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.

Return to the Alamo: Please don’t gag the Daughters (Whose side am I on anyway?).

Kathleen Carter. Karen Thompson. You go, girls! Speak your mind.

According to Ken Herman in the Austin Statesman, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson is attempting to force these leaders of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to bite their tongues:

…Patterson banned Daughters of the Republic of Texas officials from talking to reporters about the Alamo without his agency’s approval. “Information released without prior knowledge and express approval of the GLO may be grounds for immediate contract termination,” says his new rule.

Now those are fighting words.

Commissioner Patterson, you are new at your job. Yes, I know you have been Land Commissioner for a decade, but you are newly arrived at the Alamo. Yes, I know the Sons of the Republic of Texas deemed you a Knight of San Jacinto and you represented the county that includes the soaring monument on the battleground. But having that giant erection in your backyard must have gone to your head.

The Alamo is different. As San Antonians first and Texans second, we regard fighting about the Alamo as a sacred right. We have been fighting publicly about it since 1836, and no one in Austin can quash those afflicted with severe cases of Alamobsession.

Yes, running a dictatorship is easier than a democracy, but the Daughters themselves already tried that approach. Some of the very people Commissioner Patterson wants to silence attempted to gag dissension among their own siblings. Without success. Fortunately for Texas. If Daughters were not so persistently outspoken, the General Land Office would not be in charge of the Alamo today.

Aside from supporting their right to free speech, my agreement with the Daughters probably pretty much stops there. Although, I never thought the Daughters would call trump with the double-edged Native American card.

The Alamo Always Trumps
1936 Texas Centennial No 5, “The Alamo always Trumps,” digital collage by Gayle Brennan Spencer, Visit http://postcardssanantonio.com.

Again, from Herman’s column in the Statesman:

…Daughters’ President General Karen R. Thompson said her organization “strongly” objects to the change. “The Alamo grounds are considered sacred, not only because 189 men died in battle on March 6, 1836, but because the remains of Native Americans are buried and entombed in the complex property,” she said in a statement.

The Daughters and the descendants of the original Native Americans whose labors contributed to the ancient mission’s walls are rarely on the same page. But adversity calls for uniting all underdogs.

And unite against what common enemy?, you might ask if you make it this far into this post.

“Hooch,” as Carter terms it. If you somehow missed this story affecting the lives of all Texans, catch up by reading Scott Huddleston’s “Hold the ‘Hooch’” in the San Antonio Express-News. The Land Commissioner has proposed alcohol could be served to those renting out Alamo Hall, not the Alamo itself, for special events.

Yes, the painful specter of prohibition raises its head once again. The leadership of the Daughters evidently thinks nothing stronger than apple cider should be raised in toasts anywhere near the Alamo.

Apple cider? What would Davey say?

While I’m willing to accept William Barrett Travis might have been a teetotaler, what about the rest of the guys?

Taking a lead of freedom of revision of history from the Texas State Board of Education and accepting Travis did indeed draw a line in the sand….  If Travis asked how many men wanted to be forced to convert to Catholicism, many men at the Alamo would have leapt to join him for the promise of freedom of religion.

If Travis asked who wants to continue to ride deep into the heart of Coahuila every time you want to conduct official business, not many at the Alamo would have stayed on the side of Mexico. That was a major inconvenience.

But, on the other hand, if Travis had drawn a line and said you can drink alcohol on the Mexican side but my side is dry? Travis might have found himself pretty lonely.

Free speech I’m all for preserving, so the Daughters get my backing on that issue. But keeping Alamo Hall, which was off the battle site, dry? Not worth fighting for.

This is not an “Alamoment.” Seems as though both the Daughters and the Commissioner should pick their battles more carefully. They should be forging a strong partnership, not tearing it asunder.

What would Davey say? Remaining in the revisionist vein of amateur historians, I think he gladly would raise a glass of something hard:

Salud, amor, pesetas y tiempo para disfrutarlos.

“Loanership” program leads to Texas Centennial series of prints opening at King William Art

Started watching ebay for memorabilia from the Texas Centennial about two years ago when I fell in love with a silver bracelet. Alas, the bracelet flirted with numerous suitors; the dowry I pledged proved insubstantial.

I dallied with other Centennial items, but continued to be too conservative in my courtships.

Again, I was heartbroken when I failed to win a cow I wanted to incorporate in the design for the inside flaps of the dust jacket of Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill.

But this winter, a sheet with the cow for which I yearned and 29 other cinderella stamps promoting the 1936 Centennial of Texas independence found the chink in my common-sense fence. This was a whole herd of stamps exuberantly proclaiming the magnificent majesty of the great state of Texas. They represented the incredible boosterism and spirit of an era I wanted to lasso.

As I only wanted high-resolution copies not ownership of the stamps, I decided to leave an extravagant bid of $200 on auctionstealer before heading out to dinner. After scanning in the stamps, I would just re-post and sell. Unfortunately, there was another crazy person out there. I won, but was pushed up way too close to my maximum bid. When I turned around to re-sell, the other crazy was much lonelier. My scan ending up costing me about $60.

This perky blue dog is part of Sarah Reveley’s collection of Texas Centennial memorabilia.

The lesson learned was that I needed a system of “loanership” for, not ownership of, Centennial memorabilia.

Fortunately, I found someone who had gotten a severe case of Centennial fever well in advance of the 175th anniversary inflationary outbreak of 2011. There was an official Centennial almost everything, and Sarah Reveley has posted images of many online. And, best of all, Sarah agreed to be my lending library, providing virtually all the items I needed for the first five of my 1936 Texas Centennial digital collages, which will be included in an exhibit of two dozen prints drawn from several series opening with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 2, in the King William Art Gallery at 1032 South Alamo.

The impact of the Texas Centennial proved enduring, both in contributing to the attributes that distinguish a Texan from those unfortunate enough to reside in the other 49 states and in leaving enduring physical landmarks behind.

Attitude and granite; attitude in granite.

According to The Handbook of Texas Online:

The Commission of Control worked with the Advisory Board of Texas Historians, the Work Projects Administration, and the Texas Highway Department to coordinate programs and to provide permanence to the centennial observance by the erection of permanent buildings, monuments, statues, and grave markers. Every county in the state received a marker indicating the date of its establishment and the source of its name. Permanent buildings that received financial assistance from the Commission of Control included the Hall of State at Dallas, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum at Canyon, the Texas Memorial Museum at Austin, the Sam Houston Memorial Museum at Huntsville, the Corpus Christi Centennial Museum, the West Texas Museum at Lubbock, the Big Bend Historical Museum at Alpine, the Alamo Museum at San Antonio, the Gonzales Memorial Museum, the David Crockett Memorial Building at Crockett, the Memorial Auditorium and Stadium at Goliad, the Pioneers, Trail Drivers, and Rangers Memorial at San Antonio, and the San Jacinto Monument and Museum of History near Houston. Monuments commemorated special events; historic buildings and forts were restored; and statues were erected to more than twenty Texas heroes.

The multitude of physical markers from 75 years ago – some maintained, some in need of major repair and some missing – have been photographed by history buffs throughout the state and assembled by Sarah online.

While cities and towns of all sizes throughout Texas were planning official events sanctioned by the Texas Centennial Commission, seems as though San Antonio would have been a shoe-in in a three-way race with Houston and Dallas to host the central exposition. Those two cities were mere upstarts by comparison – undeveloped land gleaming in speculators’ eyes in 1836.

But 100 years later, the wealth of Dallas beat out the Alamo City. According to The Handbook of Texas Online:

Although it possessed the least historical background, the commission chose Dallas because it offered the largest cash commitment ($7,791,000), the existing State Fair of Texas facility with provisions for expansion, and unified urban leadership headed by bankers Robert L. Thornton, Fred F. Florence, and Nathan Adams.

The state and federal governments each kicked in an additional $3 million dollars at a time when the country was only beginning to emerge from the Depression. The Handbook notes that, encompassing 50 buildings, the central exposition cost $25 million. In today’s dollars, that translates into a whopping investment of approximately $417 million (don’t trust my fuzzy math) – a major fiesta by any standards.

And major fiestas need music; The Handbook reports the Centennial commissioned and promoted all kinds of it:

The various genres of Texas Centennial music include popular and art songs, film music, operas, and a Mass…. Texas Centennial songs can be divided according to such types as praise songs, cowboy songs, advertisement songs, bluebonnet songs, and love songs.

Mitch Miller’s 1955 recording ruined “Yellow Rose of Texas” for me as a child; maybe even left it as irreparably damaged goods as an adult. But what other song could better symbolize the Centennial? The first known handwritten copy of the lyrics surfaced shortly after the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, with words altered to suit the what was regarded as politically correct (generally incorrect by today’s standards) times through the years.

1936 Texas Centennial No 1, “Yellow Rose of Texas,” 7.5 X 9.75 inch image, edition limited to 25, view online at http://postcardssanantonio.com

The Centennial version of “Yellow Rose” was penned by David Wendel Guion, a native of Ballinger who had studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Vienna. According to The Handbook of Texas, Guion composed and performed western-themed songs, preserved traditional folk tunes, hosted a radio show focusing on the west and composed a collection of waltzes used in the film Grand Hotel (Only a pale memory, the trailer makes me want to watch it.). Among his most famous arrangements are “Turkey in the Straw” and “Home on the Range,” a favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to whom he dedicated his version of “Yellow Rose.”

Following my earlier incorporation of  “San Antonio Song” into a collage, I combined the image of the sheet music of “Yellow Rose” with a Centennial envelope and an official Centennial medallion featuring General Sam Houston astride Saracen. The medal seemed appropriate because, were the myths surrounding the role of “Yellow Rose” at San Jacinto true, the general would have been eternally grateful to her for distracting General Santa Anna with her womanly ways just prior to the battle. This tinge of naughtiness in the legend led me to add the envelope postmarked La Grange, home of the Chicken Ranch.

A guide in Sarah’s collection that attracted my attention was written by Miss Elise Hendrick promoting the purchase of a multitude of Centennial products by ladies for hosting a picture-perfect Centennial bridge party. While slim on its artistic appearance, it provided me with the long-awaited excuse to use some well-worn playing cards from an earlier decade begging to escape from my overflowing files.

Loved reading the accompanying recipes for hospitably entertaining a polite gathering of ladies. A jelly-roll style sandwich featured a layer of cream cheese, a layer of red plum jelly and another layer of cream cheese, this one tinted with blue food coloring, sliced into pinwheels. Then there was a recommendation for absolutely plain “gelatine” frozen in Texas star “moulds.” Even the “cocktail” recipe fizzled: equal part orange and grapefruit juices, dash of lemon juice, slice of orange, sprig of mint, a red cherry and a green cherry. Missing a major ingredient. Obviously, not my kind of party. Hell, I forgot; I don’t even play bridge.

Rather tame. And sweet, much like the lyrics of the Official Centennial “Blue Bonnet Girl” by Glenn Spencer, recorded by Roy Rogers and the Sons of Pioneers:

Down in Texas there’s a blossom blooming in the moonlight. She nods a greeting like a sweet blue bonnet bathed in starlight. She’s my angel come from above….

These words stand naive in contrast with Billy Rose’s lyrics, “The Night is Young:”

So proper and polite upon this lovely night, we sit here making foolish conversation, instead of making bright; let’s be ourselves tonight and take advantage of the situation….

1936 Texas Centennial No 4, “WHOO-pee! The Night is Young,” 7.5 X 9.75 inch image, edition limited to 25, view online at http://postcardsfromsanantonio.com

The difference? The stretch of highway between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Fort Worth publisher Amon Carter saw no need to let the Centennial centerpiece being staged in neighboring Dallas outshine Cowtown. Fort Worth would just mount its own event capturing the spirit of the west – the Texas Frontier Centennial – with no eyes of official Centennial Commission members censuring its components.

According The Handbook of Texas:

The spectacle covered 162 acres and cost $5 million. The Old West lived again in Frontier Village, in which Sunset Trail was lined with livery stables, general stores, an old church, and other buildings typical of the 1870s to 1890s. A railroad train with wood-burning locomotive and wooden coaches demonstrated transportation of the same period…. The most publicized part of the celebration was Casa Mañana, “the House of Tomorrow,” in which seats and tables to accommodate 3,500 spectators faced a revolving stage on which Billy Rose presented his musical show.

This extravaganza seems purposefully planned to pit proper Dallas against rowdy Fort Worth. According to Clay Coppedge writing on Texas Escapes:

“Go Elsewhere For Education, Come to Fort Worth For Entertainment” read the billboards, thousands of them, spread over several states. Aside from the slogan, the billboards showed scantily clad young women cavorting about in a Western setting. Among the people so intrigued by the billboards to change a road trip itinerary was Ernest Hemingway, who decided to go to Memphis from Idaho via Fort Worth after seeing the billboards.

And there was Sally Rand. Sally had gained notoriety during 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, where the chorus line dancer debuted her legendary Fan and Bubble Dances, artfully and carefully choreographed to give the impression of total nudity. According to the Virtual Museum of San Francisco:

This was the fair that made Sally Rand famous. She had been a nightclub cigarette girl and dancer, and joined a chorus line at the fair. She was arrested for an “obscene” performance, and was catapulted to fame. It is said her act, in Chicago, grossed $6,000 per week during the depths of the Depression.

Coppedge explained how Fort Worth’s door swung wide open to welcome Sally:

The idea of bringing Sally Rand to Fort Worth began with Billy Rose denouncing her during an impromptu press conference announcing his involvement in Casa Mañana. Rose promised that his show would have “neither nudity or smut” and added, “we don’t need any fans or bubble dances at the Texas Frontier Celebration.”

Later, Carter asked Rose what he was talking about and Rose told him about Sally Rand’s fan dance and bubble dance, which she had performed at the World’s Fair. Carter asked if the show drew a lot of people and Rose assured him that it did. That’s when Amon Carter decided that Texas needed Sally Rand to help celebrate its heritage….

So Sally Rand’s NDude Ranch set up camp for the duration of the Centennial. And the next year as well.

In 1936, George Lester was ten years old, and he shared his remembrance of life on that ranch on Texas Escapes:

My dad and my adult brother decided see the Billy Rose production called Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch…. My brother Sam was only a year older than me, so our dad gave us money for the rides while they went to see the show.

We chose to start with the Ferris wheel. On our first ascent we discovered something the producers of the event had overlooked. From high above we could look down onto the roofless show below and see all the scantily clad ladies. We kept riding until we ran out of money. I don’t think we ever told our dad why we liked the Ferris wheel so much.

Were the sensibilities of the elite of Fort Worth offended by the randy Sally? According to Coppedge:

The city of Fort Worth declared November 6, 1936 as “Sally Rand Day” where she was lauded for her “graciousness and consummate artistry” and officially thanked for bringing “culture and progress to the city.”

1936 Texas Centennial No 4, “Wonderful World of Wild Women,” 5 X 5.75 inch image, edition limited to 25, view online at http://postcardssanantonio.com

I apologize. All of this scintillating sensationalism is a shameful tease.

No Centennial collector of Sally Rand postcards has stepped forward to participate in my new “loanership” program, and, at least temporarily, I’m still keeping my hands in my pockets, away from auctionstealer and ebay.

But the 175th anniversary isn’t over yet.

The exhibit continues during office hours of the King William Association through Wednesday, July 27.

And, not to let Mitch Miller be the last taste of “Yellow Rose” in your mouth, here is Elvis’ version from Viva Las Vegas:

Okay. Only marginally better.

But, “The Night is Still Young.”

Update on June 3, 2011: