Brantley Hightower, AIA LEED AP

Despite its status as the state’s most popular tourist destination, the Alamo site exists as an odd amalgamation of history and commerce.  The awkward coexistence of solemn memorials and kitsch souvenir shops creates an environment that caters to tourists much more than those of us who call San Antonio home.  Even though it sits in both the cultural and physical heart of our city, there are few reasons to go there unless we have a friend visiting from out of town.

And so we challenged our students to design a better Alamo Plaza.

Back in December of last year I wrote about sitting in a bar overlooking the site. [Read more: “Alamo Plaza: A View From the 1909 Bar.”] I was there to meet with Margaret Sledge to discuss the upcoming design studio we were to teach in the spring at Trinity University.  As studio professors, one of our primary tasks is to invent a suitable design challenge that provides our students with a framework to explore the re-imagining of the built environment.  Alamo Plaza was the obvious design problem in need of an answer and it was sitting right in front of us.

Panoramic view from the 1909 Bar. Photo by Brantley Hightower.
Panoramic view from 1909 Bar. Click for larger image. Photo by Brantley Hightower.

The students themselves came from a variety of different backgrounds including Studio Art and Urban Studies.  What none of them had was any training in architecture and so the semester began with a primer both in the basics of design and urban planning.  It also began with a series of tours and presentations that sought to impart as much information as possible to our students.

Dr. Bruce Winders gave students an after-hours tour of the historic Alamo site Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.
Dr. Bruce Winders gave students an after-hours tour of the historic Alamo site Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.

Dr. Bruce Winders, the official Historian and Curator of the Alamo, gave the class a behind-the-scenes tour of the Alamo grounds.  Elizabeth Porterfield from San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation then gave the students a detailed tour of the historic sites immediately adjacent to the Alamo.

One class was held at the office of Ford, Powell and Carson where they were given an overview of some of the preservation and master planning efforts the firm has conducted on behalf of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. As well as describing the conclusions of the plans, preservation architects Allison Chambers and Anna Nau described the unique challenges of working with a site that is so historically, politically and economically charged.

In addition to absorbing massive amounts of historical information, the students also actively researched how Alamo Plaza is occupied today.

Elizabeth Porterfield from San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation informed students of the history of the development of Alamo Plaza. Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.
Elizabeth Porterfield from San Antonio’s Office of Historic Preservation informed students of the history of the development of Alamo Plaza. Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.

A group of students took turns observing how the use of the Plaza changes over a 24-hour period, noting who used what parts and when.  Another student discovered and documented a remarkably sophisticated self-regulating economy that has developed around the snow cone stands that dot the Plaza.  In case you were wondering, the placement of one vendor relative to another is not arbitrary at all.

The students also spent time studying precedents of other historic sites in order to better understand how these places have been made accessible to the public while acting as integral part of the sites around them. The Mount Vernon Estate, for example, provided a good example of a tightly controlled visitor experience while Independence Mall in Philadelphia provided a good example of how a city and a historic site can benefit from the existence of one another.

All of this formed the foundation for the proposals the students developed in the second half of the semester.  The students organized themselves into three groups whose architectural propositions were as diverse as they were compelling.  One group proposed keeping the Plaza essentially unchanged but building a “San Antonio History Center” adjacent to it that would allow the plaza to be used and understood in a way that it had never been before.  Another proposed a series of tactical interventions that would bring water, art and performance into the heart of the revitalized plaza.  The third group of students sought to design a truly inclusive urban space, reprogramming the site in such a way that would engender interaction between radically different types of users.

Today's Alamo Plaza is an odd amalgamation of memorialized history and brash commerce. Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.
Today’s Alamo Plaza is an odd amalgamation of memorialized history and brash commerce. Image courtesy Brantley Hightower.

What all of these groups have in common is a surprising lack of emphasis placed on simulating the site’s historic appearance.  This is an interesting departure from proposals of the past that have sought to recreate some version of the Plaza’s 1836 configuration.  This has always been a challenging proposition since most of the significant structures from the time of the battle had been demolished or considerably altered by a mere ten years after the battle.  Based on the research and observations of the students, it was their consensus that artificially recreating the site’s history was less important than projecting a viable future for it.

All three of the groups will be making a final public presentation in room 306 of Trinity University’s Dicke Art Building on Monday, May 13 at 5:00pm.  It is our hope that these three concepts add to the discussion of what should be done with Alamo Plaza.  It is a discussion that has increased in volume over the course of the semester.

Professors Margaret Sledge and Brantley Hightower lead their class in a discussion of the potential development of Alamo Plaza. Image courtesy Corey Leamon.
Professors Margaret Sledge and Brantley Hightower lead their class in a discussion of the potential development of Alamo Plaza. Image courtesy Corey Leamon.

The brief display of William Travis’ “Victory or Death” letter provided proof of the draw that the story of the Alamo still has.  It also begged the question as to why such artifacts are not housed at the Alamo in the first place.  In a separate development, a 23-story hotel/timeshare tower has been proposed on top of the old Joske’s department store at the south end of Alamo Plaza.

All this has shown the potential (both good and bad) of the seemingly rudderless approach to the planning of Alamo Plaza that has defined its past development.  We may currently have the Alamo Plaza that the free market creates, but it is our view that it is time to have a real conversation about the Alamo Plaza that our city – and its history – deserves.

Brantley Hightower is the founder of HiWorks, an architecture firm located in the Pearl Brewery

Related Stories:

Hemisfair Park: A ‘Brutal Redesign’ or the Bulldozer?

San Antonio’s Big Bet on Public Art: Hemisfair Park and the San Antonio River

On Your Mark, Get Set, Design for the ‘Triple Bottom Line’

Green and More: Architecture/Design for Low-Income, Sustainable Housing

Central Library: A Homage to Art, Burdened by its own Plaza

Alamo Plaza: A View From the 1909 Bar

Brantley Hightower

Brantley Hightower is the founder of HiWorks, an architecture firm with offices in San Antonio and Boulder. His book, The Courthouses of Central Texas, was published in 2015 and his podcast, San Antonio...