The Alamo was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Such landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior through a National Park Service (NPS) program because of their “exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States,” according to the NPS website. Loss of integrity – through alteration, addition, or demolition – is the most common reason for the withdrawal of the landmark designation.
My concern rests with the incorrect statement made by Preservation Design Partnership Design Director George Skarmeas, whose Philadelphia-based firm has been hired by the City of San Antonio, the Texas General Land Office, and the Alamo Endowment to design the multi-million dollar joint master plan for the historic site. In an August 2016 presentation, Skarmeas spoke on the reconstruction of the walls. When asked about the plans to rebuild some of the Alamo’s original structures as well as the southwest corner where the famous 18-pound cannon was located, Skarmeas said:
“… So we also need to think about the Secretary of Interior standards and the guidelines that the world experts have developed over the course of the last 50 years in treating such places. One of the things that they strongly discourage us from doing is reconstruction.”
He concluded: “It is also because we cannot single out one moment in time. How are you going to tell this story over thousands of years of history if you begin to reconstruct elements that are not necessarily connected. So the answer is something that is probably not going to happen.”
The first standard in NPS’s standards for reconstruction reads, “Reconstruction will be used to depict vanished or non-surviving portions of a property when documentary and physical evidence is available to permit accurate reconstruction with minimal conjecture, and such reconstruction is essential to the public understanding of the property.”
Tom Keohan, a senior staff historical architect with NPS for the Intermountain Region, which includes Texas, has verified that the standards have not changed, nor do they discourage reconstruction. The reconstruction standard specifies the recommended approach to reconstruction as an option to foster a greater understanding of a site that has lost elements of its historic integrity.
We are fortunate to have several well-known renderings of the Alamo that were made by recognized artists from eyewitness accounts, as well as measured drawings of the outline of the original walls by the city engineer.
Reconstruction is briefly mentioned in the frequently asked questions of the Alamo Plaza proposal of April 11, but NPS guidelines are not addressed.
At the August 2016 presentation, Skarmeas was asked whether walls will be built to attempt to replicate what the Alamo looked like in 1836.
“We will define the location of the perimeter walls, where possible, with a remarkable structural glass system which will be illuminated at night,” Skarmeas replied. “The palisade will also be defined with a different, yet to be determined, structure. We will use careful research and archaeology to determine the location of the perimeter walls and the depth of the historic living surface. These artifacts will be displayed in a protective glass structure with lighting for visitors to enjoy both day and night.”
To restate the park service’s standards and guidelines in the treatment of historic properties as they pertain to the south wall of the Alamo: Reconstruction to depict non-surviving portions of the Alamo, using documentary and physical evidence, is available to permit accurate reconstruction with minimal conjecture.
The reconstruction is essential to the public understanding of the property and to remember the Alamo.