AUSTIN — The Texas Historical Commission tapped the brakes on a key piece of the Alamo project Tuesday, saying commissioners want more information on alternative locations for the 1930s Cenotaph if it is moved, and how long it will take to complete restoration work on the monument.
Chairman John Nau, III, said the commission needs to know more about other possible locations for the Cenotaph where it can have a visual connection to the chapel at the site. The current plan calls for moving the Cenotaph about 500 feet from its current location on the north end of the Alamo plaza, where it has stood since it was constructed.
“If it is moved, is there a location closer to the church to try to tie all of that together in the eye of the visitor? And what is that location? And that’s where the permit needs to be applied for,” said Nau.
He dismissed suggestions the delay signals the commission is hesitant about moving the Cenotaph, but stressed the committee needs more information, including how long the project would take under various scenarios. After maintaining the chapel and the grounds, he said the priority needs to be improving the visitor experience.
“If you’re going to make a decision that’s as impactful, then you want to get as much information as possible,” he told the Express-News. “When you think about the 5th-, 6th-, 7th-graders of the future, what do we want them to know? And right now, the visit is not what it could be.”
The commission gave initial approval to other permits linked to the project, including a study about archaeological work at the site and where to plant trees.
The moving of the Cenotaph, and the planting of trees, are two touchy issues that have drawn intense opposition from groups of descendants of people with ties to the historic mission and battle site.
Opponents of the $450 million public-private project are holding out hope an ongoing federal lawsuit will ultimately thwart the plan.
“We’re going to fight to the bitter, bitter, bitter end,” said Lee Spencer White, founder of the Alamo Defender Descendants Association.
Alamo officials downplayed the impact of the commission’s request for alternative sites for the Cenotaph and said the approval of archaeological permits allows the project to move forward.
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“We appreciate the THC’s decision to issue the permits for Phase One of the Alamo Plan. This is one of many steps to bring reverence back to the site of our fallen heroes,” said Karina Erickson, spokeswoman with the Texas General Land Office.
The initial phase of the project focuses on the southern portion of Alamo Plaza near the historic Menger Hotel. Streets there will be closed to traffic and the area converted to a pedestrian-friendly space just south of the state-owned Alamo complex. It’s scheduled to start this year.
The archaeological permit approved Tuesday calls for a mandatory pause in the work if archaeological discoveries are made on site.
The delay is related to a permit for the repair, relocation and restoration of the Cenotaph, a 58-foot-tall marble monument to nearly 200 Alamo defenders killed or executed in the 1836 battle for Texas independence. Nau said he wants to see a new permit application detailing alternative locations for the structure.
The committee expects to revisit the Alamo project at its March 24 meeting.
Opponents of moving the Cenotaph say placing it outside the area once encircled by the fort’s walls would be an affront to the memory of the defenders and would go against the wishes of sculptor Pompeo Coppini, whose work is featured on the monument. Although some people testified in support of the project Tuesday, about a dozen urged a vote against the plan, calling it unnecessary and a “travesty.”
Deborah Andrle first visited the Alamo as a young girl. It left her with a strong impression — that people fought knowing they were going to die.
“We all know this is going to be a whitewashing of history,” she said, after driving to Austin from a small town north of Waco to offer public comment.
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Proponents have said relocation of the Cenotaph will clear the way for creating an open space that could be used for historical interpretation to complement a planned Alamo museum.
The tree plantings also are a source of concern for two descendant groups who say the area is a cemetery that merits legal protection, and that family members of Alamo defenders should be included in the handling of human remains at the site.
Although no discoveries of human remains have been reported recently in the plaza, bones, bone fragments and at least three intact partial sets of skeletal remains have been unearthed in the Alamo’s mission church in recent months.
The Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, which has a federal lawsuit pending to be included in the Alamo project’s human remains protocol, has raised concerns that roots of the newly planted trees could penetrate graves in the proposed project area.
Scott Huddleston contributed reporting from San Antonio.
Andrea Zelinski covers state politics for the San Antonio Express-News. Read her on our free site free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | [email protected] | Twitter: @andreazelinski
Scott Huddleston covers Bexar County government and the Alamo for the San Antonio Express-News. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | [email protected] | Twitter: @shuddlestonSA