ANOTHER ASTOUNDING LATINA FROM SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
ADINA DE ZAVALA AND THE SECOND SIEGE OF THE ALAMO
by Scott Zesch
During the dreary winter hours of February 11, 1908, the people of San Antonio, Texas, were chattering in shops and barrooms about a startling headline in a local daily, the Light: "Miss Adina De Zavala Enacts Siege of the Alamo Over Again and Defies Deputy Sheriff." The previous evening, the most vocal historic preservationist in the American Southwest had barricaded herself inside the famous Spanish mission to protect it from commercial exploitation.(Figure 1) Over the next three days, the diminutive woman single-handedly holding the Alamo made the front pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Atlanta Constitution. Americans from every region of the country applauded her fortitude. Her standoff ensured that the Alamo's convento de monjes (monastery)—believed to be the oldest surviving building in San Antonio today—would not disappear quickly or quietly. (1)
Figure 1. This portrait of Adina De Zavala appeared in 1908 on the cover of the sheet music for "Remember the Alamo" by Jessie Beattie Thomas. (Courtesy of the University of the Incarnate Word.)
A century later, this remarkable episode is largely forgotten, even in preservation circles. For American conservationists, however, it was a seminal event. Adina De Zavala's seizure of the Alamo was one of the first nationally publicized acts of civil disobedience in the cause of historic preservation, the grandmother of every lying-down-in-front-of-a-bulldozer incident that has made news since. Overnight, De Zavala became the darling of the national press, and her fellow preservationists across the country learned a critical lesson about using publicity in support of the cause. A New York Times editorial celebrated her for "heroically reviving memories" of the Alamo siege of 1836.(2) John B. Adams, a descendant of former President John Quincy Adams, sent her a telegram that read: "Win or lose, we congratulate you upon your splendid patriotism and courage. We are proud of you. Texas should be."(3)
This 3-day spectacle was actually 15 years in the making. In 1893, De Zavala had founded the San Antonio chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT), a statewide women's lineage society that was dedicated, among other things, to preserving historic sites. De Zavala summed up her lifelong preservation philosophy when she wrote that "true progress and culture remembers the past and profits by the memory."(4) She elaborated to one interviewer—
If people—especially children—can actually see the door through which some noble man or woman passed, or some object he or she touched, they'll be impressed, they'll remember, they'll be inspired to read everything they can find in print about that man or woman. Inevitably they'll be filled with high ideals, the desire to emulate.(5)
Historian L. Robert Ables describes the fiery San Antonio preservationist as a small woman, about five feet three inches tall, with soft brown hair and blue eyes.(6) Born in 1861 of Mexican and Irish ancestry, De Zavala was considered Texas royalty. Her grandfather, the accomplished Mexican statesman and writer Lorenzo De Zavala, had cast his lot with the Texas independence movement and served as the first vice president of the Republic of Texas.(7)
The principal object of De Zavala's early preservation crusade was one of the last, endangered vestiges of the state's most revered historic site, the Alamo. Originally called San Antonio de Valero, the Spanish mission was founded by Franciscans in 1718 to christianize Native Americans. Its compound once occupied about three acres in what is now downtown San Antonio. After the Catholic Church secularized the mission in 1793, it was used as a military garrison. The property became better known as El Álamo (cottonwood) after a Spanish cavalry unit from Álamo de Parras, Mexico, occupied it in 1803. In 1836, the fortress was the scene of the most memorable siege and battle of the Texas Revolution, during which Mexican forces commanded by General Antonio López de Santa Anna felled all of the Texan combatants.
The United States Army later took over the deteriorating property for use as a quartermaster's depot. The Army started making repairs in 1847 and added the trademark bell-shaped parapet to the church in 1850. As downtown San Antonio expanded eastward, the land occupied by the Alamo became increasingly coveted for commercial purposes. By the turn of the 20th century, only two of the mission's many original buildings still stood. One was the large 1750s church, the structure most commonly identified as "the Alamo." The State of Texas had acquired it in 1883. The other was the adjacent monastery, an older limestone building constructed around 1727 to house the mission's clergy and later known as the "long barrack." Used as a store and warehouse since 1877, it was disguised behind a wooden facade.(Figure 2)
This "second battle of the Alamo" was part of a larger movement to save America's material heritage decades before the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 extended federal protection to historic structures. Early preservationists, mostly women, were motivated primarily by patriotism and viewed historic sites as shrines to American heroes. The movement began in earnest in 1853, when Ann Pamela Cunningham organized the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union to save George Washington's estate along the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia from being converted into a hotel and racetrack. Cunningham, who understood the importance of publicity, valued journalists as her allies. Her success fomented the creation of the Valley Forge Association (1878), the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (1888), the Ladies' Hermitage Association (1889), and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (1910). The DRT, founded in 1891, became the vanguard of historic preservation in Texas.
Although the two surviving Alamo buildings were safe from commercialization by 1904, a fissure soon developed among the DRT's members over how best to conserve the site. At that time, it was not at all clear whether the unsightly warehouse the women had rescued was the original monastery of the mission in shabby garb, or whether it was a more modern structure built on the site of the monastery. Proof was hard to come by. Moreover, the answer to that question would determine the building's fate. One faction of the women's organization wanted to restore the warehouse; the other wanted to level it and create a memorial park. Both sides in this very public controversy tried to win support through emotional appeals in the Texas press.
De Zavala firmly believed that the long rectangular warehouse, which she characterized as "the oldest structure in San Antonio," was in fact the original monastery. She sought desperately to prove that the building was "the Alamo proper," "the scene of the famous siege and massacre," and "the main building of the Alamo."(9) In 1906 she obtained an affidavit from Juan E. Barrera, a San Antonio resident born in 1839, who testified that the monastery "or 'long barrack' of the fort, so called by some historians, and the walls of the church of the Alamo are still standing just as they were when I was a boy."(10) De Zavala's adversaries were unconvinced, however. They thought the warehouse did not contain "any portion of the original Alamo" and had "no historic interest."(11)
The Alamo dispute typified some of the growing tensions in the national historic preservation movement. By the early 20th century, preservationists had divided into two camps: those who were determined to save sites because of their historical association and those who thought a structure's architectural value was the more important concern. Most DRT activists fell into the former category. De Zavala, for instance, emphasized "the heroic deeds of the early Texans" and their "sublime sacrifice," calling the Alamo "the most sacred spot in America."(12) Hyperbole aside, she thought the monastery was significant not because its design was distinctive but because a large number of the Alamo defenders had died in hand-to-hand fighting there. In fact, De Zavala repeatedly emphasized throughout her career that the Alamo church played only a minor role in the battle of 1836, whereas the monastery was a key site.
She met staunch resistance from local businessmen who considered the Alamo warehouse a "highly objectionable structure" and lobbied to create a park in its place.(13) One of them maintained that it would be impossible to convert the stone walls "into artistic and pleasing design," as there was "nothing of the aesthetic in their original conception," only "unpoetic sand and mortar." He further queried, "Is it thought that a movement to restore the winter camp of Washington at Valley Forge, simply for its sentimental associations, would receive successful support? Or the log cabin in which the eyes of Abraham Lincoln first opened to the light?"(14) He was apparently unaware that both of these sites had already been the subjects of successful restoration campaigns.
American preservationists further disagreed over whether a landmark should be restored as it had been built originally or as it appeared during the most notable period in its history. In 1904, Fraunces Tavern in New York City, constructed as a private residence in 1719, was restored as it was believed to have looked at the time of George Washington's farewell to his officers in 1783. In contrast, Paul Revere's house in Boston was brought back to its original 1680 appearance rather than to the way it looked when Revere lived there a century later.(15)
De Zavala, despite her fervent patriotic sentiments, favored restoring the Alamo monastery "to the old arcaded type of architecture in which it was constructed during the time of the Franciscans," rather than to its appearance during the siege of 1836.(16)(Figure 3) Other people, including one of De Zavala's good friends, F. F. Collins, thought the building should be "restored to its appearance when those brave Texans defended the honor of the young Republic there."(17)
By 1907, the increasingly bitter controversy over whether and how to preserve the warehouse at the Alamo had divided not only the DRT but practically all of Texas into hostile camps. Highly-charged town meetings were held across the state to solicit public comment. The DRT's stormy convention in April of that year disintegrated into a free for all, resulting in a split in the organization and a court case awarding custody of the Alamo property to De Zavala's opponents. In her 1917 book History and Legends of the Alamo and Other Missions in and around San Antonio, De Zavala blamed various business syndicates for creating this sharp "division among the women" of the DRT that "has not been thoroughly healed to this day."(18)
Fearful that her opponents within the DRT would seize the slightest opportunity to demolish the warehouse, De Zavala kept a close watch over the property. A grocery company's commercial lease was due to expire on February 10, 1908, and the building's fate after that was uncertain. A local newspaper published a rumor that the premises might be rented for a vaudeville hall. The inflammatory headline predicted that a "Buck-and-Wing Dancer May Do Stunts Above the Spot Where Fallen Heroes of Texas Formed Funeral Pyre."(19)
It took very little to set off De Zavala, and that news article was more than sufficient. Actually, the vaudeville rumor may have just provided her with a convenient excuse. Anthropologist Richard Flores has suggested that her siege, "while impassioned, was premeditated and calculated."(20) A month beforehand, she had written to her attorney that she was prepared "to take possession bodily of the Alamo" when the lease expired. She reiterated, "I really believe I shall be brave enough to go ahead and take possession."(21)
Before the lease expired, she started taking steps in that direction. Around February 8, De Zavala hired three men to guard the property. She also had a telephone installed in the warehouse. Her standoff was not thoroughly planned, however, for she neglected to stash any bedding, warm clothes, food, or water in the building. Nor is there any evidence that she tipped off news reporters in advance, although she had frequently given strong statements about the controversy to the local papers and was well known in San Antonio.
The showdown began on Monday, February 10, 1908. An attorney for the opposing DRT faction discovered that someone, most likely De Zavala, had placed new padlocks on the doors of the warehouse. Anticipating trouble, he enlisted Sheriff John W. Tobin's help in securing possession of the premises. At six o'clock that evening, De Zavala was at the warehouse, giving her guards instructions, when the attorney suddenly appeared with the sheriff and a couple of deputies. Also accompanying them were representatives of a business syndicate that hoped to build a hotel just east of the warehouse and badly wanted the structure removed.
Sheriff Tobin came armed with a copy of an injunction that a Houston court had issued the previous summer forbidding De Zavala's group from interfering with the Alamo property. He served the document on De Zavala's guards. Then, as she recalled in a 1935 interview, "The agents of the syndicate threw my men out bodily."(22)
Meanwhile, De Zavala had withdrawn to the shadows inside the shuttered, musty warehouse. Sheriff Tobin came searching for her. When he finally discovered De Zavala, she refused to accept a copy of the injunction. He tried to read it to her, but "she stopped her ears with her fingers."(23) He followed her to an upstairs room, where she slammed the door in his face and refused to come out. The sheriff finally left her alone.
Though her defiance of the injunction was an act of civil disobedience, De Zavala did not consider her behavior unlawful. Her attorney took the rather dubious legal position that the injunction either was invalid or applied only to the Alamo church. Therefore, she claimed she was justified in ignoring it.
After a short time, she went back downstairs to confront the representatives of the hotel company, asking by what right they had entered the warehouse. She had them trapped: If De Zavala's legal rights in the property were highly questionable, theirs were clearly nonexistent. As she remembered, "They withdrew outside the building for whispered consultation. The instant they stepped out, I closed the doors and barred them."(24)
Stymied, Sheriff Tobin took no further action to remove her. He had good reason for not wanting to draw attention to the woman inside the warehouse and possibly stir up sympathy for her cause. His mother, Josephine Tobin, was president of San Antonio's splinter DRT chapter that opposed De Zavala. When he left the premises that evening, the sheriff stationed a deputy on guard and told him not to let anyone enter the building or bring food to the lone occupant. The electric and telephone lines were also cut.
De Zavala's first night in the warehouse was the hardest. She had no bed, not even a chair in which to sleep upright. She tried, with little success, to rest sitting in one corner of a second-floor room. In the darkness, she could hear the rats scampering around her. According to the Fort Worth Telegram, "Miss De Zavala fears these rodents more than she does all of the representatives of the law."(25)
If Sheriff Tobin thought De Zavala's stunt would end quickly and without fanfare, his hopes were dashed the next morning when members of the press called at the Alamo. De Zavala came downstairs when she heard them rapping at the wooden door. Through a five-inch porthole, she told them, "Here I will remain until justice is done our cause. I'll stay here forever if needs be." The deputy on duty retorted, "You can't get anything to eat."(26)
One journalist reported that De Zavala was "weak from her long fast" and that "her lips were cracked and parched from thirst."(27) The "shamed looking deputy sheriff" finally allowed her to have a glass of water. However, the glass was too large to pass through the porthole, so she stooped while the water was poured into her mouth.
When her supporters arrived, they were permitted to speak to De Zavala at the door. One friend managed to sneak a couple of oranges through the porthole. However, "a promise to send breakfast brought forth the cheering information from the deputy that the sender of breakfast would be sent to jail."(28)
De Zavala's elderly mother became anxious because she could not communicate with her daughter by telephone. During the day, "Miss De Zavala found where the wire had been cut and fixed it herself."(29) At one point, she spoke by telephone with Governor Thomas M. Campbell in Austin, who was trying to resolve the crisis. De Zavala's followers also agreed to attend a meeting of the rival DRT chapter in San Antonio the following afternoon to try to reach a compromise and possibly reunite.
Soon the siege became a spectacle. Throughout the first day, people fought for position near the door of the warehouse. Every time De Zavala came within sight of the porthole, they shouted words of encouragement. However, she had no patience for curiosity-seekers. According to one newspaper, "she was plainly annoyed by the attention attracted and came to the door only when most urgently requested to do so."(30)
When Sheriff Tobin was interviewed that day, he stated, "She can stay there one hundred years and I will make no attempt to put her out unless so ordered by the court. I think that we are making a mountain out of a molehill."(31) But it was too late to downplay a story that made such excellent copy. Newspapers across the country were having a field day, reporting—often inaccurately but always breathtakingly—every development in the unfolding drama.
Due to "public indignation," the sheriff relented and allowed the electricity to be restored to the building before nightfall. During the second night, De Zavala fared better. The electric lights "kept away the large rats which had been a great source of annoyance the previous night."(32)
The following morning, February 12, De Zavala's friend Nellie Lytle arrived with coffee, which she poured through a tube inserted into the porthole. One journalist explained that De Zavala was "addicted to the coffee habit" and had been "suffering from a very bad headache."(33) Several packages of chocolates were also smuggled in newspapers through the porthole. According to news accounts, De Zavala was able to get water from a hydrant in the yard, which indicates that she crept out of the building occasionally during the siege.
She still faced the hardships of hunger and cold—but not for long. While De Zavala was standing on the second floor gallery, a friend in the crowd attracted her attention. She let down a long cord, and he tied a paper bag full of sandwiches to it. She also used the cord to pull up an oil stove for heat.
Later that morning, W. C. Day, the state superintendent of public buildings, arrived in San Antonio as the representative of Governor Campbell. Both sides in the Alamo fight were willing to turn over the property to the governor pending resolution of their dispute. However, negotiations broke down that afternoon over the terms of surrender, so De Zavala stood firm. Late the third night, her mother sent her a change of clothes wrapped in a blanket, which De Zavala retrieved using the cord.
Meanwhile, the incident had become a publicity disaster for her adversaries in the DRT, who had been legally recognized as custodians of the building. One of them issued a statement to the press in an effort to deflect negative attention from the organization. Claiming, quite inaccurately, that De Zavala was not in "the Alamo," she added—
I hope the good people of Texas will not condemn the Daughters of the Republic of Texas for that which they are not responsible, nor believe the many false statements published against them.... Miss De Zavala has been on the warpath for two years, determined to control our association in all its business departments.(34)
But it was useless. De Zavala, by her shrewd and flamboyant action, had won the contest for public opinion. She and her followers seemed to know exactly how to keep journalists interested in the incident by staging an intermittent series of theatrics—pouring coffee through the porthole, smuggling food, delivering packages that she retrieved with the cord.
On the third morning of the siege, February 13, De Zavala replied to a telegram from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asking her to send "a message to the women of St. Louis, who are watching with great interest your own gallant defense of the Alamo."(35) She stated that she was "willing to die for what I believe to be right.… The officers cannot starve me into submission."(36)
Later that day, De Zavala's attorneys assured her that they had finally reached a satisfactory agreement that would safeguard the building for the time being. She announced her intent to leave the warehouse. However, she would not come out until the sheriff's two deputies had departed and she was "in undisputed possession."(37) Superintendent W. C. Day, who was waiting nearby at the Menger Hotel, arrived at the warehouse at seven o'clock that evening. De Zavala greeted him pleasantly and gave him a tour of the premises.
When she exited the warehouse, De Zavala told reporters, "I did not surrender. I merely left matters in dispute to arbitration."(38) According to the New York Times, "She was so weak that she could hardly stand."(39) However, the Washington Post reported that she "came out with colors flying."(40) The Austin Statesman said that she "left in high spirits,"…"rather begrimed from exposure and rather weak from lack of food, but brave and defiant to the last."(41)
De Zavala won this highly publicized battle, but the war over the preservation of the Alamo dragged on another five years. In 1911, the Texas Legislature appropriated $5,000 for improvement of the Alamo property. Governor Oscar B. Colquitt, who thought that no part of the old mission predating the battle of 1836 should be demolished, favored De Zavala's proposal to restore the monastery by preserving the existing walls and rebuilding the missing portions on the original foundations. However, her opponents in the DRT were incensed by the idea, believing that a reconstructed monastery would detract from the Alamo church. The warehouse's origin had never been determined conclusively, and they now contended that any pre-1836 stonework in the building was merely an old fence, not the Alamo's monastery.
De Zavala was finally vindicated after workmen started stripping away the wooden additions to the warehouse on January 16, 1912. On the west side, they were excited to find walled-up arches where doorways had been. They discovered another door in the south wall.(Figure 4) The crew also uncovered the foundation of the missing east walls, which were eventually reconstructed.(42) The San Antonio Express reported, "Masonry such as is unknown to the present day builders forms the walls and even that portion where wood was used was so protected from exposure that much of the original wood remains in fair condition."(43) According to J. B. Nitschke, state inspector of masonry, the reference points on two plats from the early 1840s established the "incontrovertible fact" that the stone walls of the warehouse were in fact part of the old monastery.
Governor Colquitt's $5,000 appropriation ran out after only a small part of the restoration had been completed. When the governor applied for a deficiency, De Zavala's opponents in the DRT went to court to stop him. In August 1913, Clara Driscoll, De Zavala's former ally turned foe, complained that the state should not spend any more money building "imitations of what might have existed."(44) She also threatened that most of Governor Colquitt's existing restoration work would "be annihilated."(45) Fortunately, it was not.
The sad final event in the struggle to preserve the Alamo occurred on October 8, 1913, while Governor Colquitt was away in Panama. The second-story adobe walls of the monastery, exposed to the elements for nearly two years and damaged by recent heavy rainfall, were suddenly torn down. An attorney who opposed De Zavala's restoration efforts claimed that the upper walls had become a "menace" and "should be removed."(46) De Zavala was apparently unaware of the impending demolition, which took only a couple of hours. She later complained bitterly that the Alamo had been mutilated by this "sacrilegious destruction," cryptically blaming the act on unnamed business interests and local officials.(47) With the second story gone, the first-floor walls of the monastery stood in a limbo-like state of partial restoration for 55 years.
De Zavala went on to found the Texas Historical and Landmarks Association, which marked numerous historic sites across the state. Her pioneer work inspired the preservation of other historically significant properties in San Antonio, including the Spanish Governor's Palace (1749) and the area missions that now comprise San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.(48) Throughout her long career, she was a formidable foe. For the most part, her confrontational manner served her cause well. At times, however, she could be too territorial, and she burned some bridges that she should have tried to repair. Most regrettably, she never reconciled with the DRT, once even referring to her opponents in the organization as the "Daughters of Santa Anna."(49) When she learned about the formation of the San Antonio Conservation Society in 1924, De Zavala became highly agitated, according to historian Lewis F. Fisher. The president of the new organization, Emily Edwards, recalled, "Miss De Zavala called me up and told me that that was her field…. She was just furious.(50)
Even after she turned her attention to other preservation crusades, De Zavala never forgot the Alamo. For the rest of her life, she lobbied unsuccessfully for the restoration of the monastery. In 1935, she said that her "greatest dream" was "to see the main building of Alamo Mission restored.… [W]e still have the lower walls of the long barrack and of the arcades facing the patio."(51)
De Zavala did not live to see her dream realized. In 1955 her funeral procession passed by the Alamo in what writer Ann Fears Crawford describes as a "mutual salute between old friends."(52 )Thirteen years after her death, the DRT finally restored the remnants of the first floor of the monastery. The simple stone building that De Zavala seized to protect in 1908 now houses the Alamo's Long Barrack Museum.
Today that museum's early champion, once described as "Texas' most-distinguished and best-loved woman,"(53) has fallen into obscurity. Most of the major histories of the American historic preservation movement do not even mention Adina De Zavala and her relentless efforts to protect the Alamo and other sites associated with Spanish and Mexican Texas. The Texas Historical Commission belatedly honored her with a marker in 1994. However, the tablet sat in the basement of the county courthouse for many months before it was placed inconspicuously on Alamo Plaza.(54)
Nonetheless, De Zavala's fighting spirit lives on in those who are willing to put themselves on the line to draw attention to parts of America's material heritage that are in danger of being lost forever. Californian Terry Sanders threatened to lie down in front of a bulldozer to save Oakland's eclectic Fifth Avenue Marina from developers in 2003.(55) The following year, Sherry Bartlett, armed only with a cell phone, sat for four hours on the historic Sheffield Hollow Bridge in Molino, Tennessee, to stave off its destruction. She was rewarded with a restraining order and a lawsuit.(56) Philanthropist Jane Dale Owen told the New York Times in 2006 that she would "lie down in front of a bulldozer" if necessary to defend Houston's Alabama movie theater.(57) The Medina (Ohio) Historic Preservation Board refused to allow the razing of three Victorian houses in 2007 even though the owner met the legal requirements for a demolition permit because "somebody had to stand up for the rights of those homes," according to board president Pamela Miller.(58) In all of these courageous souls are shades of a trailblazing Mexican-Irish-American woman who never shied away from controversy and drew a line in the sand at the Alamo 100 years ago, proclaiming: "Many people fear to fight for their rights, owing to the notoriety. I am not of that kind."(59)
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