The San Antonio Conservation Society believes that the reconstruction of the Alamo Mission to its 1836 boundaries on Alamo Plaza represents outdated thinking. This concept, first proposed in 1994, not only threatens other existing historic buildings, but limits the way that residents will experience the historic plaza.
San Antonio should demand a more innovative plan for this multifaceted site: one that will honor the Alamo defenders’ sacrifice and enlighten visitors, but also allow residents and visitors to interact with the broader historical context of the plaza as a vital urban space in the heart of our city.
Located in the center of downtown San Antonio, Alamo Plaza has long played a key role in the city’s identity and economic well-being. From the ashes of the 1836 battle, rose the hard-won freedom to prosper. Samuel Maverick, who was chosen by the Alamo garrison to serve as a delegate for the Texas independence convention, wished to live “where his comrades gave their lives defending liberty.” He purchased a large tract of land surrounding the Alamo compound and built a substantial homestead in the northwest corner in 1850. Nine years later, German immigrant William Menger established his namesake hotel on Plaza de Valero, southeast of the main battle site.
Within 20 years of the fall of the Alamo, the crumbling stone remnants of the old mission’s northern and western boundary walls had mostly been carted off and put to new use. The Galera – a gate, barrack, and jail structure that had served as part the old mission’s southern wall – survived until the city came to view it as an obstruction between Alamo Plaza and Plaza de Valero. Workers began to pull it down in 1866, before being stopped by the owner: the Catholic Church. In 1869, the Daily Express launched a newspaper campaign that persuaded the Church to relent. The city finished the demolition two years later, creating one large, open plaza.
The arrival of the railroad in 1877 most dramatically changed the face of Alamo Plaza. The plaza’s new streetcar linkage to the depot east of town, coupled with available land, shifted commercial and civic activity away from the built-up confines of Main Plaza to the very edges of the state’s most famous battlefield.
In 1879, a group of concerned citizens – including determined and influential women like Mary Adams Maverick, Adina de Zavala and Clara Driscoll – began to focus their attention on preserving what remained of the neglected Alamo buildings. Other local leaders sought to transform the plaza into a more a more cultured civic space.
Maverick’s sons built two of the earliest multistory buildings on the plaza, the Crockett Block (1882) and the Maverick Bank (1884), later replaced by Woolworth’s, on land they had inherited from their father across from the Alamo. The Grand Opera House opened on the corner of Crockett and South Alamo in 1886, providing locals with a true metropolitan theater experience.
Alderman Anton Wulff, an immigrant from Hamburg, Germany, personally supervised the landscaping of the plazas in the late 1880s. Residents honored Wulff for his work in transforming these “unsightly and unsanitary” spaces into inviting parks designed to give pleasure to citizens and visitors alike.
Fast forward nearly 100 years and economic decline almost claimed three irreplaceable Victorian-era buildings: the Dullnig, the Reuter, and the Crockett Block. The city targeted the buildings, then hidden under ugly, modern false fronts on the neglected plaza, for demolition to provide more parking space. Instead, the creation of the Alamo Plaza National Register Historic District, bought the buildings time to be restored and sparked a much needed, but tourist-centered, revival on Alamo Plaza
Today, most agree that the entertainment businesses currently housed in the historic Crockett Block, Palace Theater, and Woolworth Building need to be relocated. However, the San Antonio Conservation Society vehemently disagrees that these designated national landmarks should be sacrificed to create a backdrop for re-enacting a single event in Texas history. Part of what distinguishes a historic site from a historical attraction is authenticity, a quality that cannot be re-created.
A reconstructed mission wall on the site of the Woolworth Building cannot effectively tell the story of another epic campaign for freedom that unfolded inside the Alamo Plaza store. In March of 1960, our Woolworth’s became the first in the South publicly recognized for desegregating its lunch counter.
Unlike many other Southern cities, where the African-American quest for Civil Rights was met with violent resistance, San Antonio integrated peaceably. We have a duty to honor the cooperative courage of this historic event by preserving the place where it happened. Too many sites with historic ties to the African-American experience have been lost, marked only by a plaque, if at all.
We argue that the historic buildings directly across from the Alamo, which are now owned by the state of Texas, should neither be relocated nor demolished. Rather than targeting the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building at the north end of the plaza for museum use, use it for inspiration. In 2012, the General Services Administration invested over $56 million in the Depression-era building’s continued federal occupancy by seamlessly integrating amenities on the cutting edge of environmental sustainability into its historic fabric. The Crockett Block, Palace Theater, and Woolworth Building could be renovated to create the world-class museum and visitors’ center that the Alamo needs and deserves.
According to Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), the master plan committee has “reached out to find the team capable of doing the best work, without losing who we are as a city.” Any architectural firm chosen should possess the vision and skill to repurpose the existing buildings.
One of the action steps recommended by SA2020 is to “insist on and promote preservation of historic buildings.” This step coincides with sustainable building practices aimed at maximizing the use of existing materials and reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfill, thereby recycling and conserving energy.
The Losoya Street Garage, a five-story parking behemoth that stands directly behind the three contested buildings, gives us another important reason for keeping them in place. At three-stories each, the existing buildings are necessary to provide an aesthetically pleasing and historically authentic screen between visitors to Alamo Plaza and the stark concrete walls of the modern parking garage.
The Society does not oppose a better interpretation of the pivotal battle, but we ask planners to truly innovate. Reclaiming an urban site to recreate structures destroyed before the end of the 19th century is poor preservation practice and caters to a niche audience among tourists and reenactment enthusiasts.
In 2013, architect Brantley Hightower’s Trinity University students studied the idea and also rejected reconstruction as inauthentic and limiting. This group is perhaps more characteristic of an underrepresented segment of the local audience that wants to interact with historic San Antonio as a component of a thriving and culturally appealing urban experience. SA2020, likewise, asserts that the city’s urban core needs to become “a primary gathering point for its residents, in addition to being a haven for tourists.”
We need to recognize that Alamo Plaza, as an urban center, differs significantly from other historic sites that have undertaken reconstruction, but are now being looked to as models. In more rural places, like Gettysburg, Ft. McHenry, Bent’s Fort and even our southern missions, replicas of missing structures can be built without sacrificing historic buildings that answer the important questions of: “What difference did it make? What happened afterwards?”
Instead, planners should take advantage of today’s increased technological capabilities to virtually re-create the desired visual experience. Virtual re-creation may prove to be the more viable alternative, since case studies of international World Heritage Sites suggest that the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) rarely accepts reconstruction, and then only under stringent conditions.
The paper Reconstruction in the World Heritage Context, provides deeper insight into the evolution of ICOMOS’ conceptual approach, including the cautionary tale of Bagrati Cathedral in the country of Georgia. In 2012, ICOMOS delisted this medieval cathedral because of the lack of communication and agreement between local officials and ICOMOS before irreversible reconstruction work began.
Keep in mind that demolition takes the desire of the moment and makes it a permanent reality. The destruction of the Galera in 1871 shows how a single act can rob the future of its past. Now, some in our community are encouraging the sacrifice of another irreplaceable part of our history. Who is to say that we won’t regret losing three attractive, functional buildings – each with its own role in history – to a reconstructed barrier. After all, the Alamo defenders didn’t lay down their lives to give Texas a memorial battlefield. They died to give Texans a more promising future.
We can honor their sacrifices in many ways, including the preservation of the significant local buildings that mark our progress along the path they forged.
Learn more about the evolution of historic Alamo Plaza with the Society’s online exhibit: “A Photographic Guide to the Many Faces of Alamo Plaza.”
Top image: A postcard, postmarked 1911, looking north across Alamo Plaza. Pictured left to right: Crockett Block, Maverick Bank, Gibbs Building, U.S. Courthouse and Post Office, the Alamo, and Menger Hotel. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation