Ronald Reagan famously said the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” The common understanding of “the government” was that it referred to the federal apparatus. Today San Antonians may want to riff on Reagan. What should scare us is the statement, “I’m from the lieutenant governor’s office and I’m here to help.”
There is history behind that concern, but more on that below.
San Antonio Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard on Sunday vividly detailed current Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s domination of last week’s session of the Texas Historical Commission, which voted 12-2 to bar the proposed relocation of the Cenotaph as part of the ambitious plans to remake Alamo Plaza.
Rivard labeled Patrick’s rhetoric as a “mix of myth, hyperbole, and hokum,” including this grandiose flourish regarding the siege and battle of the Alamo: “It was the most important 13 days in the history of Texas and Western civilization. We wouldn’t be in the Texas we’re in today if it weren’t for those men who died.”
Patrick was echoing the words of James Bowie, who wrote this to provisional Gov. Henry Smith: “The salvation of Texas depends in great measure in keeping Béxar out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier picket guard, and if it were in the possession of Santa Anna, there is no stronghold from which to repel him in his march toward the Sabine.”
But Gen. Sam Houston disagreed. He saw Béxar as being too close to Mexico and too far from the Anglo population centers in East Texas. He had written this to Smith from Goliad: “Colonel Bowie will leave here in a few hours for Béxar with a detachment of from thirty to forty men. I have ordered the fortifications in the town of Béxar to be demolished, and if you should think well of it, I will remove all the cannon and other munitions of war to Gonzales and Copano, blow up the Alamo and abandon the place.”
Houston, of course, turned out to be right. He headed back to what is now the Houston area and awaited Santa Anna’s army, defeating them at San Jacinto.
History, as is often the case, is more interesting than mythology. But politicians and Hollywood find mythology more useful.
Speaking before the state commission, Patrick waxed grandiose about redeveloping the area surrounding the Alamo: “If this president wins in November – who knows what the elections are going to bring? You want to take down the federal building? We have a very good relationship with the president. We want the full footprint of the Alamo battle walls? I think if we go to the president, the governor and I, and say, ‘We’d like you to move that federal courthouse to somewhere else, so we can build a full Alamo.’ I mean, he moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I think we can move a courthouse. I think we can get that done.”
San Antonio historian Lewis Fisher was appalled at the notion.
“Where would it stop?” he asked, speaking of the notion of recreating the footprint of the 1836 Alamo battle. “You’d have to take down the Medical Arts Building (now the Emily Morgan Hotel) and the Express-News building and a number of hotels along the River Walk.”
I am indebted to Fisher for bringing to my attention the equally destructive involvement of an earlier Texas lieutenant governor. He covers it in his excellent book, Saving San Antonio.
Asbury Bascom Davidson was not one of our more distinguished lite guvs. The only distinction listed by the authoritative Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas about his tenure was that he was one of the few to hold that office for three terms. But he happened to be lieutenant governor in 1913 when Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll were in a brutal battle over their competing visions of how to upgrade the egregiously degraded Alamo site. (See correction below.)
The Catholic church, to which the U.S. Army had returned the property after regaining it as a depot at the end of the Civil War, had sold the church to the State of Texas in 1883. But the convento, now known as the Long Barrack, was sold separately to a merchant. A two-story building with arcaded walkways on both floors, it originally served as both quarters and work spaces for the priests. Its size and close proximity dwarfed the modest mission church.
Texan rebels fortified the stone walls of the convento in preparation for Santa Anna’s long-anticipated siege, and considerably more of the battle took place there than in the church. Between the 1836 battle and the neglect by both the City of San Antonio and the state, it was badly deteriorated by the time the Catholic Church sold it to a wholesaler who in turn sold it in the 1880s to Hugo & Schmeltzer Mercantile Co.
That company dressed up the building for retail purposes, turning it into what one observer described as “a grotesque half-stone, half-gingerbread lumber misfit construction of a country wholesale merchandise store and warehouse, certainly not fit to be in the most prominent location of the town.”
In other words, it carried the same level of respect as Ripley’s and other tourist attractions now on the western side of Alamo Plaza.
De Zavala, a leader of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, was convinced that enough of the bones of the original building stood under the renovation to make restoration possible. She obtained an agreement from the owners to offer the Daughters first rights should they ever sell.
The problem, when that opportunity came in 1903, was raising the $75,000 purchase price, well more than $1 million in today’s dollars. Through serendipity De Zavala met and recruited young heiress Clara Driscoll. Driscoll agreed with De Zavala that most of the battle had taken place at the Long Barrack and after attempts to raise the money failed, purchased the building herself and, eventually, turned it over to the state for full compensation.
That is how Driscoll came to be known as the “Savior of the Alamo,” not for the purchase of the church, but of the Long Barrack. But while De Zavala wanted to restore the Long Barrack and turn it into a museum – so passionately that she locked herself inside for three days before being starved out by deputies – Driscoll came to believe that what was needed to honor the heroes was a park surrounding the Alamo church. She saw the church as a much more elegant symbol than the mangled Long Barrack, which she felt detracted from the church. She had the support of area merchants and developers who were planning a new hotel by the property.
But De Zavala had the backing of Gov. Oscar Colquitt, who was at the site when cladding was taken off the second-story wall, revealing arches and Spanish stonework that showed De Zavala was right about the possibility of restoration. He ordered the restoration.
That’s where Lt. Gov. Davidson comes in. In 1913, with restoration underway but running out of money, Davidson took advantage of Colquitt being out of state to authorize the removal of the second-story walls.
So an important part of the 1836 battlement was removed, while the church’s iconic “top knot” that was added by the Army years after the battle remained.
So there you have it. When it comes to authenticity, all politicians should be met with skepticism, but Texas lieutenant governors should be met with alarm.
Correction: I am indebted to reader Curtis Chubb, who pointed out that I fingered Lt. Gov. Asbury Bascom Davidson for authorizing the removal of the second story of the Long Barrack at the Alamo in 1913 while the governor was out of the state. Chubb kindly pointed out that Davidson served only until Jan. 20, 1913, and the real culprit was his successor, William Harding Mayes. Chubb also suggested that Mayes secretly did it at the behest of Gov. Oscar Colquitt, who had presented himself as a protector of the Long Barrack. He may be right. Mayes was culpable in another matter, however. He founded the University of Texas School of Journalism.