Alamo Plaza: Three Views From Studio Trinity

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Professors Margaret Sledge and Brantley Hightower lead their class in a discussion of the potential development of Alamo Plaza. Image courtesy Corey Leamon.

Professors Margaret Sledge and Brantley Hightower lead their class in a discussion of the potential development of Alamo Plaza. Image courtesy Corey Leamon.

Brantley Hightower, AIA LEED AP

Despite its status as the state’s most popular tourist destination, the Alamo site exists as an odd amalgamation of history and commerce.  The awkward coexistence of solemn memorials and kitsch souvenir shops creates an environment that caters to tourists much more than those of us who call San Antonio home.  Even though it sits in both the cultural and physical heart of our city, there are few reasons to go there unless we have a friend visiting from out of town.

And so we challenged our students to design a better Alamo Plaza.

Back in December of last year I wrote about sitting in a bar overlooking the site. [Read more: “Alamo Plaza: A View From the 1909 Bar.”] I was there to meet with Margaret Sledge to discuss the upcoming design studio we were to teach in the spring at Trinity University.  As studio professors, one of our primary tasks is to invent a suitable design challenge that provides our students with a framework to explore the re-imagining of the built environment.  Alamo Plaza was the obvious design problem in need of an answer and it was sitting right in front of us.

Panoramic view from the 1909 Bar. Photo by Brantley Hightower.

Panoramic view from 1909 Bar. Click for larger image. Photo by Brantley Hightower.

The students themselves came from a variety of different backgrounds including Studio Art and Urban Studies.  What none of them had was any training in architecture and so the semester began with a primer both in the basics of design and urban planning.  It also began with a series of tours and presentations that sought to impart as much information as possible to our students.

Dr. Bruce Winders gave students an after-hours tour of the historic Alamo site Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.

Dr. Bruce Winders gave students an after-hours tour of the historic Alamo site Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.

Dr. Bruce Winders, the official Historian and Curator of the Alamo, gave the class a behind-the-scenes tour of the Alamo grounds.  Elizabeth Porterfield from San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation then gave the students a detailed tour of the historic sites immediately adjacent to the Alamo.

One class was held at the office of Ford, Powell and Carson where they were given an overview of some of the preservation and master planning efforts the firm has conducted on behalf of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. As well as describing the conclusions of the plans, preservation architects Allison Chambers and Anna Nau described the unique challenges of working with a site that is so historically, politically and economically charged.

In addition to absorbing massive amounts of historical information, the students also actively researched how Alamo Plaza is occupied today.

Elizabeth Porterfield from San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation informed students of the history of the development of Alamo Plaza. Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.

Elizabeth Porterfield from San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation informed students of the history of the development of Alamo Plaza. Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.

A group of students took turns observing how the use of the Plaza changes over a 24-hour period, noting who used what parts and when.  Another student discovered and documented a remarkably sophisticated self-regulating economy that has developed around the snow cone stands that dot the Plaza.  In case you were wondering, the placement of one vendor relative to another is not arbitrary at all.

The students also spent time studying precedents of other historic sites in order to better understand how these places have been made accessible to the public while acting as integral part of the sites around them. The Mount Vernon Estate, for example, provided a good example of a tightly controlled visitor experience while Independence Mall in Philadelphia provided a good example of how a city and a historic site can benefit from the existence of one another.

All of this formed the foundation for the proposals the students developed in the second half of the semester.  The students organized themselves into three groups whose architectural propositions were as diverse as they were compelling.  One group proposed keeping the Plaza essentially unchanged but building a “San Antonio History Center” adjacent to it that would allow the plaza to be used and understood in a way that it had never been before.  Another proposed a series of tactical interventions that would bring water, art and performance into the heart of the revitalized plaza.  The third group of students sought to design a truly inclusive urban space, reprogramming the site in such a way that would engender interaction between radically different types of users.

Today's Alamo Plaza is an odd amalgamation of memorialized history and brash commerce. Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.

Today’s Alamo Plaza is an odd amalgamation of memorialized history and brash commerce. Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.

What all of these groups have in common is a surprising lack of emphasis placed on simulating the site’s historic appearance.  This is an interesting departure from proposals of the past that have sought to recreate some version of the Plaza’s 1836 configuration.  This has always been a challenging proposition since most of the significant structures from the time of the battle had been demolished or considerably altered by a mere ten years after the battle.  Based on the research and observations of the students, it was their consensus that artificially recreating the site’s history was less important than projecting a viable future for it.

All three of the groups will be making a final public presentation in room 306 of Trinity University’s Dicke Art Building on Monday, May 13 at 5:00pm.  It is our hope that these three concepts add to the discussion of what should be done with Alamo Plaza.  It is a discussion that has increased in volume over the course of the semester.

Professors Margaret Sledge and Brantley Hightower lead their class in a discussion of the potential development of Alamo Plaza. Image courtesy Corey Leamon.

Professors Margaret Sledge and Brantley Hightower lead their class in a discussion of the potential development of Alamo Plaza. Image courtesy Corey Leamon.

The brief display of William Travis’ “Victory or Death” letter provided proof of the draw that the story of the Alamo still has.  It also begged the question as to why such artifacts are not housed at the Alamo in the first place.  In a separate development, a 23-story hotel/timeshare tower has been proposed on top of the old Joske’s department store at the south end of Alamo Plaza.

All this has shown the potential (both good and bad) of the seemingly rudderless approach to the planning of Alamo Plaza that has defined its past development.  We may currently have the Alamo Plaza that the free market creates, but it is our view that it is time to have a real conversation about the Alamo Plaza that our city – and its history – deserves.

 

Brantley Hightower is the founder of HiWorks, an architecture firm located in the Pearl Brewery

 

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Green and More: Architecture/Design for Low-Income, Sustainable Housing

Central Library: A Homage to Art, Burdened by its own Plaza

Alamo Plaza: A View From the 1909 Bar

 

4 thoughts on “Alamo Plaza: Three Views From Studio Trinity

  1. The 1909 Bar in the Gibbs Building (Hotel Indigo) is withing the confines of the Alamo fort of 1836 and site of some of the heaviest fighting in the Alamo battle, being the fort’s NW corner. In the 1850’s Texan pioneer Sam Maverick built his homestead on the site. When excavations were being made for the Gibbs Building, a number of cannon tubes from the Alamo were found on the site. There’s a wealth of important historical information concerning the Alamo and early San Antonio all around Alamo Plaza that most tourists—and even these students— are unaware of due to lack of signage and caring on the part of the City of San Antonio itself. A city cannot truly progress unless it first knows and realizes where it comes from and then shows due respect that past.

  2. Actually, our students were aware of that…

    …but they learned about it only after a semester of research. You make a good point, though. The layers of history that exist at that particular corner of Alamo Plaza (as well as many other sites in San Antonio) are many and while it may be hard to tell them all, as a city we could certainly do a much better job of communicating our history.

    That is not to say that the site needs to become a sterile memorial to one narrative. Part of what makes the story of the Alamo (and the story of San Antonio, Texas, and the United States for that matter) are the overlapping histories that define who we are. I firmly believe that Alamo Plaza can become the sort of place where those stories can be told while still being a meaningful part of San Antonio’s city fabric where locals like you and me want to visit as much as visitors from out of town. I believe it can be a place where people who have lived in San Antonio all their lives can learn something new about their hometown while visitors from the other side of the world can realize that the truth is even more interesting than the myth.

    That’s the kind of Plaza I would like to see. That is the kind of Alamo Plaza I feel San Antonio should demand. That is kind of Plaza I feel the Alamo deserves.

    • San Antonio has more history to plumb than any other place in the state but frequently ignores it or treats it as a totem rather than as an active part of the present. To me, the significance of your statement, Brantley, is not the explicit acknowledgement of history, but rather the desire to place history in a present context.

      Allowing history to remain buried for the sake of expediency is an immature response to the assets we have as a city. But enshrining history in pretty glass boxes is an equally incomplete way to understand the context we live in. So I applaud the efforts in this studio to both understand and interpret history as a way to reintegrate it with the fabric of the modern city.

  3. Last year, there were a series of public meetings led by Project for Public Spaces to determine what the public would like to see happen in Alamo Plaza. One of the several workable ideas was to unify the overall look of the plaza by taking away the curbs and using the same paving all the way around the area that would have been within the walls of the fort.
    Imagine that change in the picture above showing the view from the bar.
    This change would mean that traffic patterns would remain as they are, but instead of a mishmash of black top, concrete, bricks, flagstones and grass, the area would be paved with brick and limestone flagstones and would be all one level, if possible.
    This should be number one project for the city, but so far, nothing has been done at all.

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