Remember to save Alamo

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The Alamo, from which modern San Antonio seems to recede. (history.com)

The Houston Chronicle’s article “The Alamo is forgettable. A controversial new plan could change that,” by Texas Architect’s Alyssa Morris, describes a proposal to “remember” the Alamo by tinkering with its site in San Antonio. But her description of the plan contains four words – “at least in gesture” – that should alarm any friend of the historic site. She writes:

A new master plan aims to restore, at least in gesture, conditions of the mission before it was destroyed, highlighting it as a place where indigenous families lived, worked and worshiped for centuries, as well as the site of the 13-day siege.

“At least in gesture” refers to a glass wall that would “suggest” the wall that had surrounded the site before it was attacked, in 1836, by Mexican General (and 11-time Mexican president) Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Santa Anna sacked the mission, executed the Texan survivors and ordered the mission demolished, which in part it was. But there was no glass wall at the Alamo. To put one there, as proposed by the Alamo master plan, would be to attack its memory and undermine what remains of its “authenticity.”

Morris observes, rightly or wrongly, that today’s Alamo is under siege by the surrounding urban environment. She writes:

The site retains few of the original features that would have made up the 18th-century Spanish mission, except, of course, the iconic chapel and the long barracks. But these buildings seem curiously out of place and ignored by the high-rises and parking lots of the modern metropolis that grew up around them.

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Ben Franklin’s ghost. (Wikipedia)

To then erect a glass wall would be to commit a further assault on history, reminiscent of the “ghost reconstruction” of Benjamin Franklin’s house and shop in Philadelphia by Venturi & Rauch. Their abstract frame desecrated that site just as a glass wall would desecrate the Alamo site.

I assume that other parts of the Alamo master plan, by Preservation Design Partnership, of Philadelphia, suggest a more sensible improvement of the site. Today the plan goes before the San Antonio City Council for concep- tual approval. Let’s hope the council will encourage the architect to “tear down that wall” so that the Alamo will not be falsely construed.

Museums of this sort have plenty of techniques to inform the public of what was there. They can erect educational boards that show what historians and archaeologists’ think the original wall looked like. They can actually rebuild the original wall according to such findings. The last thing they should do is to add yet another thing that was not there and should not be there.

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Rendering of Alamo historical site with glass wall and surrounding city. (PDP)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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7 Responses to Remember to save Alamo

  1. Jason Luthor says:

    They won’t construct a wall. They may do other things to preserve it, but they won’t construct a wall. As it stands, the Alamo is directly accessible from the street and clearly viewable. Looking at the wall as presented, it wouldn’t actually ‘do’ anything to enhance the historical value of the grounds (and I say this as a phd in History, former resident of San Antonio, and a enthusiastic lover of Alamo history).

    I’m not saying the grounds as-is are perfect and there are certainly ways to enhance the grounds, but the glass wall just seems so… uninspired as an idea. It also violates the general spirit of the city and downtown area which is all about openness.

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  2. I love how the rendering shows the glass wall as almost invisible. In reality, it would be far more visible, would reflect the surrounding buildings, and render whomever was on the sunny side especially baked. (See Disney Concert Hall; the Las Vegas CityCenter; London Walkie Talkie; & c.)
    We could paint a wall on the glass, though!

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  3. Anonymous says:

    I live in Texas and love the Alamo just as it is. I do not see the need to change the plaza and streets that exist today. They may not be historical, but the Alamo fits in well with the Riverwalk, hotels and convention visitors. I thought that the Alamo is the #1 tourist attraction in Texas. A glass wall around a hard plaza seems ridiculous in our climate. More trees like in front of the neighbor Menger Hotel plaza would be more useful for shade but not historical.

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    • I’m sure, Anonymous, that you see it as most sensible people see it. However sad it may or may not be that the city of San Antonio has grown up around the Alamo, its status as an historic icon or as a site for imparting history won’t be improved by a glass wall. I love the Paseo del Rio – and I hardly think trees (which have come and gone and come again throughout history) will hurt, practically or aesthetically.

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  4. gotta be a joke, right?

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    • Alas, Malcolm, as you well know, preservationists usually have a modernist streak, which they display by proposing things like glass walls around historical sites, on the theory that putting up an actual wall that looks like what once was there will “fool” some people into thinking it’s the original wall. Why not just put a sign on it saying it was erected in 2017! Oh, but even that would undermine its “authenticity,” a word that has taken on ridiculous connotations the opposite of its actual meaning.

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