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

Postcard from Mexico City: A mountainous amount of history reflected in Chapultepec Palace

In 1725, the commanding Chapultepec hilltop rising steeply 200 feet above Mexico City was the site chosen by Viceroy Bernardo de Galvez (1746-1786) for his manor house. During the Mexican War of Independence, the site was abandoned. The Mexican government then remodeled it for use as a military academy.

Two hundred cadets, some as young as 13, were among the 1,000 Mexican soldiers guarding the citadel when General Winfield Scott (1786-1866) set his eyes on the target as a strategic asset facilitating the capture Mexico City during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848.) Following intensive shelling, American troops were able to scale the fortress and engage in bloody hand-to-hand combat with the defenders.

The costly victory for participating Marines is engrained deeply in the corps’ tradition, “From the halls of Montezuma….” For Mexicans, the battle heroes remembered are six brave cadets who refused to surrender. Fighting until the bitter end, one wrapped himself in the Mexican flag before leaping off the precipice so the flag would not be captured. Virtually every city in Mexico has an avenida memorializing the valor of the cadets, los ninos heroes.

Captured flags arouse countries, and the aging silk banner of the New Orleans Greys seized by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876) during the 1836 Battle of the Alamo is displayed in Chapultepec Castle today despite continual efforts to negotiate its return to San Antonio. History always is subject to the interpretation of the teller, and it is not surprising that the slant given the Mexican-American War in the United States differs slightly from the version presented in the museum housed in Chapultepec Castle.

For the United States, the war represented the fulfillment of its Manifest Destiny. As explained on the San Jacinto Monument, the Texians’ victory at the Battle of San Jacinto laid the foundation for the next violent chapter of relations between the neighbors:

Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American nation, nearly a million square miles of territory, changed sovereignty.

With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States paid the Mexican government $15 million, or about $15 per square mile, for the land it now claimed.

The treaty meant Mexico lost half its territory for the same amount of money paid the French for the Louisiana Purchase. The interpretation at Chapultepec records the war as a land grab by its greedy neighbor, a war that cost many their lives. At the very bottom of the signage is a quotation from President Ulysses S. Grant, expressing shame for the “wicked” war.

Grant’s words, however, were not taken out of context. Here is a longer portion from an 1879 interview given by Grant:

I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign…. I considered my supreme duty was to my flag. I had a horror of the Mexican War, and I have always believed that it was on our part most unjust. The wickedness was not in the way our soldiers conducted it, but in the conduct of our government in declaring war…. We had no claim on Mexico. Texas had no claim beyond the Nueces River, and yet we pushed on to the Rio Grande and crossed it. I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.

Another intrusion into Mexico’s sovereignty occurred soon after. The $15 million received from the United States did little to alleviate the debt Mexico incurred during the expensive war. President Benito Juarez defaulted on Mexico’s loans from France. A conspiracy between out-of-power Mexican conservatives and Napoleon III resulted in an 1862 invasion by France. The French were defeated in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, the reason for the annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

But that was one battle, not the entire war. While the United States was occupied fighting the Confederacy, France succeeded in installing Maximilian I, a Hapsburg prince, as Emperor of Mexico. Emperor Maximilian transformed the castle into his residential palace with a grand boulevard, now known as Paseo de la Reforma, leading into the heart of the city.

Not surprisingly, many in Mexico were not fond of having a foreign monarch with no command even of the Spanish language, and forces loyal to Benito Juarez executed him in 1867.

During the extended off-and-on terms of President Porfirio Diaz from 1876 to 1911, the castle served as his palatial headquarters as well. Amazingly, during the following tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution that followed, much of the opulent décor contributed by Maximilian and Diaz remained unscathed.

Chapultepec was declared a national museum in 1939.

Masterful murals depicting the revolutionary period were commissioned in the late 1950s to 1970s. Juan O’Gorman’s (1904-1982) murals commemorating Mexican independence were begun in 1960. Work by David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) was interrupted when he was imprisoned followed anti-government protests in 1960, and he completed his 175-foot mural after his release in 1964.

 

 

Dear Mayor and City Council: Please don’t surrender Alamo Plaza

It’s hard to send a letter to you, because I don’t yet know who will be occupying those offices at City Hall. But, whoever you are, your first week in office, you will be pressured to approve a plan to wall off a major public plaza, the historical heart of so many of San Antonio’s cherished celebrations.

Please do not vote unconditionally to support the Reimagining the Alamo Master Plan in a rush to meet the budgetary cycle of the State Legislature.

There is much merit to parts of the proposal. The Alamo building itself is crumbling, and the plan targets its restoration and preservation. That is urgent.

The Phil Collins Collection is waiting for a home in San Antonio, and the State has acquired several historic structures on the westside of Alamo Plaza to display the valuable artifacts. (Adaptive reuse is wonderful, but please urge the State to reconsider gutting the entire interior of the landmark Crockett Block, designed by Alfred Giles.)

So the east and west parts of the plan on the state’s existing turf seem on somewhat sound ground. But then we get to the plaza.

As we approach San Antonio’s Tricentennial, we should be particularly attuned to the city’s early history. But, at least in the Executive Summary,* the Master Plan ignores the history of Mission San Antonio de Valero – a site not dubbed the Alamo until years later.

In the aftermath of the Battle, General Santa Anna ordered his troops to destroy as much of the site as possible. This was the beginning of the decline of the historic Alamo compound. Restoring the reverence and dignity of the Alamo is the obligation of our generation and the mission of our efforts.

The decline of the compound that originally was Mission San Antonio de Valero began earlier, before the mission was secularized. Where is that layer of history of the mission days? Not on page 1. Mission San Antonio de Valero is not even recognized by name in the summary until page 24. In the appendices.

Reimagining apparently calls for walling in the plaza and locking it up every night. The planners evidently believe members of the public incapable of envisioning the original walls of the compound. To do so, they must be restricted from entering the plaza aside from as a herd entering through a southern portal.

If returning the Alamo compound to its appearance at the time of the battle truly was a principal adhered to by the Master Plan, the “bold” plan would call for the removal of the iconic parapet added later by the United States Army.

Vehicular movement north and south through downtown currently is impaired. Removing another street from the existing clogged pattern is impractical. Yet, even so, it is difficult to argue that closure would not enhance the experience for pedestrians on the plaza.

But ceding the rights of pedestrians to cross through the plaza makes absolutely no sense. Public parks should be porous, easily accessible from all sides. Yet access to this civic space will be reserved to one entryway on its southern side.

Behind glass, this current pedestrian crossroad will become a dead-end. An Alamo cul-de-sac.

Thanks so much, John Branch, http://comicskingdom.com/john-branch

The city of San Antonio has struggled for years to revive Houston Street, and it finally provides a healthier retail environment. Houston Street merchants will again disappear if they lose the pedestrian traffic they need. Pedestrians will all be funneled in and out by way of Rivercenter.

Trees will be removed from the center of the plaza between the Alamo and the Crockett Block to create an open space, a space too hot under the Texas sun for anyone to linger.

A sizzling comal for tourists. A playground for reenactors. A place locals will avoid.

Paraphrasing W.S. Merwin, there is no recipe for “unchopping a tree.” Walk the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project and envision how many years, or generations, of growth it will take for the new saplings to recreate the groves of trees Spanish missionaries originally found along the river’s banks.

In exchange for placing much of the city’s space in a fishbowl with restricted access, the plan offers San Antonio “a new civic space – Plaza de Valero,” a tiny sliver of the plaza in front of the Menger Hotel. This is billed as: “an opportunity for visitors to have a quiet moment, in the shade of mature trees, enjoying food and refreshments, as they experience the reimagined Alamo.” This “new” space already exists.

The very definition of civic is “relating of or to a city or town or the people who live there.” We have a great civic space, the entire plaza, now. A place for exuberant celebrations and the exercise of first-amendment rights, rights championed by those who died at the Alamo. A spot for gathering in the shade of trees.

There is no reason City Council cannot approve the Alamo restoration on the east and the Museum concept on the west side of the plaza as envisioned in the Master Plan on May 11.

Obviously, improvements can be made to enhance historical interpretation in the plaza, but eliminating Alamo Plaza as a pedestrian passageway or civic gathering place for your citizens need not be a requisite to forward a portion of the plan. Judgment on the disposition of the roadway and plaza should be withheld pending refinement and public release of the full plan.

The many volunteers and professionals tackling this project should be commended for their efforts. But that does not mean this initial plan merits a rubber stamp. The streets and plaza belong to the City of San Antonio.

Please request a reexamination and rethinking of this portion of the plan. Don’t consent to turning a beautiful urban park into a walled-off wasteland of a plaza. A place completely isolated from the fabric of San Antonio.

Thank you for your consideration of this request from a concerned citizen.

P.S.  If one haunts the place of one’s death, would it not seem a Sisyphean hell if the only thing you got to witness was men reenacting your painful death over and over? Would you want the site of your bloody end preserved in the desolate state it was in in the aftermath of your death?

Or would you want to witness people actively enjoying the freedom for which you fought on a daily basis?

One resembles a horror film, the other a fulfillment of your dreams.

*As of this time, the only portion of the plan available to the public online is the sketchy Executive Summary. The public comments you receive prior to voting are based solely upon that and what can be pried out of presenters during hearings. The publicly funded Master Plan appears a closely guarded secret.