Yesterday, the Texas Historical Commission rejected the City of San Antonio’s request to move the Alamo Cenotaph, a move the city said will hamstring renovation plans.
Unsatisfied by arguments that the cenotaph both suffers from corrosion and stands out for its anachronistic look, the 12-2 vote secured the monument’s place and wiped away what many citizen testifiers called a blemish on an otherwise acceptable plan.
According to presentations by assistant city manager Lori Houston and city councilman Roberto Treviño, moving the cenotaph was a cornerstone of the renovation proposal, mainly guided by reestablishing the historical “footprint” of the old battlefield and, for Treviño, including a broader “continuum” of history in educational exhibits.
Joined by Houston and U.S. Representative Will Hurd (R-TX-23), who primarily focused their points on the reclamation of the plaza, Treviño laid out a plan for exhibits that would include histories of the native tribes that peopled the land when the mission was built, information about the role and influence of slavery, and “the Mexican perspective of what the battle of the Alamo is about.”
“The Alamo area experience has evolved over more than 300 years, and the site continues to evolve and be a community gathering place… What will be created is a living and breathing place that respects and reveres its history while promoting research and encouraging new stories to be written,” Treviño said. “To be transformative, we need this permit, which will allow us to take the first step in telling the complete story of the Alamo.”
Hurd and Houston gave less philosophical arguments for moving the cenotaph, saying that remaking the plaza requires moving the monument outside the historic borders of the fort.
“This is reclaiming [the] 1836 historic footprint, and that begins with repairing and moving the cenotaph… A yes vote on our permit ensures we maintain this momentum,” Hurd said, touting popularity for the Alamo Plan with a city poll that showed 68 percent approval among Texans for the proposal, with 74 percent support among Texans who are familiar with the plan. “Elected officials would die to have favorability polls like that.”
When the commission returned fire, they focused very little on the educational scope Treviño imagined, instead probing the city for a “compelling reason” to move the cenotaph and why the plan pursued no other paths to renovate the site without the move.
“We thought there might be willingness on the part of the city to approve the restoration of the cenotaph at its current location, but the city has made it very clear that’s not something they’re willing to consider,” Texas Historical Commission Executive Director Mark Wolfe said.
Tracy Marcotte, an engineer with the firm that was hired to move and restore the cenotaph, said that it needs repair due to corrosion in its skeleton and that vibrations from repairing the cenotaph where it stands now could damage the foundations of the antique Long Barracks, built in the 18th century.
“We’ve spent a lot of time studying the monument non-destructively… In the early 20th century, it wasn’t really understood that you could expose aluminum to these consistent alkaline environments,” Marcotte said. “It’s not just the aluminum anchors and fasteners… It’s the concrete itself.”
Pressed by Austin architect and Antiquities Advisory Board member Laurie Limbacher, Marcotte said that for fear of damage no tests have been conducted to determine corrosion inside the cenotaph or even that aluminum was used in the fasteners per the original plans from the 1930s.
“I feel like it’s incumbent upon you, and it’s incumbent upon us, to require that we test a little more thoroughly the theory that this is indeed occurring and therefore we must demolish and relocate this monument,” Limbacher said. “The occurrence of carbonation in 1930s concrete is not a mandate to demolish the frame. If that were the case, county courthouses across the state of Texas would be being demolished.”
The commission’s Chairman John Nau and advisory committee member Tom Perini both pressed Houston and Treviño on the problem of foundation damage from construction, with Perini saying the cenotaph’s proposed new proximity to the antique Menger Hotel would pose the same vibration problems to the hotel’s 19th century foundation and Nau saying that smoothing the left-behind foundation in front of the Alamo could likewise send the same kind of shock through the earth.
“Somehow I think that’s contradicting the issue of the vibrations,” Nau said. “I’m not an engineer, but I think I just heard two things and maybe I’ll leave it at that.”
Ultimately the commission’s decision to vote against the permit came down to respect for the location of the cenotaph, both as a historical item whose placement holds value in the Alamo timeline and as a symbol of honor dedicated to the defenders.
“I think the size and scale of the cenotaph as it is built is a complete exaltation of the sacrifice of the men who died,” Commissioner David Gravell said. “And to move it out of its place of honor elsewhere, to me, is a diminution of that.”
Commissioner Wallace Jefferson seconded the motion to issue the permit and was joined by Earl Broussard, the only other commissioner to vote with him.
“I think the evidence that I’ve seen shows me that the cenotaph needs to be repaired and restored, and I’m convinced by the data that I’ve seen that that cannot be done properly at its current location,” Jefferson said. “Unless the cenotaph is moved, at least under the current contractual agreements, the visitor’s center and museum will not be built… The cenotaph, if relocated, would continue to have a revered presence.”
Several public testimonies gave similar sentiments, with Trinity University history professor Carey Latimore among citizen testifiers who said the cenotaph could serve its reverential purpose outside the line where the walls once stood.
“Moving the cenotaph does not mean destroying it at all,” Latimore said. “The Alamo Plan presents us the best opportunity to tell the full story while acknowledging our shared and interdependent histories.”
President and CEO of Visit San Antonio Casandra Matej agreed, calling it “vital to protect and preserve the Alamo site by recapturing that historic footprint as much as possible.”
Charisma Villarreal, a claimed descendant of Alamo defender Gregario Esparza, chastised the city for lacking a plan to renovate without reassembling the cenotaph.
“They do not have a plan B? That’s hard to believe,” Villarreal said. “I understand that it needs repairs, but… it can be repaired on-site.”
One citizen testifier pointed out that the poll Hurd would go on to cite asked its responders a three-part question that nestled the cenotaph move at the bottom. Verbatim, the poll asked, “Do you support or oppose the proposal to restore and showcase the battlefield, build the privately funded Visitor Center and Museum, and repair and move the Cenotaph?”
According to an online poll conducted by the Texas Historical Commission, 1,625 respondents supported the move and 29,003 respondents opposed it.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Texas Senator Bob Hall (R-Canton), and Texas Representatives Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston) and Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg) all spoke against the permit during testimonies.
Commissioners Jim Bruseth, Pete Peterson, Gravell, Perini, Limbacher, Renee Dutia, Catherine McKnight, Daisy White, Garrett Donnelly, Monica Burdette, and Lilia Garcia voted against the permit request alongside Nau. Jefferson and Broussard voted to grant it.
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