The DRT and GLO: remember the Alamo?
By LONN TAYLOR
It may have escaped your attention, but the Texas General Land Office has recently taken over the management of the Alamo. It acquired responsibility for the shrine in September of last year, when Senate Bill 1841 became effective. State Senator Leticia Van de Putte, Democrat of San Antonio, authored that bill in response to allegations of financial mismanagement and neglect of the Alamo by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who had been the custodians of the state-owned building since 1905. Van de Putte’s original bill would have placed the historic structure under the oversight of the Texas Historical Commission, which administers twenty other historic structures owned by the state and has a full staff of experienced preservation architects and historians. Her intention was to establish a contractual relationship between the Daughters and the Historical Commission, under which the Daughters would continue the day-to-day management of the building but could call on the resources and expertise of the Historical Commission.
However, Van de Putte’s bill was amended on the floor of the Senate by her Republican colleague, Senator Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, who substituted the General Land Office for the Historical Commission. Wentworth told the San Antonio Express-News that he did not want the Historical Commission to oversee the Alamo because of Governor Rick Perry’s hostility to that agency. “It’s no secret that the governor, because he announced it in his state of the state address, would like to abolish the Historical Commission, so that didn’t seem to be a very apt agency to send it to.” As a result, Texas’s most historic structure is now being administered by an agency that oversees thirteen million acres of state lands and mineral leases and has a certain amount of experience in caring for historic documents and maps but none in caring for historic buildings.
This all came about because of a nasty and very public quarrel among the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. The Daughters did a reasonably competent job of maintaining the building for nearly a century, but eventually its inherent problems started to outrun their resources, and in 2006 they commissioned a master plan for repairs and future preservation and launched a $60 million fundraising program to implement it. They appointed a San Antonio member of the Daughters, Erin Bowman, to chair the campaign, but after she had raised a million dollars the 24-member governing board decided that she was being too aggressive and not involving them enough and fired her. Bowman, in the spirit of the Alamo defenders, refused to surrender and formed her own group, the Friends of the Alamo, which continued to raise funds for the needed repairs. She and two of her allies were then expelled from the Daughters, and in February 2010 one of the expellees went to the state attorney-general’s office with a thick sheaf of documentation concerning the Daughters’ long history of failing to act on the recommendations of engineers and architects who examined the building. Most damning was her allegation that three years after receiving a report that identified leaks and cracks in the building’s roof the Daughters had done nothing about it. Then it developed that, although the Daughters had spent $213,000 from funds received from the sale of “Native Texan” license plates, only $37,000 of that money had gone to the Alamo; the rest had been spent on other projects. That was what induced Van de Putte to introduce her bill.
Now that the bill has become law, Jerry Patterson’s General Land Office seems to be almost as inept a custodian as the Daughters were. Patterson, you will recall, is the Land Commissioner who refused to turn the Christmas Mountains over to the National Park Service unless the Park Service would permit visitors to carry firearms there. The first thing that the Land Office did was not to address the leaking roof but to get into a spat with the Daughters, who still retain the day-to-day management of the Alamo through a contract with the Land Office, over whether or not alcohol could be served in a firehouse across the street from the Alamo that serves as a social hall and meeting place for the Daughters. Patterson, who has a reputation for avoiding circumlocution, justified the move by saying that most of the Alamo defenders were hung over when the battle started. The Daughters vociferously opposed the idea, but the Land Office overruled them. Now the Land Office has gotten into a dispute with a San Antonio bar owner who wants to sell merchandise with the slogan “I Can’t Remember the Alamo” on it, claiming that the slogan “disparages the deceased combatants of the Battle of the Alamo.” The Daughters have not rung in on this one yet, but the roof is still leaking.
This past May the Land Office appointed Steve Oswald, a former financial officer with AT&T and more recently the chief financial officer of a San Antonio charity called Haven for Hope, as director of the Alamo. His responsibilities include fund-raising and overseeing the Daughter’s daily operations. I hope that Oswald’s background includes experience in diplomacy as well as finance, because he may soon find himself in a hotter spot than William Barrett Travis was in when Santa Anna arrived at the Alamo.
The Alamo has always been a flashpoint for Texans. My friend Carmen Perry, a scholarly lady who in 1975 translated a Mexican officer’s diary which said that Davy Crockett was found hiding in the ruins of the Alamo after the battle and was executed along with several other survivors, received letters calling her a Communist after her translation was published. In 2010 San Antonio mayor Julian Castro’s mother, Rosie Castro, told the New York Times Magazine that the heroes of the Alamo were “a bunch of drunks and crooks and slaveholding imperialists who conquered land that didn’t belong to them” and added that she hated the Alamo and everything it stands for. Earlier this month her son told All Things Considered that the Alamo “was the largest tourist attraction in Texas, and tourism is one of San Antonio’s major economic engines.”
In January 1836 Sam Houston, commander-in-chief of the Texas army and a man who knew a death trap when he saw one, ordered James Bowie to blow up the Alamo and abandon San Antonio. Bowie should have followed those orders. If he had, there would be fewer dead Texas heroes and a lot less controversy.
* * * * *
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk