A $450 million plan for the treasured historic site of The Alamo in downtown San Antonio is causing a stir. Architects, planners, professors, patriotic preservationists, and the public are in disagreement over a rejuvenation scheme that looks to open up the plaza but relocate a historic cenotaph in the process.
The Alamo Mission (commonly known as just “The Alamo”) is home to the 18th Century chapel, Shrine of Texas Liberty, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A 1930s cenotaph erected in tribute to the Texian and Tejano defenders who were killed in an 1836 Mexican onslaught is at the center of the debate. The plan devised by nonprofit Alamo Endowment, the Alamo Commission, the city of San Antonio, and the Texas Land Office, looks to move the cenotaph to declutter the plaza and allow it to become a space for events.
To improve access, perimeter walls that enclose the state-owned Alamo Gardens would be removed. These, unlike the cenotaph, are not historic and their removal, according to officials, would add approximately five acres to the site. The walls would also be partially replaced by glass walls too.
Of the $450 million, $110 million will be used to renovate and repurpose three buildings (owned by the state) as a museum. The historic battlefield site is a top destination for Texans and tourists alike, attracting around 1.6 million every year. Plans to modernize the site aim to triple these figures over a decade and add 2,000 jobs to the area.
“A lot of the children that will be going to this museum and to the compound are not even born today,” Gene Powell, an Alamo Endowment board member told the City Council. “Technology is going to change. Children are going to want things that are more exciting and more fun. They want to be able to see things.”
Some, though, are not impressed: “This proposal represents a failure to address the real concerns and needs of visitors and heritage tourists who are asking to see more of the Alamo—not aesthetic landscaping,” wrote Glenn Effler in the San Antonio Express-News. “The re-created acequia and the trees are little more than window dressing, a cosmetic treatment to a historic battlefield that is in dire need of inspiring interpretation.” Effler is a senior member of the Alamo Plaza Project and board member of the Alamo Society. His letter in full can be read here.
Local resident Susan Green, speaking to the San Antonio Express-News, was also skeptical of the proposed master plan. She was worried that the glass walls would be “a stark, modern looking contrast to the architecture in all of downtown.”
In light of the scheme’s criticism, though, a number of architects and others in the architecture discipline penned a letter of support for what they described as a “great beginning to a plan that should lead to a transformative place.”
As architects, we believe that the Alamo Master Plan in its final form can restore both the Alamo and the integrity of this historic place in our city. We applaud this incredible effort. All the residents in our city and our state want this plan to succeed.
To be a vital destination for everyone, it is equally important to have the plaza be a dynamic and welcoming civic space as it has been for the past 200 years—perhaps the most memorable place in the state.
Like all good master plans, the first plan is the beginning of the conversation. We should honor the Alamo and Alamo Plaza by having a thoughtful “listening” period to allow the plan to get better (building upon the successes of the River North, Broadway, Hemisfair and South Town Master Plans). Alamo Plaza should be a memorable place for residents and visitors to return to again and again. A place that strengthens our city.
On May 11, we hoped the City Council will approve the master plan conditional on the need for a continuing process that keeps the plaza as a connected civic space rather than a controlled-access outdoor museum. The plaza must be a welcoming and integral part of our city, balancing the historic aspects of the Alamo with the civic needs of the plaza.
Thirty-one architects signed the letter, including David Lake and Ted Flato from Lake/Flato Architects and Lawrence Speck, professor, School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. The letter can be read in full here.
The day after this letter was posted online, however, David Lake published a critique of the master plan in The Rivard Report. He responded to elements in the master plan that in his view, were not addressed in an appropriate manner, notably the proposed glass walls. Here are a few of the key faults he noted:
The master plan creates new walls to the north and a west acequia which are not in historic locations and confuse the integrity of the battlefield.
The arbitrary location of the north wall and the west acequia disrupt the plaza’s original character implying a much smaller space, which is not historically accurate.
The walls exclude the community and disrupt connectivity, creating a place for visitors but inflexible to events that occur today. In this plan, it is no longer a community gathering place.
Lake also argued that the plan only honored the Alamo Plaza of 1836 and “not the history of commerce in the plaza post-1836.” His critique in full can be found here.
If the master plan is approved, half of the sum required will come from San Antonio and the state, while the rest would be privately funded. A decision is due to be made on May 11.
[UPDATE, 5/2/2017] This text has been updated from a previous version, published yesterday that did not include architect David Lake’s critique of the master plan, which was also published that day. Further text from the signed architects’ letter has been added to clarify their support for the “master plan process” rather than the master plan in its current form.