Forging consensus for the Alamo Comprehensive Interpretive Plan: Don’t fence us out

The Alamo will indeed be saved.

Although verbal and sometimes litigious warfare over how best to treat the surrounding grounds has been ongoing almost continually since the Battle of the Alamo itself, there seems to be little, if any, disagreement about the need move forward to conserve the Alamo Chapel. There also is much enthusiasm about a new museum to house existing Alamo collections and the incredible donation of Alamo-related items from Phil Collins.

Last week, the design team for an Alamo re-do presented an updated Comprehensive Interpretive Plan to the San Antonio’s Citizens Advisory Committee. The consultants from Reed Hilderbrand of Cambridge, Massachusetts; PGAV Destinations of St. Louis, Missouri; and Cultural Innovations of London, England, did seem to have listened to some of the passionate cries that arose following the unveiling of an earlier version.

That’s right; they are not from here. And, for many Texans, that automatically is a strike against them. They might as well have put a jar of salsa made in New York City in the middle of the table. Plus, even greater, is that San Antonio thing. While the Battle of the Alamo is the most important component of this project to outsiders, many San Antonians have an equal attachment to the plaza itself. The consultants must sense this underlying mistrust the moment they walk into the room.

Designers now acknowledge San Antonio is hot and that removal of trees would leave a sizzling comal of a plaza. “Shade” seems their favorite word when referencing the plan.

To view a pdf file of the entire plan on the General Land Office site, click here (Be patient; the pdf file is large so slow to download.). The renderings below are all from that plan. To watch/listen to the entire June 7 presentation via NowCastSA, click here.

The team offered a compromise concerning the restoration and relocation of the Cenotaph, removing it from the footprint of the mission walls while keeping it in the neighborhood. The consultants suggested transferring the massive memorial monument to the adjacent Plaza de Valero in front of the Menger Hotel (rendering above), about where the soon-to-be-banished bandstand currently is located. Just the mere mention of a potential move brought a chorus of boos from some descendants of defenders in the audience, but, as no feedback from the general public was allowed at this meeting, future hearings will reveal whether this new proposal lessens their objections.

Several major skirmishes loom on the horizon. The unpopular concept of a glass wall blocking access to Alamo Plaza, a dedicated public park owned by San Antonio, has been removed. But that has not eliminated erecting barriers “to enable flexible management options” of much of the area within the original footprint.

An “almost-not-seen” four-foot fence would be “hidden” in planting beds on the south side and would take the form of 42-inch high glass rails (no longer termed walls) on the museum side on the west. These would be penetrated by four gateways (certainly appearing taller than four-feet high in the rendering below).

According to the presentation, access inside the controlled enclosure would remain free but would be restricted during the hours the Alamo is open, mainly via the southside gate. During those hours all non-Alamo-destination pedestrians would be funneled north/south along a promenade on the west side, behind the glass rails. The current proposal would open all four gates for unlimited pedestrian access in the plaza after hours.

The strangest unanswered part of this new “solution” is that, during the prior phase, the argument was made that the space needed to be glassed in and locked to protect the Alamo after hours. Now, the need is expressed to control access during the day for programming purposes, and it is evidently fine to leave it all open throughout the night.

If San Antonians are to be persuaded to cede control of their public park, someone needs to develop more persuasive rationale. This unexplained flip-flopping makes fencing in what is now an open public plaza appear completely unnecessary, even capricious. It flies in the face of one of the plan’s guiding principles, “to enhance connectivity.”

Here is the existing site plan of the proposed “open-air museum:”

Included in the “Vision” of the plan is to “tell the in-depth history of the Alamo area to the present day….” One presenter said the plan proposes to “peel off layers of the 21st century.” Their desire appears to peel deeper, though, back through layers of the 20th century and even 19th century. There is the matter of several pesky buildings termed “non-contributing structures.”

The designers are aware that some consider these structures as valuable parts of the area’s history, particularly Alfred Giles’ Crockett Block and the former Woolworth’s, its lunch counter playing a key role in San Antonio’s relatively peaceful path toward integration. Proposed options include complete demolition of all of these structures over a portion of what would have been the western wall of the Alamo; facadomy, leaving their front walls standing; or reuse.

Most of the renderings presented in the plan show retention of the facade, at a minimum, of the historic Crockett Block; although designers seemed reluctant to endorse retention of any of the buildings recently purchased by the state. Clearly, their preference is for what they view as the creation of a “unified and coherent place.”

Committee member Frank Ruttenberg expressed the desire to “try to not take down history to focus on a certain aspect of history.” While it is easier for architects to have an empty piece of land on which to design a new Alamo history museum, repurposing the historic structures there would support the plan’s stated vision. The structures are handsome, and creative architects could repurpose them. With the San Antonio Conservation Society looming as a force opposing demolition, committee member Dave Phillips cautioned, “Demolishing historic buildings is a fight we don’t need to take on.”

And he probably is correct because reconfiguring traffic to create the coherent space above has major repercussions well beyond the plan’s boundaries. The plan’s desired level of “pedestrianization” requires closure of numerous streets to automobile traffic. Perhaps the most controversial part of the plan is the concept of moving traffic from Alamo Street to already-congested Losoya, making it two-way. With businesses on the west side of Losoya hemmed in by the river and those on the east side backing up to Alamo, how in the world would they receive deliveries? Phillips labeled the Losoya concept downright “scary.”

Untangling the web of ramifications from the closures into a workable rerouting of traffic certainly will require a team of immensely talented and creative engineers. Then they have to convince San Antonians the “improvements” will work.

The time of the year that more locals visit Alamo Plaza than any other is without a doubt during the 11 days of Fiesta San Antonio for wreath-layings, coronations and parades. While the women in the audience who traditionally don their yellow hats to stage the Battle of Flowers Parade in the location it has taken place for more than a century were too polite to boo, they are unlikely to be timid in pushing to keep the parade routes open.

The plaza is far from a blank slate; there are meaningful layers of San Antonio’s history there. Several landmines still must be defused in formulating and implementing the plan.

Overall though, there seemed a sense of optimism in the room among the committee members. A can-do attitude and a determination to find workable solutions and compromises.

The presenters emphasize that the plan would “change the understanding of the Alamo as a building to the Alamo as a place.” For San Antonians, however, Alamo Plaza has always been a “place.” Our place. The plaza is not just the Alamo’s front yard, it is our front yard. And you are going to have a hell of a hard time convincing us to let you fence us out.

If the City of San Antonio decides to cede control of the plaza to the state, I am pulling for an agreement with deed restrictions ensuring ongoing free public access backed by a powerful reversionary clause.

June 19, 2018: The San Antonio Conservation Society has launched a petition drive concerning the fate of Alamo Plaza via change.org. Please consider signing this appeal to San Antonio City Council. The petition can be found here.

https://www.change.org/p/san-antonio-city-council-save-alamo-plaza

How would you feel about the Alamo with a crewcut?

The treatment of the Alamo on the frontispiece of San Antonio, a 1913 “Descriptive View Book in Colors” – a birthday present from a friend – caught my eye with its unusually frank acknowledgement of the major alteration of the facade of the former Mission San Antonio de Valero.

The frontispiece of this booklet showed the Alamo with the added architectural frontispiece removed.

The distinguished curving outline of the facade has become a symbol not only of the battle that took place there in 1836, but of the city itself. The widely replicated outline, commercialized into many a business logo, is recognized worldwide. 

But the distinctive parapet was not part of the original church built nearly 300 years ago; nor was it there during the famous battle in 1836.

According to the Handbook of Texas Online, the curvilinear addition is thought to have been the brainchild of an architect and builder by the name of John M. Friese, who designed the Menger Hotel next door to the Alamo a few years later. Friese’s client was the United States Army, which was renting the former mission from the Catholic Church. The project fell under the supervision of Major Edwin Burr Babbitt, assistant quartermaster for the post. According to the Handbook, Major Babbitt actually wanted to tear the Alamo down and erect a completely new building. General Thomas S. Jesup vetoed that idea, fortunately for today’s tourism industry, and the parapet was added in 1850 as part of the adaptation of the building for the Army’s needs.

Through the years, many changes have taken place on the plaza in front of the Alamo, the plaza that was enclosed by crumbling mission walls at the time of the battle.

A group has emerged with plans to recapture those grounds from the city that has encroached upon them. The Texas History Center at Alamo Plaza, Inc., has developed elaborate presentations for what it calls the Alamo Restoration Project.

The stated goal of this proposed project is:

to enhance the visitor’s pilgrimage to the “Cradle of Texas Liberty” by providing a historic atmosphere for personal reflection, inspiration, and learning. We encourage people to seek out their heritage, explore the rich and diverse history of the region, and immerse themselves with the texture of the past.

While this sounds noble on the surface, there are some who think the part of this site’s “heritage” and “diverse history” that is more important than a lost battle might be its much earlier role as a mission outpost.

Another major issue is the problem of a historic landmark built atop of the original western wall of the mission compound. The handsome Crockett Block, designed by architect Alfred Giles, was built only 30 years after the Army added the parapet to the Alamo. The project’s plan is to simply move the massive building, as The Fairmount was relocated in 1985.

What would be left would be a huge open footprint of the grounds at the time of the 1836 battle, but what I see is hot. There are just not many days of the year where people are going to want to stand in the middle of a treeless, shadeless plaza contemplating the battle. Five minutes in the middle of the plaza on a day like today would be more than enough to make one pray for the return of the raspa vendors.

To accomplish this restoration project would mean major battles with not just the Daughters of the Republic of Texas but also with the yellow-hatted ladies of the Battle of Flowers Association, whose parade has a strong historical connection to Alamo Plaza.

While there are pictures on the group’s website showing the Alamo without the added parapet, there is nothing written online that I see calling for its removal. But, to be true to the group’s goals, it obviously should be.

Calling attention to the need for better treatment and interpretation of our most famous tourist site is worthwhile, but stripping the area back to the battle era seems extreme.

And, would San Antonians ever be willing to let go of that distinctive frontispiece for an Alamo with a crewcut? If nothing else above were, those seem like fighting words to me.