The Historic Woolworth Building
The Historic Woolworth Building in Alamo Plaza. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Three State-owned buildings on the west side of Alamo Plaza have great historic value and “strong potential for continued use,” according to a report by an architectural consultant.

The report by New York architecture firm John G. Waite Associates covers the Woolworth, Palace Theater Arcade, and Crockett Block, all purchased by the Texas General Land Office in 2015. Officials with Alamo Trust commissioned the report as part of a $450 million redevelopment plan for the Alamo, which calls for the construction of an Alamo visitors’ center and museum on the footprint the three buildings occupy on the 300 block of Alamo Plaza.

The uncertainty over whether the buildings would be demolished or repurposed is part of a flurry of controversy surrounding the Alamo’s redevelopment. However, the Waite report released Thursday bolsters arguments for saving the structures.

Architects concluded that all three buildings retain “significant amounts of historic building fabric” and “that there is no question that all three buildings meet current criteria for listing” on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Through the historic preservation treatments of exterior restoration and interior rehabilitation, these three buildings on Alamo Plaza can provide the opportunity for a unique [21st] century museum experience that is innovatively housed within some of San Antonio’s most historically significant commercial architecture of the [19th] and early [20th] centuries,” the report states.

Despite releasing the report Thursday, officials remain tight-lipped about the buildings’ future. An Alamo Trust news release Thursday stressed that “no decisions have been made with reference to the Alamo Visitors Center and Museum.” Officials at the Texas General Land Office did not respond to emailed questions about what’s ahead for the structures.

Groups such as the Conservation Society of San Antonio and the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum have been outspoken about saving the buildings. Many cite the Woolworth’s role in local race relations when the building was one of six downtown formerly segregated lunch counters that began serving Black patrons under threat of protest in the 1960s.

Civil Rights Era history was the focus of two other reports that officials with Alamo Trust, the site’s nonprofit steward, released Thursday. One study by Carey Latimore, associate professor of history at Trinity University, focuses on the struggle of Black residents for equal rights from World War II through the mid-1960s. Another is a compilation of press coverage from March 1960 chronicling the protests that led to the lunch counter integration.

“Together, these reports demonstrate our commitment to complete and accurate research,” Welcome Wilson Jr., Alamo Trust chair, said in a prepared statement Thursday. “We will use them to inform the community, our Alamo partners, and others as we develop a world-class museum and visitor center that will honor the sacrifice that the brave Alamo defenders made in 1836.” 

This week, Alamo officials also announced the award of a design contract for an Alamo Exhibition Hall and Collections Building inside the Alamo complex. The museum will house artifacts present during the 1836 battle donated by British singer-songwriter Phil Collins, as well as other historical items owned by Alamo Trust, the site’s nonprofit steward.

“This is exciting not just because it will provide exhibition space to display artifacts in the Alamo collection, it will also answer a pressing need for space for storing other items in our growing collection – not to mention additional space for staff,” said Kristi Miller Nichols, director of archaeology, collections, and historical research for the Alamo.

Representatives from the City of San Antonio, the Texas General Land Office, and Alamo Trust chose a joint team of international design firm Gensler and San Antonio-based GRG Architecture for the design work. Broaddus and Associates, a construction management firm tapped to oversee an overall $450 million Alamo redevelopment, will also manage construction of the exhibition hall and collections building.

The announcement of the new building is the most significant development regarding the future of the Alamo since a Sept. 22 vote by the Texas Historical Commission against moving the Cenotaph, which City officials consider a linchpin of the overall project. All those involved with the Alamo Plan have been tight-lipped about the project’s future in the month since the vote.

Even details about the new collections building remain scarce. It’s unclear exactly where the new construction would be located, with Alamo Trust officials announcing only that the site would be “on the east end of the Alamo Complex, behind the gardens,” adding in a follow-up statement that the building’s size has not yet been determined.

What is clear is that this new building is meant to be separate from the museum and visitors’ center that officials have proposed for the north side of Alamo Plaza currently occupied by the Woolworth, Palace, and Crockett buildings.

“The Alamo Exhibition Hall and Collections Building will continue to serve as additional gallery space to display artifacts after the Alamo Visitor Center and Museum is completed,” a Wednesday Alamo Trust news release states.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), the City’s main representative on the Alamo Plan, said Thursday the collections building has always been part of the redevelopment and is meant to complement the main museum.

“When you have a museum, you have to have a special collections building,” Treviño said. “It’s a specialized building. It’s a building that can archive and store sensitive materials and artifacts, and things like that.”

Treviño said the Alamo Management Committee, which he chairs, believes that the collections building will help meet a deadline attached to the Collins collection of Alamo and Texas artifacts. Alamo officials have until Oct. 29, 2021, to be in the schematic phase of construction on a museum to display the collection, Treviño said.

Collins’ Alamo collection is also partly the subject of a court battle with ex-wife Orianne Cevey. Collins sued Cevey this week, alleging that she refuses to leave his Miami Beach mansion, which houses the artifacts and memorabilia, among other valuables, according to Vanity Fair.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.