Once-endangered San Antonio Woolworth’s will be converted into an Alamo museum

Will There Be A Basement?

Once-endangered San Antonio Woolworth’s will be converted into an Alamo museum

Its future once worryingly hazy, an old Woolworth building will become a new museum as part of a redevelopment scheme around San Antonio’s Alamo historic site. (Conservation Society of San Antonio/Courtesy WMF)

An old Woolworth’s discount department store at San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza that played a key role in the city’s civil rights movement will be rehabilitated and converted into a new museum dedicated to the history of the legendary Texas Revolution battle that took place there in 1836.

An early- and mid-20th century staple of literally every American downtown from Asheville, North Carolina, to Zanesville, Ohio, the Alamo Plaza location of the now-defunct five-and-dime chain was one of six San Antonio businesses that peacefully desegregated their respective lunch counters on March 16, 1960. While lunch counters were the site of many sit-ins in segregated cities across the United States in 1960, what unfolded at San Antonio’s lunch counters was notably conflict-free, prompting baseball great Jackie Robinson to refer to the event as “a story that should be told around the world.” This came a month-and-a-half after a watershed February 1 sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. That building is now home to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

The future museum to be housed in the Alamo Plaza Woolworth building—currently a Ripley’s-branded walk-through haunted house and Tomb Rider attraction—will, as mentioned, focus on a different and century-older chapter of American history. There are still plans for a display dedicated to the site’s role in the civil rights movement.

“That’s why the Woolworth building needs to be preserved and needs to be embraced, because it’s part of the legacy of San Antonio,” Patrick Gallagher, founder of global museum planning and design firm Gallagher & Associates, recently told the San Antonio Report. Gallagher is also program manager for the Alamo Trust, the nonprofit charged with the preservation of the storied Spanish mission known as the “Shrine of Texas Liberty.”

The World Monuments Fund (WMF), which placed the Woolworth building on its 2020 World Monuments list of endangered cultural heritage sites, declared victory following the announcement that the site would be preserved and converted into a museum. The new museum is part of the larger master plan set to dramatically overhaul the aging plaza in hopes to tell a more complete story of the Alamo while spurring economic development in downtown San Antonio. The Alamo Plaza makeover, which has had a decidedly rough go of it in the early stages, carries a $450 million price tag.

“The positive developments of the past week are shared by many who have worked tirelessly to secure the future of the Woolworth Building as an important witness to social progress in San Antonio during a time of great racial unrest in the country,” wrote the WMF, as the move spares the building, along with the neighboring historic Crockett building, from potential demolition as part of the Alamo Plaza makeover. The Conservation Society of San Antonio led the charge to save the buildings.

In addition to $50 million provide by the state, county commissioners voted earlier this month to provide the new museum with $5 million annually for five years with the stipulation that the Trust must furnish a matching grant. As noted by the Report, fundraising on the Trust’s end has become complicated due to the controversy over the blocked relocation of a slab monument at Alamo Plaza dedicated in 1940 to the fallen defenders of the Alamo.

The new museum, which will also include an adjacent visitors center, is set to feature the 400-piece collection of Alamo artifacts amassed by British musician and childhood Davey Crocket-enthusiast Phil Collins. However, the authenticity of certain pieces within the collection, donated by Collins to the Texas General Land Office in 2014, has recently come under scrutiny.