The San Antonio Missions: The Road to Becoming a World Heritage Site

By Special Contributor posted 09-02-2015 15:10


By Bruce MacDougal

 A modern photo of Mission Espada. |Credit: San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation
Mission Espada. |Credit: San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

On July 5, 2015, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee voted unanimously to inscribe the San Antonio Missions as the first World Heritage Site in Texas. This triumphant moment represented the culmination of a nine-year community effort to build an effective argument that the five 18th-century missions and an associated ranch property have “outstanding universal value,” as required by UNESCO. The official decision noted that “the San Antonio Missions are an example of the interweaving of the cultures of the Spanish and the Coahuiltecan and other indigenous peoples, illustrated in a variety of elements, including the integration of the indigenous settlements towards the central plaza, the decorative elements of the churches which combine Catholic symbols with indigenous natural designs, and the post-secularization evidence which remains in several of the missions and illustrates the loyalty to the shared values beyond missionary rule.”

The story of saving the San Antonio Missions, though, is deeply rooted in the history of the local preservation nonprofit, the San Antonio Conservation Society. In the early 20th century, several of the missions sat neglected and had been subjected to decades of abuse, first by soldiers stationed within their walls during the 1840s and later by a surge of tourists that arrived along with the railroads in the 1870s. Adina de Zavala, a preservationist and granddaughter of the first vice president of the Republic of Texas, lobbied to have the missions—including Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo)—purchased by the state. While the efforts of Adina de Zavala and others eventually led to the acquisition of the Alamo, the state’s patriotic fervor did not lead it to pursue preservation or acquisition of the other missions.

Souvenir-seeking tourists and general neglect continued to plague the missions, as well as encroaching development. In the early 1930s, the Conservation Society began purchasing pieces of land to help protect the missions from development. With the assistance of the City of San Antonio, the State of Texas and Bexar County, all of the land surrounding Mission San José was acquired by 1931, and restoration efforts began in 1932, initially relying upon labor provided by the Civil Works Administration and materials supplied by the Conservation Society.

Less than a decade later, the restored site became a National Historic Site and the Texas State Parks Board accepted title of the secular portions of property with the consent of the Conservation Society, Bexar County and the Archdiocese of San Antonio. This did not mark an end to the Conservation Society’s commitment to the missions; the organization still held the title to an aqueduct built c. 1745 by indigenous residents of Mission Espada under the supervision of the friars.

The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

 Mission San José photo from the 1920's. |Credit: San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation
Mission San José in the 1920s. |Credit: San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation

Advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C., led to the introduction of enabling legislation for the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in 1967, but the bill saw no success in Congress. In 1978, a second proposal successfully passed through both the House and Senate and was signed by President Jimmy Carter. After five years of negotiations to establish the cooperative agreements to manage this unique park, the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which included Missions San José, Espada, San Juan, and Concepción, officially opened April 1, 1983. 

The World Heritage Nomination

In 2006 a Federal Register notice was published indicating that the United States would be completely revising its tentative list for World Heritage consideration (according to World Heritage Center rules, every country must have a tentative list of sites to bring forward for full consideration for inscription). A working group made up of public and private partners was assembled to nominate the missions for the tentative list of U.S. sites to be considered.   Funded largely by the Conservation Society, the document was finally submitted in 2007 and the missions were placed on the tentative list in 2008.

The next step was to get the go-ahead from the Department of the Interior to prepare the official nomination. In 2011, two other U.S. sites, the Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point in Louisiana and the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, were selected to prepare their nominations. The following year, at the US-ICOMOS conference in San Antonio, Secretary Salazar announce that the San Antonio Missions were authorized to prepare and submit their nomination document.

 San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park | Credit: Robert Howen

U.S. foreign policies, however, delayed the nomination. For the next few years the Conservation Society along with its partners, the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and National Parks Conservation Association, found itself once again lobbying in D.C. for the missions. This time, though, their request was for the United States to pay its UNESCO dues (as a nonpaying member, it was unclear whether the U.S. would be eligible to nominate new sites or whether those sites would be looked upon favorably). The successful designation of Poverty Point in Louisiana in 2014 boosted hopes that despite the ongoing dues issue, the San Antonio Missions might still achieve designation. And indeed, the World Heritage Committee in July of 2015 voted to inscribe the sites on the World Heritage List.

The role of the San Antonio Conservation Society in preserving the San Antonio Missions is ongoing. Our charge to monitor development and advocate for the protection of the sites requires constant vigilance as we lead the community in providing expert advice and advocating for appropriate buffer zones, viewsheds, and design standards. In the words of former Conservation Society president Nancy Avellar, “the San Antonio Conservation Society is pleased beyond measure that the legacy of our Spanish colonial missions has now been recognized on a worldwide stage. However, our advocacy to preserve, protect, and interpret these treasures will continue unabated, as it has for the past 91 years.”

Bruce MacDougal is the executive director of the San Antonio Conservation Society.

#HistoricSites #WorldHeritageSite

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