When I was a young girl, my parents and I used to go to San Antonio every summer so my father, a doctor, could attend a lecture series that occurred in early June. This meant that my mother and I would get about two whole days to ourselves to do whatever we wanted (which meant whatever she wanted). We would stay at a hotel on or near the River Walk and go from there. I remember the summer my mother took me to the Alamo for the first time. I was so excited because, at the time, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was one of my favorite movies and I wanted to make sure that there really wasn’t a basement in the Alamo where they were hiding Pee-wee’s bicycle. Of course, I didn’t ask any of the tour guides, but I was sure it was there. I remember thinking that it was cool to set foot in a place I had seen in a movie—I could tell all my friends. Almost eleven years later, I recalled little about my visit and decided that I would take a road trip and refresh my memory. It took me a couple of months to follow through with my plan, but I finally made a commitment and dragged one of my friends along (my mother made me take a friend; still doing it her way).
Misión San Antonio de Valero was founded in 1718 by Franciscan missionaries, but construction on the present day Alamo was not begun until 1744. The mission was commandeered and used as a military post in 1803, and a company of troops from El Alamo de Parras are believed to have inspired its name. In 1841, five years after the Battle of the Alamo, the mission was declared to be the property of the Catholic Church. It was leased by the U.S. Army in 1846 for use as the Quartermaster’s Depot. In 1850 the Army completed construction on a wood-pitched roof for the long-roofless church and added the most recognizable characteristic, the campanulate, or bell-shaped parapet. It was not until 1920 that the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT), which has cared for and preserved the Alamo since 1905, commissioned E. Palmer Giles to construct the present curved roof. In 1960 the Alamo was named a National Historic Landmark, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
Presently, the Alamo complex is made up of several buildings. The plaza was directly in front of the main building (the church), and off to the side was the site of the low barrack. During the battle, the area between the southwest corner of the church and the low barrack was an open space that was fortified by a wooden palisade, which was protected by cannons. In place of this long-ago destroyed structure is a distinct diagonal pattern in the stone walkway that runs to the corner of the grassy area, which was once the low barrack. The main building is known as the shrine and houses various artifacts including paintings of scenes from the battle, personal items such as a lock of Davy Crockett’s hair and book of poetry belonging to William Travis, and a model of the Alamo as it appeared in the prebattle years. In 2000, before the reopening of the Sacristy—the room in which the women and children of the Alamo took cover during the battle—a series of frescoes were discovered on three of the room’s walls. The frescoes were stabilized by a local restoration firm, but are still very faint and easy to miss. The volunteer docents are more than happy to point them out if you ask. To the northwest of the shrine is the Long Barrack Museum, which houses additional artifacts, including Santa Anna’s traveling cot and an exhibit about the Alamo and its use as a military hospital. To the north of the shrine is a modern building that houses even more artifacts and a gift shop. One of the most dramatic exhibits in this building is a large diorama depiction of the Battle of the Alamo, constructed by Thomas F. Feely Jr. The model is replete with exquisite detail including tiny Mexican and Texan soldiers, trees, guns, cannons, and even smoke made from cotton. To the south of the shrine is the DRT Library, which is used for research purposes. One of the newer structures is a small outdoor amphitheater, in which talks are given, in good weather, by guides. These informal lectures are also held in the outdoor courtyard adjacent to the shrine and inside the shrine itself, usually every thirty minutes or so. The Alamo is open for visitors every day of the year, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, from 9 to 5:30 Monday through Saturday, and from 10 to 5:30 on Sunday. The Alamo receives anywhere from 2.5 million to 3 million visitors per year; July being the busiest month with about 325,000 visitors, and January being the slowest with about 130,000. Also of interest to tourists is the Wall of History, which is dedicated to all the former custodians of the Alamo. This wall includes the Alamo’s history from 1716 to the present. A 48-minute IMAX movie can also be seen at the adjacent Rivercenter Mall.
If you have only seen the Alamo as a child, or if it has simply been a while, take another look at this historic place and you will discover things you may have not known or noticed before. Be sure to ask lots of questions, as the volunteers are so very willing and pleased to help. Except, of course, that one question that everyone longs to ask: Is there a basement in the Alamo? There isn’t. I know. I asked.