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.
On the subterranean beer garden’s creek-side deck, a picnic table is packed with a young professional bunch in rapt conversation, men with their backs to the water oblivious to the glowing presence creeping up the wall behind them. From Waller Creek below, looking up at them and the rest of the Austin skyline, the beast is visible in full: a ghostly creature emerging from the murky depths, its long legs, made of flexible LED Neon lights, frozen in mid-leap, looking as desperate as any other Austin-dweller for a good seat at a bar patio downtown.
This is “Waller Phantasm,” University of Texas School of Architecture Professor Clay Odom’s contribution to the lambent menagerie of the 2015 Creek Show, the second annual walking tour of temporary installations along Austin’s mostly forgotten downtown stretch of Waller Creek. Even the existence of this stretch of the creek has remained a mystery to people who’ve lived in Austin for years. In a city so in love with itself, Waller Creek might be its least appreciated attraction.
But not for long. The creek is undergoing a massive transformation — a $150 million flood control project that will contain the Waller in a downpour and keep its flow consistent in a drought, accompanied by a chain of new downtown parks overseen by New York-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Peter Mullan, former vice president of New York City’s Friends of the High Line, is leading the Waller Creek Conservancy, a 5-year-old nonprofit booster club for the creek that is working to attract investment and build excitement for the creek’s new life as a signature Austin attraction.
Job number one is a bit of social engineering, encouraging Austinites to start connecting with the creek and building memories before the parks are complete. Over nine nights in November, that’s what Creek Show did for thousands of people, illuminating the normally desolate, foreboding creek-walk confines as a place of discovery and wonder.
“The creek is beautiful in its way,” says Creek Show director Ingrid Spencer, “but it’s also abandoned and kind of dirty and dangerous. But what’s to come is going to be fabulous.”
Five installations from Austin-based architects and artists made it happen. Upstream from Odom’s “Phantasm,” lurking beneath an Eighth Street bridge, a spidery tangle of ropes illuminates the creek in shifting colors. This is “The Natural Unnatural” designed by Clark Richardson Architects, a suggestion of the meandering unseen pathways that will form the new and improved Waller. Seen from street level, with the owlish Frost Bank building towering above, the piece forms the underside of a monstrous urban jungle.
Architecture firm Specht Harpman’s “Volume” is a reminder that the creek itself has a wild side of its own: a long, luminous curtain of pumped-up creek water adds a soothing presence to the scene, until, at random intervals, it overflows into an unruly waterfall beside the walkways.
These paths were packed on the show’s opening night with a diverse cross-section of the city, most of them wearing thin glow-stick necklaces. Smartly dressed couples trade notes as though making the rounds of an east side gallery, while unsuspecting Sixth Street bar-goers, drawn like June bugs to the light, fawn over someone’s miniature goat whose name is Princess Buttercup, and dads with strollers struggle to negotiate the very non-ADA-compliant platforms spanning the creek between Sixth and Seventh Streets.
Those immovable platforms help underscore the joke in Ten Eyck Landscape Architects’ “Floating the Waller,” a matrix of inner tubes — chosen specifically for their photoreactivity — glowed a striking green in ultraviolet light. At first glance, their stretch of Waller Creek looked like the most orderly float ‘n’ bloat in Central Texas. But the Waller is, for now, untamed, and a downpour halfway through the show flooded the creek and loosed a section of the tubes from their tethers. Designer Christine Skaglund says their team improvised a fix for the show’s final days, stringing a series of the tubes together into one giant ring.
The spirit of Creek Show — sparking visitors’ imaginations about this long-forgotten space — may shine most brightly in artist Luke Savisky’s “AT/x,” a projection of swirling shapes on the underside of a bridge with interactive experience built in: a camera pointed back at the walkway collecting images of visitors’ faces to shine onto to bridge. Savisky says that as he watched visitors interact with his piece — he sat with his equipment through each night of the show — he saw those connections being made, between friends sitting together at his camera, the underside of the bridge above them, and their reflections in the creek below, quite literally seeing themselves in the creek for the first time ever, a vision of creekside times to come.
“Hopefully,” he says, “that creates a space for them to kind of lose their ground a bit and allow their minds to go into a different space. Even though they’re looking at themselves, they’re seeing something else.”
This article is online content for the November/December 2015 issue of Texas Architect.
Last weekend, the Texas Society of Architects Publications Committee gathered in Tyler for its annual “PubCom” Retreat. Past retreat destinations have revealed a unique architectural presence from earlier times, and Tyler, with its abundance of fine architecture and really talented architects, was no exception. Retreat tours have often focused on mid-century modern residential and commercial architecture, and there is plenty to be had in Tyler — so much in fact, that a group called The Mod Squad was recently created specifically to promote awareness of the wealth of the city’s modern architectural heritage.
The “star architect” of this retreat turned out to be E. Davis Wilcox, who practiced in Tyler from 1946 until his death at the age of 87. One of the finest houses we visited was his personal home, which had deteriorated substantially until rescued by its current owners. Fortunately, they had the resources to not only restore the house to its original glory, but also to furnish and appoint it appropriately. The open plan, organized around a glass atrium and featuring an abundance of windows, in the owners’ words, “brought the outside in” through the architect’s design genius. We visited a number of other houses (built primarily in the early 50s), as well as a school, several bank buildings, and the Tyler Museum of Art, all by Wilcox.
Other highlights included the very original Bruce Goff-designed house at Lake Palestine (most people do not realize that Goff spent his last years practicing in Tyler), the Shoenbrun House, designed by California ranch house originator Cliff May, and the traditional Fair House, which was designed by another prominent local architect, Shirley Simons, in 1938. The house featured a beautiful garden by landscape architect Maurice Shamburger, who also practiced in Tyler and introduced azaleas to the area in 1929.
A driving tour of the city’s historic districts, led by host Mike Butler, AIA, allowed the committee to survey many other buildings in the area as well. As the committee’s van zigzagged the streets, architectural historian Stephen Fox filled in pertinent historical information, making the whole experience all the more enjoyable and informative. Mike also suggested the idea of a “sketch crawl,” which revealed committee member Joe Self, AIA, as master of the quick field sketch, and the upcoming issue of Texas Architect will share some of his simple yet beautiful drawings from over the weekend.
The PubCom Retreat served as the inspiration for the Society’s Design Conference, the second of which was held in Dallas last month. Every one of the retreats has been a truly wonderful experience, highlighted by the building tours and comradery. Our thanks go to Mike and Ann Butler for an unforgettable weekend.