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History of the Alamo, Part X: “…disintegration of the church right before our eyes.”

During the night, when the Alamo was closed, technicians scan the church’s walls to determine the extent of the damage on the three century old structure. Photo courtesy of the Alamo CEO Facebook page.

“We are literally witnessing a disintegration of the church right before our eyes,” was the comment made by nationally known heritage consultant George Skarmeas to the San Antonio Express-News on the dire condition of the Alamo’s church.

Ron Current

As I wrote in my post, History of the Alamo, Part VII: The Era of Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the state had been informed of mismanagement of the Alamo properties by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) for years, but when it became evident that the disintegration of these historical structures was far worse than first thought, the state had to step in and act fast.

In 2011, the Alamo was placed under the control of the State’s General Land Office (GLO), and on May 12, 2015 the GLO took over the complete day to day operations and caretaking of the Alamo from DRT, ending a 107 year conservatorship. Although the DRT had helped to save the Alamo’s two remaining buildings, and to maintain them, they really didn’t have the expertise on what to do, or not do, to better preserve these century old structures.

In this, the tenth in my series on the history of the Alamo compound, I’ll tell how the GLO is assessing the conditions of the Alamo’s two remaining buildings, and how their putting to use the 5 million dollars of emergency funding to save them before their lost forever.  

The Long Barracks

The first, and most looming, peril to the structural conditions of the Alamo’s remaining buildings came when signs that the Long Barrack’s roof was beginning to fail.  

The unfinished, roof less and vine overgrown Long Barracks. It remained this way for over 50 years. Historical photo from Pinterest.

After almost being torn down in the early part of the 20th century the Long Barracks would only be partially rebuilt between 1913 and 1916, when funds to finish the project ran out. The ruins would stand roofless and overgrown by vines until 1968, when the DRT would finally roof it. The DRT then moved its museum from its first location, now the Alamo gift shop, to the Long Barracks.

When the roof’s failure was discovered the GLO quickly moved; Cram Roofing of San Antonio, who has worked on other historical buildings, was contracted to replace the failing roof and repair the water damage to the old walls before it was irreversible.

This project was one of the most difficult for Cram Roofing.  Normally they’d anchor their work platforms to the outer walls of the building; however, this couldn’t be done due to the fragile conditions of the barrack’s old stone walls. Instead the entire 5,500 sq. ft. of the Long Barrack’s exterior had to be completely enveloped in scaffolding.

The interior of the re-roofed Long Barracks. Today it holds the Alamo Museum. Photo by author

Add to that another issue, an average of 7,000 visitors a day tour the grounds of the Alamo, and the GLO didn’t want them contending with workers moving equipment and materials onto the site when it was open. So Cram needed to deliver all items needed for each days work before the Alamo opened at 9am, and wait until after 5:30pm before removing anything.

Over a ten week period the company removed the entire old roof, down to the stone, and completely replaced it with a new more efficient one, while still keeping the buildings historical integrity.

Only part of the current west wall of the Long Barracks is original. Photo by author

Also, a recent archaeological survey of the Long Barracks answered a long standing question; did the reconstructed walls of 1913-1916 have any historical accuracy? What was discovered was, yes. Those doing the reconstruction back then had indeed used the Barrack’s original foundations.

Although only its west wall is somewhat original the Alamo’s Long Barracks is still an important link in the Alamo story.

Saving the crumbing Alamo Shrine

The Alamo church is the most original of the two remaining structures, and also in the greatest danger. For over three centuries the Alamo church had suffered much, and there never was any real attempt to do an extensive assessment on its condition until 2015.

A restoration technician examines the interior walls of the Alamo church for damage. Photo courtesy of Alamo CEO Facebook page.

In 2015, the state commissioned two restoration experts to head the preservation efforts: Ivan Myjer, a stone conservator from Boston, who has worked on historical sites around the world, and master stone mason Miroslav Maler. These two men spent a month atop a crane going over the Alamo church inch by inch to determine the extent of the damage, and on how to repair it. 

Using radar and x-ray imagery it was discovered that the church’s walls had been poorly constructed by its original mission builders, who had not used proper reinforcement between its outer walls, only loose rubble.  

It was also discovered that over 2 feet of soil, and other debris, had built up over the centuries around base of the church. This allowed ground water to slowly creep up into the foundation, weakening it.

This 2015 photo shows damage done over time by the elements to the base of one of the façade’s pillars. Photo by Bob Owen/ San Antonio Express-News

Further testing also showed other factors having a devastating effect on the church were: vibrations from traffic, acid rain and the harsh Texas climate.

To help reduce some of the traffic vibration, as part of the “reimagining” of Alamo Plaza, the City of San Antonio will be closing the streets that surround the Alamo.

To help stem the effects from the rising ground water, the GLO will be clearing away the accumulated soil and other materials down to the church’s original foundation.

Another concern, that’s hardly noticed by visitors, is that the famous Alamo façade is dotted with mold. This mold is slowly eating away at the limestone, further weakening it. In addition large sections of the church’s façade has been lost due to weathering and vandalism. All of these areas needed to be addressed in a proper restoration process, and this is what Myjer and Maler specialize in.

Where the deterioration is extremely bad the restores use a process that’s used throughout the world on other historical structures, such as the Parthenon in Athens and the Colosseum in Rome. Reconstructions are made of the effected areas that mirror the original. These reconstructions are made out of crushed limestone and other materials which is consistent with materials used in the 18th century, when the Alamo was first constructed. These new pieces are then carefully reinserted into the damaged areas giving it the look of the original.

Stone conservator Ivan Myjer makes repairs to the iconic Alamo façade, part of the 5 million dollar emergency restoration effort. Photo by Eric Gay/ AP

Another task for the restorers is to correct some of the earlier faulty repairs. While some of these corrections can be done, using the process I described above, other alterations that had been made through the years, such as non-original windows and doors, will remain for fear of harming the surrounding stone.

Still the greatest threat to the integrity of the Alamo church remains what the DRT had unknowingly done: the Alamo church’s cement roof and air-conditioning.

Deteriorating right before our eyes. Black paper catching stone fall from the walls. Photo by William Luther/San Antonio Express-News

Again as I tell in Part VII, the moisture imbalance caused by the Alamo’s air-conditioning is causing the church’s walls to literally crumble away. I saw this for myself during my 2018 visit. In the side rooms of the church black butcher paper has been laid along the walls where they are collecting the chunks that fall off. The restorers are using this to gauge the rate of deterioration.

One of the ideas to help reduce the moisture imbalance created by the air-conditioning is to dial up the temperature and let the natural process of the thick limestone walls do their natural work. As for the heavy roof, that is still to be decided.

Not taking the Alamo for granted any longer

Since the GLO has been in charge the work of saving and restoring these last two remaining buildings has been their top, and urgent, priority. And after the decades of neglect their work is just beginning.

If the Alamo is to be preserved for future generations these historic and famous buildings can no longer be taken for granted, and for us to think that they’ll always be there.

My next posting will cover the “reimagining” of Alamo Plaza. Will it be a rediscovery, or another battle of the Alamo?

Some of my sources:

Weissert, Will. “Restoring the Alamo-experts’ delicate mission.” Military Times, Sightline Mrdia Group, 11 Nov. 2015, http://www.militarytimes.com/off-duty/2015/11/11/restoring-the-alamo-experts-delicate-mission.

Blische, Kevin. “Re-Roofing The Alamo.” Facility Executive, Facility Executive, 28 2016, facilityexecutive.com/2016/07/re-roofing-the-alamo.

Dobson, Courtney. “Re-Roofing the Alamo.” Roofing Contractor , Roofing Contractor Magazine, 4 Apr. 2016, http://www.roofingcontractor.com/articles/91528-re-roofing-the-alamo.

Huddleston, Scott. “Alamo’s AC may be causing harm.” San Antonio Express-News, San Antonio Express-News, 26 Nov. 2016, http://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/Alamo-s-AC-may-be-causing-harm.

Associated Press. “Roof being replaced at the Alamo’s Long Barrack.” Washington Examiner, Washington Examiner, 19 Aug. 2014, http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/roof-being-replaced-at-alamos-long-barrack.

Hardy, Michael . “My Grandfather Air-Conditioned the Alamo. Now the Building Is Crumbling, and It’s All His Fault.” TexasMonthly, Texas Monthly, 5 Dec. 2016, http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/grandfather-aie-conditioned-the-alamo-now-building-crumbling-fault.

Gay, Eric. Ivan Myjer, stone conservator repairing the Alamo’s facade. 2015. “Restoring the Alamo-experts’ delicate mission,” by Will Weissert. Military Times, 11 Nov. 2015, http://www.militarytimes.com/off-duty/2015/11/11/restoring-the-alamo-experts-delicate-mission.

Technicians scan the Alamo church for damage. “Alamo CEO,” by Douglass McDonald. Alamo CEO, Facebook. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.

Luther, William. Black butcher paper collecting Alamo wall chips. 2016. “Alamo’s AC may be causing harm,” by Scott Huddleston. San Antonio Express-News, 26 Nov. 201, http://www.expressnews.com/article/Alamo-s-may-be-causing-harm-10637994.php#photo-11868339.

Owen, Bob. Weather-damaged base of piller. 2015. “Alamo’s AC may be causing harm,” by Scott Huddleston. San Antonio Express-News, 26 Nov. 2016, http://www.expressnews.com/article/Alamo-s-may-be-causing-harm-10637994.php#photo-11868350.

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