San Antonio’s most identifiable, and most controversial, landmark is about to get a $60-million makeover. For nearly three centuries, the mission first founded in 1718 by Fray Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares has served as the literal and figurative center of the city — through three relocations and numerous transitions, from religious settlement to military fortress to tourist attraction. Thanks to the historic battle fought on March 6, 1836, it has become an international icon, dramatized and reinterpreted in numerous films and books.
At the site itself, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas — stewards and caretakers of the Alamo for 100 years — have kept the official story close to the legendary showdown between Davy Crockett et al. and Santa Anna, an inspirational tale that draws some 2.5 million visitors annually to “the Shrine of Texas liberty,” but has provoked charges of racism and elitism.
In May of this year, the DRT nearly unanimously approved a history-making expansion plan for the Alamo compound that will restore and highlight more of the circa-1836 Alamo, and add museum-caliber facilities to document the history of the period and its role in creating Texas the republic and state. The plans call for significantly upgrading the existing buildings and infrastructure, and adding educational facilities, a new auditorium, a TV studio for producing educational programming, and additional curatorial space for the Alamo’s overflowing collection of historical and cultural materials.
“Everybody who visits San Antonio comes to the Alamo. It’s just one of the things you have to do,” said Craig Stinson, Alamo marketing and development manager. “So, in terms of economic impact and creating a location that will complement all of the city’s other cultural institutions, this is going to be a major undertaking.” Stinson says a “good portion” of the funds will support the construction of a 48,000-square-foot library and education center, and “another good chunk” will go to the preservation of the Shrine, the Long Barrack, and support buildings, some of which were constructed by the Depression-era WPA.
The expanded complex will require closing a portion of Houston Street between the Emily Morgan Hotel and Third Street. The small cul-de-sac on the northeast side of the site, “the appendix,” as Stinson calls it, is slated for a boarding and drop-off area for buses. In addition to the current Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library, a Texana research library will be located in a newly constructed building adjacent to the Emily Morgan. Funding is also earmarked to improve landscaping and signage.
The DRT and the Alamo are currently in what is known as the “silent phase” of the campaign.
“I have spent the past year contacting foundations and corporations and select individuals throughout Texas to let them know what our plan is — in other words, our master plan,” said DRT Campaign Chairman Erin Gardner Bowman. “Every single person that I have talked to has been supportive of the plan. The Alamo belongs to everyone in Texas and we are confident that everyone will support this campaign.”
But Ramon Vasquez, executive director of the American Indians in Texas at Spanish Colonial Missions, and Raymond Hernandez, tribal council member and cultural preservationist for the Coahuiltecan Nation, say they have not been contacted yet about the expansion. In a three-way phone conversation, Hernandez told the Current that those Native Americans — who, like the first missionaries, pre-date the Canary Islanders — defended old Bexar and little San Fernando from attacks by other tribes in 1731 and 1745.
“They’re only concerned about from 1836 this way,” says Hernandez.
Hernandez helped lead the charge more than a decade ago to close the city-owned road in front of the Alamo to vehicles so that they wouldn’t roll over the mission-era burial grounds. Currently, the old cemetery is memorialized by a fenced square of green in front of the Alamo’s entrance, but the Alamo Master Plan Report prepared by architects Ford Powell & Carson and approved by the DRT in May admits that this area is “currently not interpreted as a cemetery.”
But Stinson says the Alamo has broadened its historical interpretation since the mid-’90s when the DRT was harshly criticized for its narrow, Anglo-centric focus. The new Long Barrack exhibition installed in 2005 devotes only 10 or 15 percent of its attention to the 1836 battle, notes Stinson, and educational materials and exhibits currently in development will include more information about the pre-military period, including the mission residents. The planned construction will not affect areas protected by the agreement to respect the burial grounds, he says, and archeological investigations will be conducted on all new building sites.
Construction likely won’t begin for two to five years, and in the meantime the Alamo is developing a business plan that could include incorporating as an independent 501(c)3, which would allow it to raise funds directly rather than through the DRT. As the Alamo begins working on its plan, says Stinson, “we’re going to be getting a lot of people together” for insight and input.
Before the physical expansion can begin, there is the matter of the acquisition of property on Houston and the subsequent street closure. Stinson reports that the Alamo is already in negotiations with the owners of the two properties they hope to purchase. They’ve approached all but one member of city council, which would need to approve the street closure. “Everyone’s been favorable,” says Stinson.
“Our hope is that this will position us for the next 25 to 50 years,” said Bowman. “Every single person in the world knows what ‘Remember the Alamo’ means. This is going to be huge for San Antonio and for Texas.” •