Has Alamo Plaza fallen in the hands of ‘reverential’ caretakers?

New signs directing riders of scooters, bikes and skateboards to steer clear of Alamo Plaza are a welcome change from the Texas General Land Office, which assumed a long-term lease of the plaza on Jan. 1. The state has also opened a small welcome center to help guide visitors, who no longer must endure the rants of street preachers….

These are all small changes, foreshadowing much larger ones. Although small, these changes already have made Alamo Plaza a more respectful place where visitors can reflect on the historic battle and feel the weight of history.

They also portend bigger changes for the site that will bring proper reverence. Streets will be closed. Carnivallike businesses will be moved….

These initial small changes have already made a welcome difference.

“Changes at Alamo Signal Bigger Ones,” Editorial, San Antonio Express-News, March 5, 2019

The goal is to encourage visitors to reflect on the sacrifices and struggles for Texas independence without those modern-day distractions….

“Alamo Plaza is being transformed into a place of dignity and reverence,” Karina Erickson, interim communications director with the Land Office, said in an email.

“Alamo Plaza Makeover Underway,” Scott Huddleston, San Antonio Express-News, February 19, 2019

March 6, 1836. A date seared in the memory of all Texans and many others around the world as the date the Alamo fell. So March 6 seemed an appropriate time to witness this new “reverential” treatment of Alamo Plaza now that the City of San Antonio ceded the city’s historic park to the management of the State of Texas.

The reenactors of the battle who were still around were downright friendly. Despite the fact that they had been up since the wee hours of the morning to “kill” or “be killed” at dawn, they somehow still rallied to patiently answer any visitor’s questions in as much detail as the inquisitive one desired.

But, what slams the visitor in the face no matter what approach to the plaza is taken is the fire-engine-red “The Alamo Welcome Center” plopped down in the middle of it by the new stewards from General Land Office. This booth appears almost carnivalesque, particularly given its dignified location.

In fairness, I took a photo of David Crockett (Yes, that really is his name, and he says he is the original’s third-great-grandson.) in front of the Alamo to demonstrate it is still possible to snap a photo of the former chapel without the red shed intruding. But as you can see from numerous other angles, it is very much in the way.

But surely it must serve a very important purpose. If you examine the front view, you might notice a video screen running. At the moment this image was taken, the carved figures of Alamo heroes on the Cenotaph are captured for visitors to observe. Wait, they can see the actual Cenotaph about 50 steps away.

There also is a brand new (not to be confused with the large Alamo Gift Shop adjacent to the Alamo) Official The Alamo Store located less than 50 steps away in the handsome limestone Crockett Block. Official The Alamo Store occupies a space right next to the San Antonio Visitor Information Center. The purpose of the red attention-getting booth must be pretty urgent if it serves needs neither of those could meet.

Naturally, it turns out, that the function of the Welcome Center is not simply to extend a Texas-size howdy to visitors. It is sales. While entry to the Alamo is free, the purpose of the Welcome Center is to serve as a stop sign before entering to convince you to open your wallet and purchase tickets for a tour. This will be so much easier after the General Land Office fences off the plaza to ensure everyone is funneled through one entrance to achieve maximum solicitation opportunities prior to reaching the Alamo door.

One could argue that this red wart is not a permanent structure. It can me moved, so is harmless to the integrity of the historic site. But if it does not get moved to attain the proper reverential mood and sense of authenticity during the all-important commemorations of the 13-day siege of the Alamo, it probably is not budging any time soon.

In the meantime, how many people per month are subjected to the sight of this sales booth in front of the Alamo? Conservatively, way more than 200,000 people monthly get their first glimpse of the Alamo through the openings in the Welcome Center.

Among other “improvements” is a long bank of illuminated vending machines located at the rear of the Alamo property in a concession area, the area where visitors are encouraged to visit to view a free film. Sadly, not a raspa stand among them.

If the Welcome Center is evidence of the state’s tasteful approach to design, we all should worry. Many San Antonians still hope a decision will be made to reuse the state-owned historic landmarks stretching along the west side of Alamo Plaza from the Crockett Block to the former Woolworth’s as the site of a new Alamo Museum. (Visit the website of the San Antonio Conservation Society to learn more about the coalition to save the former Woolworth’s.) because of its crucial role in peaceful integration in San Antonio in 1960. One of the major objections offered to doing so is the different levels of the floors in the buildings complicate inner connectivity. Architects facing equal or larger such challenges have managed to give us the San Antonio Museum of Art and numerous successful examples of adaptive reuse at the Pearl.

One of a triumvirate of decision-makers affecting the future of Alamo Plaza is District One Council Representative Roberto Trevino. In another editorial this week, the Express-News sought to portray him as an ardent preservationist:

As an architect, Roberto Treviño wears his love for old buildings on his sleeve.

“Approve Beacon Hill Agreement,” Editorial, San Antonio Express-News, March 6, 2019

The Welcome Center fails to inspire confidence in the design standards to be applied in the coming year or two or in the General Land Office’s sincerity in considering sparing the landmarks on the west side of the plaza.

Community trust would be somewhat enhanced by the immediate removal of the booth. Even put it to adaptive reuse where it belongs: The Alamodome Parking Lot for the upcoming Fiesta Carnival.

Visit those quiet little missions before the reenactors remember the Battle of Espada

One of the nicest features of the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project is that it invites you to visit the missions strung along the banks of the San Antonio River.

And not just the first two you normally take visitors from out of town to see before you get missioned-out and head for margaritas.

But the oft-overlooked San Juan Capistrano and San Francisco de la Espada, which, true confession, the Mister and I had not seen for at least two decades (but, true confession, not as long as it’s been since my last confession). Their histories easily can be found online, so I will not attempt to rewrite. This post is simply meant to entice you through pictures to rediscover what we tend to forget on the south side of town.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1716, with much of the mission compound not completed until 1756. San Juan himself must of have been incredibly pious because he was governor of Perugia, the chocolate capital of Italy, before becoming a Franciscan. However, since chocolate came from the New World, maybe lording over Perugia around the year 1400 was not as flavorful as it would be today.

When the Mister and I made a mid-morning stop at the mission, the information center was staffed by a volunteer from the parish. What was wonderful was that he peopled the mission for us with his own ancestors, photographs of ancestors he did not realize had lived within the protective mission walls until seven years ago. Plus, he told us how a window at each of the missions is positioned to let illuminating rays of light shine on the statues of each one’s patron saint on the appropriate feast day. Clever calculations by the priests; miracles to the Native Americans they were converting.

The National Park Service seems proving a good steward of the grounds, and Father David has been applying the funds he has raised successfully through the nonprofit Old Spanish Missions to re-stucco the church for the first time in about 250 years. The church now gleams against the blue Texas sky. Unfortunately, the priest does not keep the same hours as the park, so we did not view the interior. Probably the most reliable time to view the interior is during a scheduled Mass, but I’ll probably stick with more random attempts.

Visiting Mission San Francisco de la Espada should become a more fashionable pilgrimage now with the popular Pope Francis in charge at the Vatican. More attention undoubtedly will be focused on Saint Francis, about whom I have written before in this blog. It would help if San Antonians, including myself, would incorporate the Francisco instead of shortening the name to Mission Espada.

Of course, if the National Park Service really wanted to market Espada to Texans, maybe the thrust of the story should change away from the agrarian and vocational skills the friars taught the inhabitants.

I mean, look at the Alamo. If you make it about guns, they will come, as Land Commissioner Patterson recently showed us.

If more people were aware of the battle fought there in October 1835, Espada would soon be mobbed.

The following is from a report submitted to General Austin by James Bowie and James Fannin following the battle, according to Wallace McKeehan on the Sons of Dewitt Colony Texas website:

Mission of Espadas, Saturday morning 7. oclk AM 24th octr 1835 Genl S F Austin Half an hour since we were attacked by the enmy, who were repulsed, after a few fires being exchanged Only a few men were seen-say about fifty-tho, from the dust etc. it is believed 200 or more, were in the company-Dr Archer says that Col. Ugartichea was the commandant, as he plainly saw him, and recognised him-The place is in a good condition, or can be made so in an hour, for defence, and until we know, of the advance of some aid, or what was intended by this feint, we will continue to occupy this station, where we have provisions enough for the army provided means are supplied to purchase….

If the Alamo attracts millions of visitors to a site where virtually all the Texians were slaughtered, wouldn’t people love to visit the spot where Bowie and Fannin were victorious?

Espada is the spot.

Visit it now. Before the word gets out. While it is still a peaceful place at the end of the Mission Reach.

A place to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis on October 4, perhaps even witnessing the rays of light illuminating his statue.

And well before reenactors decide they need to start shooting off noisy guns at 6:30 a.m. every October 24.

Update Added on August 12, 2014: As August 15th brings a solar illumination to Mission Conception in time for the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, an article in Today’s Catholic by Carol Baass Sowa sheds light on the phenomenon that would amaze Native Americans:

It was the Franciscan missionaries’ knowledge of astronomy, he related, that was responsible for the incorporation of solar illuminations in a number of their churches. They served to symbolically communicate the friars’ Catholic faith to the Native Americans, much as medieval churches used stained glass windows to tell the story of Christ and Gothic arches pointed upwards towards highly decorated ceilings to symbolize the heaven men should strive to attain.

Arriving in what was a wilderness, the Franciscan founders of Concepcion had little to work with, Father (David) Garcia explained, so they built into the church the symbols and signs that would tell the indigenous people about God and Christ. “They had a ray of sunshine come in and illuminate the sanctuary,” he said. It was a way to tell the native people “God is moving among us…..”

The friars were highly educated men, (George) Dawson explained, and the Catholic Church used churches as solar observatories since the 15th century as a means to figure out such things as when Easter fell. Also leading credence to the case for the Franciscans is research on the California missions, which has shown one or two Franciscan priests were in charge of construction for several of the missions there which feature the majority of the solar illuminations….

Mission Espada also has an illumination, he related. On the morning of Oct. 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, (the Franciscans’ founder), light from the rectangular window on the eastern wall bathes the statue of St. Francis on the altar in a golden glow. Again, there is a duplicate display on March 9, which happens to be the feast day of St. Frances, a woman mystic who died in the 1400s.