Alamo museum, plaza overhaul envisioned

San Antonio Express-News - By Scott Huddleston

The Alamo of the future may have a 120,000-square-foot visitor center and museum overlooking an open plaza with interpretation and displays of historic wall footings, battle trenches and water channels — free of downtown traffic and noise that for decades have detracted from the site.

Those are key concepts, along with an easier, well directed flow of foot traffic, in a proposed draft Alamo master plan presented publicly for the first time at a City Council work session on Wednesday. The plan, set for completion by next June, is being developed by an international team of experts for the city, Texas General Land Office and nonprofit Alamo Endowment, which seeks to raise up to $300 million for the project.

Many elements of the plan, subject to change based on community feedback, seek to undo damage at the historic 1700s mission and 1836 battle site. The Alamo was partly destroyed by Mexican troops two months after the battle, then engulfed by urban development as the frontier village of San Antonio grew to become the nation’s seventh-largest city.

“We really need to do something that will reverse what we see today, and go on the right track to recapture the site,” said George Skarmeas, lead master planner and design director with Preservation Design Partnership of Philadelphia.

Under the proposals, the state-owned Crockett, Palace and Woolworth’s buildings on the west side of Alamo Plaza would retain their late 1800s and early 1900s facades but be gutted to become a 120,000-square-foot visitor center.

The center would feature at least five galleries, each focusing on an era of the Alamo, which served as a U.S. Army depot and a general store in the decades after the famed 1836 siege and battle for Texas independence from Mexico. The Land Office purchased the buildings a year ago for $14.4 million.

The planning team recommends a flow of visitors entering the site from the south, in the area of the historic location of a main gate that served the Mission San Antonio de Valero and 1830s Alamo. Officials envision a hologram production explaining, in about 20 minutes, the site’s 300-year recorded history in the entrance of the museum, which would charge admission.

“So in a fraction of that time that most people spend reading thousands of books and so on, the visitor can understand what happened over a 300-year span,” Skarmeas said.

Removal of traffic, demolition of non-historic walls around the Alamo Gardens on the east end of a state-owned historic complex and relocation of the 1930s Alamo Cenotaph from the city-owned plaza to a linear park by the River Walk about two blocks south would help open up the area as a public space and encourage a more reverent atmosphere, officials said.

Up to 1,000 or more mission inhabitants are thought to have been buried in the area before hundreds died in the early morning battle of March 6, 1836.

Gene Powell, local developer and endowment board member, said the site deserves the dignity afforded other U.S. battlefields such as Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Valley Forge.

“When you walk onto those battlefields, you feel the reverence. You lower your voice. Children are asked to quit playing and listen. People feel a chill. There is a sacred moment that you feel,” he said.

But traffic and noise from commercial development dominate the area, Powell said. The city is working with amusement attractions that occupy the state-owned buildings under long-term leases to move to a new, nearby entertainment district.

“The tourists don’t understand where they are, and it’s not their fault,” Powell told the Express-News Editorial Board this week.

Along with $31.5 million allocated by the Legislature for the Alamo plan and resulting projects, the city has programmed $17 million, and is studying allocation of $22 million in a 2017 bond issue. The bond money would pay for improvements to streets, pedestrian walkways and the Paseo del Alamo linkage between the plaza and River Walk.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley, one of two city representatives on a six-member Alamo Management Committee guiding the plan, said the goal is to make the Alamo close to financially self-sustaining, so quality museum programming and preservation of the Alamo’s iconic 250-year-old church, with its fragile limestone walls, can continue, even amid a downturn in the economy or cuts in state funding.

“If something were to happen, the Alamo is going to continue to operate,” Sculley told the editorial board. “We’re going to do right by the Alamo from a preservation and conservation standpoint.”

Council members on Wednesday voiced appreciation for the draft plan and spoke of its importance.

“This is a once-in-a-century opportunity. Shame on us if we don’t do it right,” Councilman Joe Krier said.

The public is invited to review the concepts and provide feedback through the master plan website, ReimagineTheAlamo.org, or via email to info@reimaginethealamo.org.

Source: San Antonio Express-News