- The iconic Alamo façade as it is today. A far cry from historical accuracy, but this is the Alamo that we know
- Ron Current
Throughout its long history the Alamo has suffered much by those who’ve owned her, even those who loved her deeply and raised her to the level of a shrine. They had unknowingly helped in her slow deterioration.
This posting, the seventh in my series on the history of the Alamo, is about the Alamo’s church during the early to mid-1900s. It was at this time that Clara Driscoll and the DRT had regained custodianship over the Alamo property; it was also when the DRT made major alterations to the church, even rivaling those made by the U.S. Army. Also during this period Clara Driscoll would continue to use her considerable influence and wealth to reshape the land surrounding the Alamo.
I would also like to note that of all my posts in this series this one was by far the most difficult in researching. It was hard to find accounts and reporting on what exactly had been done and by whom, to the Alamo church from the time of the U.S. Army through the DRT’s control.
From various photos, and some sketchy accounts, I’ve tried to pieced together what may, or may not, have been done to the Alamo church through those early years of the 20th century. Saying this, please forgive this simple armchair researcher/ historian for any assumptions I’ve made when addressing work on the Alamo church, especially in regards to the windows and doors. However, if anyone can shed any light, or point me in the right direction, on this subject please do so in the comments.
The Era of Clara Driscoll and the DRT begins
In 1917, Clara Driscoll and the Alamo Mission chapter of the DRT took stewardship of a
- Clara Driscoll 1881-1945
badly damaged and neglected Alamo church. And while not as bad as the Long Barracks, it was still a Swiss cheese of windows and doors that had been cut into its 3.5 ft. thick walls. Those changes to the historic building had completely erased the Alamo of the 1836 battle, and distorted the image people have of the Alamo, as it still does today.
To understand how these structural changes had impacted Driscoll and the DRT’s vision of the Alamo we need to go back and review in a little more detail how the Alamo church was altered by those that came before the DRT. I will compare the Alamo of 1836 to the Alamo of the post- Army period, the one the Driscoll knew.
In my post, The History of the Alamo Part III: From Forgotten to Army Depot, I presented
- The history of the Alamo’s facades: a) how the Alamo church would have looked if finished by the Monks, b) how it was during the battle of 1836, c) as it is today
how the U.S. Army were the ones who made the most drastic alterations to the ruined Alamo church. Modifications made by the Army were: raise and level the top of the church’s walls in preparation for, and then adding a roof, building a second floor, and cutting windows and doors into its thick walls. We know that the Army made absolutely no effort for any historical preservation; their only goal was to make the old ruins useable as a warehouse. And, as I also stated in Part III, their original plan was to completely level the ruins.
The question I have, and couldn’t find the answer to, is concerning the windows and doors that are now on the church; what changes were made and by whom. To try and figure this out we need to go back to the ruined church as it was before the Army did their rebuilding, and then try to piece together what happed after.
Originally the Alamo church only had four windows: three located on the church’s façade, one on each side of the columned front door, and one over the main door to bring sunlight into its choir loft. The fourth window was located in a room off the Sacristy, opening out to the front church yard. During the 1836 siege these windows, except the upper choir window, were blocked off.
We know for sure that when rebuilding the church the Army had added two windows on each side of the church’s upper façade below its now famous hump, which they also installed. As for other windows, the only account I could find was an article stating that the Army had added windows to the upper portion of the Alamo church to provide sunlight to their new second floor. This article didn’t say how many windows had been added or their locations.
The really big mystery for me is that of the lost delivery doors on the Alamo church. Again, we know that originally the church only had two doors: the main door at the front and one called “the door of the dead,” a small arched opening that was located on the south side of the church’s transept. The purpose for this opening was to bring the deceased into the church for funeral masses. During the 1836 battle this door was partially closed, ether with stone or adobe bricks, with only a small opening at the top for sharpshooters or small cannon.
Now for the mystery of the delivery doors; photos showing the south wall of the Alamo
- This photo taken in the late 1800’s shows what looks to be two “doors” on the sought wall of the church. Also notice the stove pipe sticking out the lower front window.
church taken in the late 1800s and early 1900’s shows what seems to be large doors cut into the church between the baptistery and transept. Although they do look like large doors I’ve not been a able to find any information as if these are indeed doors. If they are doors who added them and then who removed them and when.
The only clue I have to this mystery came on one of my visits to the Alamo. One of the guides mentioned a door that was used for deliveries when the Alamo was a warehouse, and that was later filled in. If this is correct, who filled it in? Was it the DRT when they took control? And if so what materials did they used to fill it? Another clue came from a member of one of the Alamo Facebook groups that I belong to; she posted that she saw an early newspaper article telling of the DRT conducting a drive to recover stones from the Alamo to be used for its repair, is this what was used? Hopefully I’ll come a cross an article that will put this window and door mystery to rest for me.
Today the Alamo Shrine has many windows and doors: windows on the upper and lower back wall of its chancel, upper and lower (where the “door of the dead had been located) windows on its south transept, upper and lower windows on the south wall next to the transept, and an upper window and a door (now used as the exit) on the north transept. There are also two doors and a small window on the north wall of the Sacristy, and a series of small windows, that look like vents, near the roof around the church. One of the most interesting doors is the small one near the top, on the east side of the baptistery
- Here’s a photo showing the Police Sub-Station that was attached to the Alamo’s south wall in around 1885
Another interesting attachment added onto the Alamo church was a police sub-station. This can be seen on the 1885, Sanborn Fire Insurance map of San Antonio, and also in
- The 1885 Sanborn map showing the police station on the church
photos of that time. This police station was located along the church’s west wall, between its baptistery and transept. Who built this structure? And when and who removed it? None of the books or web-sites I used for this research had the answer these questions.
All we can be sure of is that when the City of San Antonio had custody of the church they’d removed the second floor installed by the U.S. Army, and if they had made other alterations to the church I couldn’t find any records. If they hadn’t made changes was due to a lack of funding, that the damage was too extensive to correct, or just a lack of historical interest or knowledge, I don’t know.
- An early 1900 photo showing the interior of the Alamo church after the second floor had been removed. Notice the two windows on the back wall, and the large opening behind the man of the right, could this be one of the doors?
However, it does seem that at the time the city didn’t truly appreciated this hallowed site. It’s recorded that when the city had control they allowed outside organizations to use the Alamo church for a meeting hall, where vandalism took place. This could have been one of the reasons that the state only allowed San Antonio to have oversite of the Alamo very briefly before returning it to the DRT.
The DRT takes over
What were the DRT’s original plans for the Alamo? Was there any thought of restoring the Alamo to historically accuracy? It doesn’t seem so. However we shouldn’t be too hard on Driscoll and the DRT, because at that time historical restoration wasn’t much thought of. And if they had any thoughts toward historical restoration, what time period should it be: the mission period, battle of 1836 Alamo, or the post U.S. Army Alamo?
Also, another stumbling block for them doing any accurate historical restoration was the fact that there weren’t many witnesses still alive that could give a correct description of how the Alamo looked as a mission or even after the battle. The only Alamo Driscoll and others knew was the Alamo created by the U.S. Army.
So ingrained was this image of the Alamo’s façade, with its “hump,” that even artists at the time when painting the 1836 Battle of the Alamo often show it with the hump. In 1975, when a group from the University of Texas suggested that the roof and hump be removed to make the Alamo historically accurate there was a tremendous outcry against it. Still today what is recognized as “the Alamo” is what the U.S. Army had built in 1850. That famous façade, with the bell shaped stone capping, is “our” iconic image of the Alamo. And because of this restorers need to be extremely mindful of the full history of the Alamo when doing restorations.
Clara Driscoll Creates a Shrine to Texas Liberty
There were few records that I could find as to what the first projects of the DRT were for the Alamo church, but there was one that clearly stood out. To Driscoll the first, and most important, for her was the removal of all the buildings that surrounded the Alamo church. Driscoll’s vision was for the Alamo “shrine” to be separated, a focal point onto itself.
She was quite clear about this in her 1900 letter to the San Antonio Express. “We leave it (the Alamo church) hemmed in… one side by a hideous barracks-like (the Long Barracks) looking building, and the other by two saloons…Today the Alamo should stand out free and clear. All the unsightly obstructions that hid it away should be torn down and the space utilized for a park.”
To accomplish this she would over time acquire all the property around the Alamo. One of her first objectives was the Hugo and Schmeltzer/Long Barracks. It was this that started the so called “Second Battle of the Alamo.” Driscoll wanted its complete removal, but as I pointed out in my last post she didn’t get her wish in having the entire Long Barracks leveled, just its second floor.
Over the next decades Driscoll and the DRT would purchase the lands on the south,
- This photo taken in 1930’s shows the demolition of buildings behind the Alamo Church
north, and behind the church. Tearing down the buildings that “hemmed” it in. One of the largest projects came in 1931, when Driscoll once again opened up her pocket book and wrote a check for $70,000 to help the state in purchasing two parcels of land between the Alamo church and Crockett Street.
Four years later in 1935, she fought with city engineers, and won, when they tried to use eminent domain over Alamo property to widen Houston Street. She also talked the City of San Antonio out converting a building adjacent to the Alamo to a fire station. Later this building was purchased and is now Alamo hall, and used as a meeting room .
During the Great Depression the DRT utilized the Work Progress Administration (WPA) and the National Youth Administration (NYA) to remove the last remaining non-historical buildings left around the Alamo. They also built the first museum building(now the Alamo gift shop), the stone arcade that runs off the south corner of the church, and the walls that circle the property.
By the time Clara Driscoll had passed away in 1945 she was able to see her dream
- Clara’s vision fulfilled, the Alamo Shrine stands separated, the focal point of Alamo Plaza
fulfilled, the Alamo Shrine now stood alone. She had her shrine to honor those Texan’s who had given their lives for Texas liberty. It was Driscoll who coined the name for the Alamo church as “the Shine to Texas Liberty,” or now just “the Shine.” The Alamo became a place to gather and to remember. It didn’t matter how historically accurate her shrine was, and this attitude continued on into the 21st century.
The historical importance of the Alamo was finally recognized beginning in 1960, when the Alamo was designated a National Historical Landmark, then in 1961 it was documented by the National American Building Survey, in 1966 it was one of the inaugural listing on the National Register of Historical Places, and in 2015 the Alamo was named a World Heritage Site.
Not all the work on the Alamo was to the good
The Alamo was badly in need of repair when taken over by the DRT, however by not seeking qualified architects and contractors versed in historical restoration they put the Alamo in grave danger.
- Construction equipment at the Alamo during the adding of the new concert roof
One of the most extensive projects undertaken by the DRT on the Alamo church was the replacement of its roof. In 1921, they removed its old wooden roof and replaced it with a concert barrel vaulted one, this is the roof the Alamo church has today. This roof has a rough stone pebble surface along the top of the walls forming a parapet. Although this concrete roof offers more protection from the outside elements it is causing concerns due to its weight bearing down on the old walls. Also the concert doesn’t expand and contract as the much as the church’s original walls, causing more strain on the entire structure.
In the 1930s, when making repairs to the cracks in the Alamo’s façade workers used contemporary concert mortar. This eventual turned a pinkish hue instead of its original gray-white.
Perhaps one of the most unknowingly destructive projects untaken by the DRT was in the 1960s. To make the inside of the Alamo more comfortable for visitors air conditioning was installed. Although this did make the interior more comfortable during those hot and humid Texas summers it began a slow, and hardly noticed, deterioration of the Alamo church.
The limestone walls of the Alamo would naturally breathe with the changing temperatures and humidity, allowing for a balance. However, modern air conditioning creates a major imbalance between the inside and outside causing moisture to develop within the church’s walls. This moisture would eventually leak out the interior walls. Adding insult to injury, on my 2011 visit one of the guides I talked to told me how contractors trying to fix this leakage used waterproof sealant for basements. This did stop the leaks, but it also trapped the water in the walls causing the limestone to dissolve.
- The saw cut into the Alamo church’s south wall. You can also see the strange small door in the corner
Also on that 2011 visit I noticed what looked like a long cut into the Alamo’s south wall near the top. I asked that same guide as to what that was about. She told me that it was done by one of the directors, and they have no idea what he was trying to do. He was fired.
Over the years all of these misunderstandings by the DRT on how to keep and preserve the Alamo has added to its slow destruction. You can see this happening when you visit the Alamo today. In its rooms preservationist have placed black traps along the floor around the walls. On these traps you can see white flacks; this is the Alamo slowly crumbling away.
The End of an Era
Concerns for how the DRT managed the Alamo began to surface in the late 1980’s. Many members of the Texas State Legislature proposed that custodianship of the Alamo Shrine and property be moved to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. This effort was stopped when the Mayor of San Antonio supported the DRT.
In the early part of the 1990’s the San Antonio Express-News began running a series of articles stating how the DRT was mishandling the Alamo shrine. One article stated that the DRT was keeping the temperature in the Alamo to low, causing even more water vapor to form, and this mixed with auto exhaust were severely damaging the historic structure. These articles again caused the state to take up the issue of taking over control from the DRT in 1993. These efforts were again stopped when then Governor George W. Bush vowed to veto any legislation to dislodge the DRT.
Finally, in 2010, the Texas Attorney General received a complaint on the DRT’s mismanagement of the Alamo, as well as misusage of state funds; this opened an investigation. Two years later, the investigation did find that the DRT had failed to keep the Alamo in good order and repair, misused state funds, and caused a breach of their fiduciary responsibilities.
In 2011, the State transferred control of the Alamo from the DRT to the Texas General Land Office. And on March 12, 2015, the General Land Office assumed the daily operations of the Alamo from the DRT, thus ending a major era in Alamo history.
Even though Driscoll and the DRT hadn’t seemed concerned in historical representation when creating their “shrine,” or that in the years of their custodianship they weren’t the best of stewards, there’s is however one thing we can thank them for; that at a time when the attitude concerning old buildings, historic or not, was to tear them down and rebuild with new, Driscoll and the DRT had fought, and saved what remained of the Alamo. This was a major accomplishment.
My next post will address the changing face of Alamo Plaza.
If you’ve enjoyed this post please read my others in this series:
The History of the Alamo: Mission to Fort
The History of the Alamo, Part II: From Fort to Forgotten
The History of the Alamo, Part III: From Forgotten to Army Depot
The History of the Alamo, Part IV: From Warehouse to Roadside Attraction
The History of the Alamo, Part V: Two Angels, Two Different Visions
The History of the Alamo, Part VI: From Roadside Attraction to a Shrine
Also checkout my other posts on this subject:
The Alamo; Today and in History
What happened and where it happened, as it is today; a photo walking tour of the Alamo battlefield (2014)
Also, my still unfinished series relating to the Alamo:
Texas and the Alamo: Conflict between Mexico and the Untied States (Part I)
Texas and the Alamo: Conflict between Mexico and the Untied States (Part II)
Texas and the Alamo: Conflict between Mexico and the Untied States (Part III)
Texas and the Alamo: Conflict between Mexico and the Untied States (Part IV)
Texas and the Alamo: Conflict between Mexico and the Untied States (Part V)
Some of the sources used in this post:
Thompson, Frank . “The Second Battle of the Alamo.” The Alamo: A Cultural History, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2001.
Nelson, George. “Feuds Over Preservation of the Convento.” The Alamo: An Illustrated History, third Revised Edition, Aldine Press, 2009, p. 98.
Lemon, Mark. “Swivel Gun.” The Illustrated Alamo 1836: A Photographic Journey, State House Press, 2008, p. 100.
Guerra, Mary Ann Noonan. The Alamo. Fourth Printing , The Alamo Press, 1983.
Eaton, Jack D. Excuvations At The Alamo Shrine. Fourth Printing, Center for Archaeological Research, 1985.
“Alamo Mission in San Antonio .” Wikipedia , Wikipedia, 30 Nov. 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alamo_Mission_San_Antonio.
Weissert , Will. “Restoring the Alamo-experts’ delicate mission.” Military Times, Military Times, 11 Nov. 2015, http://www.militarytimes.com/off-duty/2015/11/restoring-the-alamo-experts-delicate-mission.
“Buildings.” The Alamo, The Alamo, http://www.thealamo.org/remember/structures/buildings/index.html.
“Alamo History Chronology.” The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, http://www.drtinfo.org/drt-library/research/alamo-history-chronology-2#wrap.
“Clara Driscoll (philanthropist) .” Wikipedia , Wikipedia, Sept. 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clara_Driscoll_(philanthropist).
“Alamo.” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historial Association, tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/uqa01.
Hardy, Michael. “My Grandfather Air-Conditioned the Alamo. Now the Building Is Crumbling, and It’s All His Fault.” TexasMonthly, TexasMonthly, 5 Dec. 2016, http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/grandfather-air-conditioned-alamo-now-building-crumbling-fault.