By the late 1800’s the urban sprawl of San Antonio, created by Samuel Maverick and other developers, had all but strangled the hallowed ground of the Alamo battlefield. The mission/fort compound was soon forgotten, where so many brave men had fought and died, their blood baptizing its very earth, was nothing more than just another city plaza. All that was left of the famous fort were three building, and even those would become lost to commercial development.
In this post I’ll cover the Alamo’s post-army period when the buildings that remained continued to fall victim to further degradation, as developers, the City, and the State saw the Alamo’s grounds as little more than for commercial use.
Where Jim Bowie died
The Alamo’s main gate building was no longer called the Low Barracks, but the Galera. It was there in a room to the right of the gate that James Bowie was killed in his sick bed during the 1836 battle. Now, without its connecting walls, it sat alone, in the middle of the vastness between the de Valero and Alamo Plazas.
To City officials the Galera was nothing more than an eyesore. Besides sitting in the middle of two large plazas a large pond would form when it rained, where the main gate’s entrance had been. This was likely caused by the depression left by the fort’s defensive Lunette, which the Mexican Army had filled in after the 1836 battle. The City Council didn’t care about the buildings historical significance; it was in the way and had to go.
In 1866 the city began demolishing the Galera, which was abruptly halted by the Catholic Church. The Church claimed that the building belonged to them, and the City had no right in tearing it down. As the City and Church squabbled over who had the rights to the building it sat in partial ruin, becoming a real eyesore. On March 7, 1869, on what was the 33rd, plus a day, anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo, the San Antonio Daily Express newspaper began a campaign, not to save the building where Jim Bowie had died, but to force its demolition.
Two years later the City paid the Catholic Church $2,500 for the Galera, with the stipulation they’d tear it down. Even though the “eyesore” Galera was gone it didn’t stop the City from later granting a permit for another commercial building to be constructed on its site.
With the demolition of the Low Barracks only two of the Alamo’s original buildings remained. But these too would continue to be degraded, with a total lack of their historical importance.
Honore Grenet (1823-1882)
After the U.S. Army left the Catholic Church received an offer of $20,000 for the purchase of the Long Barracks from local merchant Honore Grenet. Grenet had a grand idea to convert the building into a large, two story shopping center. And with the wide Alamo Plaza at its front everyone would be able to see his store unhindered.
As soon as the Church accepted Grenet’s offer he began ripping up what the Army had built over the Long Barracks, adding his own outlandish design over what little was left of its original walls. Grenet’s thought was to capture the idea of the Alamo battle by making his store look like a fort, complete with turrets and wooden cannons. Although it was horrendous in what he did to this historic structure, these types of extravagant designs were very common for commercial buildings at the time. But it also showed the total disregard by Grenet and the City in preserving what was left of the Alamo. And it gets worse!
Adding further insult to the Alamo Grenet took out a lease on the Alamo’s church, which he used as a warehouse for his store. Tourists coming to San Antonio to see the famous Alamo were allowed, for a fee, to tour the inside the church. One visitor in 1882 complained of the smell of cabbage and Limburger cheese inside the historic building. And it just wasn’t cheese and vegetables that were kept in the church, the carcasses of beef, pigs and sheep were hung in the church’s cool, dark side rooms. At times the blood stains from these animals were mistaken by the ill-informed visitor as being those of the fallen heroes.
When Grenet died in 1882, the shopping center/Long Barracks was sold to another mercantile company, Hugo and Schmeltzer. However, the new owner couldn’t use the Alamo church as a warehouse any longer; the Catholic Church had sold the building to the State of Texas three years earlier, also for $20,000, rescuing it from commercial hands.
A new era was about to begin for the Alamo’s church, but not it’s Long Barracks.
Restoring some dignity to the Alamo
With the State now owning the Alamo’s church, and with public pressure mounting to preserve what was left, the City of San Antonio began to start feeling patriotic, or at least somewhat historically responsible. They petitioned the State for custody of the Alamo church, which was granted.
The City didn’t have much funding, so any attempt to completely restore the church to its original look was out of the question. They were able to remove the second floor, but the other changes made by the U.S. Army were much too extensive.
Besides the two windows cut into the top of the church’s front (which I wrote about in Part III) the Army had also cut larger windows and doors throughout the rest of building. Removing those would have to wait.
The City did create the beginnings of a museum, and they hired a local historian by the name Tom Rife to watch over the church. Rife also gave tours to the ever growing numbers of Alamo pilgrims. To those that came from all over the United State, and the world, to see where Travis had written his inspiring letter and where Davy Crockett had fought and died, were greatly disappointed, and some were even horrified, at what they saw.
What they saw was this historic building hemmed in on all sides, with a ghastly two story mega-store overshadowing it on the left, and a row of saloons and small shops lined up on its right, and there sitting in the middle was the Alamo; looking much like a roadside tourist trap.
When March 6, 1886, the 50th anniversary of the fall of the Alamo, came and was hardly noticed by those having custody of the Alamo it caused an outrage amongst the patriotic faithful , one being the San Antonio Express newspaper (the same paper that demanded the removal of the Low Barracks years before) who wrote an editorial demanding that a more historic and patriotic society be formed to save Texas history, and the Alamo.
This cry was heard by two Angels, with a strong Texas history, who would first join forces to save the Alamo, but then battle over their differing visons.
Some of the Sources Used:
Thompson , Frank. “From Army Headquarters to Department Store.” The Alamo: A Cultural History, Taylor Publishing, 2001.
Nelson, George. “The Alamo at the Time of Civil War.” The Alamo: An Illustrated History, third Revised Edition, Aldine Press, 2009, p. 95 and 98.
Lemon, Mark. “Lunette, Low Barracks.” The Illustrated Alamo 1836: A Photographic Journey, State House Press, 2008, pp. 22,24,28,30.
“Alamo Low Barracks and Main Gateway.” Texas Historical Markers on Waymarking.com, Waymarking.com, 2018, waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3DJ6_Alamo_Low_Barracks_Main_Gateway.
Wikipedia . “Alamo Mission in San Antonio.” Wikipedia , Wikipedia, 28 July 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alamo_Mission_in_San_Antonio.
“Honore Grenet.” Billion Graves, Billion Graves, billiongraves.com/grave/Honore-Grenet/12052402.
“Historic Photos of the Alamo.” Search: Historic Photos of the Alamo, Google, http://www.google.com/search?q=historic+photos+of+the+Alamo&rlz=1C9BKJA_enUS69:.