Commentary: Re-creation vs. Real Life, Creating a Balanced Interpretation for Alamo Plaza

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A postcard, postmarked 1911, looking north across Alamo Plaza. Pictured left to right: Crockett Block, Maverick Bank, Gibbs Building, U.S. Courthouse and Post Office, the Alamo, and Menger Hotel. A bandstand occupies the center of the landscaped park. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

The San Antonio Conservation Society believes that the reconstruction of the Alamo Mission to its 1836 boundaries on Alamo Plaza represents outdated thinking. This concept, first proposed in 1994, not only threatens other existing historic buildings, but limits the way that residents will experience the historic plaza.

San Antonio should demand a more innovative plan for this multifaceted site: one that will honor the Alamo defenders’ sacrifice and enlighten visitors, but also allow residents and visitors to interact with the broader historical context of the plaza as a vital urban space in the heart of our city.

Located in the center of downtown San Antonio, Alamo Plaza has long played a key role in the city’s identity and economic well-being. From the ashes of the 1836 battle, rose the hard-won freedom to prosper. Samuel Maverick, who was chosen by the Alamo garrison to serve as a delegate for the Texas independence convention, wished to live “where his comrades gave their lives defending liberty.” He purchased a large tract of land surrounding the Alamo compound and built a substantial homestead in the northwest corner in 1850. Nine years later, German immigrant William Menger established his namesake hotel on Plaza de Valero, southeast of the main battle site.

Menger Hotel. Historical photo.

The Menger Hotel, circa 1865. Historic photo in public domain.

Within 20 years of the fall of the Alamo, the crumbling stone remnants of the old mission’s northern and western boundary walls had mostly been carted off and put to new use. The Galera – a gate, barrack, and jail structure that had served as part the old mission’s southern wall – survived until the city came to view it as an obstruction between Alamo Plaza and Plaza de Valero. Workers began to pull it down in 1866, before being stopped by the owner: the Catholic Church. In 1869, the Daily Express launched a newspaper campaign that persuaded the Church to relent. The city finished the demolition two years later, creating one large, open plaza.

This photo, taken looking south, shows an unpaved Alamo Plaza, c. 1882-1886. (Left to right) The three-story Menger Hotel; St. Joseph's Catholic Church, with its steeple still under construction; the Gallagher Building (center) and the Dullnig Building, distinguished by its dome (upper right). A streetcar travels north up the plaza. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

Courtesy / San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

This photo, taken looking south, shows an unpaved Alamo Plaza, c. 1882-1886. (Left to right) The three-story Menger Hotel; St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, with its steeple still under construction; the Gallagher Building (center) and the Dullnig Building, distinguished by its dome (upper right). A streetcar travels north up the plaza. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

The arrival of the railroad in 1877 most dramatically changed the face of Alamo Plaza. The plaza’s new streetcar linkage to the depot east of town, coupled with available land, shifted commercial and civic activity away from the built-up confines of Main Plaza to the very edges of the state’s most famous battlefield. 

In 1879, a group of concerned citizens – including determined and influential women like Mary Adams Maverick, Adina de Zavala and Clara Driscoll – began to focus their attention on preserving what remained of the neglected Alamo buildings. Other local leaders sought to transform the plaza into a more a more cultured civic space. 

Maverick’s sons built two of the earliest multistory buildings on the plaza, the Crockett Block (1882) and the Maverick Bank (1884), later replaced by Woolworth’s, on land they had inherited from their father across from the Alamo. The Grand Opera House opened on the corner of Crockett and South Alamo in 1886, providing locals with a true metropolitan theater experience. 

Undated view of the Crockett Block taken from a stereograph card. An ice wagon, perhaps making a delivery to the Alamo Café located inside the building, stands in front. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

Undated view of the Crockett Block taken from a stereograph card. An ice wagon, perhaps making a delivery to the Alamo Café located inside the building, stands in front. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

Alderman Anton Wulff, an immigrant from Hamburg, Germany, personally supervised the landscaping of the plazas in the late 1880s. Residents honored Wulff for his work in transforming these “unsightly and unsanitary” spaces into inviting parks designed to give pleasure to citizens and visitors alike. 

Fast forward nearly 100 years and economic decline almost claimed three irreplaceable Victorian-era buildings: the Dullnig, the Reuter, and the Crockett Block. The city targeted the buildings, then hidden under ugly, modern false fronts on the neglected plaza, for demolition to provide more parking space.  Instead, the creation of the Alamo Plaza National Register Historic District, bought the buildings time to be restored and sparked a much needed, but tourist-centered, revival on Alamo Plaza

From a distance, the Crockett Block appears plain, but this view of the building's front façade shows the simple, yet beautifully carved architectural detail that noted San Antonio architect Alfred Giles used in its design. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

From a distance, the Crockett Block appears plain, but this view of the building’s front façade shows the simple, yet beautifully carved architectural detail that noted San Antonio architect Alfred Giles used in its design. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

Today, most agree that the entertainment businesses currently housed in the historic Crockett Block, Palace Theater, and Woolworth Building need to be relocated. However, the San Antonio Conservation Society vehemently disagrees that these designated national landmarks should be sacrificed to create a backdrop for re-enacting a single event in Texas history. Part of what distinguishes a historic site from a historical attraction is authenticity, a quality that cannot be re-created.

A reconstructed mission wall on the site of the Woolworth Building cannot effectively tell the story of another epic campaign for freedom that unfolded inside the Alamo Plaza store. In March of 1960, our Woolworth’s became the first in the South publicly recognized for desegregating its lunch counter. 

Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

Woolworth Building. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

Unlike many other Southern cities, where the African-American quest for Civil Rights was met with violent resistance, San Antonio integrated peaceably. We have a duty to honor the cooperative courage of this historic event by preserving the place where it happened. Too many sites with historic ties to the African-American experience have been lost, marked only by a plaque, if at all.

We argue that the historic buildings directly across from the Alamo, which are now owned by the state of Texas, should neither be relocated nor demolished. Rather than targeting the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building at the north end of the plaza for museum use, use it for inspiration. In 2012, the General Services Administration invested over $56 million in the Depression-era building’s continued federal occupancy by seamlessly integrating amenities on the cutting edge of environmental sustainability into its historic fabric. The Crockett Block, Palace Theater, and Woolworth Building could be renovated to create the world-class museum and visitors’ center that the Alamo needs and deserves.

This aerial view shows the Crockett Block (317 S. Alamo), Palace Theater, and Woolworth Building serving as a screen between the Losoya Street Garage (to the west) and the view from Alamo Plaza.  Imagery ©2016 Google, Map data ©2016 Google.

This aerial view shows the Crockett Block (317 S. Alamo), Palace Theater, and Woolworth Building serving as a screen between the Losoya Street Garage (to the west) and the view from Alamo Plaza.  Imagery ©2016 Google, Map data ©2016 Google.

According to Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), the master plan committee has “reached out to find the team capable of doing the best work, without losing who we are as a city.” Any architectural firm chosen should possess the vision and skill to repurpose the existing buildings. 

One of the action steps recommended by SA2020 is to “insist on and promote preservation of historic buildings.” This step coincides with sustainable building practices aimed at maximizing the use of existing materials and reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfill, thereby recycling and conserving energy. 

The Losoya Street Garage, a five-story parking behemoth that stands directly behind the three contested buildings, gives us another important reason for keeping them in place. At three-stories each, the existing buildings are necessary to provide an aesthetically pleasing and historically authentic screen between visitors to Alamo Plaza and the stark concrete walls of the modern parking garage.    

The Society does not oppose a better interpretation of the pivotal battle, but we ask planners to truly innovate. Reclaiming an urban site to recreate structures destroyed before the end of the 19th century is poor preservation practice and caters to a niche audience among tourists and reenactment enthusiasts. 

In 2013, architect Brantley Hightower’s Trinity University students studied the idea and also rejected reconstruction as inauthentic and limiting. This group is perhaps more characteristic of an underrepresented segment of the local audience that wants to interact with historic San Antonio as a component of a thriving and culturally appealing urban experience. SA2020, likewise, asserts that the city’s urban core needs to become “a primary gathering point for its residents, in addition to being a haven for tourists.”

We need to recognize that Alamo Plaza, as an urban center, differs significantly from other historic sites that have undertaken reconstruction, but are now being looked to as models. In more rural places, like Gettysburg, Ft. McHenry, Bent’s Fort and even our southern missions, replicas of missing structures can be built without sacrificing historic buildings that answer the important questions of: “What difference did it make? What happened afterwards?” 

Instead, planners should take advantage of today’s increased technological capabilities to virtually re-create the desired visual experience. Virtual re-creation may prove to be the more viable alternative, since case studies of international World Heritage Sites suggest that the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) rarely accepts reconstruction, and then only under stringent conditions.

The paper Reconstruction in the World Heritage Context, provides deeper insight into the evolution of ICOMOS’ conceptual approach, including the cautionary tale of Bagrati Cathedral in the country of Georgia. In 2012, ICOMOS delisted this medieval cathedral because of the lack of communication and agreement between local officials and ICOMOS before irreversible reconstruction work began.   

Keep in mind that demolition takes the desire of the moment and makes it a permanent reality. The destruction of the Galera in 1871 shows how a single act can rob the future of its past. Now, some in our community are encouraging the sacrifice of another irreplaceable part of our history. Who is to say that we won’t regret losing three attractive, functional buildings – each with its own role in history – to a reconstructed barrier. After all, the Alamo defenders didn’t lay down their lives to give Texas a memorial battlefield. They died to give Texans a more promising future. 

We can honor their sacrifices in many ways, including the preservation of the significant local buildings that mark our progress along the path they forged.

Learn more about the evolution of historic Alamo Plaza with the Society’s online exhibit: A Photographic Guide to the Many Faces of Alamo Plaza.

 

https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

 

Top image: A postcard, postmarked 1911, looking north across Alamo Plaza. Pictured left to right: Crockett Block, Maverick Bank, Gibbs Building, U.S. Courthouse and Post Office, the Alamo, and Menger Hotel. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

Related Stories:

State Purchases Three Buildings Across From Alamo Plaza

Why the San Antonio Conservation Society Matters

San Antonio’s World Heritage Development Plan Taking Shape

It’s Official: New Alamo Master Plan Underway

14 thoughts on “Commentary: Re-creation vs. Real Life, Creating a Balanced Interpretation for Alamo Plaza

  1. What the heck? The city seriously wants to destroy historic structures to recreate the Alamo? Do we also destroy large areas of downtown, HemisFair and Lavaca since they were once all part of the Alamo encampment?
    Thanks to the conservation society for bringing this to light. I can’t even imagine the logic…

    • Even the thought of flattening the many federally protected historical structures in Alamo Plaza is ludicrous, unnecessary and actually moot. The entire 1836 Alamo compound and battlefield currently exists in virtual space. I know because I’ve walked every square inch of it. It is haunting. It is spectacular, and it proves beyond doubt there is no need for further destruction of downtown, and at no cost local or state taxpayers. See for yourself at Alamo Adventure on Facebook or at the website: immersionindustries.com.

  2. Thank you for this superb article on the importance of preserving ALL of San Antonio’s history around Alamo Plaza. In light of the proposals to destroy the historic structures on the west side of the plaza, it is important that the city maintain oversight and decision-making power over the current Alamo Plaza planning process, rather than leaving it in the hands of the private Alamo Endowment.

  3. Alamo plaza currently has great walkability and reflects a very compact, urban feel. Demolishing these beautiful buildings would diminish what I thought the city was trying to do: create a dense urban core. What needs to happen is placing local coffee shops, bars, restaurants and art galleries in these spaces instead of tourist junk to further activate these buildings.

  4. If the General Land Office truly intends to move or raze the historic buildings they purchased this year, that really just goes to show that people care more about the movie version of history than reality. It would be as if Boston knocked down all the buildings in the Charlestown neighborhood just to “honor” the battle of Bunker Hill.

  5. Alamo Plaza has evolved from wilderness, to mission, to battleground, to major metropolis. It would be shortsighted to deconstruct the area. If folks want to experience a visit to a mission, we have four others. If one insists on a battleground reconstruction, send them to Alamo Village in Brackettville. Ben Franklin’s home was demolished by his descendants but a ghost structure commemorates the site today. A laser image or hologram projector could recreate the walls of Mission San Antonio if that’s what we want.
    http://press.visitphilly.com/media/1317

    • Excellent example, Don. As a kid visiting Philadelphia, two things left a lasting impression – Ben’s house structure and an old cemetery. My imagination filled in the lines of the home, and even at that age I appreciated how a city changes and grows over time. The cemetery was comprised of headstones dating from the 1700’s with some almost weathered completely away… but they were REAL.

      Let’s not confuse authenticity with fakery. The reason why Mission Concepcion is my personal favorite is because it is the least restored. The problem, unfortunately, is that some in the city (as well as a certain newspaper) seem be looking at the Alamo with “Ballad of Davy Crockett” glasses on.

    • Presently, yes. But be patient. There are those working to bring a world class, spectacular hi-tech attraction to the Alamo Plaza that will absolutely, positively put the Alamo back on the tourist map where it belongs, and this will certainly blow poor Dave and Buster’s sad little arcade completely away.

  6. Fantastic article. Could NOT agree more with this and am so proud of the Conservation Society for holding us to better. I would love if they closed down the street through Alamo Plaza and made it all green space. Imagine being able to sit under a tree and read a book in the shadow of the Alamo! Alamo Park! One of my favorite things about the Alamo is its urban context. The juxtaposition is so unique. I also agree with the point above–if people want to experience an authentic mission, go to the other 4. Give the Alamo back to the people and do something innovative by incorporating it into the urban fabric in a respectful and 21st century way…

  7. The entire 1836 Alamo compound already exists in the virtual reality space. I know. I’ve walked every square foot of it. No need to move or tear down one single building, nor cost city or state taxpayers one cent. See for yourself at “Alamo Adventure” on Facebook or “immersionindustries.com.” It’s the perfect solution to recreating the history of the Alamo and its events of 1836 and beyond.

  8. History isn’t somehow better just because it’s older, or more tragic, or more complex. If there were some way to go back in time and save the Alamo compound, that would be one thing, but that’s not possible. We’re talking about creating a plastic Disney-fied version of a place where people died. That is not honoring the dead or their causes; it is, on the contrary, a trivialization of their passion and their deaths. San Antonio has grown and changed since then, and its growth is its history, too. Sure, I would love to see the Opera House be re-created, the old Post Office take the current one’s place, and the gorgeous Anglo-Japanese substyled Maverick building replace the former Woolworth’s spot. But those would be plastic tokens, faux history, cheap impersonations. Our history is there now and beautiful to see. Cherish it and give up Fantasyland.

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