I have visited 100 or so of the 1,052 World Heritage sites, including 16 of the 23 sites in the United States. I know this because I counted them Saturday while searching online for an urban site recognized by UNESCO that is enclosed in modern glass walls.

I learned two things Saturday. One, I am not as well traveled as I thought, and I have a lot of World Heritage travel to plan in the coming years if I am going to visit a greater number of the remarkable sites in my lifetime. Two, I could not find a single site enclosed by glass walls.

Are there any World Heritage sites enclosed in glass walls?

I put the question to Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and Trish DeBerry, who is handling media for the Alamo Management Committee and Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) of Philadelphia, in an email last week. No one had responded by the weekend, but the concept is bound to be the subject of continuing community debate, so I expect a response in due course.

In an earlier email to DeBerry, I invited PDP’s Director George Skarmeas; Treviño, the council representative on the committee; and Alamo Endowment Chairman Gene Powell, to submit articles or commentary on the subject of the overall master plan, the glass walls, or any other design elements which have been the subject of community debate over the last month. DeBerry has indicated that invitation will be accepted.

The glass walls were conceived as an alternative to recreating walls around the original Mission San Antonio De Valero perimeter that still existed at the time of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. Historic recreation is discouraged by UNESCO and historic preservationists, but I believe the Texas General Land Office, Powell in his leading role, and perhaps City officials, all want to secure the area, which has been an open plaza for more than a century.

The original plan called for removing shade trees and limiting access to the enclosed grounds through a single entrance situated where archaeologists have determined the Alamo’s main gate existed on the south wall, all later destroyed. Revised plans will protect most of the existing trees and add multiple pedestrian portals to the walls, according to remarks by Treviño at the final public hearing.

City Council on Thursday voted unanimously in favor of the $450 million Alamo Master Plan, which initiates the hiring of architects to design the final physical space surrounding the Alamo and allows City and State officials to start work on key elements of the plan.

The vote moves several elements of the plan forward: restoration of the church and Long Barracks, partial closure of South Alamo and Crockett streets, relocation and restoration of the 1930s Alamo Cenotaph, and the conveyance of leasing management duties for the plaza to the General Land Office.

This daytime rendering shows the pedestrian plaza that South Alamo Street (looking north) could become.
This daytime rendering shows the pedestrian plaza that South Alamo Street (looking north) could become. Credit: Courtesy / Texas General Land Office

The controversial glass walls have not been approved and appear to be developing as an issue between Mayor Ivy Taylor and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), who face each other in the June 10 runoff election. The public has been told that such design concepts and decisions will be worked out in the coming months, but some fear the council vote will serve as a de facto approval of the PDP master plan without significant changes.

Establishing a greater sense of solemn reverence and dignity at the site and maintaining open public access, Nirenberg said, are not mutually exclusive.

“Take down those walls,” Nirenberg said. “Part of [the plaza’s] history is being available and open to the public.”

Taylor, in her public remarks, has appeared undecided on the concept of glass walls, but also appears to be more deferential to the designers and committee.

“In all our hearts and minds … [we] hold that concept dear that, yes, this is an important civic space for our community,” Taylor said Tuesday. “But I believe it’s important for us to respect the process.”

Both candidates appeared at an impromptu meeting of the Lavaca Neighborhood Association last week and responded to questions from residents.

Popular opinion is strongly opposed to glass walls, judging from the hundreds of people who have attended public hearings on the master plan, published submissions to the Rivard Report, posted comments, and social media traffic. Whether the matter becomes a significant point of difference between Taylor and Nirenberg in the brief runoff campaign remains to be seen.

A public forum on urban World Heritage sites would be a useful exercise. Security is a legitimate issue, and anyone studying security at the Alamo would agree that it is inadequate today, and better flow of visitors is and should be a goal of the committee.

PDP has an impressive portfolio of historic preservation and planning, and I don’t believe anyone should doubt Skarmeas’ well-deserved reputation as a world-class designer and preservationist. He was elected chairman of the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and appointed Commissioner on the U.S. Commission of UNESCO, dealing with matters of World Heritage in 2010.

So why did he recommend glass walls as a central concept of the master plan?

I believe he was presented with an impossible proposition by State and City officials: Create a memorable visitor experience, and at the same time, close off the plaza space in front of the Alamo to keep out the homeless, street preachers, and unwanted after-hours visitors exiting local bars. Glass walls are the only way to maintain site lines, yet enable State officials to lock the doors at night.

Tourists perform a circus like stunt on Alamo Plaza for a photograph to send to their friends ands family. Photo by Scott Ball.
Tourists get acrobatic on Alamo Plaza for a photograph to send to friends and family. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Whether a walled-off plaza is even legal is another matter, one not explored publicly until local historical preservation advocate Sarah Reveley published a submission on the Rivard Report that cites the 1871 deed when the Catholic Church sold the property to the City of San Antonio. Her finding merits public consideration and debate.

There are other ways to secure the space, and one is the presence of state or local law enforcement officials who enforce posted hours and regulations. Access to the Alamo Church and grounds, understandably, will now require visitors to pass through a security screening and obtain a ticket with a time and date for their visit. Those same restrictions work well at the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York Harbor and Independence Hall National Historic Park in Philadelphia, both UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, and since 2015, San Antonio’s Alamo and Spanish-colonial Missions, are the only urban World Heritage sites in the continental United States. Others might argue that Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., also a World Heritage site, is an urban site. That site is the former home and grounds of President Thomas Jefferson and the university campus he designed, and thus not analogous, in my opinion.

There are no glass walls around the first two historic sites. No one is suggesting the four Missions located further south should be walled in glass. I do not think the case has been made for enclosing the Alamo and portions of the plaza in glass walls.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.