Back in 1936, the State of Texas decided to hold a Centennial celebration, and like everything else Texas does, it was the biggest and best celebration of a centennial the world had ever seen. The exposition was held in Dallas, but the celebration itself eventually involved another exposition in Fort Worth, and the event was marked statewide with the construction of nine memorial museums, five community centers, 16 restorations of historical structures, two park improvements, 20 statues of important Texans, and more than 1,000 historical markers, grave markers, and highway markers.
All but a handful still exist.
With the ongoing talks about the Alamo Master Plan and Tricentennial celebrations, it is an opportune time to examine the work done at the Alamo and Alamo Plaza for the 1936 Texas Centennial. The planners need to understand the importance of recognizing this historic Centennial.
The Centennial Commission felt that the Alamo restoration, the Cenotaph, and the Alamo Museum were its most important projects to appropriately celebrate the centennial of Texas Independence. Few Texans today know what was involved in this project.
The sum of $250,000 was allocated for improving the Alamo. The work included the purchase of the city block on which the Alamo is located. The acquisition of the property restored, as nearly as possible, the entire original site occupied by the Mission San Antonio de Valero and created a park to surround the most famous historical shrine of Texas. Plaques set in the sidewalks surrounding the square mark the original boundaries of the mission. Approximately $20,000 of a federal allocation of $75,000 for improvements to the Alamo was used for a new roof and to make other necessary repairs to the chapel, for building rock walks, and for restoring the old acequia. Four plaques relating the history of the Alamo were installed in the Alamo. Unfortunately, one was lost when they were relocated on the grounds.
The Alamo Museum, erected on the site with approximately $53,000 of the federal allocation of $75,000, was designed in mission style to harmonize with the Alamo by architect Henry T. Phelps. In addition to the main display room, two committee rooms were created on the second floor. The museum was meant to display the historical relics of the Alamo and records of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, custodians of the Alamo at that time. This area is now known as the gift shop.
The Cenotaph was constructed with a $100,000 allocation from the U.S. Texas Centennial Commission. “The Spirit of Sacrifice” is the theme of the monument, represented on the south and main face of the shaft by a magnificent idealistic figure rising 23 feet from the long sloping capstone emblematic of the tomb. The east and west ledges are decorated with background panels of eight figures in low relief, glorifying all of the men who died in the Alamo. On the east panel stand the heroic portrait statues of James Bowie and James Bonham; the west panel features the heroic portrait statues of William Travis and David Crockett. On the north side appears a feminine figure symbolizing the State of Texas, holding the shields of Texas and the United States.
Pompeo Coppini conceived and executed the sculptural parts of the monument. An Italian-born sculptor who emigrated to the United States in 1896, Coppini lived in San Antonio. Although his works can be found in Italy, Mexico, and a number of American states, the majority of his work is in Texas, honoring Texas heroes. His most famous work was the Cenotaph. Others involved were Adams & Adams, architects who designed the overall shape, with Frank T. Drought as consulting engineer. The Rodriguez brothers in San Antonio built it. Amelia Williams compiled the list of the men who died in the Alamo for the inscription.
For more detailed information, the Alamo, the Alamo Museum, and the Cenotaph have all received national recognition, and detailed documentation is included in their applications:
- The Alamo is on The National Register, has been documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), and is a National Historic Landmark.
- The Texas State Library and Archives has detailed drawings and associated papers of the Alamo chapel and Gift Museum and the Cenotaph .
The Commission of Control published a magnificent book called the Monuments Erected by the State of Texas to Commemorate the Centenary of Texas Independence in 1938 for Texas Centennial celebrations. Finding it by chance, the book led me on a 10-year quest with the help of Barclay Gibson, another Texas history photo addict, to document the Centennial for the Texas Historical Commission (THC).
We located, photographed, and noted any damage done to the various markers, and set up a fund with the Friends of the THC. Our documentation allowed them to create the marker restoration as one of their special projects. Markers, statues, and monuments are now being restored.
The lack of attention to, and knowledge of, San Antonio’s 1936 Centennial monuments and structures is puzzling. In addition to the Alamo, the Centennial included restoration of Mission San José, improvements to Sunken Garden Amphitheater, construction of the Texas Pioneers-Old Trail Drivers-Rangers Memorial next to the Witte, the Moses Austin statue at City Hall, the Ben Milam statue in Milam Park, eight historical markers, and eight grave markers.
The Tricentennial Committee wasn’t interested in the story of the Alamo’s place in the 1936 Centennial when I gave them a complete presentation. The Alamo historians have never written about it for the public, the DRT denied that state and federal financial help was involved, and now the planners appear unaware. It’s as if it never happened.