Last week the reports that the Alamo had commissioned regarding the three buildings the State purchased in 2015 were finally released more than two years after they were announced. The reports vindicated preservation.
The report from highly respected John G. Waite & Associates, Architects, confirmed what we had expected – the buildings are structurally sound and adaptable to a variety of uses, including a museum. Another report by Trinity University historian Dr. Carey Latimore was commissioned later, after the efforts of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building documented the history of San Antonio’s famous lunch counter integration, which occurred at seven sites on March 16, 1960. As a bonus, the Waite Report also noted that the Woolworth Building was the only one of the five surviving buildings that actually had physical traces of the lunch counter.
A third previously unknown report was designed to specifically counter the Conservation Society’s argument that the photographs taken March 16, 1960 all depicted the Woolworth lunch counter. I dealt with this conflict between documentary and visual evidence ten months ago here.
Just before the release, the Alamo announced the construction of a new exhibition hall at the east end of the existing gardens behind the shrine. The reason for this is that they have a deadline to exhibit Phil Collins’ Alamo collection.
The Conservation Society has been advocating for the re-use of these buildings for over five years, and the release of the reports vindicated our position, a position that also led to State Antiquities Landmark designation for the Woolworth Building, and its landing on the World Monuments Watch List 2020. We had been requesting these reports for over a year and we are glad that they have been finally made public.
NOVEMBER 13 UPDATE
City Council was briefed on the Alamo plan yesterday and there has been a lot of discussion of “unwinding the lease” between the city and the state. Political battles at the state level between GLO Commissioner George P. Bush and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the Texas Historical Commission’s denial of the plan to move the 1940 Cenotaph, and the departure of most of the project’s high profile private donors have put the whole project in question.
Here are three very nicely designed highrises one after the next. They are the Gibbs Hotel (1909) in a Renaissance/Chicago Commercial style, the Classical 1937 Courthouse and Post Office, and the Deco Gothic verticality of the Emily Morgan hotel (1926). This is in the heart of town just north of the Alamo.
In fact, these three buildings cover the north wall of the fabled mission and fortress. The famous 1836 battle began when Santa Anna successfully stormed the north wall, breaking in roughly between the Courthouse and the Emily Morgan. Commander Lt. Wm. Travis fell but a minute and a half into the battle, also on the north wall, to the left of where the streetlights are in the lower center of the photo.
The chapel, which everyone knows as the Alamo, was the first building preserved by the public west of the Mississippi, in 1883, less than fifty years after the battle. Already this had become the center of town and the large commercial Crockett Block was in place facing the chapel.
The Conservation Society began advocating for the re-use of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings when the state purchased them nearly five years ago for a new Alamo Museum. This was part of the larger reimagining of the Alamo that began in 2014. Sixteen months ago we presented a concept showing how the buildings could be added onto to make the new museum.
All this is preface to a curious push right now by the Save the Alamo Foundation to garner public support for their Alamo Plan. The most curious aspect of this push is that they don’t have a final design for the plaza. Nor even a preliminary design for the museum. How do you sell that?
Well, they are selling the idea that they will reclaim the footprint of the battlefield/mission walls. A portion of where the west wall was is 10 feet under the Crockett and Woolworth buildings. WHERE IT WAS – these buildings have 15 foot basements so there is NO remnant of the wall.
But let’s go back to the north wall, where all the action happened. Are they planning to take down the Gibbs Hotel and the Courthouse? No.
So what are they selling? An invisible museum? It seems they are selling the idea that the famed 1836 battle will – by itself – attract all sorts of tourists. Calmer heads, like CM Roberto Trevino, are arguing that the 110 years of history before the battle need to be interpreted as well. After all, it is the mission era that made the Alamo part of a World Heritage Site.
The Alamo spent 80 years as a mission, 50 as a fort, and 170 as the commercial heart of a growing city.
The most curious thing of all about the Alamo Plan is not the absence of a design, nor the decision to expose some wall sites rather than others, but the fact that it is driven by an interpretive message that appears to be scripted by a 10-year old boy in 1950.* I visited as a 15-year old and thoroughly enjoyed the tales of heroism and sacrifice. But that is a small demographic.
The 1836 battle is just the starting point for a much richer tale with stories relevant to all peoples and all times. Why don’t they sell that? The more you include, the more money you make – what am I missing here?
*Thanks to Evan Thompson for this quip.
AUGUST 25 UPDATE:
Well, they have a drawing now! The drawing shows the plaza reconstructed as a reenactment of the 1836 battle, with a second story on the Long Barracks, a rebuilt southwest rampart, and lots of cannon and palisades. The drawing, from their Facebook page and in the news, is rendered from a position above the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings, so no news on the museum.
While still clearly aimed at that 10-year-old, it is the first new illustration of the plan in two years, so that is something. The drawing shows reconstruction of the second story of the Long Barracks as well as an earthen rampart at the southwest corner with cannon. I have dealt with the folly of reconstruction in the digital age previously. The drawing also shows lots of living history reenactors, making the whole thing a curiously large investment in a moribund industry.
In a month the Texas Historical Commission will make a decision about moving the Cenotaph, which is a publicly funded portion of the project. No news yet on the museum or other privately funded projects.
FUN FACT: The reason Clara Driscoll insisted on taking down the second story of the Long Barracks in 1913 was that it dominated the plaza and overshadowed the shrine – the same argument for moving the Cenotaph today! So they move the Cenotaph and then overwhelm the Chapel with a reconstructed second story of the Long Barracks???
FUN FACT: Do you know that in 1997 when it closed, the proposal was to turn the Woolworth Building into an aviation museum? True!
Our World Monument Watch Day Event took place this past Saturday at the double-height courtroom of the Bexar County Courthouse, and it was stupendous. We had five excellent speakers who offered new insights into the role of Alamo Plaza and specifically the Woolworth Building in the story of Civil Rights in Bexar County.
You can see a full video of the event here. It began with a welcome from Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Conservation Society President Patti Zaiontz. Then, 16-year old Taylor Andrews, grandniece of Mary Lilian Andrews, read the letter that Mary wrote – at age 17 – in March, 1960 asking the downtown lunch counters to integrate.
Her letter, as Youth President of the NAACP San Antonio branch, led to a mass meeting on March 13, 1960. The meeting of 1500 persons agreed that a sit-in demonstration should begin on March 17. Business and religious leaders gathered on Tuesday and convinced seven downtown lunch counters to peacefully and voluntarily integrate on Wednesday, March 16, 1960, a first for the South. Jackie Robinson was in town Friday and said – in a Page 1 New York Times article – that it was “a story that should be told around the world.”
I gave a background of the issue – how the Conservation Society got the building listed on the state’s Most Endangered List in 2016, shortly after the state purchased it. Then the 2017 Alamo master plan and the 2018 Alamo interpretive plan. It was that 2018 plan that illustrated the Woolworth replaced with a new building. They have always wanted to reclaim the “footprint” of the original mission and battlefield, even though there are no archaeological remains (the buildings have basements)
The Conservation Society has consistently argued FOR a new Alamo museum WITHIN the Woolworth and Crockett Building facades. We even released a plan this May illustrating exactly that.
In May Woolworth’s was designated a State Antiquities Landmark and in October it was listed on the World Monuments Watch List 2020, one of 25 sites in the world. You can read all about that here. Thanks to that designation, we have hosted a series of events, including the symposium, held on February 1, the 60th anniversary of the very first sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Our first speaker was Everett Fly, who traced a series of Civil Rights events on Alamo Plaza, beginning back in the 1880s when an African-American group successfully sued the Mayor for denying their right to assemble there. Everett passionately defended the character of the Alamo city, where diverse groups were more likely than other places to mingle, and Alamo Plaza was the premier place they did so.
Next was Dr. Tara Dudley of University of Texas – Austin, an expert on the National Register. African-Americans are nearly 13% of Texas’ population but are represented in less than 5% of our National Register properties. Indeed, the Woolworth Building National Register listing from 40 years ago is only about its excellent architecture and the Civil Rights story was not told until it was listed as a State Antiquities Landmark in 2019.
Dr. Bruce Winders, who was Alamo historian and curator for 23 years until last July, voiced his support for keeping the buildings on Alamo Plaza and not destroying them to recreate a space that became a city more than a century and a half ago. You don’t tear down a real historic building to reveal the site of a long-lost wall.
Dr. Todd Moye of the University of North Texas shared some videos from his Civil Rights in Black and Brown project, which has collected more than 500 oral histories from veterans of the Civil Rights movement in Texas. He described in vivid and unpleasant detail what the sit-in activists faced in other cities, further underscoring the unique response of San Antonio.
Finally, Dr. Kathryn O’Rourke gave a rousing presentation on how plazas have defined the power relationships in a society from the Renaissance forward. She passionately related how Alamo Plaza is a civic space made richer by its layered history and legacy of freedom of expression over the last century and a half. She received a standing ovation.
Everyone agreed that the Symposium was a roaring success, with five excellent speakers and nearly 100 engaged participants. It proved that the story of Woolworth’s and the other lunch counters resonates with people and can be a force for preservation.
Many thanks to sponsors Bexar County Commissioner’s Court, World Monuments Fund, H-E-B and the San Antonio Public Library. You can view the full symposium here.
If you want to see what the Alamo Plaza plan was like exactly four months ago prior to a series of public meetings, check out my blog from June 20 here. If you want to see what the City Council approved last week, check out my blog from June 20 here. Not much changed, although a booklet called Alamo Plan August 2018 did address a series of the questions that came up during the public meetings and explained why things pretty much had to stay the way they were. Like the website, the book starts on the negative, decrying all of the icky things that happen in front of the Alamo.
Always best to start with the negative..
We don’t get the POSITIVE vision for the site until after the City hands over control. It is curious that we only are presented what Alamo Plaza shouldn’t be – the few images in the booklet are generic and uninspiring.
The Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings that we have been advocating for for the last three years. These face the Alamo chapel. In the August 2018 book they announce they will “assess the significance and integrity according to national standards” and “assess opportunities for reuse, including how to connect multiple floor plates”. This is the equivalent of Henry II’s plaintive wail “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
The City Council voted to lease the plaza and streets to the State of Texas for 50 years (with two 25-year extensions). The main changes over the four months were not changes to the plan as much as changes to those opposed to the plan. The two main parades (Battle of Flowers and Fiesta Flambeau) agreed to the new parade routes, the Citizens Advisory Committee publically approved the plan, and the Historic and Design Review Committee approved the moving of the Cenotaph, which raised the most controversy over the summer.
The new location of the Cenotaph within the plaza area was arguably the only change made to the plan itself. They did add some new drawings commemorating the Payaya Indians who first inhabited the 1718 mission to the final presentation and book. These added illustrations received significant commendation from the Council members for interpreting more than just the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. So… they included the 18th century, but what about the 20th???
The Phil Collins-sponsored metal model plaques that were installed this year start with 1744, and then march to 1785, 1793, 1836, 1846, 1861 and … then stop marching at 1900. This is the problem: They claim to interpret 300 years of history but actually stop halfway, prior to the 20th century. Which is when Adina de Zavala and Claire Driscoll actually saved the Alamo. And a city happened.
Despite the casting of this summer’s plan as an “interpretive plan,” the only hints at interpretation were images of costumed interpreters and the recent hiring of a living history director. Although they have assured me there will be 21st century museum staples like augmented reality, there is a curious fondness for the unpopular and unprofitable world of 20th century living history, which I surveyed in another recent blog.
In fairness to our city leaders, we raised a big stink about the importance of the Woolworth’s Building in Civil Rights history (see my blog here) and this was referenced in the City’s lease agreement, if not into the Alamo Plan publication. But it can still be demolished.
That would be a missed opportunity to make money.
A recent study shows that Civil Rights tourism is one of the few categories of tourism that is growing – a new Green Book movie is coming out and the National Museum of African-American History with 2.4 million tourists has kicked off a boom in the sector.
Fine looking building – would be worth saving for architecture. But the Civil Rights history is even more epic.
The other big issue this summer was access, a subject of our petition. The new museum which will occupy the space (and hopefully the facades) of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings will be open 9-5 and during that time only one access point to the plaza – next to the museum – will be open to the public.
No sneaking in!!!!!
Up to six gates in the new fences surrounding the plaza will be open at other times, so that vital midnight selfie in front of the Alamo will be only a bit less convenient than today. This element of the plan upset most of the architects and planners in town, and again, there was minimal change – more off-hours access points were added, but daytime stayed at one.
My normal time is 7 AM, although I will probably have to leave my bike outside.
So, now all the decisions will be taken by the state. The Citizens Advisory Committee and the Historic and Design Review Commission will comment on the results of the architectural assessments, but the power lies with the General Land Office of the State of Texas.
We can hope. Our focus at San Antonio Conservation Society remains on the buildings. Roads can be closed and opened. Gates can be added and subtracted, Fences can be erected and deconstructed. But once you tear down these historic buildings, they are gone forever.
This year I published a chapter called “Addressing the Diversity Deficit: Reform the National Register of Historic Places” in a book called Creating Historic Preservation in the 21st Century. This is a topic I have been working on for many years. You can see some of my writing on it here and here.
The National Register and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment are not culturally neutral tools. For historical and pragmatic reasons, they privilege architecture and white male history. Worse, those cultures oppressed in the past are forced to relive that oppression when told that their historic sites lack “integrity.”
Where “Invisible Man” was written in the 1940s, Manhattan.
Those who were second-class citizens had to make do with second-class facilities and now second-class landmarks. Second-class status is perpetuated when we make minority landmarks live up to rules designed by and for the dominating culture.
Woolworth’s, designed by Adams and Adams in 1921.
The relevance of this struck me in regard to the State of Texas plan to demolish the Woolworth’s Building on Alamo Plaza, which emerged three months ago (see my blog about it here.)
This was a major building by a national chain at the major intersection of Alamo and Houston Streets. The interior is heavily altered, but the exterior looks much as it did when built in 1921. It is on the National Register and a local landmark. But wait. There’s more.
The San Antonio Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counter on March 16, 1960, peacefully and without demonstration. This was a first for the South. The Greensboro, N.C. sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter had been only six weeks earlier. It was a first for Woolworth’s, a national chain that was still being picketed nationwide and would not officially adopt an integrated lunch counter policy for months.
A few days later Jackie Robinson, in San Antonio, compared the event to his entry into Major League Baseball and said “It is a story that should be told around the world,” according to the New York Times.
Five other stores also integrated peacefully on that day, and none wanted to be called out. The San Antonio Express and News reported:
“Speculation was that the flat refusal by the group to name the stores may stem from recent reports that some of the larger chain stores have ordered their managers not to integrate.
Also, a spokesman from one store said earlier that most of the businesses are for integration, but none of them want to be named as the first to make the move.”
Kress, one of the other stores.
Photos of the Woolworth’s store ran in the San Antonio News that day, and Kress was mentioned in the Light. While some of the other stores’ locations survive, thanks to Greensboro, Woolworth’s remains forever front-and-center in civil rights history.
SO – what happens now? Three months after they released their initial plan to demolish the Woolworth’s building, the Alamo is now hiring an architect to evaluate the buildings based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and their significance at the national state and local levels.
If you have experience with minority culture sites, you can see where this is going.
They have already released an illustration showing how the three building’s interior floors don’t line up. That will be Reason 1, although it will be wrong, because in this particular case you could gut the interiors so they do line up – just like Joske’s did – and still have the exterior where the young African-American boy peering into the store was photographed on March 16, 1960.
Joske’s, November 2014.
And you can still interpret the long-lost mission wall and buildings inside – in the shade.
Reason 2 will be that the building does not have sufficient integrity on the interior. This conclusion would require ignoring both the minority cultural context and current directives on evaluating interior integrity. Recognizing its deficiencies in addressing cultural and historical sites, in December 2016 the National Park Service issued new guidance that encourages conserving “a space’s historic associations even though its component features and materials may be themselves so highly deteriorated that their integrity is irretrievably lost.”
Woolworth’s storefront on Houston Street – the markings on the ground show where mission buildings were. Also where Travis lived during the siege. Probably his slave Joe as well.
Reason 3 will be this: If you demolish Woolworth’s you will still have other sites that witnessed peaceful integration in March, 1960. That is true, and incredibly insulting.
It says your history can make do with fewer landmarks. It says because you have Neisner’s, Kress’ and Green’s then you don’t need the only one people have heard of.
Erasing an authentic place for a reconstruction?
Whose history would be erased for whose?
Photo: UTSA Special Collections Courtesy San Antonio Express News
Are they making a state park in the middle of the city? With a 130,000 square foot museum? Fencing off the San Antonio’s most important public space?
This is the Piazza Navona, one of the world’s great urban spaces. It sits on the site of the Roman Circus. There is no need to recreate the circus, or wall it off. The use of that space by the public connects it back 2000 thousand years and forward another 1000. It is alive, not covered by glass or shrubs. Alamo Plaza is our Piazza Navona. They are almost the same size and scale.
Last year’s Master Plan envisioned glass walls around the Alamo Plaza. This year’s Interpretive Plan reduces the walls to fences and shrouds them in shrubs, but the goal is the same. Manage – and likely monetize – the space. Since both plans have this attribute, the order is clearly coming from the client, not the designer.
No more sneaking in
Public meetings are going on now to take stock of this interpretive plan. Bottom line? Every San Antonian has the right to take a selfie in front of the Alamo at 1 A.M.
Or 7 A.M.
We at the San Antonio Conservation Society are circulating a petition focusing on access to the plaza and the buildings that face the Alamo. We have been fighting for these buildings since 2015 when the state bought them, and a year ago, we thought we had won! Last year’s Master Plan had the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth’s Buildings saved as part of the new museum. We supported that, along with the restoration of the chapel and Long Barracks, and the regrading of the plaza to create a more uniform space in the courtyard/battlefield. The City Council approved it. This year’s plan is different, and not in a good way.
Crockett Building on left, built the year before the Alamo was purchased by the state.
This is still the location of the big ‘ol museum. For our presentation, they showed keeping the front half of the Crockett Building, which would create an appropriately reverent transition from the courtyard/battlefield to the high-tech wizardry they are promising inside. They also had an illustration that demolished all three buildings.
The plan we saw removed the two other landmark buildings, including the Woolworth’s on the corner, site of the first voluntary peaceful integration of a lunch counter in the South (March 1960). All three are landmarks locally and listed on the National Register.
You can interpret both the lunch counter and the long-lost west wall of the compound inside the building. In the shade. Why is it always either/or? Designers know better.
The real irony here is that in the name of interpreting history, they suggest removing actual century-old historic buildings in order to replace them with modern versions of long-lost elements, like the wall. Replacing real history with fake history? Tossing actual historic fabric in the dumpster for a conjectural reconstruction?
The other big issue is access. Last year the plan closed Alamo Street in front of the Alamo. Now they are closing part of Houston Street to the north, Crockett Street, and the bit of Alamo between Market and Commerce. Access is limited to five gates. The planners are adamant that the Battle of Flowers parade and Fiesta Flambeau can’t parade in front of the Alamo? Why? We have a fence around Wulff House and we still let the Granaderos y Damas de Galvez do their living history there once a year. We take the fence down for a day and then put it back. That’s not hard. Why the bloodymindedness?
We okayed closing Alamo Street in front of the chapel a year ago, but now the closures have grown like kudzu and it seems there will be little northerly traffic through the downtown.
Unless they re-open Main Plaza. Just sayin’.
I still don’t get why no one has proposed restoring the chapel to the way it was during the battle.
In addition to the irony of demolishing actual historical things for reproductions, there is the irony of wanting to get rid of the “tacky” theme park-styled attractions that occupy the Woolworth’s and Palace Buildings, as well as more to the south. Yet walling off the plaza for heritage reenactment risks turning the whole thing into a kind of theme park like Colonial Williamsburg.
The amount of physical intervention proposed by this interpretive plan is really staggering. This is the 21st century – you don’t need the sort of physical interventions people were doing in the 1930s (like Colonial Williamsburg). Or 1960s. This is NOW. Augmented reality, programmable to the latest discoveries. Clean up, regrade and reprogram. No heavy machinery needed.
Looking at the key point where the March 6, 1836 battle turned – underneath the Post Office.
Check out my previous blogs on how actual tourists will be experiencing historic sites tomorrow. Don’t spend millions crafting something that will be silly in five years. Y’all can’t outdo Piazza Navona. That takes actual, continuous history, not a recreated circus.
Not the Alamo. Also not Piazza Navona, but it is a Roman ruin.
AUGUST 2 UPDATE:
Still no timeline for a revised plan, but they are releasing an RFQ for an architect for the museum and commissioning someone to evaluate the buildings in light of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment. The National Trust for Historic Preservation weighed in with a letter urging preservation of the buildings. The City Manager, Mayor, County Judge and Councilman Trevino have all gone public in support of preserving the buildings and keeping the plaza open, which are the two main points in our petition. And our petition now has over 6,200 signatures!
OCTOBER 1 UPDATE
We now have more information on the importance of the Woolworth’s Building (see my blog here) and a new August 2018 The Alamo Plan. It devotes six pages to the Crockett Block buildings, beginning with “Why can’t you retain the buildings on the west side of the site?” following with “This needs further study” and then “Retain multiple options until later in the design process” and then “Assess the Significance and Integrity” before two pages of structural diagrams showing how the floors don’t line up.
After reading these pages it is hard not hear Henry II shouting “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
My blog also deals with the integrity and structural issues FYI.
Petition drive now concluded with about 7,300 total. City Council votes on October 18.