LIFESTYLE

Remember the Alamo? Emergency repairs hope to reverse centuries of damage

Centuries of rainfall and punishing Texas sunshine are slowly doing what cannon fire and barrages of Mexican bullets couldn't back in 1836 — disintegrating the Alamo.

That's why the shrine is undergoing $5 million in emergency repairs, part of a sweeping, state Legislature-approved $31.5 million makeover that may be one of the site's most ambitious since Davy Crockett's day.

San Antonio, the state's General Land Office and corporate interests are creating a master plan they hope will be ready next year. It will provide a road map for restoration of the Alamo and a face-lift for the surrounding grounds crammed into America's seventh-largest city's downtown.

An additional $17 million in future promised municipal funds will eventually push the total cost to nearly $50 million. Already, the state is buying three historical buildings across the street from the Alamo that now house such attractions as Ripley's Haunted Adventure but could one day contain a museum and expanded plaza.

While future plans are being readied, two experts have spent more than six hours a day for the past month perched atop a crane, studying crumbling areas of the Alamo church's mold-dotted facade. In places where deterioration is especially bad, they carefully created stone replicas and jigsawed those into place using crushed limestone mortar consistent with construction materials available when the Alamo was first built in the 18th century.

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"We don't want to lose details while we're sitting around talking about what to do next," said Ivan Myjer, a suburban Boston-based stone conservator who has helped restore historical sites around the world.

Myjer and master stone mason Miroslav Maler use materials as close to the originals as possible because previous restorations relied on newer materials that sometimes produced unwanted results. In the 1930s, the Alamo church's facade was repaired using a concrete mortar that eventually gave off a pinkish hue — rather than its original gray-white color. The Colonial Revival-style bars that adorn the windows of the church, meanwhile, are not original and were likely added around the 1940s — but removing them now could harm the surrounding stone.

The experts also uncovered a hole measuring about 2 feet on the church's south facade. Myjer said he believes Spanish and Indian masons created it while building the Alamo to help anchor temporary scaffolding. Nearby, there's something far less historical: a drainage pipe inserted into the stone to accommodate an early air conditioning system.

The Alamo is the best known of five Spanish missions established by the Franciscans. It was first built as Mission San Antonio de Valero in 1718 and was moved to its present location six years later.

The original plans included a church with a three-story facade, but the roof was never completed before the famous battle on March 6, 1836, when Mexican troops lay siege to around 180 Texas defenders. The site later served as a military garrison for Confederate and U.S. Army troops, who built the first permanent roof.

Alamo Director Becky Dinnin said at least two major master plans for restoration commissioned since the 1970s stalled.

"This is an opportunity where everything is coming together in a way that's not happened before," Dinnin said.

Last fall, George P. Bush, whose father, Jeb, is running for president, was elected land commissioner. In March, the state assumed Alamo operations and ended its contract with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, which saved the Alamo from being torn down in 1905 and managed it for more than a century.

Granted UNESCO World Heritage status this summer, the Alamo attracts more than 2.5 million visitors annually. Dinnin said the average time a visitor spends inside is eight minutes, with some underwhelmed by its buildings.

"There are so many people who feel so close to this place, they've actually kind of loved it to death over the years," said Gene Powell, a prominent developer serving on a special endowment board Bush created to raise money for Alamo restoration. Powell said past differences on how to best present the Alamo and its history hindered earlier revitalization efforts.

Adding urgency this time is the need to build a museum for 200-plus Alamo artifacts that pop music star and frontier history buff Phil Collins' donated to Texas from his personal collection last year. Collins has said he wants to see progress on that project by 2021.

"I think people are pretty eager to see that collection," said Kim Barker, the General Land Office's Alamo project manager. "My parents are here, visiting from the Midwest. Even they asked about it."

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