A Monumental Snit: There’s Plenty to Argue About in the Alamo Plan, But the Cenotaph’s Relocation is Sucking Up the Oxygen

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Editor's Note: The following is City Current, a column of opinion and analysis.

As the adage goes, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.
But we couldn’t just leave it at that in San Antonio. Here, history too is for fighting.

That’s why it’s going to be a rowdy few days between now and October 18, when city council votes on a 50-year lease agreement that will hand control of most of Alamo Plaza to the state of Texas.

The remaking of the Alamo grounds is a massive and complicated undertaking, and it will continue to inflame passions for years to come. But next week’s vote will be one of the most decisive steps to date in the effort to make “the cradle of Texas liberty” something it’s never been – a self-consciously contemplative space.

In addition to the rent-free lease deal with the state General Land Office (GLO), the basic elements of the Alamo plan are:

• Closing portions of Alamo, Houston and Crockett streets to cars and trucks, and restricting them to pedestrians and emergency vehicles
• “Assessing the adaptive reuse for the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth buildings” – in other words, scraping off T-shirt shops, the wax museum and other cheesy tourist-related businesses like so many barnacles from the hull of a ship
• Creating a point of entry to the plaza
• Rerouting parades such as Battle of Flowers that have traditionally passed in front of the Alamo
• Repairing and renovating the Cenotaph

There’s obviously a lot to argue about here. The San Antonio Conservation Society, for example, is worried that the GLO will decide to tear down the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth buildings, future sites of a museum and visitor center. Some urban planners and downtown employers think the planned street closures are a bad idea.

But if you’ve been paying even a little attention, you know the bitterest fight is over the Cenotaph. This Is Texas Freedom Force, which we assume has a bunch of superheroes hidden among its members, the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association and other irate residents are raising hell about the possibility of moving the monument from its location next to the Long Barrack to space in front of the Menger Hotel.

Their anger has been on display at numerous public meetings, most notably the August 30 session of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee when police escorted a handful of protesters from council chambers.

As an aside, I moved to San Antonio nearly 20 years ago. I had never visited Alamo Plaza before I became a resident. From what I’ve heard from other non-natives over the years, my initial reactions were pretty typical: 1. This is all there is? 2. Raspas are just snow cones, right? 3. I hope they saved the receipt for the Cenotaph.

My assessment of the monument – created by Italian-born sculptor Pompeo Coppini – was in line with that of Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie, who likened the Cenotaph to “a grain elevator or one of those swimming pool slides.”

Indeed, it went over as badly as the $1-million, blinking art installation that dominates the lobby of the new Convention Center expansion, derided lamely as the Cheese Grater.

City leaders felt so unenthusiastic about the Cenotaph that they put off a dedication ceremony for a year after Coppini completed the monument in the fall of 1939. Even then, they tucked it into a broader Armistice Day celebration, according to an account in the 2004 book Blessed with Tourists: The Borderlands of Religion and Tourism in San Antonio.

On the Cenotaph’s east face, the stone-carved Alamo defenders look like they’re posing for a class photo – in costumes made by designers imagining what the defenders wore. The nearly nude man ascending to Heaven on the monument’s northern face is as over-the-top as Coppini’s belief that his work should be seen as an empty tomb, like Christ’s.

If it’s not the monument’s artistic quality, what’s driving the opposition to its planned relocation?

Part of it is that Texas tea partiers and social conservatives, for all the power they wield, continue to feel threatened and pushed to the brink by progressives and the political-correctness cops, and they identify with the story of Alamo. In fact, they’ve hijacked it. (Know who has a good collection of Alamo memorabilia in his Capitol office? Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.) Rhetorically, there’s no room for slave owners, drunks or deadbeats among their idealized, glossy heroes of the Alamo. Coppini’s ahistorical, schmaltzy Cenotaph may be bad public art, but it lines up nicely with their political moment – and they want it to remain in the plaza’s foreground.

And remember the statue of the Confederate soldier that was whisked out of Travis Park in the dead of night a year ago? A lot of the people upset about the Cenotaph relocation do. Who knows – maybe some of them worry that the Alamo monument will end up in the same undisclosed location as that poor soldier.

At 300, San Antonio has probably erased more history than many other U.S. cities have managed to accumulate. Former Trinity University historian Char Miller drives home that point on the first page of his forthcoming book San Antonio: A Tricentennial History. He zeroes in on the fact that there’s no direct mention at Hemisfair Park’s Yanaguana Gardens of the long-vanquished Payaya, who named the river Yanaguana way before it became the San Antonio River.

“The Payaya’s absence from this particular recreational landscape… is consistent with their essential erasure from the region’s historical narrative,” Miller wrote.

Opponents of the Cenotaph move are hell-bent on insuring their heroes aren’t chewed up by this ruthless process.

Two things about that: The greatest heroes are the ones who stand up to honest historical scrutiny, and countless indigenous peoples in this region were either marginalized or wiped from the history books long before their standard-bearers holed up at the Alamo.

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