What will happen to the cenotaph in Alamo Plaza? Will people be charged admission into the “re-imagined” Alamo? What happens if human remains are found during archaeological digs? How will the Alamo Master Plan honor the people and cultures that lived/worked there before the 1836 Battle of the Alamo as well as those who came after? Will the businesses on South Alamo Street be closed?
“I don’t know,” said Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) Design Director George Skarmeas to almost every question submitted and read aloud during the first of many public input meetings for the Alamo Plaza Master Plan on Tuesday night.
He and his team of historical, archaeological, and design consultants are in the “discovery” phase of the master plan, pouring over research and data from 10,000 years of history at the site.
They are literally trying to dig up more information about Alamo Plaza through archaeological digs that are expected to continue through mid-August.
“It’s not just the cenotaph that we need to think about,” Skarmeas said. The gardens and courtyard, the barracks, the street, the adjacent buildings, and even the plaza itself are elements that need to be analyzed. “What we need to figure out is what each of these elements mean. Do they add or subtract from our experience as this special place? Do they give us a better understanding of what this place was all about and what happened here? Or are they interfering with our understanding and appreciation of the Alamo?”
This discovery phase is perhaps the most important and the most frustrating. It’s important to piece together the site’s past to ensure that the entire story is told. “One single view is not acceptable,” Skarmeas said.
But most of the more than 100 community members that gathered on Tuesday night at the Stars at Night Ballroom in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center were expecting more specific answers than the designers could provide.
Some questions, though, Skarmeas was able to answer at least in part.
Will the historic buildings across from the Alamo Plaza be razed?
“I have never taken the position that you need to demolish a historic building,” he said. “There’s always a way to have your cake and eat it, too.”
Will there be an entry fee?
No. However, Skarmeas does anticipate the implementation of timed tickets where one can schedule time to go inside. This allows for people to truly experience the place without being overwhelmed with crowds.
“You need to have the ability to be in the place, hear yourself think, respect and acknowledge what happened there, and do it in a way that allows you to absorb all of the dimensions,” he said.
Skarmeas expects the site redesign to greatly increase hourly traffic.
“What is clear is that people are very passionate,” he said. “They have ownership of the site.”
He offered essentially the same presentation given to City Council in late June, walking the audience through the process and philosophy of the master plan.
The basics of the plan can be summarized in three words – the same concepts used by the Department of the Interior for historic preservation: authenticity, integrity, and reversibility.
That last one had the crowd murmuring. A comment card asking for an explanation of what
“reversibility” had to do with the Alamo was passed to an organizer.
Basically, Skarmeas explained, it means not to get carried away. What might be a trend for historic interpretation today, might fall out of fashion or, even worse, may prove to damage a site in the future.
While this was technically the first public input meeting for this iteration of a master plan, Skarmeas acknowledged that much of the visioning and guiding principles for the plan were completed by the 21-member Alamo Plaza Advisory Committee and adopted by City Council in October 2014. The vision was a result of countless public meetings.
“This is a continuation of your work,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), a tri-chair of the Committee, as he introduced fellow chairs Witte Museum President and CEO Marise McDermott and architect Sue Ann Pemberton. “Our goal is to document the entire 300-year history of this site, a feat that has never before been accomplished. There are multiple cultural layers involved and we are committed to expressing the most honest, objective understanding of this history. The public’s involvement in this process has been crucial.”
There have been other efforts in the past to turn Alamo Plaza into a more historically accurate, reverent place, but this “is the most comprehensive and well-funded” so far, said City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
The City and State have already dedicated millions of dollars to the planning effort and there’s likely more to come with the City’s 2017 municipal bond and legislative session on the horizon.
Once the framework of the plan is in place, that’s when the real fundraising in the private sector can begin, said Gene Powell, Alamo Endowment board member and chairman of the Alamo Management Committee.
“We’ve got to have a good portion of the master plan done so the people who are giving us money know what they’re giving it for,” Powell told the Rivard Report after the meeting. “So we’re talking 60-75% done by November with a plan. That’s about the point where we’ll be able to start making major requests.”
Project leaders estimate that the master plan draft will be completed in mid-2017, but real construction won’t begin until 2021. A “soft opening” of the new Alamo Plaza is expected to take place in 2024, 300 years after the current structure was built.
This article was originally published on Aug. 2, 2016.
Top image: Alamo volunteers give a demonstration on the types of weaponry that was used during the battle. Photo by Scott Ball.