While the architectural team that will design the Alamo museum has not yet started its work, the San Antonio Conservation Society presented its vision for the museum, one that integrates two historic buildings into the design.
At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Conservation Society officials unveiled a proposal for the museum site in Alamo Plaza with conceptual drawings that include a space to recognize the Woolworth building’s historic lunch counter, one of the first in the city to serve blacks in 1960.
The group’s pre-emptive proposal was met with skepticism from Alamo officials and those close to the official process.
Local firm Alamo Architects prepared the conceptual drawings, which also include an internal courtyard and an open-air path for pedestrians to travel north and south through the museum area without actually entering it or the original Alamo Plaza footprint.
The museum, part of the multimillion-dollar Alamo Plaza redesign, can showcase the indigenous history at the site and the 1836 Battle of the Alamo while still honoring the Woolworth building’s place in civil rights history, said Susan Beavin, president of the Conservation Society. The Woolworth lunch counter was one of the first in the Southern states to peacefully desegregate in the 1960s.
Beavin said the Woolworth building is part of a “civil rights milestone” that should be saved.
“It is a true compromise,” Beavin said in a news release. “This proposal combines the best of the old with the new to tell the full story of Alamo Plaza. We show how it is possible to reveal and interpret the western wall of the Alamo footprint, while preserving century-old buildings and an important site in the American civil rights movement.”
Alamo officials are negotiating a contract with an as-yet-unidentified “world renowned” architectural firm, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), so no draft design exists.
Alamo CEO Douglass McDonald called the Conservation Society’s proposal disrespectful to the historic site. While there are plenty of places in San Antonio that could honor the city’s role in the civil rights movement, he said, interpretation of the Alamo is site-specific.
“This design was secret, not known to anyone until a press conference today,” McDonald said, noting that both the Alamo Master Plan was – and the official museum design process will be – formulated in the public eye.
The Conservation Society presented its design as a compromise, but there’s not yet a design to which to compare it. Another consultant team is analyzing the historic buildings, which the state purchased in 2015, and the feasibility of keeping all, part, or none of their facades and internal structures, said Treviño, who serves as a chair of the public-private management committee set up to oversee the Alamo Plaza redesign.
The City, General Land Office, and Alamo Endowment hosted dozens of public and stakeholder meetings to develop the underlying master plan that will inform the final design.
“Our proposal reveals the location of the mission’s west wall by carving an arcade through the existing buildings, allowing pedestrians to preview exhibits in the museum,” said Beavin. “A new central entrance, the arcade, and the four-story addition to the rear allow creative architectural expression for the museum.”
Inside the Woolworth building, the Conservation Society proposes space to interpret the Treviño House that served as Travis’ headquarters and the Castañeda house. Their proposal would keep the facades and structure of the Woolworth and Crockett building, but turn the Palace building between them into an “outdoor museum gateway.” The outdoor walkway would also serve as an opportunity to show visitors where the western wall of the Alamo mission was.
“We hope that the architects for the new Alamo museum will consider the benefits of a design that reflects the complete history of the plaza,” Beavin said. “We encourage the public to reach out to the General Land Office and city leaders with their reactions to our plan.”
Tourist attractions, souvenir shops, and offices currently inhabit the Woolworth (518 E. Houston St.), Palace (319 Alamo Plaza), and Crockett (321 Alamo Plaza) buildings. Those businesses will be relocated to an “entertainment district” nearby, officials say, but the location has not been announced.
“There are many architects in town and all over the world that have creative ideas,” Treviño said. “It can’t be a compromise, because they haven’t talked to the management committee and the folks that are defining the scope of the project.”
While the Conservation Society’s proposal is appreciated, he said, “To present more design ideas that are not part of the actual process can be tricky.”
Alamo Architects was not among the more than 30 firms that responded to the request for proposals for the museum design job.
Conservation Society Executive Director Vincent Michael pointed out that it is a compromise in the sense that the proposal accepts the need for a plaza barrier and proposes the removal of the Palace building between the Crockett and Woolworth. Previously, the group was opposed to the barriers and wanted all three historic buildings saved.
The plan and a plaza lease agreement with the GLO was approved by City Council last year, but not without controversy surrounding the fenced-off perimeter of the plaza (the mission’s historic footprint), the closure of surrounding streets, and the relocation of the Alamo Cenotaph that honors the Alamo defenders.
McDonald said the Conservation Society’s proposal “is a compromised telling of the history of the Alamo” that downplays the site’s ability to showcase the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.
“The Alamo’s history is the most important history of this site,” he told the Rivard Report. “This is only place in the world to tell the story of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo and to tell of William Barret Travis’ writing the world-changing ‘Victory or Death’ letters in the Treviño House. The Battle of 1836 is the heart and soul of what it means to be a Texan.”
The lunch counter story and San Antonio’s place in civil rights history can be told in several other locations, he said, but the Alamo’s history cannot. Before taking the helm of the Alamo, McDonald was CEO of the Cincinnati Museum Center and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
“This proposal disrespects the unique history of the Shrine of Texas Liberty, the Defenders of that 1836 Battle, and Losoya, who lived and died on this site,” he said. “We are committed to tell the full and accurate history of the Alamo based upon evidence. In the case of the Alamo, you cannot tell the story of even the Texas Revolution based upon exclusively the events of 13 days in March of 1836. In the case of telling the full and accurate history of civil rights and racial injustice in San Antonio, it cannot be based simply upon the events of March 1960.”
Historian Everett Fly said the prominent location of the Woolworth building – and its inclusion in the museum – is the best opportunity to tell the story of black history in San Antonio that is often overlooked.
“San Antonio – despite our infrastructure, despite our policies, despite our rhetoric about being inclusive … has a very poor record of preserving, conserving, acknowledging, and celebrating African-American history and culture, particularly physical landmarks and sites such as this,” Fly said. “The opportunity is here for us to step up and be legitimate and honest in our preservation rhetoric.”
The goal of the Alamo redevelopment is to tell the complete history of Alamo Plaza, Beavin noted. “I get that they want to focus on the Alamo, but that’s not all there is there. … Why not have the whole story?”
A good designer can showcase the battle, the civil rights movement, and more in the museum, Michael said. “You can do both.”
Different Versions of History
Long before Jimmy John’s sandwich shop and Ripley’s Haunted Adventure moved into the Woolworth building, the 1921 structure featured a lunch counter on the ground floor of the retail store where customers and area workers would dine.
Sit-ins and boycotts over racist Jim Crow-era laws across the South started gaining national attention in February 1960, when a sit-in protest was held at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
After a meeting with NAACP leaders, San Antonio businesses owners agreed to integrate rather than attract more nonviolent demonstrations. The list of stores that agreed to desegregate included Woolworth, S.H. Kress & Co., Neisner’s, Grant’s, Green’s, and 23 Sommers drug stores.
The Conservation Society formed the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, with other history enthusiasts, to preserve the building. The group claims that the lunch counter was the first Woolworth to voluntarily and peacefully integrate in the south on March 16, 1960.
But the GLO’s Archives and Records department found that “it was clearly not even the first lunch counter desegregated in Texas,” citing an H-E-B and Woolworth in Corpus Christi that desegregated in the 1950s and highlighting the quiet desegregation of the Sears department store in San Antonio in the 1950s.
“No press was alerted to this fact in hopes there would be no white backlash,” according to the GLO report that cites several newspapers, journals, and books focusing on this period of time.
The Texas Historical Commission (THC) is slated to consider the Woolworth building’s historical significance later this week as the Conservation Society has nominated it to become a state antiquities landmark. It is already on the National Register of Historic Places.
An antiquities designation from the state would make it more difficult to alter or demolish the building, but not impossible.
“The land-owning agency must consult with the THC about such proposed actions through the permit process,” according to THC’s website, “and the THC will determine whether the work will be allowed.”