At Home on the Border

Participants in the 23rd Annual Building Communities Conference of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects began the two-day conference at South Padre Island with a daylong preconference tour on September 24 that focused on the domestic architecture of the border city of Brownsville. Guided by the City of Brownsville’s Heritage Officer Roman McAllen, Assoc. AIA, and Downtown Manager and Brownsville Film Commissioner Peter L. Goodman, the 40-plus tour participants cut a cross section through the architectural history of this border city of 180,000 people.

The tour began at Market Square in the heart of downtown Brownsville. Carved out of a standard city block, Market Square is home to the Brownsville City Market House of 1852 (plus many additions and some subtractions), the oldest city hall building in Texas. Participants got to see the preservation work performed on the ground-floor market stalls by Brownsville building conservator Lawrence V. Lof and then walked a block and a half to the Immaculate Conception Cathedral of 1859 to inspect the first phase of restoration by Volz O’Connell Hutson Architects of Austin, completed in 2014. The tour also stopped at the Market Square branch of buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, the Dallas-based nonprofit community design center, where [bc]'s Jesse Miller, Assoc. AIA, talked about the firm's Brownsville projects, including the Belden Trail rail-to-trail conversion.

Roman McAllen led the group to what may be the oldest house in Brownsville, a three-room wood cottage built by the English immigrant William Neale, possibly as early as the mid-1830s. Now owned by the City of Brownsville, which is obligated to move it off the site it has occupied for the last 65 years, the tiny, side-gabled house appears to be a Mississippi Valley Spanish cottage, its three side-by-side rooms and front veranda tying it architecturally to such houses as Hope Farm in Natchez, Miss. From the Neale cottage, the group moved by bus through downtown Brownsville to the West End neighborhood to visit the Kowalski-Dennett House of 1893, the work of Brownsville’s foremost late-19th-century architect-builder, Samuel W. Brooks. Set in a walled garden, the Mansard-roofed house is fascinating because Brooks organized its thin wings in a T-shaped plan, shaded by galleries, to take advantage of the prevailing southeast breeze. Participants ventured a few blocks farther to the Casa de la Higuera, facing Washington Park. This is a pair of houses—one a 1920s bungalow, the other of indeterminate age—which Roman McAllen recycled for an extended family. Functioning as both designer and builder, McAllen took advantage of Brownsville’s status as the “ship breaking” capital of the United States to retrieve and reuse salvaged rails, metal cabinets, a workbench, lamps, and aluminum and teak components in the smaller of the two houses, ingeniously economizing on both expenditure and space. The larger of the two houses contains an impressive collection of art by contemporary border artists.

A drive through Brownsville’s late-19th and early-20th-century neighborhoods brought the tour to Palm Boulevard, the divided, palm-tree-lined thoroughfare that leads to Los Ebanos Estates, Brownsville’s

first garden subdivision, developed in 1927. Palm Boulevard and Los Ebanos mobilized infrastructure and landscape to reinterpret the flat, hot, humid borderland as an exotic tropical paradise. Tour participants visited a Monterey style house in Los Ebanos set on an intensively landscaped site backing onto Town Resaca, an oxbow lagoon that meanders through the center of the city. The house was designed in 1937 by Brownsville architect A. H. Woolridge. There, and at the next stop, a spectacular mid-century Modern house faced with limestone and mahogany designed by Page, Southerland & Page and completed in 1951 on a small estate in the 1950s neighborhood of Río Viejo, tour participants witnessed the ways the natural landscape of the Lower Río Grande Valley was re-orchestrated in the 20th century to produce seductive, Eden-like settings of water, sky, and vegetation, even in the center of Brownsville.    

The last two stops were located on Resaca de la Palma, which winds through the north and east sides of Brownsville. One was a country house built in 1941 as a winter home by S. Miller Williams, Jr., a co-founder of what is now the Williams Co. of Tulsa. Located on a 12-acre estate, the house was designed by Brownsville architects Frank E. Torres and A. H. Woolridge as a regionalized, streamlined version of a Mexican hacienda. The one- and two-story house is faced with white-painted adobe brick. It consists of two parallel bars — one the family wing, the other a guest wing — that frame a central patio (now containing a swimming pool). Steel casement windows, a screen of glass block, floors of pale blue tile or polished terrazzo, and thin roof plates with tailed rafter ends indicate the house’s 1940s vintage. Just across the resaca, participants visited a house nearing completion designed by Origo Works of Brownsville. Founding principal Javier Huerta, AIA, talked about his efforts to shape living spaces in Brownsville that work with site, climate, and view to accommodate modern family life. Rather than a hermetically sealed, climate-engineered box, Huerta’s Hackberry House rides above the sloping ground on a platform, which permits breezes and water run-off to pass beneath the house. The carport can be used as overflow space for outdoor entertaining. Deep eaves reach out to shade south-facing openings. And the two-story-tall living and dining room can become a completely open-air space by raising garage doors that will enclose its big-scaled openings.

One tour participant joked that the 2015 BCC tour began with the oldest house in Brownsville and concluded with the newest. The tour demonstrated not only the richness and diversity of Brownsville architecture but also the ways in which generations of architects have planned and built to spatially frame what seems most distinctive and rewarding about living on the lower Río Grande border.

Stephen Fox is a fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas.

This article is online content for the January/February 2016 issue of Texas Architect.