While state and local politicians on the right and the left continue to spar over the role of slavery in the war of Texas independence and the motives of those who fought and died at the Alamo, San Antonians should not lose sight of the important contemporary issues surrounding the redevelopment of the Alamo and Alamo Plaza.

On Monday, members of the Texas Historical Commission’s antiquities advisory board gave lukewarm approval to the design of the Alamo’s $15 million Exhibition Hall and Collections Building that will be built within the Alamo walls on the property’s eastern flank.

The project was undertaken after Alamo Trust officials realized a planned museum to be housed in the historic buildings that line Alamo Plaza would never be completed in time to meet the terms of the contract negotiated with British rock star Phil Collins to acquire his large collection of Alamo artifacts and memorabilia. Officials had to have construction documents completed by the fall 2021 or risk Collins withdrawing his gift.

The state plans on building a still-unfunded museum on the Alamo Plaza in future years, which would then permanently house the Collins collection. That raises serious questions that should be addressed now about what use the 10,000 square feet of interior exhibition space will be once the museum is open.

“Even if you displayed the entire Collins collection, you would only need 3,000 to 4,000 square feet of space, but only the best part of the collection should actually go on display,” one museum director told me.

A groundbreaking ceremony is set for the morning of Aug. 17, according to Alamo Trust spokesman Kevin Femmel, who said attendees will include Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Officials expect the Exhibition Hall to be open to the public by next summer.

The San Antonio Report did not cover Monday’s hearing, but the Express-News’ longtime Alamo beat reporter Scott Huddleston wrote an extensive article that included the objections to the project’s design voiced by committee members.

The scale and mass of the two-story, 24,000-square-foot building designed by San Francisco-based Gensler will dwarf the Alamo Chapel, Long Barrack, and other structures within the Alamo walls. For anyone familiar with the architectural firm’s many other notable projects, there is a distinct lack of glass and light in the renderings of this building. It’s heavy on limestone, the result, sources told me, of Bush’s staff insisting on a more “historical looking” design.

Injecting politics into the management of the most important historic site in Texas has proven regrettable at every turn. The General Land Office-influenced design directly contradicts the U.S. Department of Interior’s Standards and Guidelines for adding new construction to historically significant sites: Visitors should be able to easily discern between the historic and the modern.

The relevant example would be the more ambitious National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, built in 2003 adjacent to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the building is spacious and airy and features dramatic views of Independence Hall from the second story’s expansive glass windows.

Tourists walk towards the National Constitution Center.
Tourists walk towards the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Excepting the status of the Statue of Liberty, Philadelphia and San Antonio are the only major U.S. cities to earn UNESCO World Heritage status, with the San Antonio designation given for the Alamo and the four other Spanish colonial missions.

Early in the planned redevelopment of the Alamo Plaza, public hearings drew hundreds of people who often waited hours to share their views on various design proposals and possibilities. The hearings were local democracy in action: loud, messy, and inclusive. They were a true measure of how intense feelings run about the site of the city’s first Spanish colonial mission, its burial ground for Indigenous residents, and most notably, the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.

Today the planning occurs mostly behind closed doors. There has been little public outreach on the design of the Exhibition Hall and Collections Building, its location, or even its necessity. The Alamo Trust’s Wednesday press release reporting the historical commission’s approval conspicuously omits any mention of what was actually said at the hearing.

The same press release states that the entire Collins collection will be on public display. Museum directors and curators I spoke with said the Alamo Trust should first conduct due diligence to certify the authenticity of the most important pieces in the collection. Allegations contained in the recently published Forget the Alamo book calling into question the authenticity of some of the Collins items should be addressed.

Alamo Trust officials say the Exhibition Hall can house traveling exhibits and the Alamo’s own collection of artifacts once the Collins collection is moved to the new museum, but museum directors who did not want to speak on the record said traveling exhibitions typically costs $1 million to $2 million, meaning the Alamo would have to attract tens of thousands of paying customers to offset those costs. The historic site will never be able to accommodate such crowds.

The Alamo’s own collection is far less extensive, since the Daughters of the Republic of Texas surrendered control of the site and retained possession of its own collection of artifacts and library. Unless there is a repairing of the relationship between state officials and the DRT — highly unlikely — none of that collection will be available for display at the Alamo.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.