Scott Ball / Rivard Report
A team of archaeologists and historians will set up shop at digging sites in Alamo Plaza on July 5. But rather than have them work silently behind roped-off areas, these archaeologists will be digging through up to 10,000 years of history and providing daily public briefings for enthusiasts and passers-by alike.
The archaeological expedition is the first visible step towards completing the Alamo Plaza Master Plan, the multi-million dollar State and City effort that hopes to transform the stale grounds that do little to convey the intricate layers of history underneath the limestone into a destination that mirrors the historical and cultural significance of the site.
Project leaders estimate that the master plan draft will be completed in mid-2017, but real construction won't begin until 2021. A "soft opening" of the new Alamo Plaza is expected to take place in 2024, 300 years after the current structure was built.
The work of archaeologists, architects, designers, and planners will be recorded and displayed on the Alamo's social media pages (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) and new website at www.ReimagineTheAlamo.org as part the process that aims to be as transparent and engaging to the public as possible, said Gene Powell, Alamo Endowment board member and chairman of the Alamo Management Committee.
"Today we're embarking on a very aggressive social media program," Powell told City Council during a Wednesday briefing on the progress of the Alamo Master Plan Management Committee, which is comprised of representatives from the City, the Alamo Endowment and the Texas General Land Office.
To complement the online engagement, the first of many public engagement sessions will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 2 from 6-8 p.m. The location is yet to be determined.
The engagement process will be a two-way street, Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) Design Director George Skarmeas told City Council. The public needs to receive regular updates from the project team and committee members and those teams need to take the temperature of the public on proposed ideas and directions.
"Folks, I'm not joking – I'm not exaggerating – when I'm saying the layer and the complexity of the cultural issues here exceed what we're dealing with in Athens," which has about 4,000 years of archaeological history, Skarmeas said during his passionate presentation that drew a rare round of applause from Council members and the audience of City staff and other stakeholders.
Click here to download his presentation.
Skarmeas and his partners at the Philadelphia-based firm, including preservation architect Dominique Hawkins – his wife – have worked on projects all over the U.S. including Independence Hall, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Virginia State Capitol.
"At the end of the day, we're talking about a World Heritage site," he said, noting the absurdity that a three-lane street disconnects the San Antonio River from the Alamo. "We're talking about a place where two continents came together ... Europe and America connected here in San Antonio over layers of 10,000 years of history."
The archaeological digs will be focusing on identifying the boundaries of the Spanish-colonial mission-turned military compound during the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. Teams will work on the sites from 7 a.m.-3 p.m. for three to four weeks – depending on what they find.
Before any legitimate sketches can be drawn out of what the plaza will look like, Skarmeas said, these preliminary questions must be answered.
"(We need) to be cautious, do our homework right, get the best people around the table, and think about the future in a visionary way using the best principles of heritage planning and design," he said.
How in the world will the new plaza peel back all of these layers? If the project team does its homework, Skarmeas said, "the site will give us the right answers."
For now, designers are in fact-finding mode.
“We have to rediscover the Alamo before we can reimagine the Alamo,” Powell said.
The Alamo is hallowed ground not just because of the battle in 1836.
"The mission's population rose and declined through the years with a peak number of 328 in 1756," states the official Missions of San Antonio website. "Mission records indicate that nearly 1,000 indigenous converts were buried in the mission's campos santos."
The redevelopment plan's goal is to honor the layers of indigenous peoples, settlers, conquerers, and all the life, death, struggles, and triumphs that come with them.
Alamo Plaza will be constructed in such a way that "you know you're on sacred ground," Powell said, a place where you "lower your voice, you cross your hands, you often bow your head. We don't have that experience here and it's not the tourist's fault, it's not the children's fault. It's the fact that we have not created a sense of place that respects this iconic spot."
The archaeological team will be led by Pape-Dawson Engineers Senior Archaeologist Nesta Anderson who will work with City Archaeologist Kay Hindes, Jake Ivey, Steve Tomka, Shawn Marceaux, and Mary Jo Galindo.
They will be purposefully avoiding the disturbance of burial grounds based on previous archaeological surveys, Anderson said.
"We are targeting areas where there may be physical evidence of those (compound) boundaries," Hindes said. Portions of Alamo and Houston streets and sidewalks will be closed periodically to accommodate the digs.
Between the City's budget allocations and dedicated funding from the Texas Legislature, about $42 million has been committed to the Alamo Plaza project – which includes the state's purchase of three historic buildings across from the plaza that house so-called "tourist traps" like Guinness World Records Museum, Tomb Raider 3D, and Ripley’s Haunted Adventure.
The Alamo Foundation has already begun a fundraising campaign to find private and philanthropic donations to pay for the multi-million dollar project that Powell has previously put in the $300 million range. They'll also be lobbying for more money from the state and City.
PDP is working with Grupo de Diseño Urbano, an international design firm that is also working on the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, and Fisher Heck Inc., a San Antonio-based firm that has restored many historic buildings and contributed to restoration projects throughout the country. Fisher Heck was working on a master plan before the City and GLO expanded the scope and brought in the Alamo Endowment board into the process last year.
Mission San Antonio de Valero was established in 1718 near San Pedro Creek, but after a hurricane it was rebuilt at its current location near the San Antonio River in 1724. If the new plaza opens in 2024, it will be a powerful celebration of the structure's 300th anniversary.
“There are centuries of stories connected with the Alamo and its grounds,” stated Mayor Ivy Taylor, who sits on the Alamo Executive Committee with Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. “People visit the Alamo every day without ever realizing where they are, and we are determined to change that. This master planning process will make it possible to tell the story of the Alamo, and of San Antonio, so much more fully and in a way that has never been done before.”
This story was originally published on June 29, 2016.
Top image: Tourists visit the The Alamo. Photo by Scott Ball.