Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has recently opposed many of the proposed changes at Alamo Plaza. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s cannonball shot at Land Commissioner George P. Bush right smack in the middle of last week’s annual array of events celebrating the Battle of the Alamo made one thing clear: No matter who wins the mano a mano combat between the two Republican politicians, San Antonio will be the loser.

Here’s why. While the Alamo has belonged to the state since 1883 when it bought it from the Catholic Archdiocese, the City of San Antonio has owned Alamo Plaza since the town was laid out according to directives set by King Philip II in 1573.  The directives required plazas as vital civic components in the center of new towns and cities.

For much of its history, Alamo Plaza was the most vibrant of San Antonio’s three central plazas. Military Plaza was deadened by the construction of City Hall in its center rather than on one side, and Main Plaza was devitalized for years after Mayor Walter McAllister in the 1960s gave it a restrictive redesign in fear of protesters. Alamo Plaza, on the other hand, thrived beginning not long after the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.

It may be hard for contemporary Texans to understand, but in the wake of the battle, San Antonians considered Alamo Plaza to be at least as important as the remnants of the mission/fortress. Following the Battle of the Alamo, the Republic of Texas cared so little for the site, which was practically in ruins, that they returned it to the Catholic Church. Once Texas joined the union, the federal government took over the Alamo for military purposes — Confederate forces made use of it during the Civil War — until giving it back to the church in 1877.

The State of Texas was so disinterested in the Alamo that it didn’t buy the Alamo church from the Archdiocese of San Antonio until 1883, by which time the Long Barrack had been sold to a French merchant for use as a garishly appointed grocery and dry goods store. The State wouldn’t acquire that building until 1905 when it reimbursed ranching heiress Clara Driscoll, who bought it on behalf of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Commercial and civic buildings were erected through the years, ranging from a brewery that became the stately Menger Hotel and a grand post office that was succeeded by the current federal courthouse/post office to an opera house.

The point of this brief history is that interest in saving and expanding the site of the Alamo has, through the years, grown as the story of the Alamo gained prominence as the most heroic chapter in the creation myth of Texas.

While the Daughters, with limited help from the state, turned the church and its immediate surroundings into a shrine for the heroes of the Alamo, the plaza continued to be used as intended — as an urban center of commerce and civic events ranging from annual parades honoring the martyrs of the Alamo to presidential speeches and peaceful political demonstrations.

San Antonio maintained a balance between honoring the men who died at the Alamo and keeping the plaza as a living urban space. The balance disappointed many tourists because it does not measure up to the image Hollywood gave it with the hyper-mythological John Wayne version of history. Meanwhile, San Antonians, while embarrassed by some of the free enterprise that ensconced itself on the western edge of the plaza, took great pleasure in its civic celebrations, especially for Fiesta and the Christmas season.

Under pressure from local citizens and some of their elective officials, the plans to enhance the Alamo as a “shrine” to fallen heroes make some accommodations to the plaza’s place in the city’s history. The public space on the southern edge of the plaza will remain open for public use, including as a “free speech zone” for political demonstrations. Except when the museum is open, the public will have access through several gates. And the museum will somehow honor the Woolworth Building, a symbol of San Antonio’s early and peaceful desegregation of lunch counters.

But without giving any credit to the lengthy planning process that resulted in even these minimal accommodations, Dan Patrick comes riding in on his stallion, calling the current plans “badly off track” and demanding that “the Alamo conservation and restoration must focus on the battle itself, not the 200-year history of early Spanish settlement in Texas.” He is silent regarding the post-battle history of the plaza.

Patrick also strenuously objects to moving the Cenotaph a couple of hundred feet south with a passion that suggests he believes the myth that heroes are buried within it.

He even objects to the notion of what he calls “hundreds of trees” in the plaza, suggesting that this concession to the comfort of summertime visitors violates their need to “see the battlefield as it was” in 1836, with the plaza resembling “as closely as possible” what existed then.

Such accuracy would require a field thick with dust and horse manure. It would also require the removal of the Alamo’s signature stone arch, which the Army added in 1950. I’m betting that won’t happen. After all, it was in the movie.

Here’s what else will happen, though. With the takeover by statewide politicians, not only will Alamo Plaza’s urban history be buried, but in the museum that will be built as part of the new Alamo tourism park, the history of the battle of the Alamo itself will be sanitized rather than enriched as it should be.

The reason is simple. The story of the Alamo, as it developed in the popular mind, is the story of brave men, pure and true. Knowing that they faced insurmountable odds as Santa Anna’s army approached, they rallied to defend the Alamo in order to buy time for Sam Houston and his army.

As scholars have pointed out, myths are greatly assisted in the absence of survivors. Stories such as that of Col. Travis drawing a line in the sand grow vivid. Inconvenient facts wither away under neglect or even attack.

Honest history is almost always less heroic, more complicated, and more human than myth – and vastly more interesting.

History is complex enough that historians disagree on many things related to the Alamo. For one account that differs greatly from the myth, read Ruben Cordova’s view from the other side from last week’s Rivard Report. Patrick would hate it, but Cordova makes some valid points.

San Antonio’s elected officials must be concerned with what San Antonians want, including those of us who would appreciate a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the Battle of the Alamo and what led up to it; most Texans, however, would not. They prefer the myth unsoiled by human reality. The Hollywood myth. So state politicians — Dan Patrick being a powerful example — will hew to the myth.

With Patrick threatening to push the Legislature to take control of the Alamo away from the land commissioner, Bush’s office responded with a retreat. It praised some of Patrick’s ideas and pronounced, “As we move forward with phase one of the Plan, Commissioner Bush will continue to demand that the focal point be the battle of 1836 and the Defenders who gave their lives against a government that became tyrannical in their pursuit for control.” 

Bush’s preference for the myth was demonstrated cinematically this year and last. Since taking over management of the Alamo, he included in the solemn annual celebration of the Alamo heroes a showing on the Alamo grounds of John Wayne’s “The Alamo.” The purist Technicolor representation of the creation myth is now an official part of the shrine’s high mass liturgy.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.