Battle simmering over restoring famed Alamo in San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO — Remember the Alamo? A new Texas battle is brewing over how best to do so.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush is overseeing a seven-year revamp of the shrine where 189 Texas independence fighters were killed by Mexican Gen. Santa Anna’s troops in 1836. The site’s size would quadruple after excavation and restoration of historical structures, the closing of nearby streets and the building of a more than 100,000-square foot museum to house artifacts and guide visitors through the Alamo’s history.

The project has raised the ire of some conservatives, who worry that the Battle of the Alamo will be sanitized by “political correctness” at a time when Confederate monuments are being removed across the country. Even though the Alamo battle was well before the Civil War, some of the participants were slaveholders.

A flashpoint has been the fate of the Cenotaph, a 60-foot (18.29-meter) granite monument near the Alamo completed in 1940 and engraved with the names of those killed during the battle. The city of San Antonio wants to move it to a site somewhat farther away. But critics fear the Cenotaph will suffer the fate of some Confederate monuments and be banished.

 

Hundreds of protesters showed up at the Alamo last weekend, some wearing colonial costumes and holding signs reading “Leave the Alamo Alone.”

The ruling Republican Party of Texas was so concerned that its executive committee voted 57-1 in September to urge Bush to keep the focus of the overhaul on the battle itself and calling for more transparency in how the effort is funded.

“This isn’t just some memory that’s popular in movies, these were living, breathing people,” said Lee Spencer White, a descendant of Gordon C. Jennings, who at 56 was the oldest defender killed at the Alamo. “The Alamo’s personal.”

The criticism from fellow Republicans has put the latest political star of the Bush family on the defensive. The 41-year-old son of former Florida governor and presidential candidate Jeb and Mexican-born mother Columba, Bush has used funds for his re-election bid next year on a website and radio ads defending he restoration.

“My focus isn’t on the politics, it’s on preserving the Alamo,” Bush said via email. “I’m focused on telling the story of the heroic battle for freedom — proudly, purposefully and better than ever before.”

Bush’s critics say his Hispanic heritage isn’t an issue, noting that many Tejanos — Texans of Hispanic descent — played prominent roles during the Battle of the Alamo. They included Gregorio Esparza, who was given the chance to flee beforehand but stayed and was killed in battle. Still, during the Cenotaph protest, one demonstrator bellowed: “Vote George P. Santa Anna Bush out of office” to applause.

During the war of independence from Mexico, Texas forces occupied the Alamo, which had been founded by Spaniards as a Franciscan mission in 1718 but was relocated to its current spot, now in in the heart of San Antonio, America’s seventh-largest city, in 1724. Though vastly outnumbered by Mexican soldiers, the defenders held out during a 13-day siege before being overrun on March 6, 1836. Their bravery became a rallying cry and Texas won independence the following month, then became part of the United States nine years later.

Supporters of the Alamo revamp emphasize that there is good reason to upgrade the site visited by 2.5-plus million people a year. The existing shrine is small and offers relatively little to see. Nearby is what some have called a “carnival” atmosphere, with Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and other buildings that are being bought up in the renovation.

Bush’s office is working with a Philadelphia-based historic preservation and architecture firm with the goal of presenting the Alamo’s full history. The site’s public space would expand from around two acres to 9.5 acres, though public outcry already halted a proposal to build glass walls around the entire area. Santa Anna ordered the original walls around the Alamo torn down after the battle, but remnants remain underground and plans are to excavate and possibly place them under glass for visitors to view.

Pop icon Phil Collins, who spent decades collecting Alamo artifacts, has begun donating most of them to Texas, including a leather pouch belonging to slain defender Davey Crockett, as well as the knife of Jim Bowie, namesake of today’s fixed blade Bowie knife. The renovation project calls for the artifacts to be displayed in the new museum.

Jerry Patterson, a Republican who was Bush’s predecessor as land commissioner, said the issue of slave owners among the Alamo independence fighters is sure to be raised. Alamo commander William Travis owned slaves and Bowie, his co-commander, traded them.

“History’s full of warts,” Patterson said. “There are no men, icons of the past, that will stand up to modern scrutiny.”

San Antonio has pledged $38 million for the revamp and the Texas Legislature has approved $106.5 million since 2015. The project’s total cost could reach $450 million, though much of that may be raised privately. State contracts suggest Bush’s office paid nearly $4.9 million on an Alamo renovation master plan, but Bush wouldn’t say exactly how much has been spent so far.

Exactly what the new Alamo will look like also isn’t clear. Artists’ renderings were released previously, but Bush’s office says those weren’t official. Construction hasn’t started but is scheduled to finish by 2024, when the Alamo turns 300 at its current location.

The controversy is lost on most Alamo tourists, including Sue and Dave Gay who visited recently from Rochester, New York.

“You can’t change what it is,” said Sue Gay, a 50-year-old nurse, said of the current Alamo site. “Just because it’s small doesn’t make it any less significant.”

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