Not even a global pandemic can stop the fighting over changes underway at the Alamo.
This week, construction crews were taking apart a fountain gifted in 1974 to Lady Bird Johnson at Bonham and Crockett streets. On Thursday, contractors were assessing the bandstand outside the Menger Hotel, which is set to be dismantled and moved.
Photos and video of the partially dismantled fountain and construction workers with no masks standing close together hit social media this week, causing a renewed stir among those who are opposing the redevelopment.
Work on the Alamo has continued even as large swaths of the private sector have been shut down by government orders meant to slow the spread of coronavirus. That’s incensed some of those who oppose the project. At a City Council meeting Thursday, one activist threatened to “bring hundreds of Texans and fill the plaza.”
“I don’t think you guys want that,” This Is Texas Freedom Force leader Brandon Burkhart said. “We don’t want that. But that is something we’re prepared to do.”
Karina Erickson, spokeswoman for the Texas General Land Office, said in an email Thursday that work on the Alamo complex falls under the “essential or critical services” outlined under emergency orders by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, “as outdoor construction work can continue under both orders.”
Art Martinez de Vara, whose law firm is representing two groups suing government agencies over the Alamo work, said it would cause “irreparable harm” if the work proceeds before judges in backlogged court systems can hear their concerns.
“I mean, if they move the Cenotaph or destroy it, or for every grave they disturb, you can’t necessarily reverse it,” de Vara said Thursday.
City staff and officials with Alamo Trust did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
The work is part of the $450 million redevelopment of the Alamo and Alamo Plaza by the Texas General Land Office, the nonprofit Alamo Trust, and the City. The GLO owns the Alamo itself and the nearby Woolworth, Palace, and Crockett buildings. The City owns Alamo Plaza and the Cenotaph, a monument built in the 1930s to honor the Texan revolutionaries killed during the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.
The first phase of the redevelopment, begun in late 2019, involves several changes to structures outside the Alamo grounds. The Lady Bird Johnson fountain on the southeast side of the Alamo will return to the Steves family, whose ancestor Marshall T. Steves dedicated it in 1974 as a birthday present to the former first lady.
In a phone interview Thursday, Sam Bell Steves III said he will have the fountain rebuilt in a home he’s having built for his own family in Olmos Park. The new house is designed to evoke the Terrell Hills home that renowned Texas architect O’Neil Ford designed for Marshall Steves, his grandfather.
“It is our intent to reassemble the Lady Bird fountain in the patio of that home so it can continue to have a second life, back with the Steves family,” Steves said.
Steves also took issue with some of the people accusing contractors from Clark Construction of damaging the fountain. Though he’s not on Facebook, he’s seen screenshots of photos This Is Texas Freedom Force members posted showing rubble at the base of the fountain and arguing contractors had damaged it.
The rubble has been there for a few years, Steves said, adding that the fountain is made from a delicate, limestone-like rock. Years ago, the City has stopped running water to the fountain and had instead used it as a planter. Someone had climbed on it and broke a piece of the main spire long before the Alamo redevelopment project started, Steves said.
“Consequently, the people who are doing a really good job and trying their hardest to very carefully take apart this fragile item are kind of getting a black eye over it,” Steves said.
As for the bandstand, the City is still working on determining where it will go, said Councilman Robert Treviño (D1), though it will likely be moved to a City park. Treviño is the City’s top elected official involved in the Alamo plans.
“It’ll be stored safely until we can find a most appropriate home,” Treviño said of the bandstand. “What I can tell you is that several folks in different neighborhoods have offered a welcome message for that bandstand in the park near them.”
However, the centerpiece of grievance against state and local governments hasn’t been the fountain or the bandstand, but the Cenotaph. Many of the groups opposed to the Alamo changes don’t want to see the structure moved 500 feet south of its current location.
On Thursday afternoon, there was no activity around the Cenotaph – no barriers or construction workers. The structure won’t be moved until authorities get the proper permits from the Texas Historical Commission (THC) Treviño said.
“I know there’s been speculation that we’re beginning to relocate the Cenotaph, but that’s simply not true,” Trevino said.
The THC’s Antiquities Advisory Board is set to discuss the GLO’s archaeological permit request at its April 15 meeting. The item is not currently on the agenda for a May 16 meeting of the THC’s State Board of Review, which has the authority to issue the permit.
The State, Alamo Trust, and the City are also facing two lawsuits from organizations opposed to the changes – one in state district court in Travis County filed on behalf of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association and one in U.S. District Court in San Antonio filed by the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation.
De Vara, a Von Ormy lawyer whose firm is representing plaintiffs in both cases, said it’s been difficult to get hearings scheduled during the pandemic. In the Travis County case, a hearing is scheduled for June 29, at which point the plaintiffs fear the Cenotaph might have been moved.
The case in federal court also has been stalled because of the virus. On March 19, Chief Judge Orlando Garcia ordered a temporary hold on litigation at the request of de Vara’s firm. Tap Pilam’s lead counsel, Adrian Spears, had requested the postponement after the March 15 death of his mother-in-law and, soon after, the hospitalization of his own mother for an upper respiratory infection, according to a legal filing that states that “COVID-19 has not been ruled out” in his mother’s case.
De Vara said his colleague also had fallen ill but was never tested for coronavirus.
“He’s back, he’s recovering,” de Vara said. “He was down and out for three to five days with fever and everything you see on TV.”
Some of those who oppose the Alamo plan have said they’ve seen construction workers at the site not abiding by social distancing rules of staying at least 6 feet apart. On Thursday, a group of construction workers without masks stood close together as they assessed the bandstand.
Asked about this, Treviño said he’d call the project manager, as well as the contractors working on the project.
“We don’t need to exacerbate this thing,” Treviño said. “If they’re wanting to continue on this project, we need to set a good example.”