Team works to preserve colorful frescoes uncovered on walls of Alamo chapel

Thursday, October 5th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By David McLemore / The Dallas Morning News

SAN ANTONIO – Just when you think there's nothing left to know about the Alamo, another of its secrets surfaces.

Almost by accident, Alamo officials have discovered 18th-century frescoes on the walls of the old mission's sacristy. Hidden under layers of grime and whitewash for more than 150 years, their colors are still stunningly vibrant.

The frescoes may be the most significant find of Spanish mission-era decorative work in the state. They also pose a mystery or two. How could these delicate friezes and borders have survived about 260 years of battles, neglect and restoration? Or remain hidden so long inside one of the most visited historical sites in the nation?

"It caught us all pretty much by surprise," Alamo curator Brad Breuer said of the February discovery. It all began, he said, with a conservation program launched this year by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to make the Alamo more historically accurate and to better resemble a shrine.

The work involved removal of 60-year-old bronze plaques from the walls of the sanctuary, visited by about 2 million people a year. In the adjoining sacristy, which had been closed to the public, an aging collection of flags representing the home states and nations of the Alamo heroes was being removed when the frescoes suddenly were noticed.

"We don't know how long the sacristy has been closed. No one alive remembers it ever being open. That day, we were in the room, trying to figure out where to put the lighting for some exhibits," Mr. Breuer said. "Someone saw a little bit of color on the wall. Soon enough, we realized we had a stunning collection of Spanish-era frescoes in a room that had no written record of any artwork existing."

The Daughters, custodians of the Alamo for nearly a century, called in Cici Jary and Pam Rosser, a mother-daughter team of art conservators, to undertake stabilization and conservation work. Their San Antonio firm, Restoration Associates, has performed similar work at two other historic San Antonio missions as well as Galveston's Moody mansion.

"It's a big, big puzzle," Mrs. Jary said. "But a wonderful one. You walk into a room like this and just get lost in the possibilities."

It's hard to see at first what's causing all the fuss. To the untrained eye, the sacristy's limestone walls bear a striking resemblance to a motley collection of plaster, whitewash and 20th-century concrete patches.

Under the glare of work lights, however, spots of colors emerge from the ancient walls like ghosts. Splashes of orange, red and pale green form patterns. Finely detailed flowers and pomegranates and geometric designs stand out from the beige walls as long-hidden gifts from the past.

The paintings are of a traditional Spanish style known as fresco seco, Mrs. Jary said. The colors were painted into damp plaster so that the design becomes part of the surface when it dries. Still visible are the guidelines that artisans marked in the plaster. They measure one vara, a colonial Spanish measurement of about 33 inches.

The Alamo frescoes appear more plentiful and more complex than decorative designs at San Antonio's four other missions, Mrs. Jary said. "The painting here is very fine and precise and done in charcoal," she said. "The academic investigation hasn't begun yet, but it appears there is a greater concentration of wall painting at the Alamo than at the other missions."

If anything, Mrs. Jary and the Daughters are restrained in their enthusiasm, said Dr. Rosalind Rock, chief historian for the National Park Service's San Antonio Mission Park.

"It is quite a discovery. The entire sacristy area apparently was lavishly decorated at one time," Dr. Rock said. "It's very exciting to see the remnants of the paintings. It's amazing that anything is left at all."

The frescoes should provide a fertile ground for historical research for some time, Dr. Rock said.

"We know that the people who worked on the Alamo and other missions came from the artisan pool created by the Franciscans at Queretaro in Mexico," she said. "They were contracted to work at different missions run by the Franciscans, and we might expect to see similar artwork at the other San Antonio missions. Only San Jose, where artisans came in from Zacatecas, would be different."

The Daughters have had preliminary talks with the park service, which oversees the historical properties at the four other missions in San Antonio, about how best to display the frescoes once cleaning and stabilization is completed. It may lead to better linkage with the other missions.

As they have since Aug. 14, Mrs. Jary and her daughter continue efforts to stabilize the crumbling walls to preserve the frescoes. They also continue washing through five layers of lime-based whitewash that have covered the chapel walls since the 1840s, when U.S. soldiers began using the old chapel as a supply depot.

Unlike the other missions, the walls inside the Alamo have never been replastered. In covering the walls with whitewash, the Army helped preserve the mission artwork, Mrs. Rosser said.

"That and the air conditioning added by the Daughters are probably what saved them," she said.

Franciscan monks founded the Alamo at Mission San Antonio de Valero in 1718. Construction on the present location, on the east bank of the San Antonio River, began in May 1744.

The missions were secularized in 1793, and the Alamo became a military fortress for Spanish troops. After Mexico's successful revolt, Mexican troops occupied the old mission grounds from 1803 to December 1835, when Gen. Perfecto de Cos surrendered to forces of the Texas revolution.

A ragtag garrison of about 200 Tejanos gathered at the Alamo in February 1836 to defend the city against the far superior Mexican forces. The 13-day siege ended March 6, 1836, with the slaughter of the defenders. During the battle, women and children were in the sacristy.

After the battle, Mexican soldiers burned the Alamo structures to prevent them from being used as a fortress again. The Alamo lay in ruins until Texas joined the union in 1848. The U.S. Army turned the chapel into a quartermaster depot. Army engineers rebuilt the walls, added a roof over the chapel and added the curved top over the front façade that has made the Alamo one of the most recognized buildings in the world.

The army retained a presence at the Alamo, except during the Civil War, until 1877. Afterward, it was taken over by the state, which entrusted it to the care of the Daughters in 1905 to preserve as the Shrine of Texas Liberty.

"It gives us great joy to see another part of the Alamo story unfold. We feel this could become the showpiece of early Spanish mission art," said Helen Burleson Kelso, president-general of the group. "The Daughters are very protective of the Alamo. Some people say too protective. It is something like this that shows we've been doing something right."

Once the frescoes are stabilized, the next step will be a full academic investigation, Mr. Breuer said, probably involving historians from the Alamo staff, the University of Texas at San Antonio and the National Park Service.

"There's so much that we just simply don't know," Mr. Breuer said. "We'll want to look at what sources and styles the artisans used for the fresco designs, how these designs and methods differ from those used at other missions and why there is such a large concentration of the art at the Alamo."

There is no written record of any artwork in the sacristy. In 1961, there was a thorough examination of the sacristy as part of American Historical Building survey.

"They did detailed drawings and measurements, and no one saw the frescoes," Mr. Breuer said. "As far as we can tell, the last person to see them was whoever painted them over."