San Antonio’s iconic Alamo Plaza is located at the center of the city and includes the Alamo Chapel and complex, open/public use space formerly part of the courtyard of the Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), and the commercial resources that developed around the plaza during the late nineteenth and twentieth century. The plaza’s history and the development of its built environment is in many ways reflective of the evolution of San Antonio itself as it transformed from a religious area associated with a Spanish mission during the eighteenth century to a military headquarters during the early nineteenth century and then finally to an area dedicated to transportation, commerce, and recreation during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The plaza and its associated resources are currently listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a City of San Antonio local historic district.
The Mission San Antonio Valero was originally founded in 1718 and moved to its final location in the current plaza by 1724, and the north end of Alamo Plaza includes buildings associated with the mission and its former courtyard. The mission was secularized in 1793, and the facility took on a military role in the following decades. Spanish soldiers used the grounds as barracks in 1803. A decade later it became a central focus in the Texian and Tejano fight for Mexican independence from Spain and the site of a mass execution of 800 Mexican rebels known as a la noche triste. In 1835 and 1836, the area played an integral part in the Texas Revolution, first as a Mexican stronghold and then as the site of the Battle of the Alamo.
In intervening years, life was difficult in San Antonio as Texas remained in a state of war during the Texas Republic Era. During this period, the abandoned Alamo complex, which was virtually destroyed during the Mexican siege of 1836, and the associated plaza became a primarily residential area. The occupants either used the remnants of the Alamo buildings as shelter or constructed their own jacales or adobe dwellings along the plaza’s perimeter. Development remained limited and primarily residential until Texas’s annexation by the United States in 1845 (William and Landon 1976; Alamo Plaza Study Committee 1994).
Beginning in 1848 until the Civil War, the United States government took control of the Alamo complex and used it as a quartermaster’s headquarters. It resumed this function after the Confederate surrender until 1876. During this period, the government undertook restoration and reconstruction of the facility, including construction of the iconic parapet on the Alamo Chapel. At the same time, land use around the surrounding plaza slowly shifted from residential to commercial and transportation-related. The impetus for development during this period was the construction of the Menger Hotel and brewery in the late 1850s. During the same period, major stagecoach lines constructed terminals on the plaza, and it was later served by the city’s first street railway system (William and Landon 1976; Alamo Plaza Study Committee 1994).
After the arrival of the railroad in San Antonio during the 1870s and 1880s, the plaza transformed again, taking on a more commercial function. In 1871, the city purchased the old granary building associated with the Alamo complex from the Roman Catholic Church.
As a condition of the purchase, the city had to agree to use the surrounding lands as a public plaza. Shortly thereafter, the city demolished the granary and combined the mission courtyard with the existing plaza to create the modern dimensions of Alamo Plaza (William and Landon 1976; Alamo Plaza Study Committee 1994).
During the early 1870s, it remained an undeveloped area that turned into a mud trap during rainy periods. In 1888, the mayor of San Antonio authorized improvements to the plaza including paving the perimeter with mesquite blocks, planting of a garden, and installation of iron benches. Two years later, a local businessman sponsored the construction of a bandstand in the plaza, and leading business firms began to establish storefronts in the area. Most of the existing buildings within the Alamo Plaza Historic District were erected during this period of the plaza’s development (William and Landon 1976; Alamo Plaza Study Committee 1994).
At the same time as commercial development flourished in the plaza, it was also becoming a center for social and cultural life. The Menger Hotel remained a popular tourist destination and meeting place for local socialites during the period. Other important recreational resources included the Turn Verein Building, which housed a German athletic and social organization, and the former Grand Opera House, constructed in the plaza in 1886 (William and Landon 1976; Alamo Plaza Study Committee 1994).
Significant resources in Alamo Plaza visible from the Mission Trails hike-and-bike trail alignment include the eighteenth century Alamo complex and associated foundation remnants of the former Indian quarters and a number of nineteenth century commercial properties including the Menger Hotel (1859 with more recent additions), the Dreiss, Thompson & Co. building (1872), the Crockett Block Building (1882), the Dullnig Building (1883), the Wolff & Marks/Joske’s Building (1888), the Vance Building (1890s with circa 1920s alterations), the Reuter Building (1891), the Mayer Diaz Building (1890s), and Joske’s Department Store (originally constructed in 1888 and dramatically altered in 1909, 1939 and 1953). The district also includes several twentieth century commercial properties including the Medical Arts Building (1926), the Woolworth Building (1920s), and the Kirkpatrick Building (1900) as well as resources constructed under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression including the Hipolito F. Garcia Post Office and Federal building (1937) and the Alamo Cenotaph Maker (dedicated in 1940) (Cruse 1986; Watson n.d.).
For more information on the specific resources within the district and their history see the City of San Antonio’s website on the history of Alamo Plaza. The San Antonio Conservation Society also has information about the district on their website in the form of the Texas Star Trail Downtown San Antonio Walking Tour and general information about the district is available on the National Park Service website. A table listing all of the resources within the National Register of Historic Places-listed district is included below.