Building the Missions

One of the things that the Missions of San Antonio are most notable for are their impressive limestone churches, walls, and sculptures. The people of the Missions quarried and shaped the stone to create a totally new built environment along the San Antonio River. They built sturdy walls around their new communities because the human landscape of the region had become a strife-ridden, marginal edge of the Spanish Empire. Mission converts wanted walls to keep them safe from raids from other indigenous groups, and the Crown wanted a military fortification to hedge off French expansion into Texas. The largest stone buildings were of course the churches, built so that the missionaries could fulfill their goal of spreading their faith and teaching the polygamous hunter-gatherers how to live ‘properly’ in settled, nuclear households. They directed the use of limestone to build monumental sacred spaces, brightly colored and faced with impressive sculptures of saints and religious iconography. During the Mission period, the spaces in which people lived their daily lives slowly shifted from being bounded by wood and thatch to stone and mortar. This new form of architecture reflected and reinforced a new regime of human tenancy on the San Antonio River—one in which people became permanent settlers along its banks. The limestone churches of and walls of the Missions became the rocky core of the Mission communities, and remain the most important cultural anchors of Southside San Antonio today, with active parishes still owning and using the churches. Because they are still so important to neighborhood life, conserving the structures is an important part of the NPS’ job. In the first week of my internship I got the opportunity to participate in a Historic Preservation Workshop organized by the National Park Service and attended by representatives of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas State Parks, and architectural firms. The workshop focused on both the methods of conservation (How do we determine the original mixes of lime mortar used in the churches’ constructions, and how do we reproduce them?) as well as round-tables for philosophical questions (What time periods do we choose to preserve? What should we reconstruct, and what should we leave as a ‘ruin’?). For the hands-on workshops, the NPS brought in experienced stonemasons and historic preservation contractors to demonstrate and teach some of their skills. I got to chip away at limestone with a stone mason’s tools, and practice mixing different types of lime mortar (it’s surprisingly a lot like mixing dough!). As an archaeologist I appreciated getting to actually experience the processes of construction and artistic creation. It was interesting to learn how important it is becoming to preserve the knowledge of how these things were done in the past, not just the items and buildings themselves. Historic preservation projects have very different requirements from modern constructions, and organizations like the NPS are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified contractors for preservation tasks.

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