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

Coming home to roost to celebrate San Jacinto Day?

corrmorants

 

Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle Tree and highest there that grew, 
Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life
Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death
To them who liv’d….

Paradise Lost, John Milton

Satan disguised as a cormorant to spy on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden seems apt to me.

stretching-cormorant

USDA photo

The gloomy-looking double-crested cormorants always spook me. They love to pose on the chains by the dam by the marina, stretching their pterodactyl-type wings as though offering to lift the chains for the barges to cruise right under, dramatically plunging to the level below.

I feel a little bit better about this display now that I know they have no oil glands to repel water; they have to spread their wings to dry out their water-logged feathers. They can’t help it.

But cormorants pop up suddenly from underwater, seemingly out of nowhere, as you walk along the river’s banks. Like Lola Fandango swimming in the tank in Where the Boys Are, these expert fishermen can hold their breath as they swim underwater for a long time. More than a minute.

Even one of river’s cormorants can give me the willies. That’s why this Hitchcock-like gathering of the birds on the Mission Reach seemed particularly ominous the other morning. For birds added to the list of those protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the 1970s, this had to represent some kind of major powwow. Fortunately, their eyes focused toward downtown, the water buzzards let us pass by them unharmed.

What could the convention of cormorants portend? The Irish part of me heaved a sigh of relief – at least the sea crows were not perched atop a church steeple.

Some cultures consider cormorants noble, but, while I’m trying to regard the glass as half-full, I can’t sell myself on that one.

Fishermen regard their sighting as good luck; the fish they seek should be found nearby. One plus for the cormorant.

According to the USDA, greedy cormorants keep fish from overpopulating the river. They actually are an environmental indicator species, meaning the environment of the Mission Reach is healthy. So our cormorants are bearers of good news. Chalk up one more for the cormorant, plus one for the work of the San Antonio River Authority.

In old Norwegian legends, a trio of cormorants bear messages or warnings from the dead.*

But we encountered a whole army of them ready to invade downtown. There were maybe 100 of them. Maybe even more than 200 (Okay, I’m not sure how many. But we definitely were outnumbered.).

But good ol’ Cliff helped me figure this out. Norwegians also believed the dead used the cormorant guise another way as well – so they could fly home for a visit.

the spirits of defenders of the Alamo?

the noble spirits of defenders of the Alamo?

So, based on my extensive research, my interpretation of the meaning of the gathered army follows.

Obviously, those cormorants were the defenders of the Alamo, rising up to celebrate the anniversary of the defeat of the Mexican Army at San Jacinto in 1836.

What do you think of that brilliant idea, my friend, Phil Collins?

Fiesta San Antonio must be their favorite holiday for rising from the grave. Betcha they come back next year.

*I have to stop right here and make a confession to the spirit of Mrs. Masterson. Some of these concepts came from CliffsNotes.com. But I promise. I never opened one of those guides once in your class in high school. Not for Milton. Not even when Moby Dick threatened to swallow all time for social life. Plus, I knew you could smell a CliffsNotes’ idea in the answer to a discussion question before the ink dried. Toward the end of the book, though, I did start reading only every fifth chapter…. That was still a whale of a lot of pages.

Biannual survey of what you are reading on my blog

You, one of the few who actually reads this blog, have failed me. As usual, the subject matter of the most-read posts is all over the map, providing me no guidance of where to head.

gun-posterExcept guns at the Alamo. And I really prefer not to write about guns. The popularity of those posts rose because they were circulated widely among those who want to brandish arms publicly, so much that I felt compelled to move away from the window while typing so not to serve as an easy target.

Drummer Phil Collins’ promotion of Two Roads to the Alamo* and the Conservation Society Book Awards on his facebook page kept it hovering near the top. People from all over the world clicked on his link, disappointed to find out it was mainly about me.

The number in parentheses represents the rankings from six months ago:

  1. Please come and take them away from San Antonio, 2013
  2. Two Roads to the Alamo* and the Conservation Society Book Awards (1), 2013
  3. George Hutchings Spencer, 1923-2013 (4), 2013
  4. The State surrenders the Alamo; Run for Cover, 2013
  5. Library Foundation flapping red cape for the bullish on books (6), 2013
  6. The Memorable Mary Denman (5), 2010
  7. Processing Art through Public Filters, Part Two (7), 2013
  8. Richard Nitschke: Seeing Agave in a Different Light, 2013
  9. “Nuit of the Living Dead” (8), 2010
  10. Please put this song on Tony’s pony, and make it ride away (11), 2010
  11. Sarah’s faces more than a thousand times better, 2013
  12. Cheez Doodles as Art (2), 2011

Don’t blame me if you don’t like where I head next. You have left me totally perplexed. But thanks for trying to hang in there.