A Tale of Competing Interests in the Alamo

The presence of the U.S. Army in the center of San Antonio had a profound effect on the development of Alamo Plaza as we know it today. Movements of goods in and out of the U.S. Quartermaster Depot had boosted the area’s commercial development, with supporting businesses and dwellings growing up along its edges.

By 1861, Alamo Plaza was already the site for a Market House, when the City Council made amendments to the regulations surrounding the market houses in San Antonio. Further early depictions and records indicate that the Plaza contained a flurry of activities, from the constant traffic of horse and wagons transporting goods to the tables set up by the Chili Queens to sell their chili to hungry patrons. 

The only structures that remained of the old mission and fort compound by 1877 were the Church and Long Barrack.

Merchants Move In

Photograph of the Hugo and Schmeltzer store in Alamo Plaza, circa 1890s.
Credit: UTSA Special Collections
Hugo and Schmeltzer’s general store became a commercial hub in San Antonio.

In 1877, when the Army moved to what would become Fort Sam Houston, the Catholic Church sold the Long Barrack to a French businessman named Honoré Grenet. They also allowed him to rent the church building for continued use as a warehouse. Grenet drastically modified the Long Barrack, adding a wrap-around porch and castle-like towers to the roof. Grenet operated the old structure as a museum and general store. After his death in the early 1880s, the building was sold to the Hugo, Schmeltzer & Company, a wholesale grocery firm that expanded its use as a general merchandise store. 

By the late 1800s, San Antonio had become less well known as a Western frontier settlement and instead was an economic hub and established city. Economic growth brought with it wealthy merchants and visitors from the East Coast. New hotels saloons, theaters, and stores flourished. The City of San Antonio worked to beautify Alamo Plaza beginning with a small park, followed by a bandstand that occasionally had live music to entertain guests as they enjoyed the downtown atmosphere and the warm weather.

Engraving of the Menger Hotel, 1870s.
Credit: UTSA Special Collections
This engraving shows the Menger Hotel, just south of the Alamo Church, in the 1870s.
Cover of a 1907 San Antonio tourist brochure.
Credit: UTSA Special Collections
By the early 1900s San Antonio was becoming not only a commercially successful town but a popular tourist destination, with the Alamo a key draw.

Daughters of the Republic of Texas: Saviors of the Alamo

Portrait of Clara O’Driscoll.
Credit: The Alamo Collection
This portrait of Clara Driscoll is now part of the Alamo Collection.

In the 1883 Texas Legislative Session, a bill was authored directing the State to purchase the Alamo Church from the Catholic Diocese of San Antonio. The State gave the responsibility of the care of the structure to the City of San Antonio. 

Although the Church building had been purchased by the State, a young schoolteacher named Adina De Zavala made the first attempt to preserve the Long Barrack. The granddaughter of the first Vice President of the Republic of Texas, De Zavala sent a request in 1892 to Hugo, Schmeltzer & Co. that they not sell the property to anyone without letting her know. Shortly thereafter, she created her own chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) and was joined by heiress Clara Driscoll. 

Driscoll, whose grandfather fought at San Jacinto, used her wealth to help De Zavala purchase the Long Barrack and was later reimbursed by the state. The State of Texas turned over custodianship of both the Church building and the Long Barrack to the DRT, but sharp contention soon drove the two women apart due to their competing visions for the future of the Long Barrack. De Zavala believed that the Long Barrack deserved as much recognition as the Church, whereas Driscoll believed that the Church should be the main focal point.  Eventually, the remaining intact wall of the Long Barrack was shortened. Gardens were established in the courtyards and area behind the Church to create a place for visitors to come and reflect.

Preservation of Alamo Plaza Today

Alamo archaeology and conservation experts inspect an excavation unit in the Long Barrack.
Alamo Archaeologist Kristi Nichols and Conservator Pam Jary Rosser inspect an excavation unit inside the Long Barrack.

Three buildings now stand where the west wall was located: the Crockett Block, designed by renowned architect Alfred Giles; the Palace Building; and the Woolworth Building. The Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and United States Courthouse can be found at the original location of the North Wall. The only two original Alamo buildings that remain are the Church building and Long Barrack.

In 2011, the Texas Legislature gave authority over the Alamo to the Texas General Land Office, and in 2015, along with the four other San Antonio missions, the Alamo was granted a UNESCO World Heritage designation. 

Conservation efforts continue today as the Alamo staff strives to preserve the Alamo for future generations. Work is ongoing on the historic structures through archaeology and conservation to better understand as well as protect the buildings’ unique features. Preservation experts continually reveal exciting information concerning decorations and historic graffiti on the Long Barrack and Church, uncovering jewels of information concerning the use of the structures from the mission period to the early 1900s.

The Future of the Alamo

Rendering of front facade of Alamo Visitor Center and Museum
Conceptual rendering of the Alamo Visitor Center and Museum, with the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings repurposed.

The story of the Alamo is world renowned and represents the core of Texas’ identity today. The ongoing effort to restore dignity and reverence to this sacred historic site through the comprehensive Alamo Plan is underway through the following three pillars:

  1. Preserve the 300-year-old Church and Long Barrack
  2. Recapture the original mission site and battlefield footprint
  3. Create a world-class Visitor Center and Museum to tell the full history of the site

The restoration of the Church and Long Barrack is progressing as planned and we unveiled the 18-Pounder Losoya House Exhibit in the southwest corner of Alamo Plaza along with the Palisade Exhibit, allowing visitors to better understand the original footprint of the Alamo as it was both during the Mission era as well as the Battle of 1836. The new 24,000 square-foot Alamo Exhibit at the Ralston Family Collections Center opened to the public on Friday, March 3, 2023, representing the first new construction on the Alamo grounds since the 1950s. It houses all of the Alamo artifacts, Alamo Collection, and Phil Collins Collection under one roof. It also features an exhibit space that will serve as museum until the proposed Visitor Center and Museum can be built. Plans for the opening of a state-of-the-art Alamo Visitor Center and Museum are on track for a 2027 grand opening.