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Roma and Vicinity (Starr County)

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Sitting atop two-hundred-foot-high sandstone cliffs overlooking a string of verdant isles on the Rio Grande, Roma is a National Historic Landmark District. Similar to San Ygnacio, it had its beginning as a ranching outpost adjacent to a low water crossing point. In the case of Roma, it was the outpost for Mier, a south bank community nine miles upriver. But unlike San Ygnacio, the outpost at Rancho de Jesús de Buena Vista, as the Roma area was originally known, rapidly grew into a prosperous river port when it was renamed and platted at the end of the Mexican War in 1848.

Roma served as the headwaters of navigation for goods from New Orleans and beyond that were disembarked at the Gulf and were then transported on shallow-draft river steamboats for eventual distribution in northern Mexico. The original ranching families from Mier with title to the land, including Guerra, García, Sáenz, and Ramírez, developed the town, thereby perpetuating the social and economic links between the north and south banks of the river after 1848.

Substantial commercial-residential compounds were constructed in the newly platted town. These sandstone or brick compounds with high parapets and flat roofs covered with brick or chipichilare generally rectangular in plan with multiple door openings to facilitate trade. Interiors are basically one room deep, with residential functions quartered in a side ell or second story. More so than other north bank communities, except Laredo, these walled compounds tightly define urban space in Roma in a manner reminiscent of Mexico.

The scale and sophistication of Roma's architectural development culminated with the arrival of German master builder and mason Heinrich “Enrique” Portscheller in the early 1880s. Producing molded brick in a variety of classical shapes, Portscheller is reputed to have personally assembled the more intricately detailed portions of his buildings. Although he built on both sides of the border, his legacy is today centered in Roma, where most of his surviving buildings in the region are found. When the river trade ebbed at the end of the nineteenth century, Portscheller moved to Laredo in 1894 in search of a city made prosperous by the railroad. Economically, Roma came to a virtual standstill, resulting in the preservation of an exceptional collection of buildings that vividly represent the varied architectural heritage of the lower Rio Grande.

Writing Credits

Gerald Moorhead et al.

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