Tourism, Modernity, and Heritage Production At the Alamo

Claudia N. Campeanu, University of Texas at Austin
ABSTRACT - The interest in the Alamo as a place where history becomes visible coincides with the rise in tourism in the area, more specifically in San Antonio. It is during this time that the AlamoCthe placeCbecomes heritage and earns its place in the American culture. The process is mediated by the contemporary discourse of modernity, opposing the historical and the modern, and thus culturally producing both. Tourist guides and brochures, as well as other tourism-related promotional materials from 1880s to late 1930s are examined.
[ to cite ]:
Claudia N. Campeanu (2003) ,"Tourism, Modernity, and Heritage Production At the Alamo", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 357-360.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 357-360

TOURISM, MODERNITY, AND HERITAGE PRODUCTION AT THE ALAMO

Claudia N. Campeanu, University of Texas at Austin

ABSTRACT -

The interest in the Alamo as a place where history becomes visible coincides with the rise in tourism in the area, more specifically in San Antonio. It is during this time that the AlamoCthe placeCbecomes heritage and earns its place in the American culture. The process is mediated by the contemporary discourse of modernity, opposing the historical and the modern, and thus culturally producing both. Tourist guides and brochures, as well as other tourism-related promotional materials from 1880s to late 1930s are examined.

Heritage is imagined, culturally produced. It gives the illusion of recovery, of discoveryCwithout interpretationCof something that has existed in the past and now is made available to the public. It is surrounded by a discourse of preservation and conservation that reinforces its "found" quality. What is remarkable about heritage, however, is its power of working in the present in a way that has recourse to the past, in a way that interprets the past into something that we learn to understand as "history." It creates a special relationship not only between people and the heritage object, and in this paper I will focus on place, but also between people and history, it offers them a way to understand themselves as well as other people. Kirshenblat-Gimblett (1998) calls heritage a "value-added industry," and she suggests that heritage is produced by adding value to a place: the value of having a past (and she cites L. P. Hartley [L. P. Hartley (1953). The Go-Between, London: H. Hamilton] "The past is a foreign country"), the value of exhibition (of making it visible, of showing it), and the value of difference (from other places). Thus, the place becomes more than heritageCit becomes a destination, and from here the role of tourismCas "commodification and commercialization of local history, culture, ethnicity" (Wilson, 1994: viii)Cin producing heritage by offering it for consumption shouldn=t be hard to see.

The Alamo mission, located in San Antonio, Texas, is now considered heritage, but it had to be first culturally produced as such. Its journey in the public consciousness, fifty years after the siege, from commercial property and warehouse to "shrine of Texas liberty" is the focus of this paper. In mapping this journey, I will relate tourist promotional materials from 1880s to 1930s to their social, cultural, and historical context, and show how this context made the journey possible.

As most Americans are aware, the siege of the Alamo on March 6th, 1836 was crucial to Texas’ winning its independence from Mexico. It was not the decisive battle, but it became the most famous. Close to 200 menCalmost everybody in the fortCdied fighting a much larger Mexican army, which won the battle but later lost the war. The event’s interpretation has been at the heart of many controversies, some of them centered on gender and ethnicity, as well as ownership over writing the U.S. history (Flores, 1998).

After the siege, the chapel as well as the annexes were used by the army, then reclaimed and won back by the Catholic Church in 1861. The church rented out the property to the army and several commercial companies, and later sold everything but the chapel. The army and the commercial renters (later owners) kept some of the buildings intact, remodeled some (this is when the chapel earned its famous bell-shaped facade), demolished and built some from scratch. The largest building, the Long Barrack, was built in 1871, after the demolition of all buildings but the chapel (Nelson, 1997).

In 1883, the State of Texas bought the chapel from the Catholic Church. In the following years, the plaza in front of it was remodeled, paved, and lined with trees and shops. 1893 brought in a fight over the fate of the mission, a fight that would last for the next twenty years and make the front page of the local newspapers almost everyday. The state, the City, the public, two chapters of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (the current custodians of the mission), and some investors could not agree on the Alamo’s development and preservation philosophy. The local investors, parts of the public, and the city officials saw the site in the context of a growing, modern town. Any efforts at the Alamo had to be in line with the systematization and sanitization of San Antonio, and be able to attract, and not turn off, visitors. Parks, a monument, a hotel, and even a vaudeville theater were wanted to replace the barracks and slums around the chapel. One angry reader even wrote a letter to The San Antonio Express in 1908 (March 3) naming the Alamo annexes "an eyesore and a disgrace to the city."

The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, on the other hand, were concerned with issues of authenticity, hoping to reconstruct the mission and bring it as close to its original shape as possible. They were descendants of those who fought in the war for the Texas independence, and most of them could claim ties to those that died in the Alamo siege. Preservation and authenticity at the Alamo were therefore political issues: "Those who control identities born at the Alamo receive ancestral ties to the past, ownership ties to the present, and, if calls to 'Remember the Alamo’ remain intact, inheritance right to the future" (Brear, 1995: 3).

The apparent clash between the two sides was reconciled by interpreting authenticity in the context and as a response to the modernization and development of the city. What we see today at the Alamo is the result of the restoration efforts of the 1920s and 1930s and mimics a romanticized version of how the Alamo might have looked in 1836. In late 1930s, after a surge of funds from the state as well as some private donors (following the centennial anniversary of the siege) a library and a museum were built in the perimeter of the mission, and the wooden roof of the chapel was torn down and completely rebuilt in stone.

The 1880s marked a change in the history of the AlamoCthe place. The nature and the intensity of its public interest came to be modeled after a new aesthetic, anchored in the larger contemporary discourse of modernity and mediated by tourism. From the neglect and physical exploitation before the 1880s, the Alamo moved to becoming heritage, a place in which historyCas interpretation of the pastCbecomes visible and open to consumption.

Why that moment and why that change?

Alamo was visited in the years after the siege, and represented in paintings, illustrations, and photographs. The first photograph to be taken in Texas is an 1841 daguerreotype of the Alamo, now in the custody of the Center for American History in Austin, Texas. In the early 1840s, visitors could choose from paid guided tours at the Alamo mission, as well as buy souvenirs made out of stone from the "true walls" of the fortress (Schoelwer, 1985). In 1842 some entrepreneurs built a monument from stone from the Alamo and unsuccessfully tried to sell it to the Texas government. A few years later they took the monuments on exhibition tours charging 25 cents per person (Nelson, 1997; Schoelwer, 1985). Strangely, it wasn=t until the late 1880s that Alamo was historically recognized as a memorial and focused the public’s interest on a mass scale (Flores, 1998). This periodClate 1800sCcoincides with a revival in tourism at the Alamo, made possible by the State’s custody over the mission. In 1896, the municipality was paying a custodian to "protect the building from mischievous or vandal hands and to show visitors through it, explaining the many points of interest." [The San Antonio Express, February 27, 1896] There was no charge for visiting the site. Later, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the new custodians, started charging 25 cents, but discontinued the fee after a while. They developed the site further, but adding some new historically looking walls as well as exhibits about the Texas’ history, not only about the Alamo’s. In the 1930, Alamo gained a library and a museum, and today has even an IMAX theater.

Tourism at the Alamo was also sustained by tourism in San Antonio, a popular winter resort at that time. The newspapers and the brochures called San Antonio "the sunny Italy of America," [The San Antonio Express, February 16, 1908] "the great tourist resort of America," [The Beautiful San Antonio, Texas, San Antonio Printing Co., 1907] and "the winter playground of America." [Sunny San Antonio: The Winter Playground of American, Chamber of Commerce, ca. 1930] The resort kept thousands of tourists busy for the winter monthsCfrom October through AprilCwith shopping, socializing, sightseeing, and sporting, and the tourist guides and brochures assured them that those that had visited the city in the past had done so for the mild climate, as well.

The attractionsCas presented by the tourist promotional materialsCwere mainly pieces of architecture, rhetorically organized both visually and textually around the new/modern and old/pre-modern opposition. San Antonio was "a modern, yet picture-squallingCinteresting, historically enthralling, yet up-to-date city," [The Power of Pictures: A Prospectus for Visitor, Tourists, and Investors, by E. A. Luck, Director of Publicity, San Antonio, The Higher Publicity League of Texas, 1916] with modern urban architecture as well as colonial Spanish missions and villas. The Post Office, the Federal Courthouse, the City Hall, and the HospitalCall built at the end of the nineteenth centuryCwere all nicely laid on the systematized and sanitized streets (one brochure said "San Antonio, the healthiest city" [The Power of Pictures: A Prospectus for Visitor, Tourists, and Investors, by E. A. Luck, Director of Publicity, San Antonio, The Higher Publicity League of Texas, 1916]), next to the public parks and plazas. A letter from a reader to a local newspaper speaks of the desire to see San Antonio in line with other great American cities (and Denver is given as an example) and the slums in certain districts disappear. That is, at least partly, the slums around the Alamo, as controversies in the local newspapers (The San Antonio Express and The San Antonio Light) showed. The city was to become a showcase for the triumph of modernityCASan Antonio, the commercial and industrial center of the Southwest" [The Beautiful San Antonio, Texas, San Antonio Printing Co., 1907]Cin line with the ideals of the rest of the country.

The colonial architectureCalthough in much worse physical shape than the new buildingsCwas not ignored at all. Most of the missions in and around San Antonio were prominently featured, with Alamo in the spotlight. Up until the 1910s, the brochures would include not only pictures of the Alamo, but also detailed and vivid textual descriptions of the siege and its legends, sometimes on as many as four pages. Of course, the publishing styles of the time were dense in text and rich in illustrations, amazed at the recent advances in printing technology that made photographic reproduction possible and printing cheaper. But, this also suggests that the period was a time of intense cultural production, when loose meanings and possible interpretations could be channeled towards dominant themes, favored by the larger historical context. As the time moved by, the references to the Alamo tended to become more and more iconographic. In the 1920s and 1930s, often times no information was offered about the siege or the history of the mission, just one very recognizable picture. The image that came to be known as "the shot"Cthe bell-shaped facadeCappeared in every brochure, usually on the cover or the first page, sometimes even without a caption. This hints at the Alamo’s equity and place in the popular culture during the century that followed, the name being used for everything from movies to auto body shop ads (Schoelwer, 1985).

The information that was presented as well as its rhetoric were not necessarily intentional neither isolated in the American cultural landscape of the time, beginning with the 1880s. San Antonio was being positioned, through tourism and its texts, within the larger American nation and its contemporary search for identity. TourismCby linking and relating remote places in the people’s consciousness and on the imaginary map of a nascent nationCwas crucial to this process.

Earlier tourism in the United States, and here I am referring to the first half of the nineteenth century, tended to reflectCin style and destinationsCEuropean tastes of the time, mostly paralleling the role of English landscape in painting and literature. New England and Connecticut seemed to be the preferred destinations (Brown, 1995; Sears, 1989). Mid 1800s and a new focus on the frontier in economy and politics brought to attention the majestic nature of the continent, very different from that in Europe and on the East Coast. Everything was at a much larger scaleCthe giant trees, the giant mountains, the giant waterfallsCand many tourists from the East came to admire them. It was more than just discovery, it was purposeful visits to well-established destinations, organized into packaged tours by touring companies (Sears, 1989). As we move towards the end of the century, tourism became closer and closer linked to "America’s invention of itself as culture" (Sears, 1989: 4), to a search for what set United States apart from the rest of the world (mostly from Europe), for a way to shape its national character (Schaffer, 2001):

Educated Americans desperately wished to meet European standards of culture and, at the same time, to develop a distinctive national image. Tourist attractions are a feature of all modern societies. But because of America’s relationship to Europe and to its own past, because its cultural identity was not given by tradition but had to be created, tourist attractions have played an especially important role in America.  (Sears, 1989: 4)

At the same time, and marking in writing the thinking of the time, Frederick Jackson Turner was proposing "American exceptionalism" as a way to think about the U.S. Driven by the move towards the West, pushing the frontier, America was different, distinctive, it was gaining its own character. U.S. was no longer an attachmentClooked down toCof the Old World, it was now a power, an economic and cultural one (Turner, 1986). It was the end of the nineteenth century, from 1870s on, when the world witnessed a switch in economic and political domination. United States became the leader not only in technological innovation, but also in industrial production. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago heralded this new era in world relations and gave the U.S. the impetus to lead the rest of the world into what became to be known as the Progressive Era, as well as legitimized its ideology (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1998). U.S. came to be known as an urban-industrial nation-state (Schaffer, 2001).

Both as ideology and direct causes, industrialization, technical progress, modernization replaced the fascination with the gigantic American version of nature in defining the American character. Tourism overallCin number of visitors and spendingCgrew in the years that followed, fueled mainly by an exploding network of roads and railways, growing income and leisure time among certain segments of the population (Wilson, 1994). Also, starting with the 1880s, more and more tourists moved their attention to the great, modern American cities, very different in character and look from the urban destinations of Europe. Tourism in San Antonio was part of this movement, called urban tourism, or "doing the town," (Cocks, 2001), a form of tourism that focused the visitors’ attention to pieces of modern urban architecture, wonders of technology and modernizing thought: public buildings, hotels, plazas, boulevards, and monuments.

If tourism is part of the "process of self inscription, indigenous self-documentation, and endlessly reflexive stimulation" (Dorst, 1989: 24) that the culture of capitalism has known since its beginning, then tourism was for San Antonio a way to define its character and its place in the nation. Through tourism, San Antonio was taking part in this process, of building a modern nation, and it made sense to promote itself within a system of meaning that was dominant at that time. By understanding the present-time San Antonio as modern, the local was transcended, and reconstructed as national commodity (Cocks, 2001).

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the discourse of modernity took over the way the city was presented to its visitorsCboth tourists and possible investors. The focus was on progress as a desirable and inevitable trajectory from pre-modern to modern. The present was placed in the perspective of history, understood as a moment in history, qualitatively different from other moments, and similar to the "present" of the nation. This interpretation of the time and its traces were signified, made visible, in elements of the urban environment, with the colonial architecture of the 1600s and 1700s as the origin and the modern buildings and streets of the late 1800s as the peak of civilization. As one brochure put it: "the visitors enjoy the Alamo and the Missions, beautiful in their ruins, telling of the days of the Empire-making two centuries ago, when the cross and the sword went together into the wilderness to bring civilization to the savage race." [The Power of Pictures: A Prospectus for Visitors, Tourists, and Investors, by E. A. Luck, Director of Publicity, San Antonio, The Higher Publicity League of Texas, 1916] By placing the two periods on the interpreted continuum of history, the difference in time was transformed in evolution, also interpreting people: "Anglo men represent the most productive, cultured inhabitants of the region, coming at the end of an evolution that began with Native Americans and was followed by Spaniards and Mexicans" (Brear, 2000: 302). Some of the contemporary political controversies of the areaCin terms of history and ethnicityChave their roots in explaining San Antonio and its past in those terms (Brear, 1995).

Identity is not about some authentic essence, it is a discursive, positional activity, of identifying with or in opposition to (Hall, 1996). People could understand "modern" or themselves/the city as modern only in opposition to what was "not modern." This opposition was being reiterated throughout the tourist brochures about San Antonio by references to the styles of the buildings and employing an aesthetic that valued the products of technology and rationality, and appreciated the older architecture only as it offered a clear opposition to the modern one. In the case of the Alamo, the pastCmerely a few decades awayCwas pushed into a mythical time, legitimizing the present as substantially different from it: "Thermopylae Had Its Messenger; the Alamo Had None" was the caption under an Alamo picture.10 It also legitimized its past and its collective memory, as "the touristic journey must be morally justified by the home community" (Graburn, 1989: 28). In the same time, the past and the present were brought together, for comparison, into a realm that was accessible to people, and were translated into a language in which everybody was literate: the visual. People could look at both past and presentCembodied in and understood as human creationCand see, realize the relationship between the two as well as to themselves as historical subjects.

In the years that followed the 1880s, the Alamo became heritage, a treasured reminiscence of a moment or event in the past, materialized in the ruins that acted as evidence. Made possible by the cultural context of the time, as well as by the City’s active involvement, the Alamo moved from being a warehouse to a historical site. Tourism was instrumental: the ritualized, repeated visits to what had been officially declared a shrine transformed not only Alamo’s meaning, but also people’s relationship to it and the event it tried to represent.

It is important to understand that Alamo is not heritage in general, or outside particular ideologies or interpretations of the past. It is heritage because it selectively forecloses one moment and one interpretation, out of the many possible (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1998), by operating within a discourse that explains the world to the general public:

The reconstruction of the past, and the reinterpretation of the present are not confined to a museum or monument setting. Public culture is constructed on many different levels, including tourism, but its common denominator is that it stands as a series of texts that can be read by the general public. Each of these texts has qualities peculiar unto itself, yet all share a set of assumptions about the world. (Norkunas, 1993: 7-8)

Being shared, these assumptions become invisible, and therefore mostly unquestioned. In the case of the Alamo, they were also reinforced by a rhetoric of preservation, of salvaging the remains of history for the generations to come (Brear, 1995).

Alamo became heritage in a very special historical context, at a time when the production of national identity was intense and it provided the terms and the logic for interpreting the world, creating an understanding that reflected itself on the past. It became heritage by "being caught in a tourist gaze that organized its meaning in time and space," and that it could not escape at that time without abandoning its status as a destination (Hall, 1994).

Consumption is a way of relating people and the objects of their consumption, mobilizing, at various levels, meanings and understanding of place, time, and people. Meaning in consumption is not only a dialectic of expectations and performance, but also a continuous relationship with the larger historical and social context. I am hoping that this paper not only made that apparent, but also encouraged in you, as reader, a sensibility that will attend to the contexts and processes that make objects of consumption earn the place they do in our culture.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Schoelwer, S.P. (ed.) (1985). Alamo Images: Changing Perceptions of a Texas Experience, DeGolyer Library and Southern Methodist University Press: Dallas, TX

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