SAN ANTONIO — Amid the shifting pieces and changing stories at George P. Bush’s “Reimagined” Alamo project, none is more controversial than the fate of the Cenotaph monument.
Bush — whose General Land Office is orchestrating a $450 million makeover of the world-famous battle site — assured a Senate committee in November that the Cenotaph “will always be on the grounds of the Alamo.”
But just months earlier, the Land Commissioner suggested that the 60-foot-tall granite and marble edifice, erected in 1939, could be moved blocks away from the Alamo.
Bush made that suggestion to the San Antonio City Council, which endorsed the plan in principle.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg is on record supporting a move, though it’s not clear where.
Preservation groups, as well as fellow Republicans challenging Bush in the upcoming March primary, say removing the Cenotaph is a needless expense that epitomizes the overreach of the “Reimagined” Alamo plan.
“There have been no studies and no guarantees the Cenotaph could be moved without tearing it to pieces,” said Rick Range, a North Texas historian running against Bush.
Bush says plans for the Alamo, including relocating the Cenotaph, have been the subject of 166 “stakeholder meetings.” Public reaction to moving the Cenotaph has been mixed, at best.
Still, Bush and the city appear determined to move the monument, a gift from the federal government to commemorate the centennial of the 1836 Alamo siege.
He has vowed to “retake the battlefield” with expansive plans to remake the space in front of the downtown shrine. Across Alamo Street, Bush’s GLO purchased three buildings for $14 million. Rooftop bars and restaurants are on the drawing boards there.
Meantime, Bush’s vision, in part driven by out-of-state consultants on lucrative contracts, continues to get pushback.
“If you look at the Alamo Master Plan, there is plenty of room for the Cenotaph to stand. No one can deny that the defenders of the Alamo died on the battlefield. This is precisely why the empty tomb should stand where it is — to honor the Alamo defenders,” wrote Sonja Harris.
Highlighting rising internal party challenges to Bush, Harris voiced her objections at TexasGOPVote.com.
Carlton Soules, a Republican former San Antonio city councilman and candidate to fill House Speaker Joe Straus’ House seat, said Nirenberg hasn’t inspired confidence that he understands or appreciates the Cenotaph as a historic Texas icon.
“The verbiage has been all wrong. It’s like ‘Just move this pile of rocks so no one can see it.’ It seems like they just don’t want it, like it’s an afterthought,” Soules said.
When it comes to the Alamo, Bush is closely aligned to Nirenberg and Democrats on the San Antonio City Council.
The city holds title to the Cenotaph and is responsible for its “maintenance, repair and preservation.” Per a 1937 agreement with the federal government, San Antonio is obligated to maintain the structure as “a memorial in honor of the Heroes of the Alamo.”
The 1937 agreement also stipulates: “The property shall be used only for the purpose for which it was intended.”
Lee Spencer White, founder and president of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association, says, “That deed restriction means the Cenotaph cannot be moved. The question is, who has standing to enforce it? Who protects the citizens? Who protects the site?”
City-state collaboration, like the public-private partners Bush has tapped for fund-raising, could prove problematic for the Land Commissioner.
Since Nirenberg was elected mayor last year, two unrelated quasi-governmental operations have bogged down in a mire of corruption and incompetence.
After hiring a bookkeeper convicted of felony bank fraud, the city’s downtown Centro development agency was bilked out of $260,000.
Meantime, allegations of cronyism and disarray at the downtown-focused Tricentennial Commission prompted Nirenberg to call for a comprehensive ethics review of city agreements with private agencies and nonprofits.
As for Nirenberg himself, the mayor recently spent $18,000 on new curtains for his City Hall office.
While debate over the Cenotaph simmers, confusion remains over whether Bush or Nirenberg is the ultimate decider.
Ash Wright, Bush’s political director, says Nirenberg and Bush’s GLO have equal veto power over what master plan is chosen. Wright said of four master plans under consideration, only one does not remove the Cenotaph.
Becky Dinnin, executive director of the Remember the Alamo Foundation, said three locations are currently in the running:
- South of the battlefield in front of the Menger Hotel.
- Another block farther south where the Red Torch of Friendship metal sculpture stands at Alamo and Commerce Street.
- South and east between Commerce and Market streets, site of one of the funeral pyres of Alamo dead.
While Bush needs the city’s cooperation to close Alamo Street to vehicular traffic, the city appears eager to take the lead on moving the Cenotaph.
If Bush is deflecting some of the Cenotaph heat to the city, the Land Commissioner got into more hot water with a dismissive comment about the Alamo, which annually attracts some 3 million visitors from around the world.
On his political website, Bush declared, “The Alamo has been consistently listed as one of the most disappointing landmarks in our nation.”
Politifact noted that the Alamo is the state’s most Instagrammed tourist site, far outpacing the Johnson Space Center. Giving Bush the benefit of the doubt, Politifact rated his assertion as “half true.”
With the March 6 primary election approaching, Texans await what will ultimately happen to the Cenotaph.
Kenric Ward can be reached at [email protected]