Texas history · Public History

Reimagining the Alamo

I recently found out about efforts by the Texas General Land Office and the Alamo Endowment to “reimagine” the historic Alamo in San Antonio.[1] As a longtime Texas resident, I was initially skeptical of this proposed project. The state, generally speaking, does a poor job of preserving its historic sites and does not prioritize state government spending on historical preservation. This is a problem for Texas because most of its historic sites fall within the jurisdiction of the Texas Historical Commission rather than the National Park Service. Some Texas historic sites are preserved exclusively through the fundraising and management of private organizations. This places state historic sites in a rather precarious position, beholden to a poorly funded state agency or generous local philanthropists.

Last year there was quite a to-do about the Fort Worth Stockyards, an important historical site in the city that is not actually controlled by any historical preservation agency: not the state; not the county; not even a private organization. The stockyards property is privately owned by investors, the largest of whom is the Hickman family. A small, understaffed museum is operated by the North Fort Worth Historical Society, but that entity has no control over the stockyards property. The owners joined forces with a large real-estate development company to bring more office space, condos, and hotels into the historic stockyards, kicking off a contentious local debate over how much of the stockyards land should be preserved and thus off-limits to development. Unsurprisingly, with no authoritative national or state historic preservation agency to protect the historical integrity of the stockyards, the property owners were able to have the lines of the historic no-development zone drawn as tightly as possible to maximize their acreage for building hotels, condos, and offices.

Another problem in Texas is the attention that the Texas Historical Commission pays to small-town business development rather than actual historical preservation. Sites owned and managed by the state languish with few staff members and little investment in exhibits or activities that might draw in visitors beyond perfunctory school field trip groups. But millions of THC dollars go toward staffing and operating a division exclusively dedicated to small-town business development. The THC also, in characteristic Texas fashion, touts the economic benefits of its historical preservation—as though the purpose of preserving historical sites is a financial return on the taxpayers’ investment.[2]

When I heard about the “Reimagine the Alamo” project I immediately cringed, thinking that the state’s most famous historic site might also meet the same fate as the stockyards in Fort Worth: condo-ization. Then I remembered that the Alamo is part of the San Antonio mission trail, a UNESCO World Heritage site managed at least in part by the NPS. I traveled the mission trail a few years ago and met with many friendly NPS employees along the way. Their involvement, even if somewhat limited, does provide a level of protection to the Alamo (and the five other missions) that most Texas historic sites do not enjoy.

After doing a bit of research on the subject, I have found that this development project is not the bogeyman that some state history enthusiasts imagine it to be. The plan consists of three major parts:

  1. Closing down some busy streets near the Alamo that cut through its historic footprint. The full historic footprint will then be enclosed in some way or other (glass walls proved an unpopular suggestion and will not be used) so that tourists can see what the site looked like in the past. Visitors will also be able to take in the site without a busy street right behind them as is the case now. The enclosed plaza that the designers intend to create will also recreate and explain some of the original features of the mission. The most significant of these is an acequia, or aqueduct, built by the Spanish to provide fresh water and irrigation. All six missions along the San Antonio River had one, but the remaining portion of the acequia system stands forgotten along a backroad.
  2. Building a museum to house the extensive Phil Collins collection of Alamo historical documents and materials. Yes, that’s right—world famous musician Phil Collins is a fan of the Alamo and turned over his extensive collection to the state. Three state-owned buildings across the street from the Alamo are going to be renovated to house the collection. Closing down the streets fronting the Alamo makes even more sense if doing so can create a plaza that connects the museum with its subject.
  3. Relocating the large Cenotaph monument to a more appropriate location. The Cenotaph is a memorial to the deaths of famous Battle of the Alamo soldiers; it does not mark the places of their deaths. It currently stands near the Alamo and takes up a lot of space. The “Reimagine the Alamo” project plans to have the City of San Antonio move the Cenotaph to a city park near where the men in question actually died (and their bodies burned). This sounds like a fair compromise, and actually promises to increase foot traffic in a less well-known historic part of the city.

My opinion may mean little, but I encourage Texas history enthusiasts to look for the positive in this Alamo project. There are no proposed condos or uncomfortable intermingling between urban development and historical preservation. The only changes proposed are designed to restore the full size and design of the Alamo grounds, while also taking into account the needs of tourists who will visit the new museum. So far the San Antonio City Council has taken criticism from local residents quite seriously (particularly their insistence that the proposed glass walls be removed from the plan), and there is no reason to think that they will stop doing so in the future. The entire mission trail system long stood in need of repair and attention before San Antonio received grant money to improve it, and this Alamo project can be interpreted as the next step in restoring the missions.

[1] See their website here. https://reimaginethealamo.org/

[2] See the most recent report, “Economic Impact of Historic Preservation in Texas” from 2015. http://www.thc.texas.gov/public/upload/publications/economic-impact-historic-preservation.pdf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s