Preservation effort shows Alamo in a new light

The dark splotch on a limestone wall in the Alamo shrine looks like a watermark or the residue left behind by other wear and tear.

But when a conservator took hundreds of shots with a multispectral imaging camera and stitched them together, a picture emerged of what used to be there: a candelabra, colored in with yellow, green and white, painstakingly painted more than 200 years ago as part of a fresco. Once, its twin likely graced the wall several feet away, but now there’s a big chunk of plaster missing.

New discoveries like the painting, which dates from the Spanish colonial period, are coming to light amid a large-scale preservation effort that could shift perceptions about the Alamo by digging further into its past. Much of its history is often overshadowed by the 1836 battle, when defenders at the San Antonio garrison were killed by Mexican troops during the Texas Revolution. The site is also associated with a years-long controversy, in which its caretakers were accused of mismanagement and failing to preserve it. And though the Alamo is a cherished part of the state’s identity, many say its appearance is underwhelming, unreflective of its legendary past.

“People come to the Alamo and say, ‘Is this all it is?’” said Jack Cowan, president of the Alamo Plaza History Project, who has advocated for the restoration of the plaza area around the Alamo, including the removal of a neighboring Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum.

The Alamo has never been studied with such sophistication and thoroughness, and with the first-ever preservation program underway, there’s a chance to bring renewed relevance to it, said Bruce Winders, a historian and curator on its grounds.

“If you want to understand what happened in 1836, you have to understand the earlier period as well,” Winders said. “Now, with demographic shifts, there are people who haven’t seen the 1960s movie and don’t know who John Wayne is. That’s an opportunity, if people are coming here without a preconceived notion of the Alamo. That’s the point where we’ll step in and go, ‘Let us tell you.’”

Originally a Spanish mission, the church housed Texians during the famous siege and was a military depot in the Civil War era, before being maintained as the iconic site that many view as a symbol of Texas pride and liberty. In each of these periods, renovations were made, raising questions about how to preserve a building that’s been cobbled together over the years.

“You have to look at the total history of the church. You can’t take it back to the mission period without destroying what was added in 1836. You can’t take it back to 1836 without destroying what was added in 1850,” Winders said, adding that the current plan is to maintain the building as it is.

Many clues about the building’s history have been obscured or erased over time by accumulating dust and erosion, along with major and minor construction projects. Two stones butting out from opposing walls used to support an arch that swooped over an outdoor patio. Graffiti — “Leonard Groce” and “J.A. Shannon 1850” — was, until recently, hidden by a membrane of grime. Still underneath a layer of plaster is an arch that experts think once formed part of a door.

Over the past few years, the public has brought pressure to make preservation a higher priority at the Alamo. From 2009 to 2012, controversy plagued the site after disagreement broke out among members of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who had been its custodians for more than a century, about how to fund conservation efforts. An 18-month investigation by the Texas attorney general’s office concluded that the Daughters failed to preserve the Alamo, among other findings. The office’s 38-page report said the Daughters never implemented a long-range plan for conservation, allocated insufficient funds to preservation and were slow to address problems with the roof.

The General Land Office now has authority over the Alamo and contracts with the Daughters to operate the site.

This summer, a group of Texas A&M graduate students, led by an architecture professor, began using a laser scanner to record images from the interior and exterior of the Alamo church. Eventually, they’ll create a digital 3-D model that acts as a database for exploring the building’s topography and tracking its deterioration, said Carolina Manrique, a Texas A&M architecture doctoral student who’s working on the project.

“It’s like Google Earth for the inside of the church,” Winders said.

Other experts are scouring the sacristy, a small room inside the church, for evidence that gives a clearer picture of the Spanish colonialists who occupied it in the second half of the 1700s.

Trinity University chemistry professor Michelle Bushey used an X-ray spectrometer to study the faded frescoes on the wall, including a chain of painted pomegranates and flowers that hugs the ceiling. When the U.S. Army took over the church in the 1800s, it might have used whitewash to cover all the decorations, she said.

With the spectrometer, Bushey could shoot X-rays at the frescoes, then capture the energy level of the returning rays to determine what elements were in the pigments.

“One of the pigments from the Spanish colonial era is a vermilion,” Bushey said. “It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t horribly expensive. It tells us a little about the resources they had.”

A green hue was produced by sticking a copper sheet in a vase with animal urine, covering it with dung, and burying it in the ground, said Pam Rosser, conservator at the Alamo. The copper would turn green, and then be mixed with calcium carbonate and milk.

Coloring the designs was just the last step, said Dennis Baltuskonis, who owns an art conservation business with his wife. With a multispectral imaging camera, which has ultraviolet and infrared filters, he could see that some of the designs were probably first outlined on a piece of paper, colored black on one side, that was then placed against the wall. By poking around the edges of the paper, a dotted line would print on the wall, forming a shape that could be blocked in, Baltuskonis said.

Previous preservation initiatives included removing lichen from the front of the church, installing a copper plate in one wall to stop ground moisture from rising up into the limestone, and adding metal to the tops of columns to protect them from rainwater. Many patchwork repairs to the mortar were made in the 1900s.

About $400,000 of a million-dollar grant from the Ewing Halsell Foundation is going toward the current survey of the building. Most of the Alamo’s budget comes from gift shop revenue, about $2.2 million a year that mainly goes toward operating costs, Winders said.

“We’re taking a real good look at where the Alamo is now, and getting good data that can be looked at in the future,” said Mark Loeffler, a General Land Office spokesman.

In the coming months, the Daughters and the General Land Office, which helped draft a plan for preservation initiatives, will review a slate of recommendations for maintaining the church. Those recommendations might include stabilizing stones that are cracked or broken, and replacing the cement mortar, said Ivan Myjer, lead conservator at Building and Monument Conservation, who performed an assessment on the front of the church.

Rosser said her hope is that preservation projects will be ongoing continuously.

To raise funds for the future, the General Land Office organized the Alamo Endowment, which will solicit donations.

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