Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1).
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) in March 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The chairman of the Texas Historical Commission resolved as far back as February to block a relocation of the Alamo Cenotaph and try to interfere in a lease agreement between the City and the Texas General Land Office, according to Councilman Roberto Treviño, the City’s main representative for the Alamo redevelopment plan.

Following a Sept. 22 vote by the Texas Historical Commission that denied the City’s request to move the 1930s monument to Texas revolutionaries killed in the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, Treviño (D1) shared details of a meeting in late February with commission Chair John L. Nau III.

Nau, president and CEO of major Texas alcohol wholesaler Silver Eagle Distributors and a prominent Houston philanthropist, led a push among fellow commissioners to vote against moving the Cenotaph, according to Treviño, who sees moving the monument as a critical element of a $450 million Alamo redevelopment project.

Nau was informed of Trevino’s comments through a Texas Historical Commission spokesman but did not respond to a request for an interview. He did not return a phone call late Wednesday seeking comment.

During the meeting, Nau was among the commissioners who expressed disapproval of the City and the General Land Office (GLO), which owns the Alamo site, drafting a plan that effectively assumed that the commission would grant the Cenotaph permit.

“There were a number of presentations,” Nau said during the meeting, referring to multiple public statements by the City, GLO, and Alamo Trust, the Alamo’s nonprofit steward. “I don’t remember the ‘take it, approve it, or the plan’s dead’ statement in any of those meetings.”

Addressing officials pushing for the Alamo Plan, Nau added that “what you had was the approval of the GLO and not the [Texas Historical Commission].”

Aside from moving and restoring the Cenotaph, the Alamo Plan includes restoring the three-century-old Alamo Church and Long Barrack, closing vehicle traffic to Alamo Plaza, and creating a museum and visitors’ center to tell an entire history of the site from its origins as a Spanish mission to indigenous people to a historic shrine at the center of downtown San Antonio.

But the project’s future is unclear after the commission’s vote. Following a closed-door meeting last Friday of the Alamo Management Committee, Treviño spoke only in vague terms about what might happen next, though he did confirm that none of the three parties involved – the City, Alamo Trust, and the GLO – has left the partnership.

“We’re still talking,” Treviño said. “We had what I thought was a productive conversation amongst the three entities. … We’re focused on a project that is adhering to the vision and guiding principles, that has fidelity to the Alamo Master Plan as we’ve envisioned it. How we get there is just going to involve more conversation, more strategy, and thoughtful planning.”

However, Treviño revealed details of an exchange with Nau during an in-person meeting at the Alamo Trust’s offices on Alamo Plaza in late February.

Treviño said Nau had asked him to give a compelling reason why the Cenotaph needed to be moved. Treviño said he responded that the goal is to “create a period-neutral site, and we want to be inclusive in telling the complete story.”

Former Chairman of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, John Nau III gives a keynote address. Photo by Scott Ball.
John L. Nau III, chairman of the Texas Historical Commission. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“And [Nau] says, ‘Well, I don’t find that compelling,’” Treviño said.

Treviño said he then explained that the City, GLO, and Alamo Trust had already shepherded the project through five years’ worth of public review and votes, followed by a formal agreement between the City and GLO.

“I said, ‘Well, the other reason is we voted this through an [Alamo] Citizens Advisory Committee, [Alamo] Management Committee, [Historic and Design Review Commission], City Council, and all that came together in a 99-year lease that spells out that we have to do these things, otherwise, there is no lease,’” Treviño recalled saying. “’Is that compelling enough?’”

Nau said it was, Treviño recalled.

“And then [Nau] said, ‘I’m going to work on a way to change that contract,’” Treviño continued. “So he’s been doing that ever since.”

In many ways, the fight over the future of the Alamo has become a fight about its past, or, more specifically, which part of its past should be most on display for those who visit the site. For Treviño, the version of history currently on display at the Alamo and the way the 1836 battle is taught in school is unfairly biased against Mexicans and Tejanos.

Treviño, a South Texas native who attended Davey Crockett Elementary School growing up in McAllen, said he first heard about the broader context of the Alamo from his uncle, Ricardo, who he called a “surrogate father” and “the smartest man I know.”

“If the Alamo ever came up, he talked about how, in essence, the story was filtered,” Treviño said. “The story that was given to him came out of books that were sponsored by oil companies like Texaco. He remembers a textbook that almost always placed the Mexican, and the image of being Mexican, as a villain.”

Some officials, such as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have made it clear that the focus should be almost exclusively on the 13 days of the battle, which Patrick has dubbed the “most important 13 days in the history of Texas and Western civilization.” Hundreds of people called into the Sept. 22 videoconference meeting of the state historical commission to make similar statements during a public comment period.

Treviño said that comments like Patrick’s treat the concept of independence from tyranny as if it were an idea that first arrived in Texas in the 1830s on the heels of Anglo settlers.

“But the idea of independence had been around long before Anglos showed up in Texas,” Treviño said. “I mean, San Antonio was always fighting for independence.”

As an example, Treviño cited the Mexican War of Independence that began in 1810 and led to Mexican liberation from Spain. Included in that war was the Battle of Medina in 1813, which involved hundreds of casualties on both the sides of Mexican republicans and royalists fighting to support the Spanish colonial government.

“Other history is told more comprehensively than this one, and this is our story,” Treviño said of the events leading up to the Texas Revolution. “This is a South Texas story. This is what I was challenging the [Texas Historical Commission] to recognize: Please understand, we just want to tell history completely and fully, for my uncle’s sake, for my sake, and for our kids’ sake.”

Treviño added that he “never said we’re not going to tell the Battle of the Alamo” story.

“I never said we’re not going to tell the full account of the 13 days in 1836,” Treviño said. “We are going to tell all that story. … But we also know that that’s not the only story and … that these things happen because of so much connected history, and there were so many other things occurring around the area and in the world.” 

As to how to implement the Alamo Plan after the Cenotaph vote, Treviño wouldn’t say whether or not the City might consider finding a way out of the lease.

“We’re looking at all avenues of what is best for the project,” Treviño said, adding that he told the historical commission that this “is not a very simple vote where you can pick and choose what part of the project is built or not built. That’s why, after five years of all this, it’s not like we can decide this in the matter of a week or a few days,” Treviño said.

Much of the discussion among commissioners ahead of the vote focused on technical matters involved with restoring and moving the Cenotaph, including whether the crimps holding the marble monument together are indeed made of aluminum, as consultants assert.

Nau didn’t detail his exact views on the Alamo’s history during the Sept. 22 meeting, though he expressed a desire to keep the monument within what would have been the walls of the fortified mission Texas revolutionaries were defending against the invading army of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

“Monuments to the fallen are placed where they fell,” Nau said.

Silver Eagle Distributors is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.