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Ruins of Brick Culture Strewn Along Lower Río Grande b y S co t t coo k
(top) In Río Grande City, a recently rehabilitated courtyard interconnects a complex of historic residences. The stone wall separating the patio from the street is a composite of lime mortar and stone, known as cal y canto and commonly used in the mid-1800s along the lower border region. (above) The patio-centered La Borde House, built in the 1890s and 1910s, was recently restored.
Built in 1849 and restored in 2005 by Milnet Architectural Services, the one-story house is thought to be the oldest wooden U.S. military building surviving in Texas. Río Grande City and Rancho Lomitas are fascinating sites. Functioning fully in the modern world, they forcefully evoke the architectural and natural history of the Texas-Mexican border country. They demonstrate that though Río Grande City and Starr County may be far from major urban centers, they possess the power to compel their most enlightened citizens –such as Toni and Benito Treviño and Mauro Villarreal – to preserve, restore, and share their region’s abundant natural and cultural treasures. Stephen Fox is a Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas and a contributing editor of Texas Architect. He teaches architectural history at the University of Houston and Rice University.
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It is important to complement our celebration of the architectural heritage of historic buildings in the borderlands with an understanding and appreciation of the lives and work of ladrilleros (brick makers) who toiled in ladrilleras (brickworks) to produce the ladrillos (bricks) from which these structures were built. The list of buildings, well-documented by architectural historians and much-visited by tourists and aficionados alike, includes the Gem store and the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Brownsville; the Our Lady of Visitation church and the ranch building in Santa Maria; the Hinojosa house in Relámpago; the main house and chapel at Rancho Toluca; the Old Irrigation Pumphouse, the courthouse, and other buildings in Hidalgo; the Oblate Novitiate and the Mission Canal Company pumping plant in Madero/Mission; the Silverio de la Peña Building and other structures in Río Grande City; and the Nestor Sáenz store and other buildings in Roma. Without exception, each and every one of these historically significant buildings was constructed from brick that was hand-molded and kiln-fired in a nearby ladrillera. These and many other buildings, like the brick from which they were constructed, have lasted through many generations of occupancy and admiration. By contrast, the ladrilleras that supplied the tens of millions of bricks mortared into the walls of these and other historic buildings have either been removed or recycled back into the landscape. On the Texas side of the river – from Olmito to Relámpago to Rancho Toluca, from Hidalgo to Granjeno, and from Los Ebanos to Río Grande City and Roma – historic buildings are celebrated as venerated relics of regional architectural heritage, whereas the ladrilleras and their ladrilleros are forgotten. Even the multi-acre, once state-of-the-art Valley Brick and Tile Company that for decades produced millions of hand-molded and machine-extruded brick under the banner of “What the Valley Makes, Makes the Valley” partially stands in Madero today as a vivid reminder of deindustrialization. Its ruins are a metaphor for what was, for several decades spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the principal non-agricultural industry in the lower border region. Unquestionably, one of the unique features of the built environment in the lower border region, especially when buildings of socalled “historical significance” are concerned, is the prominence of masonry construction involving locally or regionally produced clay brick. Until around 1925, on both sides of the border, this brick was mostly hand-molded, and kiln-fired in small-scale, low-tech, labor-intensive ladrilleras, many of which were established and operated on an ad hoc basis to meet special demands (e.g., townsite construction projects; particular large building projects such as banks, hotels, pump stations, etc.). Some of these ladrilleras inevitably outlasted special short-term demands and supplied “Brick Culture” continued on page 26
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