The triangular landmass at the southern tip of Texas is shaped by three waterways that defined its historical development. The Nueces River was the northern boundary between the Spanish provinces of Texas and Nuevo Santander, a boundary still regarded as a cultural defining line. To the south and west, a string of communities on both banks of the Rio Grande were separated politically in 1848, but remain culturally inseparable to this day. To the east, the Gulf of Mexico opened what was a remote area to international trade that affected the social, economic, and cultural development of the region.
Across the interior of this triangular tip, historically known as the Nueces Strip, a varied topography ranges from the flat coastal prairies of the Gulf, to the rolling hills at its western edge, and to the resacas (oxbow lakes) of the Rio Grande delta. A prime grazing area covered by cacti, mesquite, and brush grasses, the terrain of South Texas is ideally suited to the ranching empires that are still legends.
Although uninterrupted by major geographical barriers, the arid plains of South Texas isolated its major population centers. Corpus Christi, Laredo, and Brownsville, located precisely at each corner of the South Texas triangle, followed different patterns of development that contributed to their distinctive architectural environments. In between these three population centers, ranching communities with their native building traditions dotted the endless brush lands.
As the region became integrated with the state through increased transportation and economic ties, its built environment developed more within the context of mainstream architectural styles and rapid urbanization that define the rest of Texas and the United States. Today, despite the trend toward integration, considerable portions of South Texas still maintain their individual architectural identity forged by their distinctive history and geography.
The legacies of the nomadic Native American tribes that once roamed the South Texas plains lie in their strategic campsites, trails, and river crossings. These all served the Spanish well, as they settled the province of Nuevo Santander, the last frontier of their North American empire. Officially established in 1746 by order of the viceroy of New Spain, the new province extended from northeastern Mexico north to the Nueces River.
Richer and more populous than the province of Texas to its north, Nuevo Santander was colonized by José de Escandón, an enterprising explorer. Escandón envisioned this last frontier as a prominent player in strengthening the defense and economy of the empire. While more ambitious plans to develop a string of seaports along the Gulf, including Corpus Christi Bay, never materialized, Escandón's expectations came to fruition in the settlements founded between 1749 and 1755 on both sides of the lower Rio Grande from Laredo to the Gulf of Mexico. Created as civil settlements rather than missions, these communities were built by resilient homesteaders, who patiently waited until 1767 to officially receive land grants from the king of Spain in the form of both urban lots and porciones,or grazing lands, along the river. In that year, towns were laid out as prescribed by the Laws of the Indies with the required orthogonal grid and central plaza. Mier, Reynosa, Revilla, and Camargo were laid out on the south bank, while Laredo was created on the north bank, along with the ranching outpost of Dolores to its south.
Spain, and later Mexico, its political successor in 1821, awarded land grants of enormous acreage in the upper portion of South Texas, as far north as present-day Nueces and San Patricio counties, to families from the lower Rio Grande settlements. But colonization in this part of South Texas was secondary to that of the Rio Grande, ensuring that its urban development would wait for a later time.
Legal, social, economic, and cultural traditions were inherited by South Texas from Spain and Mexico, including ranching, irrigation, folklore, and religious practices. Spanish and Mexican land grants were also officially recognized by the United States, thus perpetuating the South Texas penchant, even among Anglo-American newcomers, for ranching empires to denote wealth and social stature.
Architecturally, the Spanish and Mexican imprint upon the land is unquestioned, as evidenced in the 1767 grid and plaza in Laredo, and in the Hispanic-oriented towns of Roma and Rio Grande City founded in 1848 in the American era. Urban streetscapes in these communities are unchanged by time: streets fronted by walled compounds punctured by gateways leading to courtyards formed by buildings in L-, C-, or U-shaped configurations. In Laredo, the Bártolo García House ( LA3) of 1834–1861, also known as the Capitol of the Republic of the Rio Grande, is a prime example of this building type constructed in river sandstone, covered with plaster, and roofed in chipichil,or limecrete.
The fortified compound, another building type, dotted the banks of the Rio Grande and South Texas. Constructed of sandstone, or sillar de caliche (cut blocks of soft caliche stone), the compounds are known for their signature troneras (gunports) and their torreones (bastions). Exemplary of this building type, a collection of structures forty miles downriver from Laredo was lost to the construction of Falcon Dam in 1953 ( SM20). Lopeño, Tepezán, El Tigre, Clareño, La Lajita, and other late-eighteenth-to mid-nineteenth-century compounds remain as archaeological sites attesting to the steady advance of the northern Mexican frontier. Fortunately, this lost architectural heritage is today documented at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory of the University of Texas at Austin.
Clustered around the fortified structures, the jacal,a lesser building type, historically housed most of the population. It was constructed of vertical poles connected by short horizontal branches infilled with mud, stones, and hay, and covered by a thatched roof.
Mexico essentially remained in control of South Texas after the Texas Revolution of 1836 until its sovereignty was wrested away in 1848 with its defeat in the Mexican War. Almost overnight, the fortunes of South Texas changed dramatically, as the Rio Grande became the official boundary between two nations. The sparsely populated region was fully opened to Anglo-American settlement, and to new ownership and reorganization of its vast ranchlands, as evidenced by the emergence of the King and Kenedy ranches. Economically, traditional mainstays were energized with new irrigation technology, crop types, and livestock breeds. Steamboat commerce on the Rio Grande, the railroads, and the now-legendary cattle drives further enlivened the economy.
For the built environment, the implications of the new social, political, and economic order were far reaching. In the border region, ranching outposts on the north bank of the Rio Grande, including Brownsville, Hidalgo, Rio Grande City, and Roma, the head of navigation, developed into towns to partake in the brisk steamboat trade with New Orleans and beyond.
In both the new and established border communities, the Border Brick style brought a new dimension to the architecture of the lower Rio Grande. Based on a brick industry transported from New Orleans to Matamoros in the 1830s, the style grew in complexity as it extended upriver, culminating with the classically inspired brick shapes produced by German master mason Heinrich “Enrique” Portscheller in Roma and Rio Grande City in the late nineteenth century. The signature features of the style, raised brick bases, pilasters, and entablatures, were clearly manifested in the Convent of the Incarnate Word of the Blessed Sacrament (1868) in Brownsville's West End district. Designed by Scottish master builder George More, this two-story, H-plan, block-long complex was razed in 1969 after an unprecedented statewide effort to stop the city's housing authority from erecting a fourteen-story residential facility for senior citizens.
While the steamboat trade brought prosperity to the lower Rio Grande, other areas of South Texas looked to the railroad to boost their economic fortunes. The rail link in 1881 between Laredo and Corpus Christi transformed Laredo into a prominent inland port with links to both the Gulf and to
Mexico City. At the coastal end of that rail line, Corpus Christi grew with its connection to major midwestern cattle markets and to the linkage of its seaport to the national railroad system. Its architecture, lacking indigenous traditions, responded to national influences, recalling the Port of Galveston to its north, much more than the Rio Grande. The now-demolished, temple-like Nueces County Courthouse (1878), with its twin set of cascading, exterior metal stairs ascending to a second story, reflects this time period of Corpus Christi's history.
In between Laredo and Corpus Christi, isolated ranching outposts developed into railroad towns to serve as shipping centers. The standard, modular city grids of San Diego, Benavides, Hebbronville, and Alice were all created to serve the interests of the railroad and local ranchers who together promoted the settlement of the region.
In the coastal and delta region of South Texas, the lucrative railroad-based trade connection arrived late, but in full force by 1904. In the delta, development came with a dynamic new component: mechanized irrigation. With profitability virtually assured, the railroad joined with town development corporations to lure immigrants from the Midwest to the newly created communities of Pharr, San Juan, Alamo, Mercedes, Weslaco, Mission, and McAllen. These spatially uniform, railroad-bisected towns served as shipping, supply, and banking centers for the new farming economy, transformed into the “Magic Valley” in the promotional literature of the time.
Reflecting national architectural trends, the trappings of the nineteenth century were quickly discarded in the new developments of the twentieth century. In the lower Rio Grande, the traditional Border Brick style was replaced by the Spanish Mediterranean style as the one best suited to represent the new, sanitized version of the region's Hispanic heritage adopted by the emerging Anglo-American dominant class. Classical Revival was the chosen style for the new courthouses in Brownsville ( BS11), Falfurrias ( KA16), San Diego ( KA29), Kingsville ( KA1), and the imposing one at Corpus Christi ( CC9); Mission Revival was the style for the courthouse in Edinburg (demolished), designed in 1910 by Henry T. Phelps and Atlee B. Ayres, a duplicate of the Atascosa County Courthouse ( CJ21), which still stands in Jourdanton.
Commercial architecture also followed national trends in the change of scale, verticality, and styles in downtowns, as well as in the addition of new building types, including railroad facilities, movie theaters, and auto showrooms. In Kingsville, the now-demolished St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway General Office Building and the Casa Ricardo Hotel, both designed by Louis Curtiss of Kansas City in 1912, were sizeable, dynamic works of longspan reinforced concrete.
Similar to the rest of the nation, the Great Depression caused an economic slowdown in South Texas with an ensuing architectural downturn. The discovery of oil and gas earlier in the century, and the camps and bases associated with World War II, kept the region in motion through the mid-1940s, at which time South Texas was poised again to experience unprecedented population and economic growth.
Paralleling that new growth, architecture at midcentury discarded revival styles and embraced the modern movement. Its affinity for connecting interior and exterior space was especially suited to the yearlong tropical climate of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the Gulf Coast.
Of special note were the motor hotels, a new building genre that beckoned travelers with their campuslike settings and geometric rooflines. The now-demolished Fairway Motor Hotel (1957) in McAllen by John G. York, Valley modernist extraordinaire, best referenced this building type, as does the now-vacant Sun Valley Motor Hotel (1956) in Harlingen constructed by designer-builders Howard J. and Leonard R. Simpson.
Also departing from traditional building forms, thin shell concrete, or folded-plate construction, contributed a new dynamism to South Texas architecture based on the concepts of Mexico City–based Félix Candela, the noted structural engineer who promoted the economies and clear interior spans afforded by the geometry and plasticity of the material. San Antonio's O'Neil Ford and Corpus Christi's Richard S. Colley became active proponents of that construction mode in Texas. Reflecting adherence to these structural principles, the now-razed Flato Memorial Livestock Pavilion (1959) in Kingsville was a masterful rendition in thin shell concrete construction by Alan Taniguchi. The open-air structure involved a complex hyperbolic paraboloid circular roof canopy minimally supported by eight massive columns.
Modernist inroads did not squelch experimentation with the indigenous roots of the South Texas built environment. The 1965 design of the R. Dan Winn House in McAllen ( MR3) as a walled compound intensified this trend, also seen in the 1990s Border Brick style–revival additions to the campus of the University of Texas at Brownsville in historic Fort Brown ( BS1). In Laredo, regionalist experimentation was ideally expressed without reference to historic styles or typologies in the Laredo Blueprint Demonstration Farm ( LA16). Until its closure in 1991, its concrete-sprayed pavilions of stacked hay bales surrounded by shaded gardens irrigated by river water reflected concern with dwindling natural resources in an area of explosive population growth.
By the early twenty-first century, the strategic triangle of South Texas stood precisely as Escandón foresaw two-and-a-half centuries before: a network of flourishing settlements stretching from the Nueces River south to the Rio Grande connected by trade and transportation. The signing in 1993 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which positioned South Texas as the key conduit for commerce on the continent, may well have signaled the fulfillment of Escandón's vision. At the same time, the growing problem of diminishing resources points to the limits of that historic vision. To extend those limits in the twenty-first century, the challenge for architects is to find inventive solutions to sustain and to preserve an area of Texas with a heritage that is unlike any other in the United States.
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