Perhaps the best thing about the Alamo Plaza Master Plan — developed by the Texas General Land Office, the City of San Antonio, and the Alamo Endowment and unveiled this spring — is that it has ignited a public conversation about urbanism and history.
Billed as “a new vision for sacred ground,” the plan proposes dramatic changes to the narrow, roughly rectangular parcel of land between Houston and Commerce streets on the north and south, the 19th- and 20th-century commercial buildings on the west, and the Alamo and the Menger Hotel on the east. The centerpiece is a large, treeless plaza between the Alamo and a proposed water channel in front of the buildings directly opposite of it. These buildings’ facades would be retained as the spaces behind them are converted into a museum with a rooftop observation deck. The plaza would be framed, on the ground, with structural glass to permit views of the earth and archeological artifacts below. Panels of the same glass would surround most of the plaza on the north and south sides, and shape a monumental arch on the south end, which is imagined as the main entrance to the site. Pedestrians would arrive at this “gate” from a wide, paved walkway beginning at Commerce Street. The area in front of the Menger Hotel would be planted with trees and drought-tolerant plants.
In San Antonio, responses to the design — by George Skarmeas, AIA, of Philadelphia-based Preservation Design Partnership — have been varied and voluble. Albeit for widely differing reasons, no one seems particularly happy about the scheme. Leading voices in the profession have registered their concerns publicly, and the AIA chapter has reminded passionate citizens that a master plan is always only a beginning. Why is it so hard to get Alamo Plaza right?
In part, it is because its character has never been fixed. Since the establishment of the site as a mission by Franciscan priests in 1744, its form and use have changed numerous times. First developed to evangelize and solidify a colonial foothold in a remote region of New Spain as Iberian control of the Americas began to weaken, the space was later used for military purposes. After the Civil War, it became a transportation hub, then a thriving commercial center, and was ultimately reborn as the most important tourist destination in the state. Even the term “plaza,” which had a very specific meaning in Spanish colonial urban planning, dictated by custom and the Laws of the Indies, is misleading. In 1930, a small plaza-like space in front of the Alamo was created, and in the late 1970s, the city closed the street that ran directly in front of this space and built the limestone-paved “plaza” that is there today.
As a locus of aspirations for and anxieties about the character of the city and the state, Alamo Plaza is unrivaled. For some, it is among the preeminent symbols of a long, heroic effort to spread the ideals of American democracy west across the continent and is the icon of Texan exceptionalism. For others, it represents a destructive, largely unexamined, racialized jingoism that underpins 21st-century prejudices. Despite visitors’ often-repeated complaints that the Alamo is “smaller” than they had expected and that the space in front of it is “hard to understand,” the Alamo is the foremost embodiment of San Antonio’s Faustian bargain with the tourist industry.
The site area was first developed as the second location of the Mission of San Antonio de Valero, which was founded on the west bank of the San Antonio River in 1718. The mission was moved east of the river, to the present site of the Alamo in 1724, after a hurricane. Its church, built 20 years later, collapsed in 1756. Thereafter, the building we know as the Alamo was begun. W. Eugene George, FAIA’s 1961 drawings for the Historic American Buildings Survey gives an excellent idea of the mission as it was likely to have existed in the third quarter of the 18th century. Like 16th-century missions in central Mexico, San Antonio de Valero had an enclosed atrio, or forecourt, in front of the chapel. Walls were of stone, adobe, and wood. But unlike in the earliest colonial missions, this three-acre atrio was positioned at some distance in front of the church. A narrow, two-story cloister with arches ran along part of the eastern perimeter of the atrio and opened onto a yard whose southeastern corner abutted the church. Like other Texas missions, San Antonio de Valero’s residential character also differentiated it from its predecessors closer to Mexico City. People of different indigenous groups were housed in dwellings arranged along the west, north, and eastern walls and in apartments organized in five rows roughly at the north-central end of the plaza. The main entrance to the atrio was through the south wall. Two irrigation ditches ran roughly north-south on either side of the complex. San Antonio de Valero was one of the most significant regional adaptations of a 16th-century Mexican mission, which itself was the most important new building type in colonial New Spain.
Less than 20 years after it was built, however, the mission was secularized. Beginning in 1773, a New Spanish cavalry unit used the compound irregularly as a fort. The still unfinished chapel served as a military church, and baptisms were recorded as early as 1803. Although it was meant to have a two-story retablo facade and a pair of towers, only the lower story, with its now-iconic portal, stood. In 1813, a battle for Mexican independence from Spain, and its bloody aftermath, took place at the fort. After the battle of 1836, Mexican soldiers destroyed what remained of other buildings but left the debris-filled chapel in place. In 1850, the U.S. Army modified the chapel for use by the quartermaster corps and had possession of it until 1876, except during the Civil War. The army raised the walls, added windows and a roof, and commissioned John Fries (who designed the first Menger Hotel in 1858) and David Russi to create the beloved parapet.
Over the course of the second half of the 19th century, the space west of the Alamo took on the character of an urban commercial plaza. To its east and south were the modest vernacular houses that later inspired O’Neil Ford, FAIA. In 1880, the two-story Hugo and Schmeltzer store occupied the former site of the cloister; a modest meat market was in what had been the atrio. By the 1890s, the city we know today had come into view. New three- and four-story commercial buildings, including Alfred Giles’s four-part Crocket Block and an opera house stood on the west side of Alamo Street. To the north was James Riley Gordon’s Romanesque Revival post office. The plaza had been paved (with mesquite blocks), and an oval-shaped landscaped park with winding paths, a bandstand, and a rock-encircled “Mexican cactus” garden was installed.
This park was still in place when the plaza and Alamo grounds were fully integrated into a dense urban fabric in 1918. The Hugo and Schmeltzer store had been dismantled in 1913 for the rebuilding of the lower walls of the cloister, following a fierce 1905 debate about whether the Alamo should be commemorated chiefly as a battle site or as a mission. In the 1920s, “Alamo Plaza Park” embodied the informality and genteel rusticity that were hallmarks of San Antonio’s spaces of leisure in the early 20th century. A new octagonal bandstand with classical columns on a rock base replaced the old one, and a small faux-bois bench by Dionicio Rodriguez stood among palm trees. Images of the park appeared on countless postcards, suggesting that it was an important destination in its own right. In 1926, Ralph Cameron, FAIA, wedged the towering, 12-story Gothic Revival Medical Arts Building into what had been the northeast corner of the atrio, transforming the scale of the space dramatically.
The Alamo Cenotaph, which the new master plan calls to have relocated, was dedicated in 1940 on a narrow strip between Alamo Street and the cloister wall. By then, the park was bisected to accommodate vehicular traffic along Crockett Street. The land behind the Alamo, between Houston and Bonham Streets, had been developed as a park, a change that contributed to the denaturing of the Alamo itself as part of the city and anticipated the catastrophic demolitions throughout downtown San Antonio in the decades to come.
Alamo Plaza is one node of a historically shifting constellation of important spaces in San Antonio. Its symbolic and emotional charge makes it easy for one to lose sight of this aspect of its history. The conundrum of how to shape it today reflects one of the curiosities — and opportunities — of downtown San Antonio: There is not a single “center.” Today, there are three important plazas. In the 18th century, San Antonio de Valero, with the Cathedral of San Fernando and the settlement later known as La Villita was one of the three places that defined the town. A century later, planners understood Alamo Plaza in relation to Main Plaza, as well as to San Pedro Park to the northwest. (In 1729, land around the springs there had been designated for public use, and in 1858 City Council inaugurated the modern park.) Streetcar lines ran between the plaza and the park, and when Alamo Plaza got its new bandstand, the old one was taken to San Pedro Park, where it remains. At the time the city installed the garden in 1888, it also created one at Main Plaza. Alderman A.W. Wulff, who immigrated to San Antonio in 1850 from Germany, had suggested these horticultural beautifications.
Seen in light of the plaza’s history and 21st-century realities, the new master plan is baffling. It proposes evoking the site’s life as a working mission, presumably to satisfy those who desire greater acknowledgement of the experiences of indigenous Texans, and to create a space in which it is easier to visualize a battle. The absurdity of creating wide expanses of unshaded, impermeable surfaces in San Antonio is surely plain to anyone who has ever been in the city long enough to leave the airport. As downtown slowly recovers from the loss of so much historic fabric to parking lots and HemisFair, the argument for creating more vastly scaled space and then walling it off from its surroundings is equally puzzling. The effect of the proposed barrier would be particularly pronounced on the north end, where Cameron and Paul Cret, AIA’s Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse stands, with its major WPA mural, “San Antonio’s Importance in Texas History.” A more compelling scheme would find ways of integrating Alamo Plaza with the city around it, spatially and symbolically. It might do this by clarifying the plaza’s relationship to the San Antonio River, whose banks beyond downtown have been so effectively reshaped, and by creating a less specifically programmed space that supports a wide variety of activities, memories, and fantasies. Such a design should more powerfully acknowledge climate and climate change, and it must grapple with the political context in which it was born.
Alamo Plaza cannot be only for tourists and reenactors. It must belong to San Antonians. Although the master plan was in the works long before undisguised prejudice against Mexicans helped propel a wall-obsessed man to the presidency, history will judge it in light of that event. We need symbolically rich, broadly meaningful public places more now than at any time in the last half century. Fifty-seven percent of San Antonians are Mexican-Americans; in 2020, more Texans will be Latino than white. Building walls is the last thing we should do.
Remarkably unchanged in 250 years is the iconic portal of the Alamo itself. It is mentioned and reproduced less often than is the parapet, yet is the most potent material reminder of a story even more extraordinary than the invention of Texas. Shaped partly by indigenous hands, it is a regionalized baroque interpretation of the classical triumphal arch that Sebastiano Serlio first illustrated in “Tutte l’opere d’architettura, et prospetiva,” in 1540. The portal is a sign of the long reach of the Italian Renaissance — across the Atlantic Ocean, through Mexico City, all the way to a remote, dusty site in the province of Coahuila y Tejas. It puts the challenge of the plaza design in perspective. At its core, ours is a struggle to realize more perfectly our inheritance of the humanistic ideals first articulated in the Renaissance. With the portal, the plaza’s changing form reminds us that the movement of ideas and people at the heart of our shared history is what makes it heroic.
Kathryn O’Rourke is an associate professor of art history at Trinity University.