World Heritage Can’t Be Enclosed in Glass Walls

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Two battle re-enactors look on as visitors wander through Alamo Plaza.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Two battle re-enactors look on as visitors wander through Alamo Plaza.

I have visited 100 or so of the 1,052 World Heritage sites, including 16 of the 23 sites in the United States. I know this because I counted them Saturday while searching online for an urban site recognized by UNESCO that is enclosed in modern glass walls.

I learned two things Saturday. One, I am not as well traveled as I thought, and I have a lot of World Heritage travel to plan in the coming years if I am going to visit a greater number of the remarkable sites in my lifetime. Two, I could not find a single site enclosed by glass walls.

Are there any World Heritage sites enclosed in glass walls?

I put the question to Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and Trish DeBerry, who is handling media for the Alamo Management Committee and Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) of Philadelphia, in an email last week. No one had responded by the weekend, but the concept is bound to be the subject of continuing community debate, so I expect a response in due course.

In an earlier email to DeBerry, I invited PDP’s Director George Skarmeas; Treviño, the council representative on the committee; and Alamo Endowment Chairman Gene Powell, to submit articles or commentary on the subject of the overall master plan, the glass walls, or any other design elements which have been the subject of community debate over the last month. DeBerry has indicated that invitation will be accepted.

The glass walls were conceived as an alternative to recreating walls around the original Mission San Antonio De Valero perimeter that still existed at the time of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. Historic recreation is discouraged by UNESCO and historic preservationists, but I believe the Texas General Land Office, Powell in his leading role, and perhaps City officials, all want to secure the area, which has been an open plaza for more than a century.

The original plan called for removing shade trees and limiting access to the enclosed grounds through a single entrance situated where archaeologists have determined the Alamo’s main gate existed on the south wall, all later destroyed. Revised plans will protect most of the existing trees and add multiple pedestrian portals to the walls, according to remarks by Treviño at the final public hearing.

City Council on Thursday voted unanimously in favor of the $450 million Alamo Master Plan, which initiates the hiring of architects to design the final physical space surrounding the Alamo and allows City and State officials to start work on key elements of the plan.

The vote moves several elements of the plan forward: restoration of the church and Long Barracks, partial closure of South Alamo and Crockett streets, relocation and restoration of the 1930s Alamo Cenotaph, and the conveyance of leasing management duties for the plaza to the General Land Office.

This daytime rendering shows the pedestrian plaza that South Alamo Street (looking north) could become.

Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

This daytime rendering shows the pedestrian plaza that South Alamo Street (looking north) could become.

The controversial glass walls have not been approved and appear to be developing as an issue between Mayor Ivy Taylor and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), who face each other in the June 10 runoff election. The public has been told that such design concepts and decisions will be worked out in the coming months, but some fear the council vote will serve as a de facto approval of the PDP master plan without significant changes.

Establishing a greater sense of solemn reverence and dignity at the site and maintaining open public access, Nirenberg said, are not mutually exclusive.

“Take down those walls,” Nirenberg said. “Part of [the plaza’s] history is being available and open to the public.”

Taylor, in her public remarks, has appeared undecided on the concept of glass walls, but also appears to be more deferential to the designers and committee.

“In all our hearts and minds … [we] hold that concept dear that, yes, this is an important civic space for our community,” Taylor said Tuesday. “But I believe it’s important for us to respect the process.”

Both candidates appeared at an impromptu meeting of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association last week and responded to questions from residents.

Popular opinion is strongly opposed to glass walls, judging from the hundreds of people who have attended public hearings on the master plan, published submissions to the Rivard Report, posted comments, and social media traffic. Whether the matter becomes a significant point of difference between Taylor and Nirenberg in the brief runoff campaign remains to be seen.

A public forum on urban World Heritage sites would be a useful exercise. Security is a legitimate issue, and anyone studying security at the Alamo would agree that it is inadequate today, and better flow of visitors is and should be a goal of the committee.

PDP has an impressive portfolio of historic preservation and planning, and I don’t believe anyone should doubt Skarmeas’ well-deserved reputation as a world-class designer and preservationist. He was elected chairman of the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and appointed Commissioner on the U.S. Commission of UNESCO, dealing with matters of World Heritage in 2010.

So why did he recommend glass walls as a central concept of the master plan?

I believe he was presented with an impossible proposition by State and City officials: Create a memorable visitor experience, and at the same time, close off the plaza space in front of the Alamo to keep out the homeless, street preachers, and unwanted after-hours visitors exiting local bars. Glass walls are the only way to maintain site lines, yet enable State officials to lock the doors at night.

Tourists perform a circus like stunt on Alamo Plaza for a photograph to send to their friends ands family. Photo by Scott Ball.

Tourists get acrobatic on Alamo Plaza for a photograph to send to friends and family.

Whether a walled-off plaza is even legal is another matter, one not explored publicly until local historical preservation advocate Sarah Reveley published a submission on the Rivard Report that cites the 1871 deed when the Catholic Church sold the property to the City of San Antonio. Her finding merits public consideration and debate.

There are other ways to secure the space, and one is the presence of state or local law enforcement officials who enforce posted hours and regulations. Access to the Alamo Church and grounds, understandably, will now require visitors to pass through a security screening and obtain a ticket with a time and date for their visit. Those same restrictions work well at the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York Harbor and Independence Hall National Historic Park in Philadelphia, both UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, and since 2015, San Antonio’s Alamo and Spanish-colonial Missions, are the only urban World Heritage sites in the continental United States. Others might argue that Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., also a World Heritage site, is an urban site. That site is the former home and grounds of President Thomas Jefferson and the university campus he designed, and thus not analogous, in my opinion.

There are no glass walls around the first two historic sites. No one is suggesting the four Missions located further south should be walled in glass. I do not think the case has been made for enclosing the Alamo and portions of the plaza in glass walls.

24 thoughts on “World Heritage Can’t Be Enclosed in Glass Walls

  1. You may be right that the state wants the wall to control access for the plaza. But from the very beginning of the planning at the local level, there has been discussion of demarcation of the walls. At one point, it was to put something like yellow bricks in the pavements to show where the walls existed. Of course, the new plan doesn’t even follow where the walls existed so it is a farce.

    • I think the proposal to demarcate the original walls with transparent plexiglass over exposed wall footings is a good way to show the original footprint. Like you, I believe it is a good idea only if it follows the actual footprint and not a representational version of the north walL. If that means that less than 100% of the wall footings can be exposed, so be it. -RR

  2. I like the concept of the walls. For the longest time here in San Antonio people have used and abused the land in and around the “Sacred” Alamo. And I dont care about what other world heritage places and if they have walls or not I care about the Alamo! I think the architechs should stick to there guns and fight just like the heros of the Alamo! Fight to preserve the sacred Alamo! Build a glass wall tell the world this is how we (locals) protect this most sacred hallowed ground that has been abused for years!

    • I’ll never understand how some people can think that local’s having a personal connection to the Alamo is somehow abuse. How a parade in front of the Alamo that is dedicated to the fallen heroes of that battle is some form of abuse.

      Somehow walling the people of San Antonio out shows reverence but letting a bunch of tourists walk all over that “hallowed ground”, and setting up nice patios for them to sit and eat an ice cream or sip a Starbucks coffee while they gawk at what was once our city’s greatest treasure will be just fine with you.

  3. Thank you for your comments on how unresponsive City Council is to the citizens.
    I studied the big oak trees yesterday. Some are over 200 years old….the beauties that are right by the Alamo….,certainly 181 years old, dating back to the Battle.
    The trees on the West side of the plaza along Alamo St are 50 years old, no slouch for a heritage oak.

    STOP THE RAPE OF OUR ALAMO.
    Send Philadelphia packing and
    PROTECT THE ALAMO
    RESTORE THE ALAMO
    and
    REMEMBER THE ALAMO

  4. Independence Hall is a perfect example for a few of reasons.

    Firstly, it lies at the heart of Philadelphia which is the home of Preservation Design Partnership (PDP), so the folks at this firm should be able to understand why they are getting push-back here by imagining how their fellow Philly residents would react to closing Chestnut St. and walling out the public from their iconic UNESCO site.

    Second, It was built during the same time period as Misión San Antonio de Valero, with ground being broken on the site at around 1733. It’s as old as The Alamo and of huge historic importance to our nation, sitting at the very center of the founding our our nation. Much like the Alamo sits at the very center of the founding of our state.

    Have a look at the google street view from right in front of Independence Hall

    https://goo.gl/maps/b4TvA9cMw6m

    You can see that the enormous open park in front of the Hall and the huge museum running the length of that park where the Liberty Bell is housed along with other pieces of American History.

    The Plaza is open to foot traffic, the road is open to vehicle traffic, and everybody is free to come and go as they choose. They are free to celebrate, as they choose as well.

    Here is a video of their Independence Day Parade

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kW5ATqM7PSc

    Watch as the parade passes directly in front of the Birthplace of Our Nation, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Independence Hall.

    What could be more American? What could be a better place for this parade?

    Now think about the Battle of Flowers Parade. A Parade that honors the fallen heroes of the Battle of the Alamo. A Parade that served as the genesis for Fiesta San Antonio. We’re going to kick them out of Alamo Plaza?

    How would the people of Philadelphia feel if the state of Pennsilvania decided to shut down Chestnut St. and wall them out. Stop them from parading in front of their cherished hall in favor of putting on a good show for the tourists when the show up who don’t want to see a car drive in front of Independence Hall because it ruins the illusion for them.

    How dare Councilman Trevino vote to hand our plaza to the GLO. How dare he allow this committee to even put forth such a plan, let alone vote to approve it. He has sold his district and his city down the river.

    I think it’s about time we organize protest in support of an open Alamo Plaza.

    Saturday, May 27th would be a perfect day for a protest.

    It’s before the runoff elections, so it might actually have the potential to change public policy.

    Whatever happens with the Alamo, it’s preservation and the museum, we need to stand up for our public space and our claim to that plaza.

    #RememberOurAlamo

  5. I just reminded the city council that the division between 1836 and 2017 is abrupt when depending upon a glass wall. The plaza actually extends from the post office South to the Alamo/Commerce street. Segregating the Alamo part of this plaza from the other is causing all the public uproar.

  6. Thank you for your commentary Bob, common sense combined with civic concern. You should publish an editorial weekly!

    It’s time to direct our complaints to UNESCO, through their Reactive Monitoring Process http://whc.unesco.org/en/reactive-monitoring/#1 . Private individuals, non-governmental organizations, or other groups may draw the World Heritage Committee’s attention to existing threats to its protection, conservation, and presentation. Threats include The Mayor and the City Council’s disregard of the 1871 deed restrictions in Alamo Plaza, the inappropriate glass wall, and the proposed Cenotaph move. The World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies review all information available on the state of conservation reports submitted by the State Party, information received from third parties, press articles, mission reports, comments and feed-back on these by the State Party, etc.

    Finding a proper contact at UNESCO on their website is difficult. I have written to the Chief of Unit – Europe and North America, Isabelle Anatole-Gabriel i.anatole-gabriel@unesco.org and the World Heritage Committee http://whc.unesco.org/?cid=151 to find out where Reactive Monitoring Process complaints should be sent. In the meantime, y’all start gathering as many complaints as you can find on social media, so we can provide them to the World Heritage Committee.

  7. The rubber-stamped plan also calls for the introduction of a “FAKE” Madre Acequia alignment on the East Side of the Alamo Site. This is an inappropriate, destructive recommendation that desecrates the most significant Franciscan / Mission Indian, World Heritage Site in the nation. With City Council’s approval, UNESCO now has the evidence to place this site on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site “Endangered List”. PDP / George Skarmeas has demostrated tremendous incompetence, as well as “gross negligence”. He nor their team have the credentials, experience or demonstrated skills (having refused, at the City of San Antonio’s direction, to respond to crticial questions over the last six months), to deal with complex Franciscan / Mission Indian Site related issues. It’s time to “Repeal and Replace” both PDP, as well as well as “Special Interest” media tool, Trish DeBerry. That’s my opinion – and not mine alone.

  8. Another contact for the UNESCO complaint:
    Bill Pencek is the Executive Director of US/ICOSMOS and said in his letter on the website that if you have any suggestions or feedback please reach out to bpencek@usicomos.org .

    US/ICOMOS is the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, that fosters heritage conservation and historic preservation. It is a private, 501c3 non-profit, non-governmental organization http://www.usicomos.org

  9. A wall isn’t the end of the world, a glass wall probably isn’t a best idea, but perhaps a stone wall with glass inserts strategically placed where children and adults could see the inside and get the perspective of what the fort appeared to look like … back then. Trees could be strategically placed inside the wall so they would not ruin the view when looking through the inserts…

  10. A wall is in violation of the deed restriction of 1871 for the Galera (the structure including the hospital, the south gate, and the jail) which says:

    “and it being understood that the property hereby conveyed is as conveyed on condition that it shall be dedicated to the public use as an open space, and be made a part of and one with, the public plaza above and below it, now known as the Alamo Plaza and the Plaza de Valero.”

    It doesn’t really matter what any of us think. The courts will have to settle it.

  11. Bob, thank you for your continuing coverage of this issue.
    This is another example of the top-down approach to our city governance and it stinks. It is good to keep in mind that the Alamo fetishists have been at this for more than twenty years and the citizens of San Antonio admitted to the conversation only late in the game. I hope our elected officials will listen. We can accomplish an impressive overhaul of the site without walls. The budget is certainly impressive.
    Also, I feel much better as a D1 resident. Our councilperson doesn’t return Bob Rivard’s calls either.

  12. As an alternative to glass walls and full walls, why not an original wall footprint but perhaps 3-4 tall? Shows the footprint and gives maximum visibility.

    • Very good idea. Seems like the best option at this point. I do see the need to build in some sort of barrier, to make it easier for security guards to keep order and control. This option at least doesn’t block the view completely.

  13. Thank you for your thoughts Bob, and thank you very much for hosting germane, insightful commentary on the Alamo master plan process. RivardReport rules!

    If Mayor Taylor does not take a stand one way or the other on the glass walls, I will strongly lean towards voting for Councilman Nirenberg this time. I am thankful that she and City Manager Sculley, and past powers-that-still-be, have helped me to continue to realize SA’s potential with the 2012 and 2017 bonds, and successfully negotiating with SAPOA. I was proud to support her May 6th.

    But now that the 2017 bond has been set in motion (and I bet Ron can do well in helping negotiating SAFD’s contract), I want to draw my line-in-the-sand on those damned glass walls. I will visit the Cenotaph, and maybe realize the new site is the better place.

    Thank you Erik Olsen, and thank you Sarah Reveley, for y’all’s links and words here.

    Keep the Plaza free-access! Make our SA missions UNESCO World Heritage-worthy! I await your “yes!” or “no”, Mayor Taylor.

  14. Mayor Taylor asks us to “respect the process”, and she completely avoids providing her stance regarding the wall issue. I believe that this is just a stall tactic, just to get her past the election. She’s not about to volunteer her position if the media doesn’t press her for one, why should she, she’s very clever. This could be the one issue that swings the election. I know the Rivard Report sees the urgency, yet I don’t understand why they don’t press her for an answer, they only tell us that she appears undecided. It’s obvious that they should. If the media doesn’t press her for one in the next few days, and if Nirenberg doesn’t make more of an issue of it, it’ll be too late.

  15. Is the opposition to “walls” opposition to glass walls or any type of wall? If the plan included reconstruction of walls replicating the walls that existed in 1836, and was part of an effort to recreate the Alamo as close to its 1836 footprint and appearance as possible, would the opposition remain, especially if the plaza remained accessible at all hours and access wasn’t just through a main entrance on the south side as planned? JP

  16. Dear Mr. Patterson: If your question about stone wall reconstruction is directed to me, I would respond by deferring to individuals more expert in the terms of what UNESCO World Heritage would approve or disapprove. My focus in this and other columns on the glass walls centers on two points. First, the glass walls and limited access eliminates the plaza as a public place. Second, I am pushing for a more complete explanation from the Committee of why they want to wall in and secure the premises. The historic perimeter can be demarcated with below-ground exposure of the original wall footings, so the glass walls appear to serve some other purpose. It’s newsworthy, I believe, that I am unable to find any other urban battle site or other World Heritage property enclosed in glass walls. If the Alamo is to be the first, it begs the question: Why? Thanks you for reading the Rivard Report and for commenting. –RR

  17. I’ve stated this before, that if glass walls are constructed, then gang members will use these glass walls as their canvas to etch, scratch, and engrave gang signs and sayings into the glass. Then how much will the city dish out to replace the glass? Thousands upon thousands of dollars?

  18. I’ve tried to point out the glass graffiti problem that downtown San Antonio already has with the glass windows, but no one seems to ever look and see how ugly windows are downtown and to make the connection to what would happen with these glass walls. Just last week, I saw a glass wall in Spain, and it was etched, had stickers on it, and had smudges on it (from feet? from ice cream? from whatever?). It looked pitiful in front of a beautiful old building.

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