Remember the Alamo?

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Fireworks shower over The Alamo during the Fiesta Fiesta event. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Fireworks erupt over the Alamo during the Fiesta Fiesta event in 2016.

I remember gathering with my closest friends and thousands of other San Antonians on a warm night in June in front of the Alamo to wave flags and cheer on our Spurs after they beat the Miami Heat and got payback for a bitter loss 12 months prior. I remember weaving through crowds of parade watchers, vendors, and volunteers as I made my way back to the stands in front of the Alamo after a quick detour to The Menger Bar.

It’s understandable that the Alamo Management Committee is proposing a more sacred space around this Shrine of Texas Liberty, but I cannot imagine architects at Preservation Design Partnership being so willing to give it away if they had a sense of ownership over it the way so many of us here in San Antonio do. If they had shared in some of these celebrations and understood how San Antonians from all walks of life can come together around our shrine – our shared space – and become one, maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to wall it off from this community and hand it over to tourists.

This rendering shows Alamo Plaza (looking northeast from above) at dusk.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

The proposed rendering shows Alamo Plaza (looking northeast from above) at dusk.

Our city relies on tourism, but that doesn’t mean we should forget that it is ours. I was born in Florence, Italy, and spend a considerable amount of time there. This is another city that lives and breathes tourism. Florentines certainly make accommodations for tourists who come from all over the world to see the birthplace of the Renaissance, but they also know how to keep the heritage that is shared in the blood of every Fiorentino for the people who call the city home.

The Florence Cathedral is one of, if not the most, iconic architectural structure in Florence and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It sits on the site of an earlier cathedral that dated back to the 5th century and is the final resting place for multiple popes and fathers of the Renaissance. It is a sacred place and to this day a house of worship for Florentines who can attend mass, get baptized, married, or even eulogized there. It is for the world and for Florentines, and when a parade makes its way through the city, the plaza in front the Cathedral is the best place to see the show.

Throughout Florence you find one ancient and sacred place after the other that is preserved both for tourists and for residents. Piazza Santa Croce sits in front of a church that was founded in 1294 by Saint Francis himself. It contains the funerary monuments of countless historic figures including Galileo, Michelangelo, and Dante. The plaza is also home to parades and historic games of soccer called Calcio Storico. It’s also where I saw my first concert, Paul Simon. The space is alive, and that means everything sacred within that space is also alive.

The world is full of ancient and sacred places, but they are all vastly different. Some of them are locked away, inaccessible to the people and communities that live around them, existing as relics of a bygone era. Others are alive, and the blood of the community they reside in flows through them, endowing them with meaning not just for tourists and history buffs, but for everybody.

We don’t need to put Alamo Plaza behind glass in order to make it more sacred. Do away with the cars and buses that cut through the plaza. Remove the tourist traps selling kitsch that nobody needs. Reimagine the space, but keep the people of San Antonio in mind when you do it. We cannot and should not make our shrine to Texas liberty an inaccessible, quiet, and solemn place where only tourists go. Closing it off and sticking it behind glass is like shooting it, stuffing it, and mounting it on the wall. That’s fine if all you want to do is show it off to your guests, but it loses the majesty it had when it was alive. Don’t kill this alive and vibrant space. Don’t put it behind glass.

I invite the members of the Preservation Design Partnership to join the people of San Antonio on April 28 for the Battle of Flowers Parade. Join us in front of the Alamo where we will show you what a living and vibrant public space looks like. You would think they would already know what a vibrant, sacred space looks like. Their hometown is Philadelphia, home of Independence Hall, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The plaza in front of that sacred shrine to American independence isn’t shut off from the city of brotherly love. It is not walled off behind glass. When the pope comes to visit, the plaza fills with his devotees and his motorcade is unobstructed. Parades pass in front of that hall every year, ensuring the space is alive and not dead.

I remember the Alamo. I hope the Alamo can still be more than just a memory for me and for millions of San Antonians for generations to come.

 

28 thoughts on “Remember the Alamo?

  1. The Alamo is the least authentic historical site I have ever seen in our country. That roads and modern buildings were allowed to be erected on the site was a travesty. I think it’s too late to make it real..

    • Check out the history of growth around the Alamo. It’s been a very gradual process, but reclamation has happened. It is no longer a travesty, but we can continue to ensure its sacredness and solemnity by setting aside an entertainment district for our good friends in the tourist industry. Now we just need to continue and not allow glass to wall it off for just the tourists, and ensure trees (especially poplars and cottonwoods, if they can thrive) and the Cenotaph provide shade and self-reflection.
      Keep the Alamo open for residents and our celebrations!

  2. I would quibble with your second paragraph. The Alamo has ALREADY been handed over to the tourists. Have you seen the shops across the street from it? As far as I am concerned it is occupied territory and it’s currently more of a circus than some beloved treasure of us locals. I for one am glad that order is being restored to the Alamo. For the last two years I wanted to rent Alamo Plaza to have Geekdom’s annual birthday party there to help celebrate the locals coming back downtown. I am totally fine if I never get to do it because of the new direction. I would rather see it behind glass than to be able to buy a turkey leg in front of it. It’s better than that.

    • I totally get your sentiment, I just don’t think closing Alamo Plaza to the Battle of Flowers Parade and other spontaneous celebrations is necessary for the removal of tourist traps and other aspects of that area that this design hopes to change.

      The only thing I object to is shutting the people of San Antonio out.

  3. I’ve been to Florence, Italy too Mr. Olsen. I don’t recall ever seeing a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” or a “Tomb Raiders Ride” or T-Shirt Shops selling merchandise in windows espousing “Suck On This” anywhere surrounding the Florence Cathedral. Alamo Plaza has devolved into a tawdry, fly-blown, Flea Market of no distinction or effectiveness. It’s tired and scuzzy. Why would you not still be able to “wave flags” and celebrate the Spurs in the new Plaza? Is it seriously asking too much to get out of your car and simply walk/ bike/ skate/ wheelchair to the Plaza? (I similarly don’t recall being able to drive around the Florence Cathedral while tourists darted haphazardly through teeming traffic.) It’s a mission, a battle site, a cemetery, a symbolic icon for an entire state – how about bringing back some respect and class for an incredible, enduring memorial we all love and wish to protect for the ages?

    • Well the Piazza around the Duomo does have shops of all types as well as plenty of bars and restaurants but you are correct, no Ripley’s. Which is good, and the removal of those shops is something I am totally in favor of. The removal of the people of San Antonio from the plaza. Walling it off so we can’t have our parade there and probably can put up our Christmas Tree. Forcing everybody to squeeze through one door. That makes no sense.

      They won’t be leaving that plaza open like that for some spontaneous Spurs celebration, and if they do they are creating a huge safety hazards having just one narrow entrance. Nobody builds walls like this if they aren’t trying to secure the grounds and keep people out.

      Let me quote from my original submission a part I think you may have skipped over.

      “Do away with the cars and buses that cut through the plaza. Remove the tourist traps selling kitsch that nobody needs. Reimagine the space, but keep the people of San Antonio in mind when you do it.”

      The only objection I have is the enclosure of that space that would prevent parades and revelers from enjoying it. Traffic in the Piazza surrounding the Duomo was hauled several years ago and it’s now only foot traffic. That’s fantastic!. But they don’t have a gigantic wall around it that prevents the natural flow of human beings in and out of the piazza from all directions.

      It seems pretty clear that someone decided that the best way for a tourist to see the Alamo for the first time is by walking through the doorway from the south, and since apparently nobody on the design team had the people of San Antonio in mind when they designed this thing, they chose to wall everything off and make that the only entrance.

      It’s more than just a tourist attraction. It’s our Alamo. It’s our Plaza. And our use of the space should be kept in mind.

      • You seem obsessed with the “glass wall” as if it were some Trump border fence. Can people not enter and exit from Houston Street? Can people not enter and exit from behind the Alamo (in front of the Crockett Hotel?) Fiesta goes on ALL over San Antonio – how about taking some of the “circus load” OFF Alamo Plaza for a change and letting it be more of a tranquility zone during the 10 days of revelry madness? Yes, indeed it’s “our Alamo” – we get it. Continue to use it/love it/”flag wave” it to your heart’s content – nobody will stop you!

        • The Alamo Shrine grounds are expanding to encompass the entire plaza. I don’t see the folks running the show here granting the same open access once the walls go up.

          If they aren’t there to restrict access then why build them?

          • From an historical context every bit of the newly delineated wall is to fully reveal the original extent of the Alamo compound – not to “restrict” or “wall-in” the populous. The number one comment that tourists say upon seeing the Alamo for the first time is, “That’s it?” They have no sense of it’s breadth and historical perspective. It’s fine for us locals to whoop it up on Alamo Plaza during the year – and long may we do so – but we also have a serious, fundamental obligation to explain to our visitors as clearly and fairly as possible what existed here and what the fuss was all about.
            If you’ll look at the illustrations carefully you’ll see that the Glass Wall ENDS parallel to the Long Barracks. Anyone and everyone can easily avoid the South Gate “Glass Entry” if they so choose and simply walk around it.
            Been to Mission San Jose lately? All the Missions had original walled-in compounds. When you say “encompass the entire Plaza” I can find nowhere in these plans that Houston Street, Alamo St. (by the Federal Building), Ave. E (by the Emily Morgan), E. Crockett (by the Menger) nor Bonham behind the Alamo will be blocked off in any way, shape or form. Business as usual – free to ingress/egress to your hearts desire!

          • Can’t seem to reply directly to that last one Will but maybe you will see this.

            The glass wall along Houston does not follow the original wall. That glass wall cuts clean across what was an open plaza in the original mission. The purpose of that glass wall is enclosure, which is exactly what the plans state.

            Indeed there may be some openings, but I don’t see them in the plans and there certainly isn’t an opening large enough to let a parade through.

        • Will,

          I responded to your last comment a bit lower regarding the wall along Houston street not representing an original wall because we are limited to how deep these conversation threads can go. I’m interested in what you have to add to the conversation though.

          I’d also like to direct you to page 37 of the master plan which you can download here: https://reimaginethealamo.org/the-master-plan/#!

          It clearly indicates a single entrance at the south end where the original entrance to the mission was located. There are other places within that document that touch on the theme of creating an experience for the visitor by engineering their first view of the Alamo to maximize impact.

          I understand rationale there, but what they destroy for the sake of visitors who may spend one day in that Plaza in their lifetime, they destroy for an entire city’s population that may use that plaza daily or at least several times a year. If they want visitors to see the Alamo from the south end first, why not place the kiosk for all Alamo related entry tickets right there? Tourists will head there first, and it will serve as their stepping off into the Alamo experience.

  4. From the design plans it looks like there will be plenty of space in and around the Alamo to congregate and celebrate. The glass walls will make it less likely that beer cans, taco wrappers, and party mess will linger for weeks after the locals head back to the suburbs after their once a year venture downtown.

    • Imagine a NIOSA bottleneck times 100. One narrow opening isn’t going to cut it. That’s assuming they would allow anybody in, which I highly doubt.

      Remember. Right now that plaza is public space, the Alamo Grounds are behind those walls and they don’t exactly welcome throngs of Spurs fans. The Alamo grounds are expanding to encompass the entire plaza. The public’s easement rights are going away and any ability for us to congregate, celebrate, erect Christmas Trees, will go away as well.

    • Yes! “Authenticity” can be provided via virtual reality, slideshows and presentations in the theater (is that still onsite?), TSHA / Daughters of the Alamo apps on a smartphone, hard copy maps, etc., instead a bare, hot, “authentic” open plaza mostly surrounded by glass walls (does these absorb or magnify heat?) that severely restrict visitor-flow (cultural tourists and residents)
      Keep the Cenotaph in place! Erect a cenotaph for indigenous peoples! Yes, trees please!

  5. There are a lot of valid points made by this article and I think the author deserves a lot of credit for raising them. The criticism I’m reading in the comments seems to be casting this as a binary decision –either the current Alamo Plaza or the current plan. I think the author is arguing for something different and, in my opinion, better than the existing Alamo Plaza or the current plan.

    The key point to me is that Alamo Plaza under this proposal will basically cease to exist. By this, I mean there will be literally no way to cross through Alamo Plaza under this plan (at least as I understand it). For instance, I quite regularly cross through the plaza by entering from Houston Street and exiting to the south. I enjoy passing through this space and, despite its many flaws, I consider it one of the better public spaces existing in the city of San Antonio (there aren’t many) with a unique character. As I understand this proposal, no one would ever again be allowed to cross through Alamo Plaza. It seems that you will enter and exit from the South or maybe from a hotel. What this means to me is that you would either be there specifically to visit the Alamo (or the museum) or not be there at all.

    People should recognize that barricading (or removing) Alamo Plaza in this fashion represents a really dramatic change from historical patterns of usage. Aside from its early history as a mission and battlefield, Alamo Plaza has served as one of the city’s main public squares for over 150+ years. The existence of traffic and commerce in this place is not something new, but has been there since the 1850s. As a historical plaza in the center of a downtown historical district, Alamo Plaza (in its finer moments) reminds me somewhat of Jackson Square in New Orleans — a place where people gather, pass through, linger and contemplate. In other words, it serves more than one purpose and there are more than a single way to experience the space. I agree completely that the existing business on the plaza should go, but I’m not offended by the idea of cafes, restaurants or bars in that space. I’m not so sure about removing traffic and I’m very skeptical of the idea of walling off the space.

    One other thing to consider: I am not aware of any other city in the world that has taken one of its main public plazas and walled it off in this fashion. If someone knows of a precedent for this sort of thing, it should be discussed so people can consider that in the context of the merits of this plan.

    I can certainty appreciate the many virtues in the proposal and how the visitor experience would be enhanced in many ways. It is a bold plan with some obvious virtues. It also has some pretty obvious drawbacks that are worthy of a robust and honest public discussion. I’m trying to reserve judgment personally. The one thing I know for certain is that changes of this magnitude need to be discussed openly. I also hoping that the local press and political leadership will have the courage to have an open discussion about pros and cons here instead of acting simply as cheerleaders for the project.

    • Thank you! And very well put.

      I hope we can get more discussion on this soon. Perhaps TPR’s The Source should devote an hour to this subject.

  6. I think Eric says precisely what is needed. No barriers. Just let the city breath and have spaces for people to understand the LAYERS of history here, including the built environment/historic buildings that surround. Eric is a world traveler, as I am, and interpretation of public spaces includes self-confidence of who WE are as a city/community expressed outwardly to the world. Italians know how to live with history and express themselves with confidence. This scheme reaches too far for one even and the proposal is LAME. I am more than happy to draw something and encourage others to do so. I also applaud Rolando Briseno for his past efforts to bring attention to the ‘upsidedown’ values some have of the place. Eric, tell us how to contact the ‘real’ people in charge.

  7. I grew up in San Antonio and have been witness to many changes to this unique city. I was most disappointed in this latest scheme. The scheme seems barren and closed off and does not seems to honor the current public space. As a retired Architect I appreciate the unique features of downtown, the Alamo, and the connections to the riverwalk. Yes we are locals who live in the suburbs but we are frequently downtown and usually drive by Alamo Plaza or stroll along the riverwalk.

  8. Two simple suggestions would address much of what Erik speaks to:

    — Remove all of the Houston Street glass wall. It’s not defensible (no pun intended) and I think the planners are going to lose that argument first anyway.

    — Keep only the glass wall portion that represents the arched entrance. Remove the rest, which will re-establish the openness. The arch will still provide a starting point.

    I love the glass walkways following the historic walls. Well conceived and they and the arch would look amazing at night.

    • If they do keep the glass walkways, I sure hope they set one up next to a big patch of crushed granite and walk between the two for a few hours to see how that ends up working. Just thinking about little bits of granite stuck to my shoe and then grinding into glass sends shivers up my spine. Nails on the chalkboard.

  9. There will be a day when a single entrance is regretted. It is going to create the perfect situation for a terrorist attach to be much more effective than anyone seems to be imagining. Set off a bomb in the complex, but have 2-3 others ready to go off at the single exit as the crowds are running to it. But even without the extra bombs at the exit, there will be stories of the trampling and killing of people in the rush to get away.

    I would rather see a RISING wall. They can build it out of what they want, but every hour on the hour (or maybe four times a day) there would be a fanfare and the walls would rise to show the original outline of the battlefield. There could be a brief statement about this representing the outline of the compound at the time of the battle. After 2-3 minutes, the walls would come down again. All over the world tourists congregate to see such things–moving clocks, geysers going off, etc. The rest of the time, it would be an open plaza from all directions.

  10. I just wanted to say that I hate the glass wall idea. It really fails on SO many levels. Once it’s up, we’re stuck with it.

  11. Most of the commentary here is a perfect example of how people let their fear of change stand in the way of progress.

    • Change doesn’t always represent progress. Besides, isn’t the purpose of this project to undue the change and progress that has taken place here since the year 1836?

  12. Excellent analysis, Erik. I too am a native (fourth-generation) and spent many, many hours on the Plaza as a child due to the facts that 1) my parents worked downtown and 2) I received weekly allergy shots at the Medical Arts building. I also spent 27 years of my life in historical preservation contracting, and I recognize the difference between a living, evolving space and architectural taxidermy. We are fortunate to live in a city where our historical spaces are accessible as well as iconic. I too have been privileged to be a part of joyous celebrations (a wedding, another championship), as well as solemn occasions (anti-war marches, a peace poem event) on the Plaza. There are stories in the paths beneath our feet, and they are not all about the deaths of the Alamo defenders. Who is to say that all the history that has followed the Thirteen Days of Glory is trivial? Yes, for crying out loud, get rid of the junk purveyors and honor the history of the amazing buildings in which they reside–but don’t allow non-residents who haven’t experienced the cultural milieu of our downtown to tell us how our landmarks can best be experienced–for the benefit of tourists who may spend one day in our midst. Let our historical places breathe, don’t wall them off from their environment–and don’t lower their grade, “re-locate” their trees or risk their place in our continuing cultural conversation.

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