The ambitious, and at times contentious, revamp of San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza cleared a major hurdle earlier this week when the Texas Historical Commission gave its blessing to the 24,000-square-foot Exhibition Hall and Collections Building.
Designed by Gensler, the limestone-clad, two-story building is set to include state-of-the-art storage and conservation facilities and 10,000 square feet of exhibition space that will increase the amount of available square footage dedicated to displaying an expansive collection of documents and objects relating to the world-famous Texas Revolution battle by 500 percent. Construction on the building, located directly behind the existing Alamo Gift Shop on the eastern end of the site, is set to kick off on August 17 with a projected opening date sometime in summer 2022. Although the Commission approved the building, they did so with reservations.
The new facility is just one major element of the larger Alamo Plan, a transformative, $250 million overhaul (reduced from an initial estimate of $450 million) of the National Register of Historic Places-listed Alamo Plaza. Centered around the ruins of the fabled 18th-century Franciscan mission where roughly 200 Texian and Tejano defenders perished during a bloody 13-day siege led by Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the Alamo Plan also includes landscaping fixes and site improvements to make the historic tourist zone more pedestrian-friendly while spurring economic development in downtown San Antonio. Most crucially, the plan will allow for a more complete story of the Battle of the Alamo to be told.
In addition to the construction of the $15 million Exhibition Hall and Collections Building, the Alamo Trust, Inc. (ATI)-helmed reimagining of Alamo Plaza also entails the the renovation and repurposing of the Crockett Block and Woolworth buildings on the western side of Alamo Plaza. Those two buildings, which are currently home to kitschy touristic diversions including a Ripley’s-branded walk-through haunted house, will be converted into a 70,000-square-foot Visitor Center and Museum with 40,000 square feet of gallery space dedicated to presenting “dynamic installations of the Alamo’s collection of original documents and artifacts that deepen visitors’ understanding of history,” per an AMI press release. The Woolworth building will also feature a civil rights-focused exhibit that tells the story of the 1960 sit-in that took place at the former five-and-dime store’s lunch counter, an event that led to its conflict-free desegregation along with five other San Antonio lunch counters.
Other major components of the multi-phase Alamo Plan include the continued preservation of the Chapel and Long Barrack, the only still-standing structures from the 1836 siege; the restoration of the 1836 Battlefield footprint, an effort that includes, as mentioned, the closure of city streets to “further delineate the site, and foster a spirit of dignity and reverence on the sacred grounds,” and the conversion of Alamo Hall, a former 1922 fire station currently used as an events venue, into a family education center. At noted by the ATI, in addition to the building construction, conversion, and conservation efforts, the nonprofit organization will also create “new programming that expands upon the stories that ATI has always presented about the events that preceded and precipitated the Battle of 1836, and its enduring impact on the development of Texas, the United States, and our lives today.”
Select pieces from the Alamo’s roughly 2,400-strong collection of artifacts will be on view at the new Exhibition Hall until the Museum and Visitor Center is opened to the public, slated to happen in 2025. At that point, the Exhibition Hall will be primarily used for traveling exhibitions and other educational resources. Currently, roughly 1 percent of the Alamo’s collection can be shown at any one time due to space limitations. The collection grew substantially in 2014 when former Genesis drummer and adult contemporary chart mainstay Phil Collins donated his personal collection of over 400 Alamo-related historic objects and memorabilia to the Texas General Land Office.
As the San Antonio Express-News explained in May, the acquisition wasn’t without conditions. Construction documents for an exhibition venue to display Collins’s trove of Alamo artifacts had to be completed by fall 2021, hence AMI’s prioritization of the Exhibition Hall and Collections Building project. Estimated at $15 million, the British musician’s collection of artifacts and Alamo-bilia includes, among other objects, an 1834 autobiography of Davy Crockett autographed by Crockett himself and several rare muskets, rifles, and swords used by the Mexican Army. The Collins Collection will initially be displayed in the Exhibition Hall and Collections Building before being relocated to the Museum and Visitor Center when that project is completed.
“The Alamo is the most important landmark in Texas and is known around the world. We must preserve this history and share the stories of those who lived, fought and died at the Alamo,” said Kate Rogers, executive director of the Alamo Trust, Inc., in a statement. “We are confident that we have the right plan in place to create the world-class visitor experience that this sacred space deserves.”