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

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.