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Our Border Heritage Landmarks and local advocates reveal vivid binational heritage

Photos by Wayne Bell, FAIA.

by STEPHEN FOX

Two stories of colonnade open to the interior courtyard of the Silverio de la Peña Building in Río Grande City, a masterwork from 1886 by brickmaker and mason Heinrich Portscheller.

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In conjunction with its annual “Building Communities” conference held in October, the Lower Río Grande Valley’s AIA chapter organized a day-long architectural tour that focused on two contrasting settings in remote Starr County. The first stop was Rancho Lomitas, a 177-acre nature preserve north of Río Grande City. Naturalist Benito Treviño led participants on a field trip through the ranch’s rolling terrain. Rather than raising livestock, Treviño and his wife Toni raise “brush”—the low, tough, stickery, drought-resistant plants native to far South Texas that are commonly called chaparral (scrub) or monte (thicket). By restoring the ranch’s thorny woodland landscape, the Treviños provide habitat for the extraordinary assortment of birds, butterflies, and other animals that give the Lower Río Grande Valley its exceptional biodiversity. A self-described ethnobotanist, Benito Treviño demonstrated the multiple uses these plants yield. (For example, yucca alone will produce shampoo, soap, twine, and edible flowers and stalk.) Participants left Rancho Lomitas with a vivid sense of how the Lower Río Grande Valley’s predominantly MexicanAmerican ranching culture subsisted in this isolated setting for well over a hundred years until the early twentieth century. After lunch the group reassembled for an architectural tour led by Mauro E. Villarreal, director of Río Grande City’s Main Street Program funded through the Texas Historical Commission. Río Grande City was founded in 1848 across the Río Grande from the Mexican town of Camargo. It was the site of Fort Ringgold, one of a series of border forts the U.S. Army established after the U.S.-Mexican War. Although earlier Mexican architectural practices along this portion of the Río Grande involved building with locally available sandstone, Río Grande City’s oldest buildings are made of brick. Mauro Villarreal pointed out surviving buildings of

the early 1850s along Water Street, once the riverfront street where steamboats operating between Brownsville-Matamoros, Río Grande City, and Roma docked from the 1850s until the 1870s. Villarreal led the group through an interconnected complex of buildings – the brick Kelsey House of 1877 and the adjoining López-Tijerina House – that are Mexican type, patio-centered houses. The López House was rehabilitated in 2004 by the Río Grande City Economic Development Corporation, the Río Grande City Main Street Program, and the City of Río Grande City as a special events center. Built in stages between the 1850s and the early 1900s, its oldest wing is of stone construction. In rehabilitating this wing, portions of the interior walls were left unplastered to reveal the underlying construction. The exterior wall separating the patio from Main Street is of cal y canto (lime mortar and stone) construction, similar to the shells of houses one sees upriver in the Mexican town of Guerrero Viejo, Tamaulipas. Newer components of the complex were constructed with brick. The composite construction of the López House mirrors the composite culture of Río Grande City. Later in the day, Villarreal arranged for the group to visit Río Grande City’s most famous work of architecture—the Silverio de la Peña Building, the masterwork of the Roma brick contractor and builder Heinrich Portscheller. The Peña Building, completed in 1886, recently has undergone much needed exterior conservation to replace brick courses eroded by rising damp. The two-stor y house is as haunting inside as outside, with a north-side arcade (now enclosed) containing what was once an open-air stair. Visits to the restored La Borde House Hotel, another patio-centered complex of the 1890s and 1910s, and the adjacent Adaud-Peña Building, were followed by a bus tour, narrated by Sam Ramos, of Fort Ringgold, the state’s most intact nineteenth-century border fort. The group visited the original Commandant’s House, better known as the Robert E. Lee House.

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Texas Architect Jan/Feb 2006: Schools