The Alamo site in 1836. Credit: Courtesy / Gary L. Foreman

“Today the Alamo is in a setting that makes one wonder if Texas would rather forget.”  Texas Monthly, February 1984

Some would say this could only happen in San Antonio. A team of brilliant and accomplished local architects is leading a small army of new dissidents to City Hall with their own demands about the controversial Alamo Plaza design. Someone is feeling left out of the most visible plan in Texas.

However, within the demands is a strong sense that the true essence of a world-famous historic site is being ignored or forgotten.

For more than two decades, our organization – the Alamo Plaza Project – has compiled thousands of visitor documents, surveys, petitions, and responses regarding people’s experiences at the famous plaza. This is why in 2015 we were called upon by the legislative lobby to present our valuable material, which helped HB 2968, the Alamo bill, get passed.

Where is the dissident group’s data on this important customer base? After all, the future of the plaza, its history, and surrounding businesses depend on it.

Most professionals recognize extensive research as a valuable resource. What does their research say about the behavior of the visitors to Alamo Plaza, namely locals, Texans, and those who travel from afar? We didn’t hear anything about that in their quest to be involved in the discussion.

What are the top five issues that need to be addressed in order to bring people back to the Alamo? What other historic sites do they visit? How do people compare the information and experiences they receive at the Alamo to those at other historic sites? Again, the dissenters said nothing about the real customers of the Alamo.

Since 1836, San Antonians have done just about everything they can to keep people from remembering the Alamo. Physically and fundamentally, what remained of the historic footprint of the Alamo on the plaza side (long after the battle) has been demolished, carved up, denigrated, and carted away. You can’t blame Santa Anna for this one.

This always leads visitors to ask that inevitable question: “Is that all there is?”

Many Texans and visitors alike see Alamo Plaza as a site that should convey a universal message of courage and sacrifice representing both sides. They want a space that is reverent, educational, and engaging. They are also aware that a visionary focus on the rich history can still accommodate civic events and be comfortable, having already seen those qualities at other historic sites.

But some locals only see a convenient backdrop for selfies and a more comfortable extension of the River Walk; they forget the history altogether. Studies show that most of them can’t even tell you where the historic footprint exists, and that’s where the disconnect is obvious. We know we can still have comfort while playing to our true, authentic strength – the 1836 Battle of the Alamo story.

Actors load a cannon during an Alamo reenactment. Credit: Courtesy / Gary L. Foreman

Like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole, being disconnected comes at a cost. No matter how often locals insist on turning a world-famous historic site into “Everywhere USA” with commercial exploitation, Better Block exercises, circus-like displays, and the 2014 attempt to install a streetcar, the spirit of the Alamo battle still wants to be visible and available among the din and clutter.

But back to our professionals: We should take our time and do more studies, they say.  Wrong again. This topic has been studied to death with the same basic outcome. Let the history drive the design, remove the traffic, and let one owner – the State of Texas’ General Land Office – control the plaza.

It’s time for a world-class vision and courage to come forward, not another study.

With numerous documented success stories of how good historical programs draw and maintain large crowds in the plaza, or even the popular Cattle Drive that kicks off the annual San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, the public’s hunger to see our rich history come alive is clear. So why doesn’t the architects’ language have anything to say about interpretive space or living history events when discussing the new features in Alamo Plaza?

The annual “Dawn at the Alamo” ceremony is conducted during the pre-sunrise hour on March 6, the anniversary of the famous battle. For the staff of prominent architects, whose offices are virtually on the original Alamo battlefield, this should be a big deal – after all, it is only a few blocks away from where they work.

“I’m disappointed I didn’t see more locals here,” then-councilman Diego Bernal told us after the 2014 Dawn ceremony. “Most of these people came from out of town.”

Exactly. The obvious disconnect between history and local convenience is on full display.

The last three hearings for Reimagine the Alamo unleashed a hailstorm of complaints about the future designs and aesthetics of Alamo Plaza. We know, we’ve been there. Like many, we’re also on record on items we strongly disagree with. Our team has done enough research, for example, to know what kind of entrance the heritage traveler desires upon reaching the original main gate of the Alamo.

We also know that the effort on the west side to use those existing buildings doesn’t come close to creating a world-class museum. That space is too confining, too limiting to tell this massive story. We have a different vision, and it’s all based on decades of research, including a balanced story approach that is inclusive and international in scope.

If City leaders lose their nerve and give in to some of the provincial voices that want to hang on to the same status quo that has kept everyone comfortable while being miserable, ensuring the disconnect to world-class possibilities into the future, we’ll truly get the Alamo we deserve – sadly, one that could end up being forgettable.

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Gary L. Foreman

Gary L. Foreman is an award-winning documentary producer/director and photographer. He played a key role in the early development of the History Channel programming and has filmed at some of the greatest...