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South Central Texas

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South Central Texas encompasses the so-called Hill Country, one of the most distinctive geographical regions of the state. Its geology includes two major features, the Edwards Plateau to the west and the Balcones Escarpment to the east and south. The vegetation is dominated by live and red oaks, ash junipers (locally called cedars), and mesquite trees. The region is crossed by several major rivers, including the Blanco, Guadalupe, and Pedernales, and is bounded by the Nueces River to the southwest.

The ethnic settlement patterns of South Central Texas are one of the most diverse in the state, including over the centuries numerous Indian tribes, Spanish missionaries, Mexican colonials, Anglo-Americans, Germans, Alsatians, Poles, Czechs, Irish, and, most recently, Hispanics. Originally, the region was home to the Jumano and Coahuiltecan groups, who were displaced by the Apache and Comanche tribes as they acquired horses in the eighteenth century. These tribes in turn came into conflict with the earliest Spanish explorers and continued to threaten settlements as late as the 1870s. None of these seminomadic and nomadic cultures left permanent settlements.

The Spanish colonial settlement of San Antonio de Bexar is the center of the region, historically and culturally. The first Spaniards reached the area in 1691, but their purpose was more exploratory than colonizing. The town, which claims 1718 as its founding date, was one of a number of presidios, or small garrisoned outposts, that were used by the Spanish colonial government as a buffer to prevent incursions into Spain's North American territories from French and English forces. As such, they were not towns in the true sense of the word, but could, and in the case of San Antonio did, serve as the catalyst for subsequent settlement.

The other component of the Spanish colonial system to appear in South Central Texas were the missions, administered largely by Franciscan monks sent north from Mexico to convert the native population to Christianity. This strategy of pairing presidios with missions, which was widespread in Texas, was doomed to failure in Central Texas by the largely nomadic character of the native population, which resisted the sedentary life of the missions. The attempt to create five distinct missions around San Antonio further weakened the mission system here as the area did not possess a sufficiently large native population to support five mission compounds.

The permanent establishment of the town of San Antonio began in the early 1730s, when the first civilians arrived. At the end of the colonial period a century later, San Antonio could not have been considered much of a town; surviving accounts in the mid-1840s by German colonizer Prince Carl zu Solms-Braunfels and German geographer Ferdinand Roemer described very crude conditions. Anglo-Americans began settling in the region in the 1820s as land grants were awarded to a number of empresarios,with the founding of Gonzales in DeWitt Colony in 1825.

The most important development in the settlement of South Central Texas in the pre–Civil War years came with the arrival of Germans, lured to the area by books and pamphlets published in Germany that extolled the virtues of the Texas climate and availability of land. The impetus for significant German immigration to Texas was greatly enhanced in 1842 with the creation of the Adelsverein (Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas). Prince Carl zu Solms-Braunfels was appointed director of the colony this group established. He arrived in Texas in 1844 and founded the town of New Braunfels in March 1845. In December 1845, the Adelsverein founded the second major German town in the region, Fredericksburg, eighty miles northwest of New Braunfels. By 1850, New Braunfels was the fourth-largest settlement in Texas with 1,298 residents, while Fredericksburg's population stood at 754. Both of these towns were larger than the state capital, Austin, whose population at the time was 647. The census of 1870 clearly illustrated the predominance of German settlers in South Central Texas, with 86 percent of Gillespie County's population being of German origin, Comal County at 79 percent, and Kendall County at 62 percent.

The newly created Republic of Texas also gave a colonization grant to Henri Castro in 1838, which led to the establishment of Castroville in 1844, some thirty miles west of San Antonio. The town was largely settled by Alsatian immigrants and initially was intended as a buffer to protect San Antonio from attack by Mexicans and Comanches. The Mexican threat was not eliminated until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 firmly established the Texas-Mexico border at the Rio Grande.

In contrast to the rather random character of the street pattern of San Antonio (in seeming conflict with its Laws of the Indies origins), the German, Alsatian, and Anglo-American towns were laid out using a grid pattern. The grids varied, however, with respect to the location of public spaces, which often were intended to serve as the site of a county courthouse and lacked designated church and market squares.

Franciscan priest Leopold Moczygemba led a group of Poles from Upper Silesia who settled in Panna Maria in 1854, the first permanent Polish colony in the United States. Czechs began arriving in Texas in the 1850s and settled in a broad arc of the Blackland Prairie from Victoria in the south to Waco in the north. They shared the trade-center towns with earlier German settlers and built self-contained farming complexes.

The rise of the cattle industry in the region to its south and east marked San Antonio as an important supplier for cattle drives. The pre–Civil War Shawnee Trail and later the Chisholm and Western trails all skirted the town as they proceeded north to the railheads in Kansas. The legendary era of the cattle drives was over by the early 1880s with the arrival of railroads into San Antonio and southeast Texas and with the fencing of the open range with barbed wire.

San Antonio's growth in the second half of the nineteenth century was greatly facilitated by the arrival of railroad lines that provided a means of transport for the region's raw materials, including cattle, to distant markets, as well as the importation through Texas ports of finished goods from elsewhere in the United States and abroad. The railroads were also pivotal in the development of many other county seats in the area, arriving in Cuero and Hallettsville in 1873 and 1887, respectively. The bypassing of Castroville in 1881 led to its losing the county seat to the railroad town of Hondo City in 1892. Some county seats, such as Fredericksburg, did not have a rail connection until the early twentieth century, while others have never been impacted by rail-born commerce.

The late nineteenth century saw the construction of many new courthouses following state legislation in 1880 that granted county governments the authority to issue bonds to fund courthouse construction. Erection of a new courthouse proclaimed a county's prosperity, and the courthouse square was often surrounded by new commercial buildings. Counties in the region that erected new courthouses between 1880 and 1900 include Bandera ( NB73), Bexar ( SA44), Comal ( NB7), DeWitt ( SF24), Gonzales ( SF5), Kendall ( NB18), Medina ( CJ13), Lavaca ( SF19), Gillespie ( NB36), and Wilson ( SF35).

Architecturally, South Central Texas is particularly diverse as expected from its settlement history. The extended period of Spanish and Mexican colonial rule is represented primarily through the five surviving mission churches in the San Antonio area, with their provincial form of baroque and classical decorations, and the heavily restored and inappropriately named Spanish Governor's Palace ( SA47). The traditional, vernacular house form of this period, the jacal,a small one-room structure built of wattle and daub construction, has completely vanished, but is known through many nineteenth-century accounts, including Frederick Law Olmsted's A Journey Through Texas (1859). The German settlers of New Braunfels and Fredericksburg made use of both rough and cut local limestone for wall construction, as well as the German fachwerksystem that placed stone or brick within a hewn wooden frame. In the case of the Ferdinand Jakob Lindheimer House ( NB13) in New Braunfels, the infill took the form of adobe, thus merging both Spanish and German building techniques in a single structure. These houses often featured an open front porch covered by the downslope of the roof to keep out the intense Texas summer heat. Most of the pre–Civil War architecture was vernacular in character, but Greek Revival influences, though frequently subject to vernacular interpretations, appeared with the arrival of Anglo-American settlers in the 1840s. Surviving examples of the style are rare, and include the eccentric Joseph Zorn House ( SF4) in Seguin. Two of the most important lost buildings of the period in San Antonio were the James Vance House built in 1854, and the Market House in San Antonio, designed with an archaeologically correct Doric portico in 1859.

Following the Civil War, architectural styles in the region followed such national idioms as Italianate, Queen Anne, and Richardsonian Romanesque. This last was particularly favored by San Antonio architect James Riely Gordon for his celebrated county courthouse designs in San Antonio ( SA44), New Braunfels ( NB7), Gonzales ( SF5), and elsewhere in the state. Domestic architecture of the period made extensive use of decorative as well as practical elements such as generous front and side porches to alleviate the summer heat. The railroad network made catalogue-order, precut components readily available for building according to the latest styles.

The twentieth century saw the arrival of the Spanish Colonial Revival style in San Antonio, largely through the work of Atlee B. Ayres, whose houses for Thomas Hogg ( SA103) and Marion Atkinson McNay ( SA122) were published nationally. Beginning in the 1930s with the restoration of the La Villita complex ( SA38), O'Neil Ford began a fifty-year career in San Antonio. His early work drew inspiration from the region's nineteenth-century vernacular architecture, but it later transformed into a modernist regionalism perhaps best exemplified by his work for Trinity University ( SA106). Of special interest is the work of Robert H. H. Hugman, whose scheme in the 1930s for turning the channeled San Antonio River into the Riverwalk created one of the state's foremost urban amenities, with sensitively designed bridges and the open-air Arneson River Theater ( SA36). Following O'Neil Ford's death in 1984, a number of young architects, many of whom worked for him, took Ford's interest in regional architectural design to heart. Rather than focusing on nineteenth-century buildings as Ford had, they turned to more recent vernacular and commercial structures, combining simple limestone masonry with corrugated-metal siding. This combination stemmed from the use of these materials on rural agricultural buildings. Among the firms practicing in this idiom in San Antonio are DeLara-Almond, designers of Palo Alto College ( SA89); Lake/Flato Architects, whose works include the HEB Science Treehouse ( SA113); and Alamo Architects, designers of the Humane Society Adoption Facility ( SA130).

Writing Credits

Author: 
Gerald Moorhead et al.

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