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!
Late last year, the Conservation Society joined together with several other organizations to form the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, the 1921 structure at Alamo and Houston Streets that was the first Woolworth’s lunch counter to integrate peacefully and voluntarily during the sit-in movement of 1960. I wrote about the Coalition earlier this year HERE.
Last year the City turned the whole project over to the State of Texas, owner of the Woolworth, Palace and Crockett buildings since 2015. For four years we have advocated a plan that would incorporate the buildings into the new Alamo museum. Recently that plan was endorsed by the Society of Architectural Historians.
We decided to envision what the 1921 Woolworth Building and its neighbor the 1882 Crockett Building would look like as part of the new museum. We hired an architect. We called it the compromise plan because we gave up on a bunch of issues we fought for last summer, like fencing the plaza, closing the streets, moving the Cenotaph and even preserving the 1926 Palace Building.
The plan envisions a reveal of the location of the west wall of the Alamo compound INSIDE the existing buildings. Elimination of the Palace Building simplifies the problem of misaligned floorplates, and a large addition behind and above the Crockett and Woolworth provides the 130,000 square feet the Alamo desires.
Most importantly, the plan maintains the integrity of century-old buildings and allows the interpretation of the Mission period, the 1836 battle, and the 1960 Civil Rights movement. This makes the site appeal to more tourists.
Recently the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, which includes our San Antonio branch of the NAACP, West Side Preservation Alliance, San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, SAGE, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and others, noted that it will also be a draw for Civil Rights tourism, a rare growth area in the museum industry. (See my blog on this topic a couple months ago HERE.)
Plus, it retains authentic historic fabric rather than removing it for a location of a wall that is entirely gone. The buildings have basements.
Sadly, and despite the multiple concessions we made to our earlier position (and 7,000+ petitions!) the Alamo dissed our plan. They said – as I predicted 364 days ago HERE – that the lunch counter story could be told at one of the other lunch counters that also integrated on March 16, 1960.
When Jet magazine decided to honor Mary Lilian Andrews, the 17-year old Our Lady of the Lake college student who wrote the letters asking the downtown lunch counters to integrate, they photographed her in Woolworth’s.
Woolworth’s was the symbol of the Sit-In movement. Yesterday (September 30 UPDATE) on CBS TV news Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch chose his four favorite artifacts from the Smithsonian’s 19 museums: that is from 11 million historical items. One of the four was the Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro.
When the Woolworth’s in San Antonio closed in 1997, its loss was widely lamented. Not so for Neisner’s, H.L. Green’s, Grant’s, Kress, or Sommers. When you think of the sit-in movement, you think of Woolworth’s, where it began. San Antonians remember the big glazed donuts at Woolworth’s because it was the intersection of two main streets and multiple bus lines.
It was the place and it remains the best place to interpret the sit-in movement’s unique exegesis in San Antonio. It is also a fine place to interpret the long history of the Alamo. This is the message the Coalition is sending to Land Commissioner George P. Bush, Governor Abbott, and the Alamo Trust. Learn more on the Conservation Society website!
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.
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. Continue Reading
One of the great things about being in San Antonio is that they have 300+ years of history and a city archaeoligist. My years at Global Heritage Fund brought me into contact with a lot of archaeologists, just at a time in history when the field was being revolutionized by LIDAR, ground-penetrating radar and all sorts of other high-tech options that allowed us to evolve beyond simply digging things up, which is inherently destructive. Here is a blog about LIDAR from a little over a year ago. I also did a lecture at the Pacific Union Club a while back on the latest in archaeological technology, and another blog last year titled Heritage in the Age of Virtual Reconstruction. Continue Reading
This is the time of year new World Heritage sites are inscribed by UNESCO. The total number passed 1000 last year, after over 40 years of the program. As I have noted before, the United States has not taken advantage of World Heritage status in many years, partly due to a political funding dispute. Absurdly, the U.S. has refused to pay its UNESCO dues for many years, so even though we can arguably afford to take care of our sites, at World Heritage level, we are deadbeats. Continue Reading
Now is always better than Then. That might seem like an odd statement coming from a historic preservationist/heritage conservationist, but it is especially true in our field. The decision to rehabilitate, restore or preserve a building, structure, site or community is a decision about the future, not the past.
Our reasons include the past: past history, past cultural achievements, even past architecture and design and art. But the decision is always about the future: we imagine the future will be better if we retain these elements of the past. And we are usually right. Now is better than Then because the best elements of the past are with us, enriching the Now, humanizing the Now, and making Now more beautiful. Continue Reading