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Mission Immemorial History shrouds the past of the legendary ‘Shrine of Texas Liberty’

REMEMBERING the Alamo is not as easy as one might think. That’s because we don’t know exactly how the church building looked when work was completed in the 1750s on Mission San Antonio de Valero. Historians, looking to contemporary architectural expression when imagining its composition, envision a domed chapel behind a three-level baroque retable facade flanked by twin bell towers—an image very different from the relatively modest and diminutive frontispiece we see today. The towers and dome did once exist, but they collapsed in 1762. By 1803 the abandoned mission buildings were occupied by soldiers from Álamo de Parras in Coahuila, Mexico, and it’s from their hometown that the name Alamo (Spanish for “cottonwood”) most likely derived. Mexican military remained garrisoned there almost continuously from that time until they were routed in December 1835 by a ragtag force of revolutionaries bent on independence for Texas. On March 6,

1836, Mexican troops over whelmed and killed the 180 or so besieged Texians defending the A lamo. The extent of destruction from repeated assault is unknown, yet further demolition was executed over the ensuing weeks. In 1847, 11 years after the Battle of the Alamo, a draftsman named Edward Everett captured the ravaged western facade in watercolor. Everett’s image was copied by another artist, C.B. Graham, in an 1849 engraving (at top). Among the earliest documentation of the former Mission San Antonio de Valero, the illustration depicts a pitiful ruin shorn of structure above two niches set atop a delicately carved but battle-scarred stone entry. In 1850 the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps rebuilt the Alamo, constructing

a timber roof so the old church could serve as a warehouse. Architect John Fries probably designed the distinctive curved parapet. Surprisingly, the Alamo was not among the many San Antonio buildings documented with measured drawings by the Historic American Building Survey during HABS’ initial work in the 1930s. Marvin Eickenroht, AIA, the local HABS official, had tried unsuccessfully to bring a team on site even though the other missions in San Antonio had been drawn. The obstacle was the Daughters of the Texas Revolution, who were in custody of the Alamo and whose fervid protection of the old mission had successfully countered attempts in the 1920s to tear down the building. Then, in 1961, the Daughters changed their minds and Eickenroht tapped Eugene George, AIA, of Austin for the task. George, who was teaching architecture at the University of Texas (and also editing Texas Architect), selected two of his best students – José Jimenez and James Emmrich – as his crew. The team spent most of that summer taking measurements. From charcoal rubbings George made of the decorative carving on the doorway’s limestone arch, he extrapolated how the trim of the jambs might have appeared two centuries earlier. Shown at left, George’s delineated “invention” of the ivy-incised retable – before the mission towers crumbled, before the fortress was overpowered by attackers and fell, before the Army storehouse was rudely defaced by the quartermaster’s wagon wheels – is among 17 Alamo drawings archived by the Library of Congress in its HABS collection. See HABS images of Mission San Antonio de Valero at


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1849 engraving copyright daughters of the republic of texas library; 1961 Drawing courtesy of library of congress, prints and photographs division, historic american buildings survey, HAbs,tex,15-sant,15-5

by stephen sharpe

Texas Architect May/June 2007: San Antonio