SAN ANTONIO — Among mega-cities of the Sun Belt, only San Antonio has a long track record as a big city. Founded as a mission and fort in 1718, it was the largest city in the Spanish colony and Mexican province of Texas. Miami was a barren beach when Santa Anna stormed the Alamo in 1836. Fed by cattle trails and rail lines, San Antonio grew to a city of 5,000 in the 1860s, a time when Phoenix was an uninhabited lizard lick.
Elaborate Victorian neighborhoods began to circle new-fangled skyscrapers, and San Antonio loomed over the Southern plains. But after World War II, a shifting economy, an expanding military presence on the city's edges — five Air Force bases — and freeway-driven sprawl sent downtown in a tailspin. Today, a SeaWorld, a Six Flags and a racetrack are all outside the Interstate 410 circle; the San Antonio Museum of Art is a full mile north of the city's heart.
But the heart's still ticking.
The Alamo is there, though quite out of place to anyone weaned on the John Wayne movie or "Davy Crockett" TV show. The shrine of Texas independence is a low-slung affair first seen through busy traffic; it's on a small (4.2-acre) block ringed by taller buildings and besieged by tourists who pour out of buses on Alamo Plaza and Alamo Street.
The mission-looking structure most associated with the Alamo — it indeed was a church — is there, and along the sidewalk is the Long Barracks, where the 1836 defenders slept. This isn't to say Jim Bowie, Col. Travis and Crockett would recognize the place. Most of their Alamo compound hasn't existed in ages: It stood where the buses now park. The earthworks where Travis died is in the lobby of the post office across the street; if Crockett fell where his men were stationed, he died on what would be the sidewalk out front; Bowie would've expired in his quarters, now covered by Alamo Street.
The Alamo grounds, ringed by a fence from the 1920s, hold gardens, a courtyard and several buildings, including a library.
The Shrine — the church, the locus of the site — is small: roughly 7,500 square feet. The interior is unadorned; lining the walls are plaques and flags from states and nations whose sons fell there in 1836. Those walls are original and lend a feeling of antiquity. The concrete roof, though, is from the 1920s, and the famous "hump" that rises above the entrance, well, the U.S. Army added that in 1850.
Piecemeal though the Alamo is, the site is inspiring. So is the underlying story, which staffers tell inside the Shrine as they stand behind a tilted map of the 1836 scenario: Several hundred American settlers and native Tejanos — 180 known by name, in all — died to keep a vast Mexican army from overrunning the nascent Republic of Texas.
Odds-defying in its own way: Since 1905 the Alamo has been in the custodianship of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, which operates the facility without charging an admission fee.
Right across Alamo Street, situated on what was the west wall of Crockett's fort, is the unbelievably cheesy Cowboy Museum. At $3 per head, admission is a steal — right out of your pocket. It's in a narrow building, and the entryway/souvenir area blocks off the interiors, much as a tarp keeps you from seeing the Giant Rats of Sumatra until you pay the carnival barker. What's inside? Several poorly rendered dioramas, moth-eaten stuffed animals and a display showing 11 different kinds of barbed wire.
There's much better Texas kitsch a couple of blocks east, where The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum, at 318 E. Houston St., combines the arts of beer-drinking and taxidermy.
This museum is a bonafide landmark ("Since 1881") that holds turn-of-the-century furniture made by Wenzel Friedrich, his son Albert and others. Herds of longhorn cattle were common then, and the Friedrichs would take the horns of dead steers, soak them in water, scrape them smooth and assemble them into furniture. Tables. Chairs. Hatracks. There's a chair here George Frees made between 1909 and 1912 that holds 202 horn pieces. This kind of decorative art apparently caught on; also to be seen are lamps, ashtrays and pincushions made from the hooves of cows, elk and rhino.
The collection expanded over the years, and the proprietors' interests didn't stop with sofa-size mosaics made from rattlesnake rattles (several on display). The Buckhorn, now a two-story affair fronted by a high-ceilinged Western-style saloon, has stuffed and mounted heads of animals the world over — those of exotic, now-endangered creatures as well as a trio of two-headed calves.
The saloon out front is similarly decked with mounted heads. It's a safe guess that this is what hell looks like to animal-rights activists. That said, it does hold a strong streak of old Texas. There are beautiful saddles, spurs, famous rifles and pistols of the Old West, and the upstairs holds a Hall of Texas History, a 14-diorama exhibit that was part of San Antonio's 1968 HemisFair.
If nothing else, stroll by the place and look at the giant steer heads mounted above the sidewalk. (They're artificial.) And a tour guide dressed as Col. Theodore Roosevelt might greet you from the doorway.
Teddy, in fact, does have ties to downtown San Antonio: It was in the Menger Hotel, across from the Alamo, that he started organizing his Rough Riders — cowboys from Texas and the Plains, plus his Ivy League pals — who rode up San Juan Hill and into history during the Spanish-American War.
Long-ago guests like U.S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and O. Henry would feel at home here, as it is fully restored to its Victorian sheen. Stay or dine here (the food is Southwestern) if you wish but do swing by the bar. Like Roosevelt, it exudes manly finesse. Most lounges that try for an antique elegance fail miserably. This place succeeds because it's the real thing.
Downtown isn't the old town, by the way. In 1836, the Alamo was a ways north of the village of San Antonio, which still stands as La Villita and can be entered from the street (Nueva or Alamo) or by climbing the River Walk stairs. It's a cluster of small, stone buildings that serve as mercantile cottages. The quality of goods is much higher than at the Market, though it doesn't seem well patronized. Worth a quick look.
On your way there, you may pass another underseen spot that fronts both the street and River Walk: The Hertzberg Circus Museum, at 210 W. Market St. It holds a collection of circus material that local attorney H.H. Hertzberg amassed. He died in 1940, and his hobby now sprawls in the three-story onetime public library. The 1930 building has seen better days, and the collection doesn't begin to rival Circus World Museum — the Ringling shrine in Baraboo, Wis. But anything from the big top is rare these days, and the city-owned Herzberg does have some strange items. In downtown San Antonio, it's the most artful hybrid of the historic and commercial.