San Antonio Conservation Society Pitches Alamo Museum ‘Compromise’

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A rendering of the proposed design plans from the San Antonio Conservation Society for the Alamo Museum.

Courtesy / Alamo Architects

A rendering of the proposed design plans from the San Antonio Conservation Society for the Alamo Museum.

While the architectural team that will design the Alamo museum has not yet started its work, the San Antonio Conservation Society presented its vision for the museum, one that integrates two historic buildings into the design.

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Conservation Society officials unveiled a proposal for the museum site in Alamo Plaza with conceptual drawings that include a space to recognize the Woolworth building’s historic lunch counter, one of the first in the city to serve blacks in 1960.

The group’s pre-emptive proposal was met with skepticism from Alamo officials and those close to the official process.

Local firm Alamo Architects prepared the conceptual drawings, which also include an internal courtyard and an open-air path for pedestrians to travel north and south through the museum area without actually entering it or the original Alamo Plaza footprint.

The museum, part of the multimillion-dollar Alamo Plaza redesign, can showcase the indigenous history at the site and the 1836 Battle of the Alamo while still honoring the Woolworth building’s place in civil rights history, said Susan Beavin, president of the Conservation Society. The Woolworth lunch counter was one of the first in the Southern states to peacefully desegregate in the 1960s.

Beavin said the Woolworth building is part of a “civil rights milestone” that should be saved.

“It is a true compromise,” Beavin said in a news release. “This proposal combines the best of the old with the new to tell the full story of Alamo Plaza. We show how it is possible to reveal and interpret the western wall of the Alamo footprint, while preserving century-old buildings and an important site in the American civil rights movement.”

Alamo officials are negotiating a contract with an as-yet-unidentified “world renowned” architectural firm, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), so no draft design exists.

Alamo CEO Douglass McDonald called the Conservation Society’s proposal disrespectful to the historic site. While there are plenty of places in San Antonio that could honor the city’s role in the civil rights movement, he said, interpretation of the Alamo is site-specific.

“This design was secret, not known to anyone until a press conference today,” McDonald said, noting that both the Alamo Master Plan was – and the official museum design process will be – formulated in the public eye.

The Conservation Society presented its design as a compromise, but there’s not yet a design to which to compare it. Another consultant team is analyzing the historic buildings, which the state purchased in 2015, and the feasibility of keeping all, part, or none of their facades and internal structures, said Treviño, who serves as a chair of the public-private management committee set up to oversee the Alamo Plaza redesign.

Renderings depict the plaza with four different options with and without historic buildings and facades.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

Renderings depict the plaza with four different options with and without historic buildings and facades.

The City, General Land Office, and Alamo Endowment hosted dozens of public and stakeholder meetings to develop the underlying master plan that will inform the final design.

“Our proposal reveals the location of the mission’s west wall by carving an arcade through the existing buildings, allowing pedestrians to preview exhibits in the museum,” said Beavin. “A new central entrance, the arcade, and the four-story addition to the rear allow creative architectural expression for the museum.”

Inside the Woolworth building, the Conservation Society proposes space to interpret the Treviño House that served as Travis’ headquarters and the Castañeda house. Their proposal would keep the facades and structure of the Woolworth and Crockett building, but turn the Palace building between them into an “outdoor museum gateway.” The outdoor walkway would also serve as an opportunity to show visitors where the western wall of the Alamo mission was.

“We hope that the architects for the new Alamo museum will consider the benefits of a design that reflects the complete history of the plaza,” Beavin said. “We encourage the public to reach out to the General Land Office and city leaders with their reactions to our plan.”

Tourist attractions, souvenir shops, and offices currently inhabit the Woolworth (518 E. Houston St.), Palace (319 Alamo Plaza), and Crockett (321 Alamo Plaza) buildings. Those businesses will be relocated to an “entertainment district” nearby, officials say, but the location has not been announced.

“There are many architects in town and all over the world that have creative ideas,” Treviño said. “It can’t be a compromise, because they haven’t talked to the management committee and the folks that are defining the scope of the project.”

While the Conservation Society’s proposal is appreciated, he said, “To present more design ideas that are not part of the actual process can be tricky.”

Alamo Architects was not among the more than 30 firms that responded to the request for proposals for the museum design job.

Conservation Society Executive Director Vincent Michael pointed out that it is a compromise in the sense that the proposal accepts the need for a plaza barrier and proposes the removal of the Palace building between the Crockett and Woolworth. Previously, the group was opposed to the barriers and wanted all three historic buildings saved.

The plan and a plaza lease agreement with the GLO was approved by City Council last year, but not without controversy surrounding the fenced-off perimeter of the plaza (the mission’s historic footprint), the closure of surrounding streets, and the relocation of the Alamo Cenotaph that honors the Alamo defenders.

McDonald said the Conservation Society’s proposal “is a compromised telling of the history of the Alamo” that downplays the site’s ability to showcase the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.

“The Alamo’s history is the most important history of this site,” he told the Rivard Report. “This is only place in the world to tell the story of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo and to tell of William Barret Travis’ writing the world-changing ‘Victory or Death’ letters in the Treviño House. The Battle of 1836 is the heart and soul of what it means to be a Texan.”

The lunch counter story and San Antonio’s place in civil rights history can be told in several other locations, he said, but the Alamo’s history cannot. Before taking the helm of the Alamo, McDonald was CEO of the Cincinnati Museum Center and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

“This proposal disrespects the unique history of the Shrine of Texas Liberty, the Defenders of that 1836 Battle, and Losoya, who lived and died on this site,” he said. “We are committed to tell the full and accurate history of the Alamo based upon evidence. In the case of the Alamo, you cannot tell the story of even the Texas Revolution based upon exclusively the events of 13 days in March of 1836. In the case of telling the full and accurate history of civil rights and racial injustice in San Antonio, it cannot be based simply upon the events of March 1960.”

Historian Everett Fly said the prominent location of the Woolworth building – and its inclusion in the museum – is the best opportunity to tell the story of black history in San Antonio that is often overlooked.

“San Antonio – despite our infrastructure, despite our policies, despite our rhetoric about being inclusive  … has a very poor record of preserving, conserving, acknowledging, and celebrating African-American history and culture, particularly physical landmarks and sites such as this,” Fly said. “The opportunity is here for us to step up and be legitimate and honest in our preservation rhetoric.”

The goal of the Alamo redevelopment is to tell the complete history of Alamo Plaza, Beavin noted. “I get that they want to focus on the Alamo, but that’s not all there is there. … Why not have the whole story?”

A good designer can showcase the battle, the civil rights movement, and more in the museum, Michael said. “You can do both.”

Different Versions of History

Long before Jimmy John’s sandwich shop and Ripley’s Haunted Adventure moved into the Woolworth building, the 1921 structure featured a lunch counter on the ground floor of the retail store where customers and area workers would dine.

Sit-ins and boycotts over racist Jim Crow-era laws across the South started gaining national attention in February 1960, when a sit-in protest was held at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.

After a meeting with NAACP leaders, San Antonio businesses owners agreed to integrate rather than attract more nonviolent demonstrations. The list of stores that agreed to desegregate included Woolworth, S.H. Kress & Co., Neisner’s, Grant’s, Green’s, and 23 Sommers drug stores.

The Conservation Society formed the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, with other history enthusiasts, to preserve the building. The group claims that the lunch counter was the first Woolworth to voluntarily and peacefully integrate in the south on March 16, 1960.

But the GLO’s Archives and Records department found that “it was clearly not even the first lunch counter desegregated in Texas,” citing an H-E-B and Woolworth in Corpus Christi that desegregated in the 1950s and highlighting the quiet desegregation of the Sears department store in San Antonio in the 1950s.

“No press was alerted to this fact in hopes there would be no white backlash,” according to the GLO report that cites several newspapers, journals, and books focusing on this period of time.

The Texas Historical Commission (THC) is slated to consider the Woolworth building’s historical significance later this week as the Conservation Society has nominated it to become a state antiquities landmark. It is already on the National Register of Historic Places.

An antiquities designation from the state would make it more difficult to alter or demolish the building, but not impossible.

“The land-owning agency must consult with the THC about such proposed actions through the permit process,” according to THC’s website, “and the THC will determine whether the work will be allowed.”

22 thoughts on “San Antonio Conservation Society Pitches Alamo Museum ‘Compromise’

  1. The speed of “the Alamo” dismissal from consideration of the Conservation Society’s efforts to promote reuse of historic landmarks on Alamo Plaza continues to demonstrate the lack of respect by the Texas General Land Office for San Antonio’s history as a whole.

  2. Gayle, I disagree. I think you have it backwards. The construction of the Crockett and Woolworth buildings, and the development of Alamo Plaza over the 1836 battlefield demonstrate the lack of respect by the citizens of San Antonio for the Alamo. The General Land Office is working diligently toward creating respect for the Alamo, and it seems to me that all this whining and complaining is doing nothing but showing the rest of Texas and the world that San Antonio has some whiners and complainers that need to be educated about their Alamo.

    • talk about whining and complaining – as usual Sarah, you are wrong!

      Think about the period of time those buildings were built – what was the Alamo Chapel doing (storage). Those buildings were modern, and progressive, and the sign of a booming San Antonio. No one cared about the Alamo or the Battle.
      Those buildings are as much the history of San Antonio as the beat-up little Chapel, and the Battle is NOT the only thing that has happened on that site in 100s of years.

      Try to stay up with the rest of us who understand.

  3. Alamo Plaza is a living testament to a liberty the Defenders probably would have enjoyed. Keep it open to vehicle traffic, rallies, marches, impromptu military ceremonies, and yes, even street preachers and grasps vendors!

  4. Sarah, if we were to propose fencing off a good chuck of downtown Austin, Dallas or Houston, I imagine we’d be hearing from those whiners as well. Nevermind the fact that ours has been a center of our community for over 300 years. This is about a group of monied “Texans” wanting to buy themselves a medal for recreating the Alamo. Their minds and plans were set years ago. The next step is to demolish our every-bit as historic buildings so a starchitect can pull world class museum building #138 off the shelf and gift it to SA. Show up for the opening gala and then come back again in maybe 10 years if they happen to have business in town. If they proceed as planned, it will be a tourist zone. Period. No longer of or about the city and people that started it all.

  5. I like the Alamo Architects design. It is very respectful to the buildings around Alamo Plaza that have been around for many years. We need to step back and look at all of the history of Alamo Plaza and not just the Battle of the Alamo. There are many cultural activities that have occurred for so many years at Alamo Plaza and it would be a shame if those activities cannot continue.

  6. I absolutely love this proposal!

    Let’s honor our past and embrace our future. This design executes this ideology PERFECTLY.

  7. Why not just buy the Menger outright and make a history museum out of it showcasing San Antonio history? Or buy back part of RiverCenter mall? Oh wait, those folks won’t sell, so let’s just sweep access away from the entire community (and its celebrated diversity-both racially and socio-economic) and contract some world-reknowned architect and construction firms from outside the city (sorry, Alamo Architectects, but thanks for the renderings) to “get ‘er done” in oh, let’s say approximately five years. And let’s hurry and start this project about the same time La Villita is all torn up, so that folks get used to NOT using these public areas and unsuspecting tourists get to share in the disappointment, too.

    It is/ was my hope that these historic treasures (the Pearl Brewery, LaVillita, Hays Street Bridge, LoneStar Brewery, St. Pauls Square, Main Plaza, the Mission Trail, AND the Alamo), would remain totally accessible for all people of SA, but I guess this will not be the case. I believe the idiom “cutting off your nose to spite your face” applies here, and I just hope San Antonio will have enough of a face left to smile after this five year, historic land-grab, feeding frenzy centered in the heart of San Antonio is over.

    A better compromise IS out there.

    • Right on! It seems government is ripping the the heart and soul and culture out of our downtown. Maybe it was a contributing factor in the mayor’s race. No more parades in front of the Alamo and no more NIOSA as we know it. That’s not progress, that’s killing the golden goose for locals and visitors alike.

    • I agree entirely. This “land grab” is very premeditated, and began when DRT had their custodianship stolen from them.

    • I agree with you 100% The Alamo will come out the loser. Downtown isn’t tourist or local friendly thanks to”progress”

  8. Esthetically – would a brand new, ultra-modern “Alamo Museum” rising up on the site of a demolished Woolworth building not be intrinsically jarring to the historical imprint of the entire Plaza? Is not this Conservation plan for saving these historically significant buildings the reasonable compromise we’ve all been seeking?

  9. The “museum” has already been built? The old Post Office Building. I sure the Feds would “give” it to SA to get if off it’s inventory? Size, prominence, location, it’s all there!! Maybe add the “Institute of Texan Cultures”? “The Alamo Museum Of Texas History and Culture”. What do you think?

  10. Please, Douglass McDonald, don’t tell me “what it means to be a Texan.” The Alamo is so many different things to so many different people. But I wouldn’t expect someone from Cincinnati to understand that. “The Alamo’s history is the most important history of this site,” cries McDonald. Nonetheless, it is not the only history on the plaza. Look at the responses to this article. Most people are dissatisfied with the plan that Alamo CEO McDonald is intent on pushing down our throats.
    McDonald brags and boasts that that both the Alamo Master Plan was – and the official museum design process will be – formulated in the public eye. I went to several of their ‘public eye’ meetings. Masses of people objected to the majority of their Alamo plan every step of the way.
    McDonald complains that the the Alamo Architects’ “design was secret, not known to anyone until a press conference today.” But secrecy is key to McDonald and his ilk. Councilman Treviño let slip that Alamo officials are negotiating a contract with an as-yet-unidentified architectural firm.
    I agree with Susan Beavin when she says, “We hope that the architects for the new Alamo museum will consider the benefits of a design that reflects the complete history of the plaza.” “It can’t be a compromise,” Trevino countered, “because they haven’t talked to the management committee and the folks that are defining the scope of the project.”
    Hello; the Conservation Society plan is an invitation to the management committee for a discussion. If we can have a discussion in the open pages of the Rivard Report, why can’t the Alamo officials and the Alamo Architects have a discussion?

    • McDonald needs to be fired and go back to New York City.

      He doesn’t get it. A hack for the State and the Alamo Committee.

  11. “The City, General Land Office, and Alamo Endowment hosted dozens of public and stakeholder meetings to develop the underlying master plan that will inform the final design.” It seems to be common practice in SA these days to hold a bunch of public meetings on a controversial issue then totally ignore what the public actually said at those meetings (remember Main Plaza?).
    I attended two of the Alamo meetings and heard that most people were opposed to restricting access through use of any type of barrier and, most in attendance opposed closing Alamo Street to traffic. I really haven’t seen that input from the public as voiced at these meetings was included in the Master Plan.
    Please, get rid of Mr. Mc Donald, who clearly doesn’t respect San Antonio’s history or culture while insisting on refashioning our downtown into a combination of Disneyland and a John Wayne saga.

  12. If the new Witte is any indication of how the modern and traditional can come together, I am all for some renovations to make the Alamo a more grand experience. It is lackluster and deserves to be highlighted as a Texas experience people remember.
    Although I’m not from Texas, I’ve been here a long time. Married a San Antonian, gave birth to a few, and watched the city grow. I am so proud of the progress made since I arrived.
    Thanks Iris & RR for the great article outlining this issue. Transparency, both sides of the issue (thanks, also, to brutally honest comments- no holds barred) and great images.

  13. There is nothing remotely “open to public engagement “in the Alamo Plaza
    Private State Land Grab design process”

    From the beginning key public involvement was limited to only those who agreed to return the plaza to its historic battlefield status and the complete privatization of our most historic public and community gathering place.

    The museum should not close the River Link access nor complete the privatization of our public space ….

    But then those in power are not listening .

    Bravo to Alamo Architecrs and the conservation society for trying to craft a compromise which keeps some semblance of our history and not the whitewashing of history that the Alamo Plan proposes.

  14. Look at what Hardberger did to the Plaza in front of San Fernando Cathedral. He created a traffic nightmare. Wedding parties and funeral processions have to trek across the cobblestone blocked area in all kinds of weather. Only people using the Plaza are the homeless.
    Now the La Villita is under attack. Decisions and planning by the “few that know better.” Why are we surprised? Same people getting voted in just to sell San Antonio right out from under our naive noses.
    They already know what they’re going to do with this property and why. There is a reason for the land grab in the surrounding area. Get over it people. This plan is in motion just like Hardbergers Plaza, La Villita, and SAISD’s properties.

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