They Say They Can Reimagine the Alamo, But Can They Listen?

Print Share on LinkedIn Comments More

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Alamo on a rainy day.

In the latest update on Reimagine the Alamo, Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) Design Director George Skarmeas called attention to the fact that air conditioning and added moisture have contributed to the Alamo’s deterioration.

This is nothing new. The State has been hearing this for 40 years.

Before I filed my complaint about the mismanagement of the Alamo with the Texas Attorney General in 2010, I reviewed the documentation at the Texas Historical Commission and verified that various past master plans done by various architects have focused on the same issues for the past 30 years – roof leaks, rising damp, and wall deterioration – but the Historical Commission had issued very few State Archaeological Landmark Permits for actual preservation work.

Alamo curator Bruce Winders glossed over the issue. In 2007, Winders told the Houston Chronicle that the Alamo got a new roof in its most recent renovation in 1999, but since then, there has been no need for urgent action as the structure remains stable.

“One of the rules of preservation is to not necessarily do something just for the sake of doing something,” he stated. “The main challenge that we face here at the Alamo is that – it sounds rather crass – the church and the long barrack are a collection of rocks. They have a historic significance, but they do what stone does over the ages, and that is, it tends to erode.”

Daughter of the Republic Nelma Walkinson sits as the ceremony begins. Photo by Scott Ball.

Daughters of the Republic of Texas sit in lawn chairs outside The Alamo.

Working with the Alamo’s preservation architects, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) has identified areas of limestone that need attention, but “sometimes being observant and doing nothing is better than doing something that later you find out was harmful and can’t be reversed,” Winders said.

“I would imagine that the Alamo itself would be here for hundreds of years. Look at Europe, where they have buildings hundreds of years old. Barring any catastrophe, the Alamo will be here.”

Still, he said, the Alamo faces “incremental loss of detail on the facade. In the past, in photographs, there was more detail. You can see that today in the graffiti. We have historic graffiti on the front of the church that is being lost.”

In 1979, ford, powell & carson commented that, “our present technology has produced no sure way to seal the stone to prevent deterioration.” Architects suggested that “a stone preservation specialist should be engaged to perform an in-depth study of the problems and outline specific technical solutions and maintenance.”

In 1984, engineers from Dabney Group, Raba Kistner, and others conducted an Alamo study which included an evaluation of stone, mortar, and HVAC. Their recommendation was that, “even though the rising damp has not been addressed around the building, a program of poulticing to take salts away from the surface of the stone should be established, especially in areas where the damage indicates the presence of high concentration of salts.”

In 1985, ford, powell & carson re-emphasized the importance of initiating the documenting and monitoring called for in their 1979 plan.

In 1990, the master plan update by architect Robert Morris again brought up preservation issues such as rising damp, moisture in the stone, and the establishment of an ongoing process of maintenance, which included inspection and problem monitoring (moisture in walls, soils, etc.) to alleviate potential problems or head them off before they become chronic.

The DRT was reminded that, “the technical information needed to make informed decisions regarding conservation, circula­tion, drainage, and so forth, is readily available from a variety of trained consultants if the committee can develop methods to ask for and effectively use the information they receive.”

Morris stated that, “the air conditioning equipment in and around the shrine should be replaced and concealed. In addition to being unsightly, the equipment blocks the view of the apse and adds moisture and vibration to the nearby walls.”

The Historical Commission also reinforced the statements in Morris’ master plan update in a letter to the DRT and Morris, written by State Historic Preservation Officer Curtis Tunnell.

In 1993, the Historical Commission informed the DRT that it had spoken with the National Park Service about the stone deterioration at the Alamo, and Robert Spode, Chief of National Preservation Programs for the National Park Service, was enthusiastic about offering assistance.

In 1998, the Historical Commission staff architect reviewed the 1998 “Report on the Preservation of the Alamo Facade” of work done in 1995-96 and commented that, “the existing data indicates that the air conditioning does not contribute to the migration of water to the interior of the building walls. However, a continuation of regular monitoring to evaluate the effectiveness of the damp-proof course is warranted.”

In 2007, ford, powell & carson’s master plan stated that, “The ongoing preservation of the Alamo Shrine is of the highest priority, and this work includes cleaning and stabilizing the interior walls, poulticing to remove salts, interior and exterior, continued monitoring of salts, repointing, installation of below-grade damp-proof material and solving the continuing problems of the roof leaks.”

They discussed the problem again, stating that, “discoloration of the walls and measurements indicate the presence of salts and rising damp all around the building,” and that, there was evidence of additional stone deterioration, pos­sibly due to rising damp. It was again recommended to poultice stones to remove salts, accompanied by a non-invasive program of measuring the salts on the wall surface on an annual basis.

In 2010, the firm’s master plan remained unchanged in the statement that, “the ongoing preservation of the Alamo Shrine is of the highest priority, and this work includes cleaning and stabilizing the interior walls, poulticing to remove salts, interior and exterior, continued monitoring of salts, repointing, installation of below-grade damp-proof material and solving the continuing problems of the roof leaks.”

Nothing happened.

Now we are hearing the same concerns by yet another consultant. Hopefully this time, the State will listen.

4 thoughts on “They Say They Can Reimagine the Alamo, But Can They Listen?

  1. Thank you for this history, even if it was a little disheartening to read. This time around certainly feels different than past preservation efforts that you highlighted, but I am sure that someone has said that every time the Alamo became a focus of concern.

  2. I read a similar pattern of neglect in the ignoring of various recommendations to close sections of Alamo Street to car and bus traffic – including considering possible vibration and other motorized traffic-related damage to historic structures there.

    Despite Project for Public Spaces (PPS) recommendation to the City in 2012 to close parts of Alamo Street and adjacent streets to traffic (which the latest master planning also endorses), VIA’s new VIVA routes, launched mid-2016, seem to have introduced a new intensity of motorized traffic (multiple heavy buses and routes running more frequently) immediately adjacent to the Alamo.

    I can’t think of any national monument where it is possible to approach so closely (within 100 feet) by car or bus – to the point that it seems the Alamo currently has a drive-thru. Concerns about Alamo deterioration (as well as the quality of the visitor experience) and recommendations from planners and engineers over the years indicate that sections of Alamo Street and adjacent streets near the Alamo be closed to car and bus traffic as an immediate step. Possibly starting this holiday season.

  3. Actually, a great deal was done in terms of technical preservation. You need to read all of the correspondence between the DRT and THC.

    • I have read it Martha, all the way back to the Master Plans of the 60s. All the correspondence, meeting notes, telephone notes by the THC, and emails between THC staff. That’s one of the reasons I filed the complaint with the Attorney General, and what led to their investigation and the removal of the DRT as custodians.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *