The center of the city
San Antonio’s Main Plaza is surrounded by historic landmarks, including San Fernando Cathedral, the Municipal Plaza Building and the Bexar County Courthouse, and is located close to the Alamo. Constructed in 1731, Main Plaza, also historically known as Plaza de las Islas, was originally developed as the city’s civic center, and remains the nexus for banking and government today. But, with the area now attracting nearly 2.5 million visitors each year, city officials became concerned about traffic congestion and aging utility infrastructure. In 2006, city leaders pursued the redevelopment of Main Plaza to highlight its historical significance as a governmental and religious center while creating an attractive, pedestrian-friendly oasis.
To better accommodate visitors, the city chose to redevelop the area, closing two streets that bordered the plaza to create a pedestrian-friendly link between the San Fernando Cathedral, the Plaza and the nearby San Antonio River. But, the changes had to be made in a way that preserved the historic nature of the area.
In early 2006, the city contracted with locally based Bender Wells Clark Design (BWCD), a landscape architecture and urban planning firm, to plan the new plaza. BWCD employed Tampa, Fla.-based engineering and environmental consulting firm PBS&J to upgrade the existing underground utilities and conduct archaeological and historical studies. The company used a geographic database containing more than 3,000 historical maps — some dating back 300 years — to identify archaeological and cultural sites before construction began.
In February 2007, the city began to improve stormwater drainage to prevent the flooding of the courthouse basement, which had occurred twice in the 1990s. Soon after utility excavation began, remnants of the past came to light. “The team discovered a rare earthen entrenchment, which is especially unusual to find in a modern urban setting,” says Mark Denton, director of the State and Federal Review Section of the Texas Historical Commission’s Archeology Division. He determined the entrenchment was probably a remnant from the Battle of Bejar, which preceded the Battle of the Alamo by roughly three months. “Before the drainage project could be completed, the entrenchment and its contents had to be archaeologically excavated,” Denton says. Those excavations revealed military and domestic artifacts, including the tip of a Mexican officer’s sword, gunflints, buttons, ceramics and animal bone pieces.
On another plaza corner, archaeologists found trash pits containing old bottles, dishes, buttons and animal bone fragments dating from the 19th century. Artifacts from both discoveries will be preserved for future study at The University of Texas’ Center for Archaeological Research in San Antonio.
The drainage portion of the project was completed in March 2008, and the plaza opened in April with a community celebration. Now, the historic San Fernando Cathedral is linked to the nearby San Antonio River while vehicular traffic is limited to the north and south. The project increased the size of the plaza by 50 percent and is a venue for public events, including the annual Fiesta! Celebration, a 10-day event that attracts 3.5 million people each year. “Main Plaza is truly the heart of our city,” says San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger. “We wanted to tie together all the elements of our community in one central location, the way it started.”
Brandy Harris is a historian, and Nesta Anderson is a historical archaeologist in Tampa, Fla.-based PBS&J’s national Cultural Resources Division.