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High-tech photos ensuring Alamo's future

SAN ANTONIO — Even when the Alamo is closed, a hum of activity continues inside this week as researchers work at night to ensure preservation of the shrine far into the future.

Teams from three Texas universities are using laser scans and color and black-and-white large-format photography to document the shrine.

“This really has not been done before,” said Alamo Conservator Pam Rosser, who has carefully studied the walls of the site for four years, and may know more than anyone about stories their 300 years of history reveal.

Photography, normally prohibited for visitors inside the chapel out of reverence for the site, will help ensure the Alamo, a symbol to many of freedom and the state's rich, complex history, will retain its beauty and structural integrity for future generations.

“It gives us a baseline to know the current condition, and will help us identify cracks and movements,” said Sue Ann Pemberton, director of the Center for Architectural Engagement at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Aside from helping the Alamo develop a long-range preservation plan, the data someday could support an interactive online database for history enthusiasts that pinpoints historic graffiti, bullet holes and mission-era features on the walls.

“It's a really exciting time here in the process,” Rosser said. “Each little step is part of a very important process.”

Texas A&M University's Center for Heritage Conservation is leading the work, with Texas A&M-Kingsville's Center for Engineering Heritage and the UTSA center helping document the interior and exterior walls of the Alamo church and Long Barrack, the site's two original structures.

High-resolution photos recorded on 4-by-5-inch film negatives and panoramic digital images will be sent to the Library of Congress, as a research record for anyone who wants information.

The work also helps tell the tale of the roughly 250-year-old Alamo church, long viewed as an unfinished, roofless structure where a ramp and cannon station were placed for the famed 1836 siege and battle. Rosser believes friars and indigenous inhabitants of the Mission San Antonio de Valero celebrated Mass there in the 1700s.

“It definitely was a finished building. It just never had a permanent roof on it,” Rosser said.

She said people of the mission may have worshipped by an altar in the nave, possibly under a temporary roof of timbers and surrounded by frescos and other wall ornamentation.

“There still is enough evidence to say the interior of the Alamo was decoratively painted; we just don't know what the design was,” Rosser said. “In my gut, I think they did have Mass there.”

Aside from pigments and mortar from the mission era, the Alamo is filled with historical graffiti, including dates and names etched into the walls. After the 1836 battle for Texas independence, it was occupied by soldiers of the Texas Republic, U.S. Army and Confederacy, and for years functioned as a two-story structure.

Many of the prominent historical features, including mission-era pigments and 1800s graffiti, are high on the interior walls, Rosser said.

Thirteen faculty members and students, mostly from College Station, have been doing the work since Tuesday, sometimes past midnight, after the Alamo closes. They expect to wrap up on Saturday.

Work to create images and models of the Alamo, to help save it from rainwater erosion, ground moisture and other threats to the structures, began last summer, funded by a grant from the Ewing Halsell Foundation, and is scheduled for completion in November.

Bob Warden, director of Texas A&M's conservation center, said his team will develop two- and possibly three-dimensional computerized images of the Alamo as it appeared in 1836, 1885 and 1961.

The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the site, and Daughters of the Republic of Texas, which provides daily operations, will use the data to preserve the structure.

“We have some advantages with technology that we didn't have 20 years ago,” Warden said.

The data will be submitted to the Historic American Buildings Survey, or HABS, which began in 1933 as the nation's first federal preservation program. The Alamo's HABS file has not been updated since detailed drawings were submitted in 1961.

The University of Texas at Austin and J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles are helping with computer formatting of the scans and photos. Records on more than 40,000 historic sites, including large-format photos, scale drawings and written reports, are kept in a special collection at the Library of Congress, available to the public.

The National Park Service requires use of film negatives in 4-by-5, 5-by-7 or 8-by-10-inch formats for the HABS, since they offer visual clarity and a 500-year archival longevity. Rosser said she hopes the project encourages others to invest in structural archiving.

“It's really important that we do this for historic buildings,” she said.

shuddleston@express-news.net
 

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