Research the Alamo! A&M students are

MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The whirr of a ventilation system and the occasional click of a tripod-mounted camera interrupt the evening silence as two Texas A&M graduate students work just inside the Alamo’s front door.

Their camera lens is focused on the thick limestone and mortar walls that have survived the Alamo’s evolution from a Spanish mission to one of the world’s most famous battle shrines.

The students are part of a team of about a dozen researchers assembling highly defined digital photos and laser images that will allow them to track the condition of the nearly 3-century-old structure and help determine which stones were originally part of the Alamo. The imaging work began last year and will continue through November. The data will be analyzed for historical information and maintenance purposes.

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“It’s been through a battle and torn apart, like many historic structures, like the Parthenon,” said Bob Warden, director of the Texas A&M Center for Heritage Conservation and supervisor of the imaging project.

“Who’s to say what’s original and what’s not? We’re piecing things together.”

The images taken by lasers, large-format cameras and other instruments are being mated into a single package of two- and three-dimensional images that Warden hopes will result in an Alamo version of Google Earth, the online program that allows users to zoom in on areas of the world.

With help from part of a $1 million grant from the Ewing Halsell Foundation administered through the Texas General Land Office, Warden enlisted colleagues and their students from several other Texas universities about helping develop a preservation plan for the Alamo through imaging. The Alamo’s last extensive examination — and subsequent repairs and renovations — was in 1960, well before the electronic wizardry now available.

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“We think this building is just as important as any we’ve worked on,” said Warden, who has taken his students to similarly examine French cathedrals, battlefields like Normandy and Central American ruins. “It’s not only important to Texans, but people from around the world know of the Alamo.”

One of those students is Amber O’Donnell of Austin, an architecture graduate student who spent a week this month inside the Alamo working on the imaging project.

“I think it’s just so interesting and neat to be close to history like this and imagine all of the things that have happened and all the people who have been standing in the same spot where we’re doing what we’re doing now,” O’Donnell said, working with a camera that adjusts the perspective of images. “It’s kind of mind blowing.”

The Alamo site began in 1724 as Mission San Antonio de Valero by Franciscan missionaries as part of a chain of South Texas missions. It was the site of the siege and March 6, 1836, battle where some 180 defenders died fighting for Texas independence from Mexico, including Alamo commander William Travis, Davy Crockett and James Bowie. The Alamo’s post-1836 life included stints as a store and outposts for the Confederate army during the Civil War and other times by the U.S. Army before becoming the shrine of today.

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Pam Rosser, the Alamo’s conservator, has been analyzing multiple kinds of mortar used over the centuries to repair and maintain the Alamo. In the course of her work, which has included removing up to nine layers of Army whitewash in some places, she’s uncovered traces of colorful painted decorations that once graced the interior walls.

Analysis of paint specks can pinpoint when that may have taken place. She also investigates what she calls “historic graffiti” — wall carvings of names and dates from times before the Alamo became a revered site.

The imaging, done primarily after hours when the Alamo is closed, and Rosser’s work “will eventually lead us down to a more careful timeline of which stones were replaced, which are original and be able to map all of those,” Warden said.

Spanish soldiers in the early 1800s named the place after their home town in Mexico, Alamo de Parras. It changed hands during the Mexican Revolution from Spain, then was taken over in December 1835 by Texian forces.

That set the stage for the 1836 battle where the Texians were killed by the overwhelmingly larger army of Mexico’s president, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. A month later, Gen. Sam Houston’s Alamo-inspired forces defeated elements of the same army under Santa Anna in an 18-minute battle outside present-day Houston to win independence for Texas.

San Antonio grew around the Alamo in the center of what’s now downtown to become among the largest cities in the U.S., and the top tourist destination in Texas.

Warden hopes the imaging project helps keep it that way.

“For us, preservation is really preservation of our story, the human story,” Warden said. “It’s not that we think you have to save everything. But there are some things, like this building, that you just don’t ever want to lose.”