Viewing San Antonio through a Spaniard’s eyes

Murals by Spanish artist Daniel Munoz, or SAN, transform window frames bricked in long ago on the back of the former home of the Beethoven Maennerchor in Hemisfair into points of interest. SAN peered into the city’s past and how it contributes to the city of today in recognition of the San Antonio’s Tricentennial. The mural on the back of what is now Magik Theatre was commissioned by the city’s Public Art Department and Luminaria working in conjunction with Ink and Movement in Madrid.

These cellphone snaps represent a small sampling of SAN’s images. Love the way he captured the man peering into the dime store to represent the impending desegregation of the lunch counter in San Antonio; four Blacks broke a major color barrier when they were served there on March 16, 1960. Wonder if the muralist knew the 97-year-old former Woolworth’s, regarded as a landmark in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, is endangered by the current version of the Alamo Comprehensive Interpretive Plan. The building’s significance for the community is obvious even to someone from another country.

 

‘Just the Facts:’ A fence by any other name still smells the same

The July 23 editorial, “Deep breath, just the facts about the Alamo,” in the San Antonio Express-News shocked me.

“Just the facts?”

Perhaps the editorial board of the paper received a totally different presentation than the one about the “Alamo Comprehensive Interpretive Plan” presented to San Antonio Citizen’s Advisory Committee? Perhaps the plan the members saw is different from the one on the Alamo website?

The first “fact” claimed by the Express: “There will not be a fence around Alamo Plaza downtown.” These are the Editorial Board’s words. This sentence does not appear in the plan itself.

Planners, who initially wanted to lock up the plaza at night, now want to “organize people” when the museum is open. They refer to some of this “management” as “fences almost not seen.” The image below isolates a portion of the softly blurred rendering above depicting what the Express terms as simply “rails,” clear barriers topped off by a rail as opposed to an actual picket fence, that will prevent people approaching from Houston Street from walking straight into the plaza and disrupting the “managed” people inside.

On the left is a rendering representing a tall gate, in a fence line “hidden” in landscaping, that presumably would be open after museum hours.

On the north and west sides are 42-inch so-called “rails.” As the plan proposes to lower the floor of the entire plaza 16 to 18 inches, tourists will feel protected from San Antonio’s foot traffic by a barrier more than five feet in height. 

And on the southern edge, an actual “fence” is depicted camouflaged in the landscaping with, look closely as it is painted in a pale gray, an extremely narrow gate thrown open to allow public access… after “managed” hours.

The Editorial Board can call this anything they want, but it all looks like fencing off Alamo Plaza to me.

Presenters made it sound as though the goal during the hours the Alamo is open is to “choreograph approaches” so everyone enters the “railed-in” area through an entrance by a new museum on the west side of the plaza. This appears to be the exit as well. Presumably, this management is designed to promote museum attendance, perhaps a paid experience? This is also where the general public heading north or south will be funneled into the “Alamo Promenade.” So, with every visitor to the Alamo, including large tour and school groups, and all passersby converging, emerging and merging at this one sidewalk-width point on the “Alamo Promenade,” will we not have absurd pedestrian traffic jams? This is a serious question I would love answered.

“Fact” Number Two: “People will not be shut out from this historic and public space. Protests and assemblies will continue at Alamo Plaza. It will remain open to the public.”

Essentially, all of the non-existent fencing sketchily depicted above will sever Alamo Plaza into two parcels – the Alamo fortress footprint on the north and the smaller Plaza de Valero fronting the Menger Hotel and RiverCenter Mall on the south. Planners make absolutely no secret of the goal of attempting to keep protesters out of the northern portion. Plaza de Valero is the designated area for “public expression,”  traditionally referred to as the exercise of free speech.


Fact Number Three: “Closing Alamo Street does not mean there won’t be a north-south connection for vehicles across downtown. The plan proposes a nearby alternative for traffic.”

I sure hope they engage an amazingly talented traffic engineer to work out the automobile traffic patterns. As someone who understands what it is like today to sit through multiple lights heading north on Navarro or south on Losoya or St. Mary’s or to crawl along behind horse carriages on Presa Street, I will let this rendering demonstrating “enhanced connectivity” speak for itself.

“Fact” Number Four: “A decision has not been made about razing five buildings across from Alamo Plaza.”

I am labeling this false because these buildings have always been in the crosshairs of those who are uncompromising in their desire “to restore the Alamo footprint as much as possible.” The way the plan is presented makes it obvious the consultants have made their decision. Certainly, the Editorial Board has made itself clear during the past several years about its desire for the mission footprint to be restored.

While offering token lip-service to “tell the in-depth history of the Alamo area to the present day….;” the redesign of Alamo Plaza is all about the 1836 battle. The plan blatantly labels the five referenced buildings as “non-contributing structures” that must be “addressed.” In the rendering below, they are addressed by erasure. Historic landmarks are reduced to flattened camel-colored rectangles with no mass.

And, voila! Instead of adaptive reuse of valued historic landmarks whose worthiness is well-documented, you now have a vacant lot for the “rail” representing the original western wall of the compound and a new museum facility.

While theoretically the decision has not been made on the buildings’ fate, the planners desire to demolish is obvious. The public presentations are called “conversations,” but are they mere shams?

According to an article in the Rivard Report by Iris Dimmick, City Councilman Roberto Trevino, who serves on the Alamo Management Committee and co-chairs the Citizens Advisory Committee, a study will be commissioned to determine the merit of preserving the structures. As though their history and condition is an unknown.

Dimmick reports Council RepresentativeTrevino:

…said it’s unlikely that other major components of the plan would change.

The design team “picked up where the master plan left off,” Trevino said. “Continuing the debate (about road closures and managed access), I don’t think that’s in line with the guiding principles.”

However, he said, pedestrian access, in general, is something on which the team is still working.

While the plan does indicate the buildings’ fates have not yet been sealed, the plan offers no alternative pedestrian routes than the ones illustrated. Fencing off the footprint is the only option presented for consideration.

The Editorial Board of the Express-News terms much of the opposition raised to the plan “hyperbole:”

Yes, the plan does include landscaping, rails and some hidden fencing to control pedestrian flow to the site. That’s far different from “restricting access” as the San Antonio Conservation Society has asserted. It’s about crowd control and guiding visitors during daytime hours when the Alamo itself is open to the public. Outside of those hours, people can still visit the plaza and admire the church.

I vehemently disagree. Call a fence a fence.

And the time to disagree is now. Because if San Antonians are quiet, the next version of the plan will pick up where this plan left off. Much like Trevino indicates road closures somehow already are a done-deal, the fencing closing off Alamo Plaza, a dedicated city park, will get cemented into the plan. And, if you value the historic landmarks lining the west side of the plaza, the time to express that is now.

Both my opinion and that of the Editorial Board of the Express-News are biased. I urge you to read the plan to make an informed decision about the “facts.”

If you have concerns about the plan, please consider signing the online petition the San Antonio Conservation Society has made available: Save Alamo Plaza! at change.org.

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.