Come and Take It: Alamo Plaza, the Woolworth Building and the Unfinished Work of Forming a More Perfect Union

We are here today because of the Woolworth Building, but also because of the building that stands opposite it, and because of the space between them. There is perhaps no building in the United States to which so much meaning has been attached for so long as the Alamo. Indeed, the Woolworth is at risk of being demolished because of emotional and symbolic weight the Alamo has long been made to bear. It would hardly seem necessary to revisit the story of this mission-fort-ruin-icon-tourist magnet-revenue-generator, and yet, in order to fully make the case for the Woolworth, we have to talk about the story attached to the building across the way.


Watch video of Dr. O'Rourke's Feb. 2, 2020 presentation concluding the San Antonio Conservation Society's Symposium on the Role of Alamo Plaza in Bexar County’s Civil Rights Legacy. Scroll down to continue reading her speech.:


There are many reasons why the Woolworth, built in 1921, should remain standing. The building itself is a great example urban commercial architecture of the early twentieth-century; it is representative of the broad patterns of commerce and economic development that have long shaped U.S. cities. With James Warenberger’s excellent Reuter Building down the street, and Alfred Giles’s Crocket Block, the Palace, the Post Office and Federal Courthouse by Ralph Cameron and Paul Cret on the opposite corner, and Sanguinet and Staats’s Gibbs Building [1909] across Houston Street, the Woolworth forms part of a vibrant streetscape of great buildings by important architects. And this wonderfully varied stretch of the urban fabric is even richer because of its proximity to the Alamo—a building whose form and structure we owe to the work of, among others, Antonio Tello, Hiernoimo Ybarra, John Fries, and Carolyn Peterson—a list of names, stitched together across centuries, that itself attests to the historical and cultural richness of this place.

Indeed, the Woolworth is an integral piece of a cultural landscape marked by its diversity. It belongs to a network of buildings where, in March of 1960, thanks to the courage of ordinary people, we, the people, became a little more democratic and a little bit more free.

The Woolworth should stand because of the people who sat down in it.

Images of the Woolworth building and lunch counter sit ins

Among the places of businesses that began to integrate that day, the Woolworth is especially important because of where it is, because of the plaza in front of it and the building opposite. It’s true that the lunch counter is gone. It’s true that you can’t “see” the history of the civil rights movement in the building now. But there is a lot of history that we can’t see. And in fact, we know that the histories, and the places, and spaces, of people who weren’t in power, or whose stories proved inconvenient or uncomfortable to the ones who were, have often been allowed to disappear, or made to disappear. 

As it exists today, the Alamo Comprehensive Interpretative Plan reflects a long and often difficult process in which the architects, I imagine, have worked quite hard to acknowledge a wide range of perspectives and concerns. It’s clear from the differences between the initial plan that the public saw and the revised version, that the designers have been listening.

And so too, have the city leaders charged with shepherding the design development process. And yet the fundamental idea is unchanged. The plan doesn’t take a definitive stand on the Woolworth and instead offers four possibilities for treating the buildings on the west side of the plaza that range from preservation to partial demolition to complete demolition. It tries to somehow make the space between Market and Houston do so many things at once — to be both rural and urban; to be both open and closed at the same time. On the south end it is to be a lively public, commercial space, while the north end — the space between the Alamo and the Woolworth is to be defined by some kind perimeter barrier, with gates, in order, presumably, to help ensure that this area be, in the words of the plan, a place of “reverence and learning.”

Plans

The text of the proposal has ample language about inclusivity and the telling of many stories. And yet it is clear from the drawings that one story is more important than the others, and that story is, of course, the story of the 1836 battle. The Alamo Trust, which is the private entity driving much of the proposal makes clear what that battle, and the redefined space, is supposed to mean. In its mission the Trust writes that the “1836 Battle of the Alamo is one of the most pivotal battles in world history, signifying Texan identity, the fight for liberty, and bravery in the face of impossible odds.” In radically altering the character of the most important stretch of downtown San Antonio, the Comprehensive Plan aims, among other things, to help people—in the language of tourism and marketing, “personally connect to the Alamo area experience,” and it promises that the space will be “comfortable.”

There is no question that the 1836 battle, fought in the crumbling remains of a Spanish colonial mission-turned fort is of great historical significance. But the implications of that battle, and of the social and political transformations that followed it, are so much more complex than a tale of heroes and villains, of defenders and aggressors. The difficulty is that the place where that battle occurred has changed in character so dramatically since then and the meaning of the Alamo been manipulated so much, that in privileging one story over all others, the plan subordinates the histories and experiences that don’t match up with the one that is given supremacy. To put it plainly, the Alamo and the space we call Alamo Plaza have radically different meanings for different people. But because of the centrality of the space in the city, its public character today, and its highly charged symbolism, to give it over to one narrative is to deny not only the other stories, but foreclose on the possibility of creating new ones.

Of greatest relevance to the fate of the Woolworth is the proposed redesign of the area bordered by Houston and Crockett. Here, the plan proposes transforming what today is a pretty vibrant, pretty successful urban space of a kind that many cities would love to have, into, in the words of the plan, “an open-air museum” that functions, essentially, as a memorial — a memorial centered on one event. A space in which we are all supposed to feel a sense of reverence and, presumably, to behave reverently. Nearly all of the other aspects of the history of this space are meant to be dealt with in a museum — shoved inside — while the focal point, the spatial evocation of the battlefield — that place imagined as essential to “Texan identity,”— is made even more prominent outside. And probably, many of the drawings suggest, that museum will require taking down another place where history was made. It is a proposal that spatially and visually, represents and reenacts exclusion.

Alamo

What is a plaza? That space between the Woolworth and the Alamo doesn’t neatly fit the historical definition of a plaza. That space originally belonged to the atrio, or atrium, of the mission. Atrios in front of churches in Spanish colonial missions began to appear in the Americas in the 16th century. They were integral to the entwined projects of evangelization and colonization. In its earliest incarnation, the place we call Alamo Plaza was a very late example, at the northern edge of a vast empire, of a distinctive spatial type.

Much more characteristic of the plaza type is in fact just outside, what we call Main Plaza, the Plaza de las Islas. It reflected the principles of one of the world’s most influential planning documents, the Law of the Indies of 1583, which itself was shaped by ancient Roman ideas about cities, new Renaissance theories of urban space, and the monumental plazas of the great Mesoamerican cities. As the Law of the Indies and the history of urban planning make clear, plazas are not just big open planned spaces in cites. They are defined by the buildings that surround them, and by what goes on in them.

One of the most remarkable things to me about the Alamo is its doorway. It’s less celebrated than the parapet, but, unlike it, was actually there in 1836, and long before. The doorway is the regionalized baroque interpretation of the triumphal arch form popularized in illustrated texts by the Renaissance architect Sebastiano Serlio in the sixteenth century, just as the Spanish began their vast building campaign in this hemisphere. The triumphal arch dates to antiquity, but it was the in the Renaissance, in the work of Leon Battista Alberti that it began to appear on building facades, not just to make them look nice, but to help define the spaces in front of them. The Renaissance ambition to order urban space, which you see here in Piero della Francecsca’s View of an Ideal City of 1460, expressed a humanistic belief that well- ordered cities reflected and supported well-functioning societies. In reality, the plaza — whether it was geometrically regular or not — was physically and symbolically the epicenter and embodiment of this ideal.

Louis XV

This planning tradition has come down to us in a variety of contexts, and governments have long spent enormous sums building and changing plazas precisely because they are such potent carriers of symbolism. Since the Renaissance the shaping of urban space has been marked by nearly perpetual tension between the ideal of social harmony and the reality of governmental control. Indeed the history of many of the great plazas, such as Anges-Jacques Gabriel’s great square for King Louis XV in Paris of the 1750s, now known as the Place de la Concorde, is a history of the shaping of space in order to project an image of a well-functioning, agreeable society.

Yet in this instance, as in so many others, patrons, planners, and architects used urban space and the buildings and monuments that define it, to project power abstractly.

In Paris the statue of the king, placed at the center, seems to command not just the square, but the vast reaches of the city and country beyond it by virtue of its alignment with axes of the streets and gardens. Several decades later Revolutionaries built a guillotine here. 

Plaza de Mexico

Colonial Mexico City offers a vivid example of how a plaza may be transformed by enclosure and its political and social meaning changed in the process. The Main Plaza, or Zócalo, had itself been built to help affect the spatial and political transformation of Aztec Tenochtitlan into Spanish Mexico City. Cristobal Villalpondo’s 1704 Vista de la Plaza de México shows an idealized image of the city’s great square as a place of well-ordered markets, tranquil social interaction and even class diversity.

Above all, it is a space of busy, bustling urban life. But in the upper right corner he shows the rebuilding of the part of the Royal Palace that had been badly damaged in popular riots over a steep rise in the price of corn. This detail served as a subtle reminder of the ultimate authority and stability of the monarch even in the face of insurrection.

Much less subtle was the step the viceroy took nearly 100 years later, when, in the waning years of Spanish control, he directed the plaza to be cleared of markets and of people and to be enclosed by a low wall, and in the French manner, installed a statue of the king at the center, to remind everyone who was in charge. 

Perhaps the closest comparison in the U.S. to the Alamo Plaza plan was the creation of Independence Mall by the National Park Service in the 1950s. The idea there too was to make a focal building seem more special by clearing out the city around it, demolishing buildings that didn’t fit into a central narrative, and replacing them with lots of open space. The result was intensely criticized, and one observer likened Independence Mall to an “open wound.”

Of course Alamo Plaza has never been has never been completely shaped by a single entity. Over the course of the second half of the 19th century the space west of the Alamo took on the character of an urban commercial plaza. To its east and south were modest vernacular buildings. In 1880 the 2-story Hugo and Schmeltzer Store occupied the former site of the cloister; a modest meat market stood in what had been the atrio. By the 1890s the city we know had come into view. New 3- and 4-story commercial buildings, stood on the west side of Alamo Street. To the north was James Riley Gordon’s Romanesque Revival Post Office. The plaza had been paved with mesquite blocks, and an oval-shaped landscaped park with winding paths, a bandstand, and a rock-encircled “Mexican Cactus” garden was installed. 

This park was still in place, the plaza and Alamo grounds were fully integrated into a dense urban fabric in 1918.

The Hugo and Schmeltzer Store was dismantled in 1913 for the rebuilding of the lower walls of the cloister following a fierce debate about whether the Alamo should be commemorated chiefly as a battle site or as a mission. In the 1920s “Alamo Plaza Park” embodied the informality and genteel rusticity that were hallmarks of San Antonio’s spaces of leisure in the early 20th century. A new octagonal bandstand with classical columns on a rock base replaced the old one, and a small faux-bois bench by Dionicio Rodriguez stood among palm trees. The images of the park that appeared on countless postcards suggest that it was an important destination in its own right. In this period planners understood Alamo Plaza in relation to Main Plaza, as well as to San Pedro Park. Streetcar lines ran between the plaza and the park and when Alamo Plaza got its new bandstand, the old one was taken to San Pedro Park, where it still stands. 

The Cenotaph was dedicated in 1940. By then the park was bisected to accommodate vehicular traffic along Crockett Street. The land behind the Alamo, between Houston and Bonham Streets, had been developed as another park, a change that contributed to the denaturing of the Alamo itself as part of the city and anticipated the demolitions of historic buildings throughout downtown San Antonio in the decades to come, buildings that comprised a larger cultural landscape and also reflected the diversity of the 19th- and early 20th-century city.

Battle of the Alamo

That denaturing at mid-century accelerated the process of converting the Alamo into a memorial as the building both grew in importance in the popular imagination, thanks in large part to Walt Disney and John Wayne. Popular fascination with the battle of the Alamo had emerged in the late 19th century and reached one of its high points just after the turn of the century.

As Richard Flores has documented, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Davy Crocket television show and Wayne’s film intensified popular interest and helped solidify the familiar story.

The accelerated spread of that version of the story of the battle, now to a young and very large generation, coincided both with the rise of the suburbs as destinations for white flight, the shift of commercial and civic life away from downtown, and the deepening racial and economic segregation that accompanied that process. It also coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement.

Indeed, the Alamo has been the subject of greatest attention at moments of social and political change that were strongly bound up with race. 

Yet through this all, the plaza was a place of vibrant activity—since at least 1890, the site of festive celebrations; a photo-op setting sought by politicians as different as Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon; the place that people went to see Douglas MacArthur and the Fiesta Royalty. 

Segregation was, by definition, spatial.  It was enacted in the public realm— on sidewalks, and buses,

MLK

and in restaurants and schools, and in housing. Segregation was enforced in the public realm, by official and unofficial means, by, we might even say, by public-private partnerships. It was also in the public realm that desegregation happened, where it was realized by ordinary people.

Historian Dell Upton observed that the civil rights movement may have been the only truly democratic movement this country has ever had. Indeed civil rights become real not only through the execution of just laws, but in the public spaces of ordinary life. There they are enacted, lived, protected through the conduct and contact of individuals, face-to-face, in a diverse, multi-colored society.

Having places that are widely recognized as communal, shared, and capable of bearing many meanings, and that are lived as open and flexible is essential for the kinds of interactions that are the cornerstones of tolerance and understanding, the foundation of real democracy. The civil rights movement was forged in heroic, memorable moments, but, as importantly, it was lived in millions of unrecorded ones – small ones, when people, in their daily lives, reached out from what was comfortable to do what was right. 

Our great open space of democracy, the National Mall, is lodged in our hearts not because we love long expanses of grass, or even because of the buildings that frame it, but because of the democracy-defining events that took place there—the moments when citizens have come together from all over to make real the promises etched on the walls of the monuments and written in the documents housed nearby--to stand up for civil rights, to make clear that gay lives are worth saving, or that women’s rights are human rights.

The Alamo Comprehensive Plan says that the plaza will be comfortable and that, above all it, will be a place of reverence. Comfortable for who? Reverence — a word repeated so much in discussions of the plan — not just by its promoters, but by the press, by the politicians. Reverence for what? And this is where it gets uncomfortable. Reverence that requires taking down a building central to the history of civil rights in Texas? Reverence for an idea that has been, over the course of the last century 120 years or so, been predicated on a narrative of us versus them? We, the white Americans, against them, the brown Mexicans. There is abundant scholarship that explains how the story of the Alamo got to be this way, but more to the point there is the lived experience of the many Mexican-Americans who, as a consequence of this story, have been made to feel themselves the enemy, made to feel different, made to feel lesser-than.

Reverence for what? 1830s Mexico was hardly a democratic utopia. But how do 1836 and 1845 look if you’re African-American? Reverence for the codification of slavery in Texas and its expansion in the U.S.? Reverence for the new danger in which your forbearers now lived? For a significant number of Texans, the world actually became less free as a consequence of the battle of 1836. 

And now the proposal is to transform a pretty good public space into a memorial to that moment. When we historians talk about architectural history, we understand it contextually, because buildings and cities require patrons and clients. Indeed, there is no greater index of the values and priorities of a culture than what it builds, and what it tears down. When we talk about the Place de Louis XV, we talk about monarchical absolutism. When we talk about the redesigned Zócalo of the late 18th century, we talk about a regime clinging to power in a colony that would soon slip away.

So what will historians of the future say of this time and this project?

Will they write that at the moment that Bexar County was working so hard to reconnect itself through great parks and public places along its river and streams and creeks, as the city of San Antonio worked to make housing more affordable, and transportation more effective, in the period, for the first time since the 19th century, more Texans were not white than were, that the people of San Antonio let the State cordon off and control their most important public space and tell them how they were supposed to feel there? That same state, which at the same time, did nothing as the federal government separated brown-skinned children from their parents at its border. The historians will not miss that that state welcomed the further building of a giant wall on that border.

If they are writing about the demolition of the Woolworth, those historians will surely note that the building was taken down by that same state tried all sorts of things to make it more difficult for people to vote, or to make sure that their vote didn’t matter much, and that that state that seemed perpetually unwilling to adequately fund public schools.

But that history hasn’t been written yet, and the bulldozers haven’t arrived. There is still a chance that the historians could write a different story. They might record instead, that those Texans, who so loved doing unexpected, daring things, especially when they knew the world was watching, looked at their history and at their present and said, “come and take it,” repurposing that old phrase, while keeping its spirit of optimistic defiance. Those Texans, they wrote, realized that that plaza and the buildings around it were embedded in their history not because of one event, but because of the many. They remembered that they even had fun there. 

Gun Control Rally

They looked around and realized that maybe that plaza had been doing its work all along in honoring the long, hard, unending work of making a little bit more real the promise of a more perfect union. A promise that, even through, or especially through, the strained, acrimonious years of the late teens, and at least the first month of 2020, the backers of the plan and its opponents, both cherished.

Whether people came to the plaza because they wanted more prayer, or ethnic studies; whether they came to proclaim their rights as gun owners, or to demand an end to the shooting of students in their classrooms; the plaza, the people realized, was working. With their different histories, cultures, memories, and feelings, people kept coming, renewing democracy through their varied and various expressions.

And when they paused, they realized that the proposal to change the plaza had done more to help them realize their common ideals than actually redesigning it ever could - because it brought them out and into a conversation about their history, about who they were, and what they wanted their city to be. And they rediscovered that freedom and liberty don’t live in an open-air museum. They live in the processes through which people work for these ideals; they live in the contest of ideas, and in the basic, ordinary acts of coming together in the public realm. 

So they left the plaza alone, and the Woolworth, and the Crockett block, and all the other buildings, continued to stand, but with new plaques and information about why they were important. Nearly everybody agreed that they’d prefer something other than the souvenir shops and touristic amusements across from the Alamo. And in the historic buildings there they worked with legacy business owners in different parts of the city to open branches in ground floors of the historic buildings so that residents and tourists alike might better understand what was truly distinctive and special about San Antonio.

And in one of those buildings they created a big bookstore with all kinds of books about Texas—books about the 1836 battle by commentators on conservative media, along with those by scholars of Mexican-American history and of Africa- American Texas. There were biographies of Davy Crockett, and William Barrett Travis, and James Bowie, and also of Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, and Emma Tenayuca. 

Books that describe different narratives of the Alamo history

And they did build a museum. But not where the Woolworth is. Instead they built it on a parking lot nearby. And that museum had lots of objects associated with the battle, but it also told a longer, unfinished story about courage, bravery, and the struggle to realize the ideals that for quite a long time had seemed to belong only to the Alamo defenders.

In the museum people learned about bravery on battlefields, but also of the bravery of the African American men and women who in 1960 sat down at lunch counters along Houston Street; of the bravery of the African American children, and their families, as they walked into white classrooms; of the courage of the parents and grandparents who kept speaking Spanish at home even as they knew their children might be punished for doing so at school. The museum presented Texas history in a way that that visitors learned, in the words of architect Robert Venturi, about the “difficult unity of inclusion, not the easy unity of exclusion.”

And the tourists still came — more than ever, in fact — because they had heard that the people in San Antonio were doing something really different with their history, and because they wanted to see the Alamo. They were surprised to discover how entwined Mexico and the U.S. have always been, and surprised to learn that on a Monday each January so many people in San Antonio got together to affirm the importance of everyone’s liberty. They were astonished by just how big Texan identity, like Texas, actually is.

And they admired the bravery of the Texans.