Brownsville, the oldest city in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, was created strictly for business by Charles Stillman, an American entrepreneur who made his fortune in Mexico. Seeking to transfer the commercial dominance of Matamoros to the north bank of the Rio Grande at the close of the Mexican War, Stillman situated Brownsville as the gatekeeper of United States– Mexico trade, with Fort Brown as its protector.
The original townsite, a functional grid devoid of public spaces and wide thoroughfares, was laid out in 1848 in the flat terrain of the Rio Grande delta and incorporated resacas,or old river channels, thereby providing the city with a series of scenic, natural landmarks. Although not grand in scale, the plan was sufficiently large to comfortably accommodate commercial and residential areas without any expansion until 1910.
Brownsville quickly developed as intended, becoming the county seat in 1849, and exponentially boosting its trade during the Civil War when Confederate cotton was shipped from Matamoros to evade the Union blockade. That bonanza in trade made Stillman and partners Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King some of the richest men in the United States. It also brought to Brownsville immigrants from a myriad of nations, including those who had originally come to Matamoros, making the young city the sixth largest in Texas by 1870 and, perhaps, the most cosmopolitan.
A post–Civil War construction boom made Brownsville the springboard for architectural styles, materials, and typologies, as transferred through Matamoros, for the lower Rio Grande border region. Brownsville's built environment was thus more hybrid than the more Mexican-influenced, contemporaneous upriver communities of Roma and Rio Grande City. In addition to the Border Brick style, Brownsville showcased more detached structures, front yards, Victorian-era styles, and streetscapes with more open spaces that allowed the display of lush tropical vegetation.
Despite a pioneering effort to build the twenty-two-mile Rio Grande Railroad between Brownsville and Point Isabel in 1872, the city was isolated when Stillman and his partners, annoyed by the efforts of local businessmen to break his steamboat shipping monopoly with a railroad, bypassed it and financed the competing Corpus Christi to Laredo rail line. It was not until 1904, when the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway came into town, that the city would renew its economic and architectural development. Swiftly, the original townsite was filled in, new suburbs laid out beyond it, and new construction responded to the mainstream Spanish Mediterranean style.
After World War II, Brownsville followed the national trend toward modernism, as its extensive historic core was defaced, demolished, or neglected. But so substantial was its historic fabric that great portions of it survived, with the pervasive presence of the Border Brick style—the city's signature style.
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