Proceedings of the Second Annual Mission Research Conference
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Application of Historical Photography in Structural Research of the San Antonio Missions
Santiago Escobedo, Archeologist
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

The importance of historic photographs can be realized simply by their absence. Without these photographs, historical interpretations of the 19th century would parallel the story of the blind Indian fakirs, each describing the newly discovered elephants themselves.

Without these visual replicas, researchers would have to rely exclusively on personal perceptions or on the interpretation of an artist to know what people or places we could never see, look like.

Our image of the 19th century would be severely limited, but, more importantly, would be our lack of visual history associated with the San Antonio Missions. The public's fascination with the magic of photography in the 1800s served as a stimulus for photographers to find new subjects to focus their attention. The San Antonio Missions proved to be romantic ruins suited to fit the bill for this time period.

As early as 1855, photos had been taken of these structures thereby initiating a recording trend which is still popular today. For the research staff at San Antonio Missions, these photographs reveal much of the original construction techniques which have since been masked by 20th century restorations.

The slides you are about to see represent just a few examples as to how history and photography are combined to present an accurate interpretation of your city's past.

(Whereupon, there was a slide presentation at this time.)

[Slide] These first two slides illustrate an example of Spanish Colonial wall and roof construction. This is a Frank Hardesty photograph of San Jose's north wall taken in 1886. Note the thick wall construction and how it thins as it reaches the springline of the vaulted roof with the wall continuing to form the parapet.

[Slide] The same construction technique is seen in the bedroom ruins in the convento at Concepción, again a very thick wall merging into a vaulted roof and parapet.

Also, note the absence of the present day buttress and this arched projection toward the east, indicates that another corridor existed on this side similar to the one on the west.

[Slide] In 1846, a soldier climbed onto the roof of San José, a common practice even ten years later when this photograph was taken, and described the crack which had formed between the first and the second bay of the roof of the Mission church. "There is a broad fissure on one of these arches," he said, "which must be constantly widening and unless it is arrested, will hence bring the edifice to the ground."

Well, 23 years later, in 1868, the roof does collapse and this structure remained in this condition for the following 63 years. This same soldier also described the altar in the church at this time. Again, his words: "The altar still preserves its elaborate workmanship, but the rich gilding is seen in a few of these spots, which have eluded the corroding touch of time."

With his description in mind, we can see in this 1877 photograph post holes in the church's east wall where the retablo or altar was attached. This and other photographs of the same wall also can be used to reconstruct the framework of this altar. It has been said that the elaboration of the church's facade could only have been equaled by its altar, an object of which there are no visual representations.

[Slide] This is another detailed photo at San José. Again, note the post holes on the back wall. Through the doorway can be seen a dark object protruding just to the east of the sacristy's north door. On closer examination, it was revealed to have been a support beam.

Again, this is just one slide of many photographs which show this detail much clearer; a detail which was uncovered after the slides had been made.

The Díaz de León description of the church in 1824 says, "To one side of this sanctuary is a flying tribune of wood with a turned bannister which through a door communicates to the second story patio of one room adjoining the church which has served, or can serve, as a convenient hospice for its celebrants." This 1885 photo shows all that remains of this flying tribune.

At San Juan, the object in the window was described by a note on the back of an 1895 photograph as a coffin lid. In 1936, a newspaper story by J. W. Schuchard recalls the story pertaining to a coffin and the chapel at San Juan. Briefly, the story tells of a northerner coming to San Antonio to seek relief from tuberculosis. He waited too long and died at San Juan. He was buried there in a wooden coffin.

His wife arrived sometime later and had the body disinterred and placed in a new coffin. She took the body for reburial in the man's hometown. The wooden coffin was left by the side of the grave.

Two enterprising young men loaded the coffin onto their wagon and took it into San Antonio in hopes of reselling it. They had no luck. Even the pawn shop owner who advertised, "We loan on anything," refused.

The coffin was returned to San Juan and left in the chapel, but why was its lid nailed to the window? On closer examination of the wall, notice the crack that begins at the roofline and extends downward next to the window. The placement of the lid across the window prevented the window jambs on either side from collapsing in on each other; this gesture stabilized the north wall structure. In 1907, the Claretians arrived at the site and began restoration of the chapel and the compound.

A 1772 inventory described this structure as originally being the sacristy of a large church. This 1877 photograph shows only the eastern elevation of the present day chapel standing. This photo and its date contradicts the popular notion that when Father Bouchu arived in Galveston in 1855, he hopped on his horse and raced immediately over to Espada to begin his restoration.

The current photo documentation now shows that the church or the chapel was not restored until sometime after 1885, but before 1891 as seen is this Mary Jacobson photograph of the same year. Well, what did Father Bouchu do up until 1885? Being the practical man that he was, he rebuilt and reconstructed the two-story structure that was located at Espada at that period of time and used it as his residence.

Before we go on to the next slide, please note that the chapel doors are whitewashed and there is a small, newly-planted tree.

Finally, as an example of how photographs if not properly interpreted can lead researchers astray, this photo has been attributed by many photobook authors of San Antonio's history as being representative of the restoration efforts by Father Bouchu. Now, look closely at the tree which has grown considerably and the whitewashed doors which have faded.

There are other details which date the photo at a much later period than the Bouchu restoration. This photo represents a Father Hume and Bishop Shaw's restoration of 1911 and 1915.

The value of photography in historic research has just begun to formulate. The most immediate asset of this new combination is that structures can now be compared side by side through time. This combination has provided the Park research staff an ability to verify or discount historic documentation, thereby allowing us to present you an accurate and informative description of the San Antonio Missions history.

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Last Updated: 24-Apr-2011