Latest news on Alamo Plaza

December 3, 2016 Blog, Interpretation, Technology, Texas Comments (0) 405

The big news this week is the long-awaited release of the Alamo Master plan, following a process that took most of the year.  Actually, the real master plan won’t be done for another six months, but the summary that was released to City Council and civic groups finally takes some clear positions on what the Alamo area will look like in the future.

This image I took about five months ago in some ways summarizes the plan, offered by George Skarmeas of Philadelphia and a large local team.  The goal is to restore focus not simply on the Alamo church but the plaza in front of it.  They propose to remove traffic from Alamo Street, which while presenting a traffic challenge (there will be no northbound street route for half a mile) will reclaim the original ground level and create a coherent plaza to interpret both the mission period and the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.

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Of key importance to groups like the San Antonio Conservation Society, the historic buildings facing the Alamo across the plaza will not be demolished, as had been proposed by some who wanted to reconstruct the west wall of the compound (for stunning views of a 5-story parking garage, I guess).  Indeed, the team proposes turning the 1882 Crockett Block (see my blog on architect Alfred Giles) into a new high-tech Alamo museum, a double win for preservationists, who have advocated not only for the building but also for high-tech VR interpretation.  (Another blog reference.)

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The only cautionary note here is that the proposal guarantees preservation of the facades but foresees indeterminate change inside, due to potential demands of the new museum.  Hopefully they find a clever architect who can meet modern demands while minimizing disruption of historic fabric.  The plan also preserves the Woolworth Building, site of the first successfully and peacefully integrated lunch counter in the south, back in 1960, although those interiors are long gone.

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In addition to closing the street, the plan is to create a single, lower and more original level to the plaza, as opposed to the accretion of parks, gazebos, curbs and so forth that have cluttered the plaza and given visitors the impression that the church is where all the history happened, as opposed to the plaza, where it actually did.

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The trees are slated to go as well….

To reinforce the importance of the plaza, they will put a wall and entrance in the position of the original, primary South Gate.  The full plaza cannot be restored, since almost a third of it lies north of Houston Street, under the stunning Federal building and Post Office.

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Yeah, so about 20 yards into this building  is where Santa Anna broke through the Alamo wall…

Probably the most controversial proposal is to move the Alamo Cenotaph erected in 1940-41 and designed in marble and granite by sculptor Pompeo Coppini.  The cenotaph is fairly large and vertical, so it does contribute to the sense that the Alamo church is “too small,” a common visitor impression.  And while it might be located near where many fell, it is a cenotaph, which means no one is buried there.  They propose moving it to a greensward on the Riverwalk about three blocks away, where recent research has shown that the funeral pyre was likely located.  Despite this rationale I expect this aspect to be hotly debated in the coming months.

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On balance the plan will help create a more coherent interpretation, as opposed to the accretion of many layers, which does little to orient or educate visitors.

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It is significant that this work is happening in 2016 after the Alamo became part of the the San Antonio Missions World Heritage inscription of 2015.  Creating a coherent plaza will help interpret not only the great battle for Texas freedom, but also its long mission history.

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This is what the church looked like in 1836 – that distinctive campanulate top to the church was added by the US Army in the 1850s.  From Gentilz painting in San Antonio Museum of Art.

In fact, the church was built fairly late in the mission’s history and never completed (an earlier one collapsed). As Skarmeas said, the goal is to create a sense of reverence and solemnity on a site that is now a jumble of commercial concerns and random pathways ill-suited to contemplation.  To achieve it – in the center of the nation’s seventh-largest city – remains a great challenge.

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