A hundred years after Sam Houston emerged victorious from the field of battle at San Jacinto, Texas threw itself a birthday party. The Texas Centennial celebration was big — that was to be expected from a state then known primarily for its size — but what was unusual about the 1936 festivities was the outsized role played by architecture. Yes, there were parades and speeches and reenactments, but there were also structures of limestone and granite and bronze. From the exposition halls lining the Esplanade of State at Fair Park in Dallas to over a thousand grey granite historical markers erected throughout the state, Texas chose to commemorate its history by building museums and memorials where that history took place.
This act of building to honor the state’s past was also designed to define its future. For its first 100 years, Texas had been a mostly poor, rural expanse. The Centennial represented a conscious effort to change both that perception and that reality. To that end, the large building campaign in Texas was paired with an expansive marketing campaign outside of it to advertise the state to the nation in an effort to encourage tourism and business development.
The exposition buildings of Fair Park, designed by George Dahl et al., are the best-known built artifacts of the 1936 celebration. Indeed, the Texas Centennial Exposition held there in 1936 served as the year’s signature event. But to tell the history of the state in the places where that history occurred, nine memorial museums were built throughout the state. These range in scale from the imposing Texas Memorial Museum designed by Paul Cret and John F. Staub on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin, to more modestly scaled museums located in places as far afield as Alpine and Corpus Christi. Many of these museums expressed a stripped Classical Moderne style, although regional variations also came into play. The El Paso Memorial Museum designed by Percy McGhee, for example, was fashioned in the Dzong architectural style of Bhutan that defined the campus of the College of Mines and Metallurgy where it was located.
In addition to the memorial museums, a handful of park improvements and five community centers were constructed in the name of the centenary of Texas Independence. Regarding the latter, it is worth remembering that 1936 was not so far removed from the history it was celebrating. The Texas Pioneers – Trail Drivers – Rangers Memorial designed by Phelps & Dewees and Ayres & Ayres in San Antonio was, as its name suggests, built as a memorial to those who drove the cattle and pioneered the frontier. When built, many of these trail drivers and pioneers were still very much alive. The Mediterranean Revival-style structure included meeting rooms so that those who were not yet in need of memorialization could gather to tell stories of their exploits.
Given San Antonio’s central role in the history of the state, multiple Centennial projects came to be built in the city. Sixteen historical structures were restored as part of the Centennial, and two of those — Mission San Jose and the Alamo — are located in San Antonio. The latter of these restored missions also received one of the Centennial’s memorial museums, which was designed by Henry T. Phelps.
Despite previous attempts to honor the men who died defending the Alamo, it took the Centennial to build a permanent monument. Pompeo Coppini, the Italian-born San Antonio sculptor responsible for the George Washington statue at The University of Texas at Austin as well as the Littlefield statues at the opposite end of the South Mall, was tapped to carve the likenesses of Travis, Bowie, Crockett, and the rest. Technically named “The Spirit of Sacrifice,” the boot-shaped monument rises 60 feet from its base. Carved of marble imported from Georgia, it features high-relief sculptures of the more well-known Alamo personalities, as well as the names of the other Alamo defenders. The site for what came to be known as the “Alamo Cenotaph” was chosen not because it held any historical significance — contrary to popular belief, it does not mark the location of the Alamo funeral pyre — but because it was the only undeveloped space available in the middle of the original mission footprint. It was also not actually built in time for the Centennial: The monument was completed four years later, in 1940.
The building projects associated with the Texas Centennial were beset by the same budget and schedule issues that any other construction effort faces. Only the central portion of the Memorial Museum in Austin was completed, as funds for the large gallery wings never materialized. The Texas Centennial occurred during some of the worst years of the Great Depression, and the vast scale of the building associated with it was only possible because of the involvement of the federal government. Various New Deal programs matched state and local funds to either pay workers directly (Works Progress Administration, or WPA) or else hire private firms who would then pay workers (Public Works Administration, or PWA). Some projects would use funds from multiple “alphabet” agencies. Alfred C. Finn’s towering San Jacinto Monument that marked the site where Texas independence was secured was a PWA project, while the terraces, reflection pool, and other site improvements came as a result of WPA funding. None of it was completed in time for the actual Centennial.
Despite the delayed openings and partial realizations, the Texas Centennial was a success. Visitors to Texas may have been lured by the stories of the past, but they were intrigued by the future that lay in store for the state. According to Kenneth Ragsdale’s book, “The Year America Discovered Texas,” first-time visitors found the token cowboys they expected, but they also learned that Texas was quickly modernizing and offered “virtually untapped resource potential.” The great media blitz associated with the Centennial helped establish Texas on the national scene. As the 20th century progressed, industry took advantage of that resource potential Texas offered and helped the state transform into the economic powerhouse it is today.
For those already living in Texas, the Centennial offered a variety of free or inexpensive activities at a time of great economic instability. The construction of buildings of the Texas Centennial also offered federally-funded jobs at a time when the state was still recovering from unemployment rates that neared 30 percent. It taught Texans to be proud of their state and its history. The teaching of that history would become mandatory in Texas public schools a decade later, but the museums, monuments, memorials, and markers associated with the Centennial served as an extensive and permanent record of the history of the state for all Texans.
Or at least some Texans.
History is inexorably influenced by those who tell it. Those responsible for the Texas Centennial were predominantly white males, and so the story of Texas was told from that perspective. The role of Tejanos in the Texas Revolution was minimized. Of the 20 statues erected as part of the Centennial, only one (José Antonio Navarro) features a non-Anglo. Although a “Hall of Negro Life” was constructed at the Texas Centennial Exposition, the first such recognition at a world’s fair, the experience of Black Texans was otherwise mostly ignored. This targeted exclusion also included white immigrant groups, such as Germans, whose role was minimized due to their unpopularity in the time between the World Wars. Descriptions of Native Americans were particularly one-sided and often made use of racist language and stereotypes to describe the systematic eradication of the original inhabitants of Texas.
Even as contemporary historical research has revealed the people and events associated with Texas history to be considerably more complicated, the simple, “good versus evil” narratives told by the Texas Centennial celebration have proven to be resilient. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Alamo.
The chapel with the bell-shaped parapet that most people think of as “The Alamo” is only one small part of the larger Spanish mission complex dating from the 1740s. Stone walls once encircled the plaza that sits to the west of the chapel, where the majority of the 1836 battle took place. Those walls were removed almost immediately after the battle, and as San Antonio grew, it encroached on the original mission footprint. In the years after the Centennial, the Alamo became a major tourist attraction, as its story was told and retold on TV and in film. Over time, the buildings facing the plaza in front of the Alamo filled with a wax museum, bars, and souvenir shops selling T-shirts and coonskin caps.
Several plans to overhaul the plaza have been proposed over the years. The most recent effort began in 2014 and culminated in a plan calling for the closing of existing streets, the construction of a new museum to be designed by Machado Silvetti, and the implementation of a landscape strategy for the plaza by Reed Hilderbrand. Several aspects of the plan proved to be controversial, but none more so than the proposal to relocate the Alamo Cenotaph commissioned as part of the 1936 Centennial.
Proponents of moving the monument 500 feet to the south say it is necessary to recreate a more historic feel for the space within the boundaries of the original mission. Opponents argue that the move is an attempt to erase history. The fight over the Cenotaph culminated in October of last year, when Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick took the unprecedented step of speaking before the Texas Historical Commission to argue against moving the Cenotaph. An editorial in the San Antonio Express-News later penned by Patrick accused local elected leaders of conspiring to “erase the history of the Alamo battle.” The Historical Commission ultimately voted to deny the permit request from the City of San Antonio to relocate the structure. Considered a key part of the plan for the redevelopment of Alamo Plaza, the project’s future is now in doubt.
The debate over the Alamo Cenotaph is emblematic of larger cultural debates about which version of history is to be told. Further complications arise when historic fact becomes intertwined with legend. For better or worse, the “story” of the Alamo now includes the actions of Fess Parker and John Wayne as well as those of William Travis and Davy Crockett.
The actual historic truth of Travis, Crockett, and the rest is, to use a popular euphemism, “complex.” This is also true of Sam Houston, whose victory in 1836 started it all. It is accurate that Houston proved to be a capable (if somewhat lucky) military tactician on the marshy battlefield of San Jacinto, where he and his men won freedom for Texas. At the same time, Houston owned enslaved people. Slavery was a major factor leading to the fight for Texas independence after Mexico effectively abolished it in 1829. The legal enslavement of humans was later enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Texas. After Texas had been granted statehood, Houston vehemently opposed secession and was removed from office as Governor after refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy. He could be an important advocate for Native Americans while at the same time describing people of Mexican descent using repugnant and racist language.
Houston was, to use that word again, “complex.”
The story of Texas is complex as well. The individuals at the center of that story are more nuanced — and thus more human — than what was etched into granite historical markers back in 1936.
The Centennial celebration offered a projection of the future of Texas by telling a story of its past. But that story was incomplete. It left out important chapters of the state’s history by ignoring the role played by Latinos, Blacks, Native Americans, and yes, even Germans. As can be seen in the ongoing debate about Confederate memorials, there is still no clear understanding of the best way to tell the full version of history when other versions have already been cast in stone.
As the state closes in on its bicentennial, it is worth considering how to best celebrate its second century. Much has happened since 1936, and no doubt much will change between now and 2036. That celebration will represent an opportunity to revisit the museums and memorials built for the Centennial. Many of these now 80-year-old structures are already in dire need of attention. As with any other human construct, these buildings were not perfect when they were new, and time has somewhat tarnished their appearance. But these imperfect structures are certainly worth preserving, even if they require some updating and rehabilitation.
The same is true of our understanding of the people and events they were built to memorialize. Exactly how this can be done remains an open-ended question, but it is a question worthy of debate. That debate needs to start now. We only have 15 years left to figure out an answer.
Brantley Hightower, AIA, is the founding partner of HiWorks in San Antonio and the author of “The Courthouses of Central Texas.”