Gensler, teamed with San Antonio firm GRG Architecture, has been selected by the Alamo Trust to design the new Visitor Center and Museum for the famed former Spanish mission and battleground located in downtown San Antonio. The project, which will include an extensive renovation and addition to three historic buildings that face the historic site, is one piece of a larger plan to re-imagine the Alamo and its surroundings. This most recent planning effort has sparked clashes at multiple levels of Texas politics since its beginnings in 2014.
The idea for a dedicated Visitor Center and Museum for the Alamo has existed for decades. A 2014 plan called for such a facility to be located directly across from the Alamo chapel — and it is one of the few elements of that plan that remains in place today. In May of this year, the Alamo Trust determined that structures currently on that site — the Crockett Block, Palace Theater Arcade, and Woolworth Building — will be preserved and repurposed to house the museum. At a cost of $265 million, the project will include about 30,000 sf of exhibit space. Restaurant, retail, and event spaces will also be part of the program. Gensler prevailed over 12 other firms that submitted proposals in a request for qualifications last July.
The selection of Gensler officially confirms the departure of Machado Silvetti from the project. A spokesman for the Boston-based firm, which was chosen to head the project in 2019, stated: “In July of 2021, we were made aware that the Alamo had issued a new Request for Qualifications for the Alamo Visitor Center and Museum. We again submitted our qualifications for this proposal but were not chosen to proceed any further in the application and selection process.” This occurred despite the firm’s “interest and commitment to work with … the new leadership to find creative and sensitive solutions to the new set of goals for the project.”
The reference to “new leadership” is multifaceted. Alamo Trust CEO Doug McDonald did not renew his contract in September 2020, and in October, five members of the Alamo Trust board of directors resigned over the Texas Historical Commission’s blocking of the Cenotaph relocation. This March, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg asked City Councilman Roberto Treviño, AIA, to step down from two key committees related to the Alamo redevelopment plan. Treviño would be narrowly defeated a few months later in a closely contested runoff election to keep his council seat. Former H-E-B executive Kate Rogers is now the executive director of the Alamo Trust, while former Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran has taken Treviño’s place on the Alamo Management and Citizens’ Advisory committees. At the state level, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick became a vocal critic of fellow Republican and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and his management of the redevelopment plan.
Patrick and Bush appeared to make peace this summer at the August 17 (Davy Crockett’s birthday) groundbreaking of the Alamo Exhibition Hall & Collections Building. Also designed by Gensler, this new facility is located in the garden area behind the Alamo chapel. It will display, among other things, the extensive collection of Alamo artifacts owned by musician Phil Collins until the larger Visitor Center and Museum is completed on the other side of Alamo Plaza.
Machado Silvetti and Gensler are very different firms. The first has distinguished itself through its thoughtful, boundary-pushing solutions to high-context projects on charged historical sites. Gensler, also a world-class firm, is known more for doing a bit of everything. While the design of the Exhibition Hall & Collections Building received some criticism, it ultimately represents a safe design direction.
“Safe” might just be the word that best describes the current state of the Alamo plan. Gensler is a competent, collaborative choice, likely to propose solutions that will not add to the project’s existing controversy. Their choice for the Visitor Center and Museum seems symptomatic of a beleaguered project eager to make it to the finish line with minimum additional disruption. Aspirations for the museum are still high, but expectations may have mellowed, especially the hopes for a contemporary work of architecture that might contribute in our own time to the richly layered conversation that is “the Alamo.”
And perhaps that is the point. Some may feel that the Alamo is already “enough” as it is, and a new building should politely smile and accede to everything being said around it. Though that view may have contributed to Gensler’s selection, it is now up to the firm to prove otherwise or else simply nod along.
Ben Parker, AIA, is a senior architect at Overland Partners in San Antonio.
The Alamo master plan is unlike anything we have seen in Texas in regards to having an abundance of highly sensitive, complex issues. As for the current interpretive approach, I am pleased to note that “responsive” is probably the best word. The previous approach was correct from a scholarly perspective, but didn’t address the needs of many Texans who require a more literal connection. I think that part is working well, as in the just announced installation of the Palisade exhibit. In this approach, everyone will be able to better appreciate the conditions on that day in March 1836.
Unfortunately, “safe” does seem to be the best description for the current approach to facilities, just not the best approach. I would have hoped terms like “appropriate” or “architecturally contributing” would have been used for the collections building, with a strong sense of interpretive adaptation of the architectural and artistic legacy of the historic site. It’s the Alamo. It deserves our best in both creativity and historical awareness. In that regard, it is arguably the most important component of the master plan and the one that is farthest from hitting the mark. As for the museum, the restoration and adaptation of the historic buildings is exactly the correct approach. Previous ideas about removal of these buildings for a new one that is not just modern in function, but modern in exterior appearance were misguided from the outset. By retaining them, we can begin to explore the complex, sometimes difficult relationship when an internationally important historic site tries to coexist the growth of a great American city. That is an aspect of the Alamo story that seems to be least understood and that was least effectively addressed under the previous master plan approach.