February 26, 2013

Remembering the Alamo



As a tourist destination, the Alamo is a funny thing. It’s one of those places that everyone knows, a monumental American site like the battlefield at Gettysburg or the Statue of Liberty. If you’re going to San Antonio, by golly you ought to see it—even if you can’t remember precisely why you should.

It began as a Catholic mission, one of a string of five Spanish missions built in the 1700s along the San Antonio River. Later it was converted into a military garrison, first for Spanish soldiers and then for Mexican troops. When the region known as Texas declared independence from Mexico, fighters for the rebel cause seized control of the Alamo. On March 6, 1836, after a siege lasting 13 days, 1,500 Mexican troops stormed the rebel fortress. Virtually all of the Texans, along with a surprising number of Mexicans, died in the attack.

These days what’s left of the Alamo faces a broad downtown square called Alamo Plaza, which it shares with some benches and shade trees, the grandly historic Menger Hotel, and some of the most egregious tourist-trap rubbish on earth.

On the one hand it’s kind of awful: the candy wrappers, the ice cream shops, the Guinness World Records Museum and Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, with its promise of bone-chilling special effects. You can’t help but think, What is this? What’s this got to do with the Alamo?

But then there it is, across the Plaza, smaller than you’d expect from its legend, with a line of tourists that stretches around the corner and down the next block. Sweaty couples with cameras, kids in synthetic coonskin caps, all waiting under the hot Texas sun for their chance to go into the Alamo as if it were some kind of theme park ride. Hazy, perhaps, on its meaning, but certain that it’s Important, and…oh, I don’t know. There are worse things, I guess. Like losing a landmark entirely, or no one caring at all.

There’s actually a movement afoot to reclaim Alamo Plaza, to squelch the carnival atmosphere by demolishing later buildings and recreating the ramparts that were there on the day of the battle. It’s a Texas-sized ambition, one you can’t help admire for its sheer audacity. You’ve got to love a non-profit that wants “authenticity, reverence, and integrity” for a local historic monument. They’ve got a heck of a website. And, one suspects, not an ice cube’s chance of actually pulling it off.

In the meantime buy an ice cream, sit on the benches under the trees, and contemplate the meaning of the famous façade of the Alamo (the rounded gable, ironically, added in 1850) and the shuffling line of tourists that stretches into the Plaza and around into Crockett Street.

You’ll want to go inside, of course. But there’s something you ought to do first.

Miraculously, all five of San Antonio’s old Spanish missions survive. The Alamo may be special, but its four sister missions are still standing, too, collectively preserved as San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.

For heaven’s sake, go see them.  Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan, and Espada. The further you work your way down the chain, the more rural and evocative the old stone missions become.

This is where you go to find the historic roots of the Alamo—out with the bell towers and aqueducts, the medieval arches and gateways, the ghosts of the priests and Indians who lived inside the mission walls more than two hundred years ago. It’s a great place to wrap your mind around the complicated, violent, confusing, damn proud history of Texas.

Not a hamburger wrapper, wax museum, or T-shirt hawker in sight.


For more on the Alamo Plaza Project



5 responses to “Remembering the Alamo”

  1. Bob Royer says:

    I had the same impression when I saw the Alamo five or so years ago — all kinds of less than desirable things crowding in.

  2. Joanne says:

    Interesting…I have never been to the Alamo…but glad Texas is investing in preservation.

  3. Greg says:

    Once again Heather, your blog strikes a chord with me and as a true son of Texas, I feel compelled to share my memories of my one and only visit to the Alamo as a 5th grader back in the 1960s.

    I believe my first research paper was written about the Alamo after a read a book I borrowed from the school library. To this day, I remember that report this time of year at the anniversary of the siege and battle. I also remember being moved and inspired by the story, no doubt assisted by the popular movie.

    Like you (and everyone else) my first visit to the Alamo was a disappointment to see the level to which this hallowed ground had sunk to. Historically, the mission compound was quite extensive but now greatly diminished. Even the chapel that survives looked entirely different historically.

    Based upon your blog, the universally held lament (even among Texans) about the sad state of preservation and interpretation of the Alamo, is itself an historic sentiment. On that visit to Alamo as a 5th grader, my parents (who honeymooned in San Antonio during the Depression) made sure to prepare me for the disappointment telling me how little was left and not to expect much. I remember they commented on the Woolworths and other dowdy shops that then lined Alamo Square. I also can relate that there has been many an outcry and call for restoration plans over the decades, just in my memory. But apparently, none of that has come to pass; in Texas, more freeway lanes on I-35 is the priority!

    Despite all the drawbacks and preservation failings, I still revere the site for its quirky place in history but also for its potential to be a meaningful heritage destination with a great story to tell.

    And yes, thank you for mentioning the Missions National Historic Site. My family’s visit back then is also a fond memory; that was before National Park Service acquisition and the mission buildings were still serving as churches. I look forward to going back sometime and visiting it again.

    Heather, I am forwarding this link to a DMN website columnist’s (yes, I check-in on the hometown newspaper every day!) article about the Alamo that I think you might find interesting:


    Wish I could go see the exhibit on Travis’ letter!

  4. Bruce says:

    At least it doesn’t have a roller coaster coming off of it like the Great Wall of China. While it may seem terrible, maybe the plaza brings in a few extra people who despite themselves learn something.

  5. Case says:

    I lived in San Antonio for 12 years from 1998 through 2010. For the last six years of that, I spent almost every day at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. It’s a very special place to me. Thanks so much for your kind words!