To the people of Texas and all Americans in the world, fellow citizens and compatriots,
The Alamo is besieged, by a thousand or more crazy ideas by politicians, rich men, and general history nuts who want to turn our beloved Alamo into a walled-off expanse of treeless, over-baked dirt, destroying ancient trees and beloved monuments in the process.
Confession: I am a history nut.
If you are a history nut job, too, you might recognize the words above as a bastardization of William Barret Travis’ desperate and brilliant letter to the world from the besieged Alamo on Feb. 24, 1836.
It seems the Alamo is under siege again. Powerful forces are moving to completely redo Alamo Plaza. Some of their ideas are good, but many more are, frankly, catastrophic. The plan is to destroy much of the Alamo compound made in the Works Progress Administration Depression-era reconstruction and essentially create a walled-in dirt plaza. Currently a glass wall is planned, approximating (not accurately) the old walls of the Alamo compound.
Does the Alamo need “saving?” It is a pile of limestone that carries a lot of meaning for a lot of people. It is beautiful. But it was a pile of limestone in 1836 (a complete ruin) and is essentially a pile of limestone today.
Why do I care about this? Because Alamo Plaza is the most vital public space in San Antonio, in Texas, and in the Southwest. It is the “stage” on which the story of San Antonio has played out. I feel so strongly about the old mission, that the first image in my feature film “Still Breathing” starts with it. Another scene also was filmed there. Generations upon generations have made pilgrimages to the Alamo and created their own histories there.
There are massive amounts of history that came before and after 1836: Since the mid-19th century, several presidents have spoken there. Teddy Roosevelt recruited Rough Riders there (or in the bar next door), parades pass through the area, and the first Battle of Flowers Parade started there. People have expressed their opinions in peaceful demonstrations and the city’s Christmas Tree is displayed on the grounds. People rest and talk and eat snow cones under the ancient trees there.
I have been there countless times, most memorably in the middle of the night, when it is magical and unforgettable. I remember seeing the Queen of England, the Pope, and even a sweating Henry B. González there. What I believe is the most beautiful tree in Texas lives there.
All of that will stop with the new plan.
The Good (and “Okay”) Ideas:
- The tacky tourist trap businesses on the west side of the Plaza will be closed and occupied by a new Alamo Museum.
- A water feature will be added, reminding us of the ”Alamo Ditch” that used to flow through the plaza at the time of the Mission, featuring native plants.
- The plaza will be completely closed to traffic. (I like the compromise we have now, with some traffic forbidden, but still allowing parades to pass in front of the iconic structure. There is something to be said for being able to drive by the Alamo. I remember as a child, how the sight of the Alamo passing outside the window of the car always took my breath away.)
- Recreate the historic south gate of the Alamo in glass (less wall, please). However, have you heard of glass cutters? They cost a few dollars in any hardware store and can deface a pretty glass wall or glass gate in seconds. Why not mark the spot of the gate with timeless brass or steel structure, outlining the old gate?
- Glass pavement to see the old excavated structures below.
The Horrifically Bad ideas:
- Wall in the Alamo and restrict access 24/7: Currently the plan is to make a glass wall, creating a magnet for graffiti, attacks, outrage, and scorn. I won’t go into the optics of a wall surrounding a former Spanish/Mexican structure, where mostly white, pro-slavery immigrants fought and were defeated by a Mexican dictator. Now we have the idea of building an expensive terrarium-like glass enclosure to keep the “people” out, in a city with a vast majority of Latinos. (Do they really want to light that fuse?)
- Take out all the trees and replace with a giant “authentic” dirt space which will undoubtably be swelteringly oppressive in the Texas sun from May through to October.
- Remove the famous and eloquent “Cenotaph” monument from the Alamo Centennial in 1936.
- Destroy much of the 1930’s WPA construction, including the “most beautiful tree in Texas.” And even if they keep it, it will look lopsided and deformed without the wall it grew up beside.
I have to point out that San Antonio has a checkered and dismal history of public art in the 20th century, one in which aesthetics and taste have been mysteriously lacking. May I draw your attention to San Antonio’s The Vietnam Memorial (horrifically deformed facial features, grotesque, and embarrassing), The Korean War Monument (inert, passive soldiers trapped in a monument to concrete), and the absurd Samuel Gompers statue (anatomically bizarre, a no-necked Gompers surrounded by grasping, tiny union members in overalls).
So let’s think this through, folks. Compare this work to the sculpture on the Cenotaph they want to move.