, the Alamo would get a crewcut (Click here for a long-winded post about that particular issue).

"San Antonio: A Descriptive View Book in Colors," 1913

“San Antonio: A Descriptive View Book in Colors,” 1913

I don’t know how Phil feels about this. Because how much ground can you cover in one minute?

But I do know, while I was collecting postcards of chili queens on Alamo Plaza, Phil was collecting everything else Alamo. When Phil does something, he doesn’t fool around. He gets serious. He even collected a building off the plaza. This is from his myspace page:

From Bill Wyman’s metal detecting to Alex James’s cheese-making, every self-respecting musician is obliged to cultivate a hobby to relieve the stresses of the rock star life. Collins is no exception, utilizing the basement of his Swiss home for his twin enthusiasms: building model railways and tending to his vast collection of Alamo memorabilia.

“… it’s an all-consuming thing for me. I spend as much time in San Antonio as I can. I rent a little property out there on the walls of The Alamo itself where I’ll dig for artifacts. I’m always looking for stuff to buy and the collection is growing fast. I’ve got a huge number of cannonballs, muskets and bowie knives that were used there, Lady Crockett’s pouch and many documents that were written by the main protagonists. One of my prized possessions is a receipt signed by Commander William B. Travis for 32 head of cattle used to feed the Alamo defenders.

“My kids are convinced that I was present at The Alamo in a previous life. Just recently I attended a convention out there and met a clairvoyant who is married to a man who’s attempting to restore the Alamo compound. She walked up to me and said, ‘’You’ve been here before. In a previous life you were John W. Smith, one of the major couriers who survived the Alamo and become one of San Antonio’s first mayors.’ Oddly enough one of the first documents I bought for my collection was the receipt for Smith’s saddle. So maybe my kids are on to something.”

philcollinsbook31Phil collected so many Alamo things that photos and information about them now fill a 400-page book, which brings us to another thing we have in common.

We are both authors, which is how we met. Our books – his, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey, and mine, Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill: Voelcker Roots Run Deep in Hardberger Park – both were honored with awards presented by the San Antonio Conservation Society at a luncheon on Friday.

phil-collins-1-closeupYes, there were eight other publications about Texas history recognized, but those authors need to write their own blogs. Because this one is about Phil and me.

Because I sat beside him for about one minute. And, as you can see, we obviously engaged in animated conversation. Probably because we have so much in common. And I didn’t even get a chance to tell him I’m married to a bluesman.

Somehow, KSAT-TV failed to catch this important connection on camera, which is good because I would not have wanted to end up in the pages of some publication, such as The Star, where they zoom in on the superficial shortcomings of someone my age – the preponderance of wrinkles, protruding bellies and falling bustlines.

Another thing Phil and I share is we have changed careers. I have changed career directions several times and feel free to sprint off in any direction I choose. If I choose to write books, that’s fine. No one objects; no one cares.

But, poor Phil. He’s worked hard his whole life – “I enjoyed Genesis when I was 19” – and wants to pursue his hobbies now:

Reporters repetitively bombard him with “why?” Some fans of the Grammy-winning star express anger at him for retiring from concerts. This, even though, according to his myspace page:

His less prolific work rate is partly down to health reasons. Since 2000 he has suffered from loss of hearing in his right ear. More recently he was diagnosed with severe nerve damage to his hands, making drumming extremely challenging. During recording sessions for his new album, he was forced to tape his sticks to his hands.

Owsers. That sounds totally painful. Give this man a well-deserved break.

Keen to accentuate the positive, he explains that his medical concerns have forced him to take stock of his life. “I never used to think of myself as a workaholic,” he says. “I used to work non-stop because I couldn’t believe my luck that I was able to do all these things that I loved. I was everywhere and I can see why that must have been annoying to some people. Then I reached a point where I no longer felt the need to go zooming around the world and attend the opening of every envelope. Basically I stopped.

“I’ve got a nine-year-old and a five-year-old. I take them to football. I like to take them to school and pick them up. That’s my life now. I love doing the things that other people probably find tedious because they’ve been doing them for so long. I never did those things in the past as I was always working flat out. That was my loss. Now I’m able to do all that and also have time to indulge my passions.”

Besides, somehow I feel this man’s Alamobsession will end up helping shape the future of Alamo Plaza. I’m sure it will accomplish more than my haranguing collages and blog posts.

Oh, and, Phil, if you get tired of staying in hotels when you visit San Antonio, the Mister and I might be able to work out a house swap with you. The Alamo’s less than a mile away from our door. Call me next time you are in town and you’ve got a minute. Who knows what else we might have in common?

*With apologies to William C. Davis, author of Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis. Hey, at least I didn’t title the post My Life with Phil Collins. Now that would have been a stretch.

** David would be more historically correct, but does not represent the popular culture upon which we – Phil and I – were weaned.

***Oh, dear. I had to stop in the middle of this post to order a copy of Davy Crockett’s Riproarious Shemales and Sentimental Sisters: Women’s Tall Tales from the Crockett Almanacs, 1835-1856, for which I paid a penny, plus $3.99 shipping – quite a bargain unless the alligators return ‘neath my bed. And, as that is an “our” bed, I’m positive the Mister would not relish the thought.

Update on March 25, 2013: John Spong of Texas Monthly spent considerably longer than a minute with Phil Collins.

Phil Collins at age 5, an image (now blog-altered) originally appearing in the San Antonio Express-News

Phil Collins at age 5, an image (now blog-altered) originally appearing in the San Antonio Express-News

Update on March 27, 2013:

A follower reminded me to look back for this photo of Phil Collins, coonskin-hatted at age five playing Davy, that appeared alongside an article by Steve Bennett in the San Antonio Express-News last May.

Which reminded me of another obvious thing Phil and I have in common – the Battle of San Jacinto. His collection began with a receipt for a saddle purchased by John W. Smith, who was at both the Battle of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto and seems to continue to haunt the collector a bit. My desk currently is haunted by reams of paper pertaining to the families and relatives of John Coker who settled on his land grant on the north side of San Antonio. Jack Coker was a hero of San Jacinto credited with the idea of blowing up Vince’s Bridge, blocking one of the possible escape routes for the Mexican troops.

And, on another note, one of my sisters fessed up that she was the one who told me I’d be safe from dangers lurking in my room if I let no part of me slip over the edge of the mattress. So nice after all these years to finally unload the psychological burden for bedwetting on a sibling.

Update on May 6, 2013: Mary Dearen’s version of the same awards luncheon as published on mywesttexas.com.

Update on June 24, 2014: Phil Collins is donating his entire collection of Alamobsessive artifacts to the Alamo.

Around Alamo Plaza: Been a long time, but the signs are still there.

There have been many posts in this blog ranting about haphazard appearance of the front door for many a visitor to San Antonio – the Alamo Plaza Historic District.

Most businesses evidently believe duplicate signs are critical; even the city’s newly remodeled Visitor Information Center has two extra, twin signs flanking its doorways. I thought the Hotel Indigo was going for cool, but apparently not. And, although it’s not in the district, the city’s recently redone plaza with its strangely homuncular statue of Henry B. gets graced with an illegal sandwich board advertising a garage a block away.

There is no need for many words this time; the photos of illegal signs speak for themselves.

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If you have the stomach for more ugly signage greeting our millions of visitors annually, here is a small sampling from older posts:

Please complain about the lack of enforcement of signage regulations in the Alamo Plaza Historic District to your city council representative and consider dialing 311 to report violations you see.