Moving the Alamo Cenotaph Risks Damage to a Priceless Memorial

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A close-up of the Cenotaph.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The Alamo Cenotaph is sculptor Pompeo Coppini's most famous work of art.

The​ ​argument surrounding the planned relocation of the Alamo Cenotaph, also known as the Spirit of Sacrifice, has focused on the question of whether the monument dedicated to the Alamo defenders is located in the most appropriate place.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council members recently have questioned the decisions of previous state and city leaders who commissioned the monument in 1934. These leaders chose to place the monument where the Alamo defenders’ spirits left their bodies and the surrounding earth soaked up their blood. While some argue that there may have been a more appropriate place for the Cenotaph, the current placement is by no means inappropriate.

The real question is whether or not the perceived benefits of moving the Cenotaph some 500 feet to a new location in front of the Menger Hotel are worth the costs and very real possibility that this priceless work of art by renowned sculptor Pompeo Coppini might be destroyed in the process of being dismantled and moved. The Coppini Academy of Fine Arts has voiced alarm that attempts to move the monument could end in disaster.

For those unfamiliar with Coppini, he is the epitome of an immigrant success story. He studied sculpting in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1896 with nothing but a bag of clothes and $40 dollars to his name. After years of struggle, he made his mark as a world-class sculptor in Texas. Ultimately, he adopted San Antonio as his home, where he established a legacy of artistic contribution and civic leadership until his death in 1957.

While Coppini is most recognized for his famous works of art, he was also an important and engaged member of the San Antonio community. Coppini was involved in the early efforts to save the Alamo and in the formation of Fiesta. He headed the art department of Trinity University, and he supported local art through the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts, which still operates in San Antonio more than 60 years after his death. Local media outlets have honored the late artist with a variety of write-ups and tributes.

Any attempt to move the monument is a risky venture. The Cenotaph is massive, standing 60 feet high, 12 feet wide, and 40 feet long. It is comprised of many irreplaceable and fragile carved marble slabs, each weighing many tons, permanently fixed to a steel infrastructure. It was built to stand for centuries, not be moved around like a giant Lego set.

So far, City leaders have only addressed the somewhat vague reason of restoring more closely the original mission footprint and allowing for the Cenotaph’s own space for reverence for moving it, but have provided no information on how this would be accomplished safely, and what contingencies are in place if things go horribly wrong.

So what would a serious plan entail? For starters, the hiring of a team of engineers to compile a risk, cost, and detailed action plan on dismantling and moving the monument. We are not talking about our local road- and bridge-building folks, but engineers who have a proven record and experience preserving and moving large, heavy marble sculptures.

Most likely this would entail hiring a European firm that has worked on priceless antiquities or a firm that takes care of our treasured monuments in Washington, D.C. This action plan would need to be made available to the public and peer-reviewed by other engineers hired by stakeholders, with a significant period of public debate and comment. Ultimately, the decision might be made that the risks of moving it outweigh the benefits.

Next, if a plan to move the monument were to commence, every panel on the monument would need to be rigorously measured and digitally scanned, and casts made of each of the Coppini sculptures, so that in the event of a disaster, destroyed sculpture panels could be recreated with pinpoint accuracy. A reliable source of Georgian marble that matches the current panels would need to be secured and sculptors of equal talent to Coppini retained to recreate any broken panels. Note that it took Coppini and his team two years to create the existing panels.

Funding for the move and disaster contingencies would need to be escrowed in advance, which may run into millions of public tax dollars. If City Council wants to take the risks of moving the monument, it must also be willing to pay the consequences if things go wrong. There can be no “oops moments” followed by handwringing and finger-pointing, with the damaged pieces being warehoused for years or eternity.

Finally, a detailed timeline of events would need to be published regarding every facet of the move, including start and completion dates. Council would have to make ironclad guarantees that once the process begins, the only result would be the Cenotaph standing in a place of honor and in better condition than it is today.

Why is this critical? Because there is a trust issue to deal with. Most opponents argue the Cenotaph should remain in its current place, on the sacred ground where defenders lost their lives during the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. Some others believe that arguments for relocation are simply political cover for activists whose goal is is to take it down, place it in a warehouse (similar to the Confederate statue that once stood in Travis Park), and then argue it should not go back up because it is a symbol of imperialism or offensive in some way to some groups.

True or not, the perception is out there, and the murky council statements and decision-making processes regarding the Cenotaph are doing little to dispel this notion.

Back to the original question: Are the risks worth the reward? The Cenotaph is Coppini’s most famous sculpture, admired by millions. What we are talking about is not moving a park bench, but dismantling and potentially destroying the most famous work of art by one of San Antonio’s most famous artists.

Is this something San Antonio really needs to do?

42 thoughts on “Moving the Alamo Cenotaph Risks Damage to a Priceless Memorial

  1. I’m thankful that this world renowned archaelogical expert has taken the time to educate us on this issue. Up until now I was having trouble understanding it.

  2. For every nut that has some irrational outrage at this monuments relocation, my want for it to be moved increases twenty fold.

  3. Leave This Hisorical Alamo Memorial and State Monument Alone!
    thing (how tacky)
    And 99% of The Alamo Defenders Descendant’s are ALSO DEEPLY OPPOSED To DISMANTLING,and or Damaging this Beautiful work of art by Coppini Admired by Millions
    And Honored by most True Texans!! (nut cases lol)
    been called worse.
    THIS Monument is a Testament To The Greastest Sacrifice Of Life in Texas History!!
    And The Great State of Texas was Born!
    Preserve and Protect
    Our Memorials!
    Sincerely
    8th Gen. Proud Texan!!

  4. Mr. Soules: In your article, you state: “The Coppini Academy of Fine Arts has voiced alarm that attempts to move the monument could end in disaster.” I used Google to try to find information about this statement but was unable to find anything. Would you provide either the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts’ statement or information about where to find their statement?

    • You can also read the book, “The Dawn to Sunset: Pompeo Coppini” that explains how the sculpture was made. Historic structural engineers have already look at the Cenotaph, the Alamo Advisory committee just did not like what they reported. The Cenotaph should not be a “brand” that can be bought and sold by the highest bidder, like the Menger Hotel.

  5. If it ain’t broke . . .
    Seriously, the author made a valid point. Take the emotions out of the equation; remove the historical considerations, because by definition history is in the past. What remains is the logistics of moving it, and that means money. LOTS OF MONEY! Everyone claims the argument is about what’s appropriate, but really it sounds more like “I want what I want” (no matter the cost). Leave it alone, & move on.

  6. Finally a voice of reason! Besides the fact that a a tomb representing the bodies of war heroes that could not be recovered should never be moved, the fact that the city couldn’t even move a simple bronze statue without damaging it should weigh heavy in your minds. Combine that with the substantial amount that it is going to cost, this should deter anyone from selecting that…

    except those who don’t care about anyone else’s history (very much like the Nazis and ISIS), and those who don’t care how they spend our tax dollars.

  7. History of Brackenridge’s Artists Colony in SA:

    Brackenridge set up the artists’ colony on his property for the benefit of San Antonio. At first, Pompeo Coppini and Gutzon Borglum, who later carved Mt. Rushmore, worked in the first Brackenridge Studio.
    Have you read the book, “From Dawn to Sunset: Pompeo Coppini”?
    Many of the models for the Alamo Cenotaph were related to the fallen Alamo soldiers. My Grandmother used to take me and her other grandchildren to see the sculptures made from models from our family. I am sure many grandmothers took their grandchildren to see the Cenotaph as well.
    I would like to post the picture of the Cenotaph Dedication ceremony and the newspaper article written about the Dedication, the mayor, the city council at the time, and the various religious leaders that were present, as well as the U.S. Military.
    tnstoker@hotmail.com Facebook: Teresa Stoker

  8. Dear San Antonio City Council:

    For: August 30, 2018 City Council Meeting

    I will be presenting 10 major and legal points about the “Alamo Plan” today and later in the week. Thank you for your consideration.

    One of my ancestors, Shadrick DeWitt died at Valley Forge (VF) during the American Revolution and was buried in a frozen mass grave. Later the sacred Valley Forge Memorial Cenotaph was built, bodies were not moved. The importance and the sacredness of Valley Forge remains unchallenged, and the VF Cenotaph has been important in setting Cenotaph national legal precedence that applies to other Cenotaphs including the Alamo Cenotaph.

    A Cenotaph is a sacred funeral structure protected by cemetery law. When the Alamo Cenotaph was dedicated on Armistice Day, the ceremony was a sacred and reverent ceremony, with many San Antonio religions (Msgr. PJ Scheizer from the Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio, Chaplain Maj. Luther C. Miller of Fort Sam Houston’s Episcopal Church, and Rabbi Ephrain Frisch of Temple Beth-el) represented, and a very diverse crowd. Please see the newspaper article below to learn more. The religious and sacred community beliefs should be honored.

    Respectfully,
    Teresa N. Yantis Stoker
    tnstoker@hotmail.com
    LinkedIn: Teresa Stoker
    Daughter of San Antonio

    Other Concerned Parties: Sons of the American Revolution, Daughters of the American Revolution, Historic David Crockett homepage, David Crockett in Congress, Juan Sequin family group and burial page, Juan Sequin State Park, Daughters of the Texas Revolution, Native Americans groups – Lipan Apache, Comanche, Caddo, Cherokee, other Coeh. groups besides the AIT, Mt. Rushmore National Park, U.S. Congress and Archives, U.S. Legislative Branch and Library, Valley Forge National Park

    • Very well put. They didn’t listen to the people when they spoke against taking down the statue. They keep clef Amazon out without a vote. They do what better hey want. I will remember them in the voting my booth.

  9. And where’s the site survey for the proposed new location? How does anyone know if it is even possible to excavate over 20 feet deep for new footers in the proposed new location without disturbing antiquities that could prevent installation? The Cenotaph must not be removed from its present location before certainty is established that it can be re-erected as it now stands, with repairs, in any other location. The most certain course of action to maintain the Cenotaph as intended to honor the Heroes and their Spirit of Sacrifice is to perform repairs in place with no high risk relocation off the sacred blood soaked battleground outside the walls of the fort they died defending for Liberty and Texas Independence. Remember The Alamo!

  10. Former Council Member Soules raises some very rational and realistic issues in his piece. The cenotaph sculpture is one of Pompeo Coppini’s masterworks, and Coppini was an important figure in the preservation of Alamo Plaza, in the creation of Fiesta, and in the fine arts in San Antonio during the first half of the twentieth century. His work is an important part of the whole story of the Alamo and its history in San Antonio. Mr. Soules’s comments on the need for a plan devised by experienced and competent engineers is absolutely spot on. Also, has a sculpture conservator examined and evaluated the sculpture? Is there an existing, up-to-date condition report? Such a study and document are essential before any attempt to handle the work is done. To not do so is utterly irresponsible. During my career, which has included serving as Curator of Ancient Art at the San Antonio Museum of Art and Director of the American Research Center in Egypt, I have personally taken part in the moving of monumental sculpture, but nothing as large as the Coppini Cenotaph. Such an undertaking needs the attention of conservators, art handles, riggers, and engineers who have experience with such tasks if the work is to be undertaken properly. Hats off to Mr. Soules for raising these very important issues!

  11. Thank you so much for your commentary. You express my feelings and concerns precisely. There are no second chances if it is damaged. There is a huge trust issue with a City Council that voted to take down a Confederate statue in the middle of the night a year ago. They spent $250,000, I think, and still broke it. It is miniature in comparison to the Cenotaph. This monument truly is a great work of art and means so much to so many people, especially the descendants who truly see this as their ancestors’ tombstone. The original plan was to demolish it. There are those that would like to see it gone permanently. Many believe this is the true intention here – “accidently” break it and dispose of it. I have heard it described as a symbol of imperialism, white supremacy, and racism. Truly some of the most ridiculous excuses I have ever heard. It is a monument to the dead Alamo Defenders and a symbol of Texas independence and freedom. Maybe that is what they don’t like about it. Independence and freedom. Other than that, all I have been able to determine as to why they want to move it is so they will have more room to recreate battles for tourists.

  12. ‘REMEMBER THE ALAMO!’ is the cry of every true Texan. The Cenotaph commemorates and memorializes the cost of Texas freedom. Carlton Soules appropriately describes the necessities involved in moving such a large and irreplaceable monument. I you think it is trivial, then you have never lifted a vehicle on a jack and then crawled under it!
    I am a Texan! I am not PC correct and I detest liberals trying to change our history and our heritage. Leave the Cenotaph alone.
    Texan’s rights don’t end where liberal feelings begin.

  13. I miss you Mr. Carlton Soules, please come back. This crazy city needs some of the rational “has been’s” again to restore some sanity. At least we have Mr. Perry in your place and thank goodness for Mr. Brockhouse. Could Mayor be in your future?

  14. Die the people of Paris move the Eiffel Tower NO
    Did the people of Egypt move the pyramids NO
    Are the people of San Antonio trying to move the Cenotaph YES
    WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS STATEMENT????
    The people that live in Texas are TEXANS. Let’s act like Texans and stand up for what is right for SAN ANTONIO.
    Remove anyone that is in office or who has the power to make serious decisions for the good of all Texans out of Texas. They do not know what being a Texan is about. Get Rid of them now. Better yet they need to move to other states where pride is not important!!
    GET OUT OF TEXAS WE DO NOT WANT ANYMORE LOOSERS IN TEXAS!!!

  15. I can’t help but question whether Mr. Soules is actually worried somebody will drop and break the Cenotaph when it’s moved, or if he thinks it’ll help his next political campaign to weigh in against moving the Cenotaph.

    Without question it’s irresponsible for him to throw out a conspiracy theory, then conclude it doesn’t matter whether the conspiracy theory is true, only that the perception exists. (I must note his conspiracy theory is of a liberal & Hispanic scheme against white people.) This makes me struggle to take his concerns about moving the Cenotaph seriously.

    In any event, Mr. Soules deliberately gives the impression it’s super risky and dangerous, and incredibly expensive, to move the Cenotaph. It could end in disaster, he warns. Yet Mr. Soules gives no real analysis of any of the risks involved, just speculative warnings.

    I hope the Rivard Report (or Mr. Soules, or perhaps Councilman Trevino) will ask an expert in this field to shed some light on this. I’m not in the business of moving and reassembling huge marble monuments, but I’d be very interested to hear from somebody who is in this business. What all is involved? How risky is it? How much does it cost? Before unleashing a narrative of “potentially destroying” the Cenotaph, it would be helpful for everyone to learn more about the process of physically moving and restoring the Cenotaph, and the risks and costs involved.

    • You just said you want to know the same thing the author said he wanted to know. Studies by engineers and monument movers need to be done.

  16. Dear Rivard report:
    Why was the comment to this article from Alan Warwick removed, and a response to his comment also removed. It was apparently his opinion and a factual response!

  17. Liberals on the tear down history path again-we will not ,as Texans,will not tolerate their” evil” history killing actions!Leave our statues alone you PCLiberal devils!

  18. Let’s quit trying to remove things for the sake of political correctness.
    Give honor where honor is due.
    And dont try to change history.

  19. Moving the 67–foot high statues at Abu Simbel in Egypt for the construction of the Aswan Dam cost $40 million, but was famously successful. Maybe you could hire those movers!

  20. The City of San Antonio and Bush want to change the Alamo Plaza into a tourist theme park so they can charge a fee to make money off it. Not only NO but HELL NO!

  21. I’m a 6th generation Texan & I think the decision to move this monument is not only ridiculous, it is also ridiculously expensive. I don’t believe that city & state leaders should be allowed to make this decision. I believe it should be made by native Texans only. We are the only ones that can appreciate the provenance of this monument & what it means if this monument is damaged during the moved just on some politicians whims!

  22. I agree with Fran Bixby. Anybody who doesn’t appreciate Texas and the history of our great state shall leave now. It’s a slap in the face of those who sacrificed their lives for Texas, not to mention the descendants of those who fought at the Alamo. If you don’t like Texas, leave. You’re more than welcome to.

  23. Leave it where it is. We can’t change history by tearing down monuments, but we should learn from it. I have an ancestor who died at the Alamo and don’t want anymore disturbing of a place where many people lost their lives. This would be like moving a grave yard.

  24. Engineers from A&M and UT have inspected and stated in their reports that moving the cenotaph would cause irreparable damage to it. It is also erected where the defenders bodies were burned at. Therefore it is essentially an unmanned tomb.

  25. Leave it where it is, a monument to the people who fought and died for their beliefs. As for the reasons they fought, it is historical in nature. They are trying to erase the Holocaust from history because it insults some people. They have pretty much quit teaching about the Indian Trail of Tears because some are embarassed about it. The newest textbooks don’t say much about the Civil War because they don’t want the subject brought up. Don’t hide out history, lest we fail to see what can happen.

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