Would you believe that in 1861 Robert E. Lee was abducted on Main Plaza and run out of San Antonio for refusing to join Texas’s efforts to secede from the United States?
Really. The guy who eventually led the Confederates in secession (when his beloved Virginia seceded). Irony of all ironies. Most San Antonians probably don’t know Lee lived here almost 10 years, was a model U.S. Army officer and citizen, a charismatic speaker, popular guest at social events, and even taught Sunday school at the the fledgling St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.
But after Lee said leaving the Union would betray the principles of the founding fathers, he was taken in broad daylight outside his SA quarters at the Read House, dropped on the edge of town without any personal effects, and warned not to come back. He didn’t.
After the city spends $10 million on its current renovation of Main Plaza, people may not know much more about dozens of historic events such as Lee’s abduction than they do now.
Critics at four earlier public hearings said the design team headed by Larry Clark of Bender, Wells, Clark was imposing suburban park landscaping on an important urban space, one with a pivotal local history.
Larry Clark said history will be “an important undercurrent in the design” but doesn’t seem to acknowledge the key role history plays in the city’s $8.7-billion-a-year tourism industry. Studies show history is the major reason 21-million visitors a year enjoy San Antonio. Texas’s top two attractions — the River Walk and the Alamo — are both historic landmarks.
Main Plaza was the locale for dozens of landmark events, from a treaty celebration with the Apaches in which a horse was buried alive to the assassinations of two Spanish governors to the first stagecoach arrival. The first hotel was built on the square, and the city’s first electrified business turned on its lights overlooking the plaza. And, in December 1835, residents and newcomers defeated a Mexican garrison under General Martin Perfecto de Cos after a three-day battle. Know what that event led to?
An outraged President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, in response to the loss, marched his Mexican army to San Antonio and set up headquarters on Main Plaza to direct a 13-day siege of the Alamo.
Which led to the Battle of San Jacinto, and the war in which Mexico lost Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and parts of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Oklahoma — all rooted in events whose origins are in Main Plaza.
Shouldn’t we celebrate this rich history with a monument? Maybe with statues of Lee, Santa Anna, and others who left footprints there? Spain’s King Philip V sent the settlers who built Main Plaza; he gave most of the initial money to build San Fernando Church and created San Pedro Park. Isn’t that worth a statue? A big one?
Design leader Clark says the $10-million renovation doesn’t include any statues. Instead of a monument to Texas democracy, the tallest structure planned so far is a set of public restrooms at Dwyer and Commerce. The team has visions of canvas-covered pavilions for chili queens, beverage and flower vendors, coffee houses overlooking the River Walk, and a space for street musicians, jugglers, acrobats, dancing girls, etc.
Recently the plaza designers met with members of the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission, the San Antonio Conservation Society, and the Texas Historical Commission. Society President Virginia F. Nicholas expressed concerns about the plaza remaining a multi-use public space. Other critics are unhappy about the proposed landscaping being designed as parts of particular buildings, rather than contributing to the renovation of the plaza itself. A revised proposal may be presented to the full commission later this month. Let’s hope commissioners fight to properly showcase the remarkable history of Main Plaza.