For all its history and ties to the military, San Antonio is a city with few destination monuments and memorials. Our most famous shrine, the Alamo, is overwhelmed by tacky commercialism fit for a frontier fairground. The Alamo Plaza is lacking in the kind of solemnity and reverence such hallowed ground deserves and that visitors never forget. The Alamo Cenotaph, bordered by vehicle traffic and located yards away from tourist attractions, excites few and too often serves as a photo prop for teenagers who climb atop its base to pose and posture.
Thursday, July 3, the day before Independence Day, city and county officials and local veterans gathered to unveil something very different, the Medal of Honor River Portal, a visually elegant memorial that now connects the San Antonio River, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and the city’s Veteran Memorial Plaza at Auditorium Circle.
San Antonio now has a war memorial worthy of those whose sacrifice and bravery will not be forgotten, a memorial that will be remembered by those who come to quietly contemplate the men and deeds it remembers. The Medal of Honor River Portal honors 32 recipients of the nation’s highest military honor for valor in combat. Each person memorialized for his extraordinary actions in combat war, from those who served in the U.S. Civil War though two world wars to the Vietnam War, has some San Antonio connection. They were born here, they lived here, or they served here.
An audience of nearly 200 elected officials, dignitaries, veterans and families of Medal of Honor recipients, convened in the shade of an open tent on a hot July morning to share a first glimpse of the $8 million memorial designed by Marmon Mok Architects and built with federal stimulus dollars given the county for river frontage improvements. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff presided at the ceremony, which opened with the presentation of colors and Pledge of Allegiance by an Honor Guard from Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 76, followed by speeches, and concluding with a mournful playing of Taps by a uniformed bugler who stood near the base of the Portal along the river, the notes carrying softly up to the listeners gathered under the tent.
Seven striking bronze monuments built atop black granite plinths stand like sentinels in the new Medal of Honor River Portal. Once the project is completed in September, the portal will carry pedestrians up limestone stairs, into the Plaza to view the other war memorials. The historic bronze plaques removed from the facade of the former Municipal Auditorium will be returned to the refurbished building exterior.
Wolff told the audience the Medal of Honor River Portal would be a “lasting memorial to 32 of our citizens who have received the Medal of Honor,” one that he said would be remembered for “generations to come”. He credited former Mayor Phil Hardberger, who was traveling out of state, with conceiving the idea, which remained unfunded for several years until the federal stimulus monies arrived.
“The spark plug for all has been Bruce Bugg,” Wolff added. Bugg is the chairman of the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation, and has raised nearly $50 million in private funds to augment public monies being invested in the Tobin Center.
County Commissioner Paul Elizondo, wearing a veteran’s cap, also spoke, as did District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal and Col. Thomas Palladino, executive director of the Texas Veterans Commission.
Each individual bronze memorial stands like a soldier on eternal watch. Each one in rising sequence tells the stories of six Medal of Honor recipients, except for the highest monument, which has four empty panels reserved for future Medal of Honor recipients. The bronze panels were made and etched in Houston, the black granite bases were quarried in Minnesota.
Rialto Studio, which did the landscape architecture, is credited with much of the river portal’s conceptual design. Steve Spear, an original member of the city’s Commission on Veteran Affairs, researched the individual histories of each Medal of Honor recipient and their connections to San Antonio. Laura Jesse, public information officer for Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, edited the brief histories.
“It’s been a great joy to work on the memorial,” said Rob Sipes, an architect with Marmon Mok. “We just called the seven bronzes ‘monuments’ as we worked on the project. One of the staffers at the Tobin called them ‘sentinels,’ like they’re standing guard to this day.”
Pedestrians walking along the river will see the first bronze sentinel as they turn into the River Portal and the stairs leading upward. Its bronze panels are etched with the names of county officials and these words:
“This memorial is dedicated to the brave service members with ties to San Antonio who received our country’s highest military award — the Congressional medal of Honor.
“San Antonio’s connection to the military runs deep. All of these soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have a connection to this region — some were born or raised here. Some entered military service here and others lived here before, during or after their service to our country. Most of them died in battle, earning this honor posthumously. Those who survived did so with the physical and emotional scars of war. All of them earned the unwavering gratitude of an entire nation.
“Walk through this memorial with respect and reverence. Read what these brave warriors endured to guarantee the freedoms we cherish to this day. Their acts of valor and gallantry will forever remain as a reminder that our freedom comes at a price and sometimes at the ultimate sacrifice.”
*Featured/top image: Young Tessa stands with a portrait of her veteran grandfather at the unveiling of the Medal of Honor River Portal connecting the San Antonio River to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts July 3, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.