On October 18, the San Antonio City Council voted to move ahead with its planned overhaul of Alamo Plaza. This move came after similar approvals by the city’s Planning Commission, its Historic Design and Review Commission, and the 30-member Alamo Citizen Advisory Committee created to oversee this particular planning process. Council’s decision capped a contentious summer of public debate, during which the advantages and disadvantages of the plan were gone over with a surprising degree of passion and vitriol.
The Alamo Comprehensive Interpretive Plan was put together by PGAV Destinations (a St. Louis-based exhibit designer); Cultural Innovations (a London-based museum consultant); and Reed Hilderbrand (a Boston-based landscape architect). It was the most recent iteration of a series of preliminary plans that had been discussed publicly as early as 2014.
The most recent plan calls for enlarging the plaza by closing existing streets; constructing a new museum; and implementing an overall landscape strategy that includes moving the so-called Alamo Cenotaph and creating fixed points of entry to the plaza itself.
It is worth remembering that what most people think of as “The Alamo” is actually just the chapel — one small portion of the much larger complex of buildings that once occupied the site. Stone walls once encircled what is now Alamo Plaza, which is where the majority of the 1836 battle took place.
This is certainly not clear to those who visit the site today. Non-historic buildings and walls were built on the backside of the Alamo in the early 20th century, and the development of the plaza in front of it has reflected commercial interests more than historic ones. The goal of the Alamo Comprehensive Interpretive Plan was to remedy this situation by more clearly defining the extent of the original Alamo’s footprint and returning the plaza to a condition more respectful of its history. The challenge is not only that buildings have been constructed on much of the Alamo compound’s original footprint, but that many of these structures are now themselves historic.
The vote in October was taken specifically to approve some of these things: a 50-year lease to the Texas General Land Office, the closure of adjacent streets, and the relocation of the Cenotaph. These last two provisions turned out to be sticking points. The Alamo sits in an already congested part of downtown San Antonio, and closing the streets will impact the route of two of the parades held during the city’s annual Fiesta celebration.
The concerns surrounding the movement of the Cenotaph are less clear. The 60-ft-tall marble monument was completed in 1940 as part of the Texas Centennial celebration. The approved plan calls for it to be restored and moved 500 feet to the south to open up the plaza itself. Opposition to its relocation appears to be in part tied politically to the city’s controversial decision to remove a Confederate memorial from nearby Travis Park in 2017.
Although the plan is moving forward, many details remain to be resolved. There is concern that the historic plaza itself will be enclosed and that access to it will be limited, either for security or financial reasons. Preservationists worry that building the new museum will require the demolition of the buildings that currently form the western edge of Alamo Plaza. The Crockett Block was designed by Alfred Giles, and the neighboring Woolworth Building was the site of the first desegregated lunch counter in the South. It is unclear if the design of the new museum will reuse these buildings, or if they will instead be demolished.
One of the next steps facing the city will be to choose the architects to design the museum. More than 30 firms responded to the initial RFQ, and a shortlist of design architects has been selected, though it was not made public as of press time. The $150 million facility will house numerous artifacts related to the Alamo, including the collection belonging to the musician Phil Collins.
Originally built as a Spanish Mission, the Alamo was abandoned for several decades before being used as a fortress in the infamous 1836 Battle of the Alamo. After that, the compound once again fell into disrepair, for a time, and was used as a warehouse by both United States and Confederate Armies. It was during the Alamo’s use as a U.S. Army facility that the iconic, bell-shaped parapet that is so often associated with it was added. After the turn of the 20th century, what remained of the Alamo was purchased by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who acted as its custodians until 2015, when the state’s General Land Office took charge of daily operations.
Brantley Hightower, AIA, is founding partner of HiWorks in San Antonio and the author of “The Courthouses of Central Texas.”