Alamo Master Plan Fails to Recognize Plaza’s History

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The Texas Cavaliers gather in front of the Alamo at the Investiture of King Antonio ceremony.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The Texas Cavaliers gather in front of the Alamo during the Investiture of King Antonio.

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.

Gary Zaboly, New York artist who was retained by the Alamo to do the drawings on the grounds, shows the entire complex in his battle scene, "A Moment in Time," and the south wall as seen in earlier drawings.

Gary Zaboly / Used with permission

Gary Zaboly, New York artist who was retained by the Alamo to do the drawings on the grounds, shows the entire complex in his battle scene, “A Moment in Time,” and the south wall as seen in earlier drawings.

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.)

Properties on Alamo Street owned and or managed by Phillips Entertainment. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Properties on Alamo Street are leased by Phillips Entertainment, but are now owned by the State and will be part of the Alamo Master Plan.

The South Alamo Street promenade would mean closing down the street to allow for pedestrian and very limited commercial vehicle access for vehicles.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

The Alamo Master Plan includes a South Alamo Street promenade, which would close the street to vehicular traffic to allow for pedestrian and limited commercial vehicle access.

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.

Attendees of the Veterans Day Parade gather in front of the cenotaph, also known as the "Spirit of Sacrifice," a monument commemorating the Battle of the Alamo.

Michael Cirlos for the Rivard Report

Attendees of the Veterans Day Parade gather in front of the Cenotaph, also known as the “Spirit of Sacrifice,” a monument commemorating the Battle of the Alamo.

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.

The Alamo Master Plan envisions relocating the Cenotaph.

Courtesy / Reimagine the Alamo/PDP

The Alamo Master Plan envisions relocating the Cenotaph.

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.

 

17 thoughts on “Alamo Master Plan Fails to Recognize Plaza’s History

  1. Great comments. I agree that a good life should be lived in not just looked at in retrospect. I’m surprised that coming from Philadelphia that the plan doesn’t incorporate the Alamo into the daily fabric of the city instead of treating it like Gettysburg and a cemetary. The actual defenders lie somewhere unknown blocks southeast along Commerce St (the existing plaque at the River was relocated from much further west and even when originally installed was probably an altered memory from a generation or two).

    We should have great public squares and accesible history like in Philadelphia, mexico city, and europe. Someone dies every minute. Like is too precious to scrape it bare and glass it in like a coffin.

  2. Well said

    Keep the plaza open 24/7

    Remain a street without buses

    Keep integrity of Plaza as “the community gathering place” as outlined in the guiding principles

  3. Thank you Mr. Mathis. Perhaps you could write a poem about this battle? One of my favorites is “Alamo” by Edward Gray. Over 30 pages of Victorian verse, it can be downloaded at http://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t6g16fr0n.
    I like it because, before going into the lengthy battle, it acknowledges the history of the Mission, and towards the end reminds us to celebrate the defenders:

    ALAMO.
    A lurid lustre cast
    Upon the page of Time
    Displays a dismal past
    Of havoc and a sight
    Of sacrifice sublime,
    Of heroes burning bright
    With patriotic fire;
    A solemn funeral pyre.
    That holy ground, that sacred sod.
    Where once the Mission fathers trod
    And humbly knelt before their God,
    More sacred, holier far
    Became when streamed the crimson flood
    Of patriots who for freedom stood,
    And stained thy altar with their blood,
    Antonio de Bexar.

    A peaceful convent stood
    Within a precinct wall;
    Where once the cottonwood
    Its grateful shadow gave,
    The Mission bell would call
    Comanche squaw and brave
    To worship and to prayer;
    What thought of bloodshed there?
    Yet stricken field has never seen
    A sterner shock, a fight more keen,
    More ruthless, than the final scene
    Thy ruined walls can show.
    When those whose souls’ heroic flame
    Opposing thousands could not tame,
    In death immortalized thy name,
    Memorial Alamo.

    *****near end*****
    Yet hold, nor idly waste
    In profitless regret
    A sigh for those who taste
    The cup of martyrdom.
    Mourn not for them, nor let
    One note of sorrow come
    From trembling lips and pale,
    But rather proudly hail
    Those scions of heroic breed,
    Begotten of the self-same seed
    As those who from a prince’s greed
    America set free;
    For them no tear shall ever fall,
    Be sung no dirge funereal.
    But freedom’s joyous festival
    Their requiem shall be.

  4. Most people don’t realize that the Cenotaph was one of the 45 memorials built across the state for the 1936 Texas Centennial (as well as 9 memorial museums, 5 community centers, 16 restorations of historical structures, 2 park improvements, 20 statues of important Texans, and over 1,000 historical markers, grave markers, and highway markers.) The Texas Centennial Commission considered the Alamo restoration, the Alamo Museum, and the Cenotaph “one of the most important projects of the Commission to appropriately celebrate the centennial of Texas Independence.” (quote from Monuments Commemorating the Centenary of Texas Independence, published by the Texas Centennial Commission, 1938, page 41.)

    Coppini explained why the monument was placed in Alamo Plaza in his autobiography, “From Dawn to Sunset,” The Naylor Company 1949, page 339:
    “If there was to be only a monument, it could have been placed on any plaza of the city without any derogatory suspicion on the part of anyone; but when by the suggestion of Mr. Cullen F. Thomas [Commissioner-General of the Federal Centennial Commission], it was decided that the Memorial was to be a Cenotaph, no other logical place could have been given but the spot where the Alamo Heroes were massacred by an overwhelming superior number, after refusing to surrender. That tomb may be empty, but the soil is sacred, as would have been their corpses, or after being burned, their ashes could have been preserved and buried there.”

    Merriam Webster – cenotaph: a special structure or statue that is built to remind people of a dead person who is buried somewhere else; especially: a structure built to honor the people who were killed in a war.

    The Cenotaph is NOT the location of a funeral pyre.
    The city of San Antonio says “According to local lore, the sculpture marks the place where the slain defenders of the Alamo were laid and burned in a great funeral pyre.”

  5. Thank you Don, for this wonderfully written article. If I could make it to the May 2nd meeting, and give my 3 minutes of microphone-time to you (if that’s how it worked before…)….

    And thank you very much for re-igniting my fervor for keeping the Cenotaph in place! I believed it would start to disappear from our minds, and its messages would not resonate as well, if not front and center with the shrine. Repair the Cenotaph, and keep it in place!

    Erect a sacred cenotaph (nobody to walk or sit on it!) for indigenous peoples!

    Do not move any trees, keep the plaza shaded! No damned glass walls!

  6. Excellent article, Don! I think we all agree the museum replacing the carnival-like attractions is a good idea, along with restoring the chapel to keep it from detiorating further. But the rest of the plan … sucks.

  7. Change is coming to the Alamo, and it is inevitable. The Alamo belongs to everyone, not just San Antonio, and the forces at work to reimagine this place fully acknowledge this. The Alamo Master Plan is sponsored by the City of San Antonio, the Texas General Land Office, and the Alamo Endowment, who share a vision of making this place a world-class destination. And while the city and state certainly have a fiduciary duty to listen to their constituent’s feedback, the Alamo Endowment does not.

    The Alamo Endowment is a private Texas corporation focused on interpreting the Alamo as the Shrine of Texas Liberty, nothing more or less. San Antonio, and how the city has developed around the Alamo over the years, isn’t even mentioned on the Alamo Endowment’s “About” webpage. I imagine when it comes to fund raising the $300-400 million dollars necessary to bring this vision to life, the Alamo Endowment will be doing the heavy lifting. I applaud their organizational skill, they have certainly taken the lead in this effort.

    With this in mind, those who are opposed to change should accept that the time for hemming and hawing is over and that the time for negotiations is here. They should also accept that a full third of what they are up against, the side with all the money, is a private corporation with a singular vision. Therefore, it’s time to prioritize.

    In my opinion it comes down to Alamo Street, the trees, the Cenotaph, and the walling off of the plaza. I’m fine with Alamo Street closing. Losoya Street is currently an ugly canyon that can be transformed to fully connect Broadway to South Alamo. For those of us who use Broadway to access downtown this is likely to be an improvement.

    Mr. Mathis I respectfully disagree that a “drive-by” of the Alamo constitutes an acceptable visit. I say, park please and walk to the site. This small act will add honor to everything that this site embodies.

    I love trees, but given that the plan calls for about 100 new trees to be planted I’m fine with trading them off (in the form of transplantation or removal). We shouldn’t limit the site by the location of a few heritage trees that will eventually die and need to be replaced. We need to consider how these new trees will shade the site when they have grown to maturity.

    The idea of moving the Cenotaph out of the plaza to a location on Commerce Street is one of the best ideas to come out of this plan, and would correct a pretty glaring omission. Sarah Reveley’s January 7, 2017 Rivard Report article makes a very good case for adequately marking the location of the defender’s final spot. Moving the Cenotaph to a spot along Commerce Street where the bodies were cremated would be like a wonderful homecoming. I imagine a very solemn occasion where the renovated Cenotaph is ceremonially transformed into a proper tomb at its new location.

    This leaves the controversial walling off of the site. The only folks arguing against the walling off of the site are us locals. This pretty much says it all. Alamo Plaza is our plaza, it’s the story of how our city has grown over thousands of years. Yet no one outside of the city (especially the GLO representing the entire state of Texas, and the Alamo Endowment representing a very narrow vision) seems to prioritize this view. The Alamo and Alamo Plaza are joined at the hip in a way that no one outside of San Antonio fully values, and is at the heart of our consternation.

    I think it’s time to prioritize the plaza above all other proposed changes. The plaza needs to remain porous and open 24 hours a day. But we need to think about restoring dignity to Alamo Plaza, and to the extent possible (considering the indigenous folk buried there) uncovering the bona fide structural remains. I think it’s time for the citizens of San Antonio to focus the fight on the plaza, but also look beyond this place for new places. Change is inevitable. We need to think about connecting Alamo Plaza coherently to Hemisfair (billed as “where San Antonio meets”). Hemisfair’s transformation is a wonderful opportunity to relocate some of the public functions of Alamo Plaza.

    I’d like to hear how others would prioritize the proposed changes.

  8. Last night Robert Trevino and Lewis Fisher were on Texas Week with Rick Casey, discussing the Alamo. At the end, Casey asked if the glass wall was set in stone, and Trevino said no, there were more public meetings ahead. The segment was called “It might be the next battle of the Alamo” but it wasn’t exactly a battle. It was more like a warm fuzzy chit chat. They should have had one of us on.
    http://www.klrn.org/blogs/texas-week/it-might-be-called-the-next-battle-of-the-alamo/

  9. I am against this whole new master plan. Please do not make all these radical changes. Being able to drive by and just to see the Alamo is so important to many as sometimes they do not have time to go in and visit it. Why can’t we have a vote on this? I see from the comments that many people feel as I do.

  10. Thank you. SAN ANTONIO, TX . Tuesday, May 2, at 6 p.m. in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center (900 E. Market Street).

  11. Thank you Mr Mathis for your thoroughly researched, and highly informative article. This new master plan for the Alamo, is disgusting and disrespectful to the lives that were lost and the suffering that was endured. I beg that this sacred ground remain the way it is.

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