LRGV AIA Tour: Small-Town Architecture of Weslaco
On September 26, participants in the 21st Annual Building Communities Conference, hosted by the Lower Rio Grande Valley AIA, took part in a one-day tour exploring the architecture of Weslaco. The buildings toured were completed between the 1920s and 1950s and illustrate how architecture conserves community identity.
Weslaco is a no-longer-quite-so-small town with a population of more than 35,000 people living along the US 83 Expressway, halfway between McAllen and Harlingen. What makes Weslaco worth an architectural tour is that, during the middle decades of the 20th century, it was home to three regionally significant architects — R. Newell Waters (1899–1979), William C. Baxter (1907–1984), and Merle A. Simpson (1919–1993) — who shaped the town’s image with distinctive buildings. Hosted by Weslaco residents Juan Carlos Ortiz, AIA, and his wife Julie, tour participants got to experience how architecture conserves community identity and distinctiveness, the theme of the tour.
The tour began at the head of S. Texas Boulevard, the north-south main street of Weslaco’s original town plan of 1919. There, Weslaco’s most imposing downtown building was built in 1928, the four-story Hotel Cortez, designed with Spanish-style ornament by San Antonio architect Paul G. Silber. Rehabilitated in 1998 as a mixed-use office building and social event space, the Cortez established the Spanish Mediterranean architectural theme that would bring downtown Weslaco to architectural prominence in the 1930s.
As architectural historian Gabrielle Esperdy explains in her book “Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal” (2008), Weslaco businessmen, alarmed by the effects of the Great Depression, hired Waters in 1935 to show how the prosaic one- and two-story storefronts of S. Texas would look if refaced with stucco, roof tiles, and coordinated exterior graphics. In 1936, the Federal Housing Administration insured a $12,000 loan to reface 45 buildings in the 300 and 400 blocks of S. Texas. By March 1937, Architectural Forum magazine was extolling Waters’ “neat and gleaming adaptations of Mission architecture” and reporting that business owners had experienced 35 to 50 percent increases in sales, as shoppers were attracted by the boulevard’s beauty. Today, storefronts don’t consistently maintain the integrity of Waters’ design, but they demonstrate how he crafted an image for downtown Weslaco that locals still prize.
Juan Carlos Ortiz spoke about the exterior rehabilitation of Waters’ most famous public building downtown, the combined City Hall and Fire Station (1927), carried out while Ortiz was working for Edinburg architects Negrete & Kolar. With its energetic cast stone sculptural decoration (detailed by Walters’ draftsman, Anton F. Heisler), the fire station stands out as one of the landmarks of 1920s Spanish-style architecture in the Valley. Participants also visited the adjacent Weslaco Public Library, remodeled from a commercial building by architect Gene P. Hobart in 1986.
The next stop was the picturesque Spanish-style country house that Waters designed in 1927 for Weslaco banker C. Lester Skaggs. Since 1992, the house and its 15-acre site have been owned by the Frontera Audubon Society, which has transformed its former citrus orchards into a preserve of dense brush forest, recreating the historic landscape of the Valley. Tour participants had the opportunity to examine the evolution of Waters’ sense of style by visiting side-by-side country houses he designed in 1938–39 for two businessmen brothers, F. Everett Knapp and John A. Knapp. Like the Skaggs House, the Knapp houses were originally built in the country south of Weslaco. Both have been exceptionally well preserved. The two-story F. E. Knapp House even retains its original finishes, plumbing, and kitchen fixtures. These stylish houses were designed in the Regionalist vein of the 1930s: The F.E. Knapp House is a Monterey house (it was published in California Arts and Architecture magazine in 1940); the one-story J.A. Knapp House is a California ranch house.
The impact of Regionalism on the practices of Waters and William Baxter was visible in a pair of churches. Waters’ Grace Episcopal Church (1950) is a reprise of Ford and Swank’s Little Chapel in the Woods of 1940. Built of mesquite-fired adobe brick, it is elemental and austere. William Baxter’s First Presbyterian Church (1951) displays the influence of Eliel and Eero Saarinen in its low-pitched, gabled roof, off-center entrance, low tower, glue-laminated interior arches, and windows of dazzling cullet glass. A final church stop was at St. Pius X Catholic Church, the home parish of Carlos Ortiz, who was architect in association with Negrete & Kolar of this twin-towered Baroque church (2010). In contrast to its neo-historical facade, St. Pius’s nave is simple and expansive (it seats 890 worshippers). It is dominated visually by thin bowstring roof trusses and a vaulted ceiling faced with cedar latillas.
The final stop was at a pair of mid-century houses. One is now occupied by Julie and Carlos Ortiz; the other, across the street, was built originally for Dr. Stanley C. Bohmfalk in 1956. The Ortiz’ house is a classic ranch house from 1947, laid out in an L-plan configuration to capture prevailing breezes. The Bohmfalk House, designed by Merle Simpson when he worked for Waters, is a U-planned, flat-roofed, modern house, faced with modular wall panels alternating with banks of awning windows slotted between exposed compound wood beams.
The LRGV/AIA tour makes an important point: Between the 1920s and 1950s, architecture was a critical medium through which small-town residents demonstrated their faith in, and commitment to, their communities. They hired local architects to build community and, on occasion, to do so with such style and flair that the national architectural press took notice.
Stephen Fox is a fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas.
This article is expanded content for Texas Architect January/February 2014.