Brantley Hightower, AIA LEED AP

Trinity University may not have a formal architecture program, but students in its Urban Studies and Art and Art History departments often have an overlapping interest in how the built environment is designed.  Although they may not start with the same depth of technical knowledge that more traditional architecture students have, they bring to the table a fresh perspective.

Their broader exposure to fields such as sociology and anthropology provide them with an intuitive understanding that a new building is not the only solution to an architectural issue.

One of the first tasks for a studio professor is to define the “problem” the students will tackle over the course of the semester.  On a recent evening, Margaret Sledge and I met at the 1909 Bar and Bistro to discuss this very topic.  Located immediately adjacent to the lobby of the Hotel Indigo, the small bar offers a commanding view of the corner of Alamo and Houston Streets in downtown San Antonio.  This view gave us pause as we discussed the upcoming semester.

Panoramic shot of view from 1909 Bar. Photo by Brantley Hightower.
The 1909 Bar offers views to the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building, Alamo Plaza and the Tomb Rider 3D interactive adventure ride. Photo by Brantley Hightower. (Click photo for larger image.)

The name of the bar refers to the year the building in which it is located was built.  The Gibbs Building was constructed as an eight-story office building of glistening white glazed brick and terra cotta.  Before it began to be converted into a hotel in 2006, it had the unique distinction of being the last building in San Antonio to still employ elevator operators.

Across Alamo Street sits the recently renovated and renamed Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse.  Initially completed in 1937 using Depression-era Federal WPA funds, the building’s Beaux-Arts architecture may seem familiar to graduates of the University of Texas.  This is no coincidence since the Philadelphia architect Paul Cret acted as the design consultant for both the Federal Building and many of the most iconic buildings on UT’s Austin campus.

Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse. Photo by Brantley Hightower.
Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse. Historians generally agree that Colonel William B. Travis died on this spot on March 6, 1836. Visitors to the site have absolutely no way of knowing this. Photo by Brantley Hightower.
1892 U.S. Courthouse and Post Office. Photo courtesy the Albertype Company.
Seen in this 1892 photograph, the original United States Courthouse and Post Office was demolished to make way for the 1937 Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building. Photo courtesy the Albertype Company.

The 1889 United States Courthouse and Post Office that had previously occupied the site featured fanciful turrets, towers and arcades of granite and sandstone.  The building was designed by an architect out of Washington DC, but a young local practitioner by the name of James Riely Gordon acted as the on site superintendent of the project.   Gordon’s local perspective helped adapt the design to the particularities of the project’s location and climate.  The ultimate success of the building also helped launch Gordon’s career.  He would go on to design many of the most well-loved courthouses in Texas including the one for Bexar County.

Across Houston Street from the Courthouse sits Alamo Plaza.  The plaza roughly approximates the space originally enclosed by the stone walls of Mission San Antonio de Valero.  But from the corner of Alamo and Houston, much of the plaza is obscured behind the 60 foot tall marble sculpture knows as the Alamo Cenotaph.  The work is officially titled “The Spirit of Sacrifice” and was designed in the 1930s by the Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini as a formal memorial to the Texan fighters who died there. The boot-shaped monument depicts a towering angelic figure while a high-relief frieze at its base depicts the iconic defenders of the Alamo – Travis, Bowie, Crockett and the rest – who “perished in the flames of immortality.”

The solemnity of the cenotaph is juxtaposed against the existence across the street of Tomb Rider 3D, an “interactive adventure ride” that simulates a journey through the haunted tomb of the Egyptian god Anubis.  Why an Egyptian god would need a tomb and why it would be in San Antonio is never really explained, but what is clear is that the ride has nothing to do with the 189 defenders of the Alamo who are memorialized by the cenotaph.

The stark contrasts among these multiple elements – all of which are clearly visible from the 1909 Bar – is emblematic of the odd state of Alamo Plaza today.  It exists at the intersection between the noble desire to memorialize and the base desire to commercialize.  This issue goes beyond the ongoing controversy regarding the mismanagement of the Alamo site by the current stewards of the shrine and raises a much larger strategic question about what Alamo Plaza should be and how it should interact with the city that surrounds it. The Plaza today exists as a remarkably underutilized piece of the city fabric.  It does a surprisingly poor job of foregrounding the Alamo itself, causing countless tourists to inquire about the location of the Alamo even when they are but a few dozen feet from it.  The Plaza is what it always has been, but it is by no means a great public space.

The main gate to Alamo Plaza
A representation of the main Alamo Plaza gate as it stood in 1836, one of several demonstration projects of the August 2012 Better Block Alamo Plaza Project. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

This criticism may seem odd to direct toward the top tourist attraction in the state, but the current form of the Alamo is less the result of conscious design effort than an artifact of the collision of commerce, politics and selective memory.  But what if that was not the case?  What if the experience were to be redesigned?  What if San Antonio were to have the Alamo Plaza it deserved rather than the one it has now?  Recent efforts such as the Better Block Project have provided compelling hints into what Alamo Plaza could be while exposing the challenges of making the place appealing to both tourists and residents while at the same time respecting the multiple layers of history that the site represents.

This is no easy task, but it represents an ideal problem for a group of young designers to spend a semester addressing.

How the modern city interacts with history can be as compelling as the history itself.  Finding new ways to engage with the complicated stories of our past is not so much a problem to be solved but an opportunity to explore.  Margaret and I are looking forward to seeing the results of the explorations of our students. 

Brantley Hightower is the founder of HiWorks, an architecture firm located in the Pearl Brewery.  The architectural design studio he and Margaret Sledge will be teaching in the spring is called “Studio Trinity: Reimagining the Alamo”.

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Brantley Hightower

Brantley Hightower is an architect at HiWorks. He also teaches at San Antonio College and is the interim editor of Texas Architect magazine.