Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The area we know as Alamo Plaza was beneath the ocean some 250 million years ago. That’s when the limestone, the building blocks for the Alamo walls, was formed. After the seas receded, it was a wilderness for millions of years.
About 300 years ago, the Spanish built Mission San Antonio de Valero. The plaza housed the Indian community and served as a place to learn crafts, food preparation, and religion. The mission’s ministry lasted for less than a hundred years.
After secularization, the old mission was used as a military installation for about 50 years, first by Mexican soldiers and, later, the U.S. Army. The Mexican unit, La Compañía de Alamo de Parras, gave Mission San Antonio a new name, the Alamo. The American unit put the hump above the Alamo door and filled the interior walls with graffiti.
For about two weeks in 1836, the Alamo was a fort for Tejanos and Anglo immigrants. They didn’t like the way the Mexican president had trampled the Constitution of 1824 and were determined to make a stand. About half the states in Mexico were in open revolt against Santa Anna in the 1830s and Texas was one of them.
At the end of those two weeks, the Alamo was a battleground for about 90 minutes.
After the smoke cleared and the rubble was hauled away, a new Alamo Plaza was born. It assumed aspects of the traditional Mexican plaza, one surrounded by religious, government, and commercial buildings.
The chapel itself served as the foundation for hallowed ground. The federal courthouse and post office anchored the northern end of the plaza. The Maverick Bank, the tallest in town when it was built in 1886, eventually gave way to Woolworth’s. The Grand Opera House provided entertainment for almost 50 years. Joske’s was the king of retailers and the Menger Hotel took care of travelers’ every need. Chili Queens served the populace from the pompous to the proletariat.
Everybody came. Alamo Plaza became a crossroads for transportation. Travelers from Houston and El Paso, from Mexico City and Kansas City, would converge at Alamo Plaza. Because today’s Alamodome and the Convention Center provide a barricade to vehicular traffic, Alamo Street is critical to modern private and mass transit. Houston Street is a main corridor to and from San Antonio’s East and West sides. It should remain so.
The Master Plan would close off both Houston and Alamo streets to through traffic. When the City reduced the number of lanes on Houston Street a few decades ago, it made no compensation for the traffic bottleneck that resulted. From the Main and Soledad Street interchange to St. Mary’s Street, Navarro Street used to run south for all traffic. When the City changed the southbound lane for buses only, it made no alternate route for cars. (Perhaps this will be rectified when the traffic circle is completed.)
Mayor Phil Hardberger garnered praise for the renovation of Main Plaza and criticism for closing off the adjoining north- and southbound streets. Again, the City made no alternative traffic routes for the disadvantaged driver. A major flaw in the Alamo Plaza Master Plan is the lack of a plan for the traffic snarls that will ensue.
If the vibrations from traffic on Alamo Street are a concern, we should ban buses and other heavy equipment from the Plaza – but leave the street open to cars. Not every visitor to San Antonio can spend a day exploring the Alamo area. Many weekend visitors can only do a drive-by. Alamo Street needs to remain open to facilitate this.
At the public forum on April 18, Native Americans handed out buttons that read, “Forget the Alamo – Remember Mission San Antonio.” To many descendants of the Mission converts, the burial plot in front of the chapel is sacred ground, not the walls where the defenders fell. The Alamo Master Plan does not address the valid concerns of the progeny of the original inhabitants.
The Plaza has become a place for politicians to pontificate and popes to pass through. President William McKinley addressed a crowd on Alamo Plaza in 1901. John F. Kennedy gave a speech here in 1960. John Paul II rode his Popemobile past the Alamo in 1987.
Celebrities like to pose in front of the Alamo, too. John Wayne, Richard Boone, and other members of “The Alamo” came to town for the premiere of the film. More recently, musician Phil Collins joined Kris Kristofferson and stars of the television miniseries “Texas Rising” on the red carpet at the Alamo.
Alamo Plaza has been the forum for the exchange of ideas as well. Trump protesters marched to the Alamo soon after the election last fall. Another 2016 headline was, “Native Americans protest Dakota pipeline outside the Alamo.” There’s been a gun rights rally and an anti-abortion protest in front of the Alamo. One of the freedoms the Alamo defenders fought for was the freedom of speech – and this freedom, for the right and for the left on the political spectrum, is alive and well in Alamo Plaza.
Ever since the battle, tacky tourist attractions have been part of Alamo Plaza. A saloon was once adjacent to the Alamo chapel. On the other side of the Shrine of Texas Liberty stood the castle walls of the Hugo & Schmeltzer warehouse. One speaker at the April 18 public forum lamented that the Guinness World Records and Ripley’s Believe It or Not museums, tacky as they are, are the only downtown attractions for children.
Most people agree, though, that the “high-tack” establishments have got to go. But what about the trees? Part of the Alamo Master Plan appears to be a “scorched earth” policy that would make Santa Anna proud. Several huge old oak trees are facing the chopping block. To make matters worse, a glass wall is to be built around the Plaza. Welcome to Sauna Antonio!
Battlefields around the world are often preserved to remember those who fought and died. Many times, if the battle took place in a rural area, the area is left rustic. Vast expanses of land remain at Little Bighorn National Monument and Gettysburg National Military Park.
Sometimes, cities grew up around the battlefield and all that is left is a simple historical marker as a reminder. Elsewhere, the commemoration is a bit more monumental. Ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin and the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, Japan, recall the horrific bombing those cities suffered. Usually, if a battle took place in a city, as did the siege at the Alamo, the city continues to grow. San Antonio is fortunate that five acres were preserved.
Hundreds of books and thousands of websites contain drawings of how the Alamo appeared in 1836. Click here for a view of the battle site superimposed on today’s streets. Pamphlets and postcards contain diagrams of what the battlefield looked like. Outside and inside the Alamo walls are dioramas of the fortress. We can spoon-feed the tourist with artificial walls, but many still would not be impressed.
If a battleground experience is essential, we should restore Alamo Village in Brackettville instead of trying to recreate it in downtown San Antonio. The site of Wayne’s 1960 movie and the IMAX extravaganza was built larger than life. And that image is what many tourists carry with them when they visit the Alamo.
That grandiosity is going to be hard to erase – even if we could. Unless we raze the buildings to the north and west of Alamo Plaza, the Master Plan’s glass wall will still fall short of the footprint of the original mission compound.
The Italian community as well as art aficionados are upset about moving the Cenotaph. Dr. Pompeo Coppini was a world-class sculptor in his day. His work graces the campuses of the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M in College Station, and Baylor University in Waco. From the halls of the U.S. Capitol to grounds of the State Capitol, dozens of places showcase the work of this Italian immigrant.
Not only did Coppini design “The Spirit of Sacrifice” specifically for Alamo Plaza, he also was instrumental in saving the Alamo grounds from destruction. In 1904, Coppini was asked to design a 10-foot high statue of David Crockett for a luxury hotel. When he found out the long barracks was the planned location for the new hotel, he conferred with his friend Adina DeZavala. Together, they approached Clara Driscoll about purchasing the property. The rest, as they say, is history.
“The Spirit of Sacrifice” is part of the layers of history the Master Plan purports to honor. Yet the plans are for it to be moved. Do you feel the earth shaking near the cemetery at Sunset Memorial Park? That’s because Coppini is turning over in his grave.
Parts of the Master Plan are commendable. Windows into the earth can show the original foundation. In 1980, a portal along the former west wall was constructed to show the residence of José Toribio Losoya, an Alamo defender. This raised mass of stone also serves to mark the entrance to the stairway to the Riverwalk. Another aperture into the earth could show other walls or the main gate of Mission San Antonio – but it is not necessary to recreate every wall.
Most people support the idea of an Alamo Museum nearby to exhibit Collins’ collection of artifacts. If the Federal Building is not used to house this treasure, it should be displayed in the Crockett, Woolworth, and Palace buildings across from the Alamo.
Another interesting idea is to lower the area in from of the Alamo chapel. During the ensuing 181 years since the battle, the ground level has been noticeably raised. Compare the base of the pedestals by the Alamo door then and now. Plans are for the site to be lowered anywhere from 18 to 24 inches to reach the historic living surface. This would make the famous façade appear taller.
In the past few years, I have gone to Alamo Plaza for the Diwali Festival, as a walkway shortcut to the Alamo City Comic Con, to visit local museums, to shop, to take an Alamo graffiti tour (focusing on the markings left by the U.S. Army), to attend lectures, to experience historical reenactments, to pick up tourist pamphlets, to go look at movie stars, to go see the Christmas Tree or to watch the fireworks on New Year’s Eve, to find out what people were protesting about, to drive home after a visit to the King William district, and, a few times, just to use the restroom. I am afraid the Master Plan would discourage many visits to the area.
Officials from the Master Plan team, Texas General Land Office, the City of San Antonio, and the Alamo Endowment are offering the public to another opportunity to see renderings their plan, to discuss details, and ask questions. The public meeting will be on Tuesday, May 2, at 6 p.m. in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center (900 E. Market Street). The 53-page Master Plan is available here.
Alamo Plaza thrives as a living, breathing entity. It is not a butterfly to be trapped in a glass case; to do so would kill it. It needs to remain free – free to all the public, at all hours of the day and night, for all purposes. The sanctity of the Alamo will still be preserved in the chapel. But outside, it should remain open for people to gather, for politicians to make speeches, for protestors to carry signs, and for paletas to be consumed.