Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
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?