In its nearly 200-year history, the Treviño-Uribe Rancho in San Ygnacio has endured Indian raids, political turmoil, Anglo incursion, banditry, and inundation. Recently restored and currently facing further isolation if a border wall is constructed, these markers of Texas’ Hispanic colonial heritage may be facing their biggest challenge and most important moment yet.
Frank Briscoe wanted to get back to his roots. He started his career in architectural conservation in the Northeast after attending professional school, but had decided to return to his native Texas. He soon found himself on the border for a job, where he encountered an old regional vernacular built by early Spanish-Mexican settlers that he had never heard about.
“They are these really lovely and very well-built sandstone buildings that are part of an incredible string of forts,” he says.
Briscoe was confounded. Why didn’t he know about these buildings? Why were so many of them not being preserved? As he began to work on more projects along the border, he realized there was a widespread underappreciation of the South Texas borderlands and its architecture.
“I was genuinely upset to come down and see this incredible collection of architecture that is not in any of our history books,” he says. “You hear a little bit about some of the missions, but you have no idea — even growing up in Texas as I did — about the richness of the border architecture.”
Briscoe has been involved in numerous projects along the border since then, but he just recently finished working on arguably the best remaining example of this vernacular in the state: the Treviño-Uribe Rancho.
Built in a series of construction campaigns from 1830 to 1874 by Spanish-Mexican settlers, the ranch is a six-room sandstone compound with a Riverstone masonry wall wrapping around its exterior and enclosing a generous interior courtyard. Despite its being essentially defensive in nature in the years of its founding, the compound bears an unexpected display of craftsmanship and decorative detail evocative of the Spanish colonial era.
“Architecturally it is one of the best, most complex and fully realized examples of domestic borderlands architecture that survives from the Spanish Colonial/Mexican Period in the United States,” architectural historian Terri Myers wrote in the building’s National Historic Landmark nomination.
Since 1998, when the compound received its National Historic Landmark designation, the River Pierce Foundation has been working to preserve the building. It took 10 years to purchase the entire property from its original owners, and 10 additional years to complete its restoration. Today it stands pristinely as the founding structure of San Ygnacio, a border town composed of a tight web of persistently empty streets emanating from a central plaza wedged between Highway 83 and the Rio Grande. As of 2010, the town was home to 667 people.
Beyond its embodiment of Spanish building traditions and Mexican ranching culture, the most extraordinary thing about the Treviño-Uribe Rancho is simply that, against all odds, it has survived. It is one of the oldest buildings in the state and one of the few remaining buildings of its type along the border that has retained its original architectural integrity. To persist to this day, the ranch and its inhabitants have had to endure pitiless terrain, indefatigable Native American raids, social isolation, political turmoil, violent banditry, Anglo economic incursion, and government-induced flooding. And, who knows? Maybe they’ll have to endure a border wall, as well.
In the current political context, where the public image of the border has been reduced to transitory migration and conflict, the 10-years-long preservation and restoration of the Treviño-Uribe Rancho is a testament to the depth of the Hispanic proprietorial and cultural ownership of the Texas border, long before it was Texas — or a border. It demonstrates the lengths to which Tejano settlers went to maintain their land and heritage, which is once again at stake under the current intransigent political administration.
“This cultural milieu is underserved, unacknowledged, under-everything — marginalized — because people don’t want to deal with it,” says Michael Tracy, founder of the River Pierce Foundation, referring to Hispanic residents of the borderlands.
Tracy is an eccentric but respected Ohio-born painter and sculptor who moved to San Ygnacio in the 1970s. He spent his early years there producing a prodigious amount of work — the quintessential isolated artist — before starting the River Pierce Foundation in 1990. It began as an education and art residency program, bringing artists from across the state to create new work and teach an art curriculum at the local elementary school. However, when one of the owners of the Treviño-Uribe Rancho offered to sell their half of the fort to the foundation in 1998, it altered the organization’s trajectory entirely.
“We had a big philosophical change about what we were doing because, all of a sudden, we became part of the stewardship of a land in a way that we didn’t expect,” says Christopher Rincon, the executive director of the River Pierce Foundation.
Since then, the foundation has dedicated itself to identifying, conserving, and bringing awareness to the built vernacular and cultural heritage of San Ygnacio and the Texas-Mexico borderlands, which were named one of the nation’s most endangered historic sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
After the River Pierce Foundation purchased the remaining southern half of the complex in 2008, it applied for and received an emergency grant from the Texas Historical Commission to stabilize the building. The Foundation recruited board member Frank Rotnofsky, AIA, of Able City Architecture, along with a team of specialists — including Frank Briscoe and Terri Myers — to work on the stabilization and produce a comprehensive historic structure report detailing the building’s history, context, timeline, archaeology, and architecture, along with an extensive restoration plan.
“The historic structure report let us spend a lot of time really looking closely at the building so that when the restoration funds became available, we were able to do a much more careful job,” Briscoe says. “It was all about authenticity, about being able to pay attention to the nuances of the building. It was absolutely full of them.”
The team was thorough. They worked with the National Park Service and utilized every available resource to fully understand the fort’s sequence of construction, including invaluable documents from the Depression-era Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). The documents contained photographs, measurements, and plans of the fort from 1936. For an architectural conservation and restoration project, documents of this type are precious and rare.
“We restored it to what it looked like in 1936 because that was the best documentation that we had,” Briscoe says. “It allowed us to keep all of the major historic features, but take away all these accretions that were added to it after 1936.”
As they analyzed each of the sandstone complex’s distinct rooms and compared them to the historical record, a story emerged, not only of the building, but also of a people determined to flourish despite the perpetual challenges of living on the frontier.
It started when Spanish-Mexican settler Jesús Treviño constructed the oldest part of the complex on a strategic piece of land east of the Rio Grande in 1830, almost 10 years after Mexico won its independence from Spain.
Due to the ongoing threat of Comanche and Apache raids at the time, Treviño built a one-room stone building on a bluff overlooking the river. That 296-sf building would serve as his ranching headquarters for the next 20 years and became the centerpiece of the complex that exists today.
Now identifiable as the Cuarto Viejo, or old room, of the Treviño-Uribe complex, the building is a testament to the dangers of living on the frontier at that time. More than anything else, defense determined its form. It has 26-inch-thick walls, no windows, two 5-ft-tall towers with gun ports, and a flat roof with a lookout perch. The 3-in-thick south door, still in place, was constructed of mesquite with a cypress panel. Inside, the door was secured by a mesquite cross bar.
Native Americans weren’t the only threat for the settlers in the region. In the succeeding two decades between the construction of the Cuarto Viejo and its next major additions, four separate governments laid claim to the region. The Republic of Texas asserted jurisdiction over the land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande after winning its independence, a claim which Mexico refused to recognize. Three years later, an ambitious group of Mexican separatists formed the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande.
“That speaks for the kind of defiant, on-its-own region that we have here on the border,” Rotnofsky says. “And we still speak of it. People don’t understand this region, and we fight our government every day with the border wall.”
Yet the true watershed moment for border residents like Treviño was the American victory of the Mexican-American War in 1848.
The United States annexed all land north of the Rio Grande, placing Mexican land grants in this region in jeopardy. Under English law, property ownership was recognized based on actual occupation of the land, evidenced by permanent houses and corrals. In Spanish and Mexican law, ranchers had no imperative to make such “improvements.” Consequently, the U.S. Government classified many land grants along the lower Rio Grande as unsettled because they were operated by absentee landlords, and hundreds of colonial descendants lost their family lands to Anglo Americans eager to exploit their potential.
The Treviño Ranch, however, protected itself from these massive land grabs. Treviño’s daughter and son-in-law, Blás María Uribe, moved full-time to the ranch in 1850 to validate their ownership.
This initiated the Treviño-Uribe fort’s most significant construction campaigns. Quickly, they transformed a stone shelter into a permanent home. Uribe built additional rooms and walls to surround the extant Cuarto Viejo and enclosed a courtyard with livestock corrals. In one of the new rooms, known as the Casa Larga, a ceiling beam bears the inscription, “Por Paz Y Libertad Obremos,” translated as, “Let Us Work for Peace and Liberty,” dated 1854.
However, the resumption of intensified Native American raids after the Mexican-American War ensured that the complex did not lose its defensive function or features. After one of these raids decimated a nearby settlement, Uribe equipped the building and walls with protective parapets, gun ports through which they could ward off attack from any direction, and fireproof roofs made from chipichil — a mixture of lime, sand, and gravel. Soon, the Treviño-Uribe compound served as a refuge for the surrounding community.
Inevitably, new threats continued to arise for Mexican settlers north of the Rio Grande. While Anglo opportunists swarmed the lower Rio Grande Valley to invest in its new agricultural industry and buy out Spanish-Mexican settlers, residents of San Ygnacio hired communal lawyers to protect their property rights.
As the American Civil War began in 1865, outlaw activities augmented the already vigorous threat of Comanche and Apache raids. Even as Native American raids began to abate in the early postwar years, bands of both Mexican and American outlaws descended upon county ranches, stealing cattle and livestock and occasionally killing the occupants. “In many respects,” the historic structure report states, “Zapata County during this period epitomized the lawless frontier of Western legend.”
The final construction effort took place just as this traumatizing period began to subside. Uribe’s second wife, Tomasa, encouraged her husband to undertake several significant building campaigns, including the 1871 addition of the large sandstone room known as “la casa pinta,” or the parlor. The room’s lack of defensive features indicates its purely social function. Along with the courtyard, it became the space in which family and members of the growing San Ygnacio community would gather to relax or hold celebrations.
Beyond this point, the fort saw few significant structural changes, even up to the modern day. Retracing this history, the preservation team saw that the Treviño-Uribe Rancho was a quite pure physical manifestation of the resiliency that life on the border required.
“One of the most striking aspects of the Jesús Treviño-Blás María Uribe Rancho is its pervasive quality of authenticity,” the historic structure report states. “With only a few exceptions, each part of the existing complex reflects the efforts of its makers and residents. The Rancho evolved with its history, reflecting its early defensive role as well as periods of peace and relative prosperity.”
The obligation to honor this history didn’t rest easy on the Treviño-Uribe preservation team.
“You’ve got the weight of history on your shoulders.” Rotnofsky says, “It’s kind of an awesome responsibility.” Considering all their research and the ample documentation afforded by HABS, Rotnofsky says, “it was really just an opportunity to get it right.”
This restoration was so detail-oriented that it’s hard to imagine the fort people see today is much different from the one a Treviño-Uribe descendent inhabited in the 1930s. And, remarkably, the actual restoration took a mere nine months, from June 2016 to April 2017.
They divided the work into two phases. The first six months covered big-ticket items like masonry repair, reconstructing portions of the courtyard wall, and the banquetas, or stone sidewalks, surrounding the complex. They also replaced the heavy chipichil roofs with insulated wood-framed roofs to preserve their beautiful but deteriorated cypress beams.
In the second phase, they were able to delve into the abundant details and nuances of the complex. The doors, for example, were especially evocative. Briscoe set up a conservation workshop during this phase almost exclusively for door restoration and reconstruction.
“Almost every one of them is just so beautifully made,” he said. “The oldest door, which we think is original, from about 1830 — that thick mesquite door with a cypress panel — is just a gorgeous piece of construction. It was entirely made on site, I’m sure.”
The doors of the Treviño-Uribe complex express the stories of the people who built them perhaps even better than the rooms do. Their craftsmanship is remarkable, with almost every one having been hand-made with locally sourced mesquite or cypress. Some were painted a brilliant blue, which could be a symbolic religious reference, welcoming saints. The doors also reflect the fort’s synthesis of form and function, with many of them serving defensive purposes while maintaining aesthetic qualities.
Briscoe says they had to develop all sorts of new clamps for the restoration, since they couldn’t take many doors off their hinges. In the case of the enormous mesquite door on the Cuarto Viejo, the walls were actually built around the door.
“What I’m finding as an archeological conservator — it’s what I live for — is that each of their vernacular buildings showed how each family had its way of solving the problems of building on la frontera,” Briscoe says. “They had their idiosyncratic ways of building a tronera, framing the door, building floors.”
The time the preservation team spent researching and working in San Ygnacio allowed these qualities of authenticity — the legible characters of the many authors’ hands — to shine through the structure. They have created an incredibly precise rendering of the complex, yet it did not come without its challenges.
“Michael [Tracy] was far and away the most difficult client I have ever dealt with,” Briscoe says. “At one point, he proposed leveling the fort complex and just focusing on the native American presence.”
When the archeologists they had hired found the remains of Native Americans on the land the complex occupied, Tracy became ambivalent about the entire restoration endeavor. It seemed to him that by restoring a colonial-era structure, they were honoring the very act of colonization, of stealing people’s land.
“Of course, it is obvious that the people who made this building were taking land from people that had lived here for thousands of years: Native Americans, whoever they might be. And I, of course, don’t like that,” says Tracy. “And that, of course, is exactly what’s happening with this wall, supposedly,” he adds, referring to Trump’s border wall. “It’s going to take people’s property and turn it into something else.”
Tracy contends that the colonial treatment of land — and people — along the border did not end with the Spanish. Throughout San Ygnacio’s history up to today’s militarization of the region, the American government and Anglo-Americans have taken measures on the border that disregard the families that have made those lands their home for centuries.
This was evident when Texas took and reallocated numerous properties from Mexican settlers following the Mexican-American War and again when Anglo entrepreneurs pressured Hispanic landowners to sell their land grants in the lower Rio Grande Valley.
But perhaps it was epitomized with the 1951 construction of the Falcon Dam, which flooded a significant portion of the Rio Grande in Zapata County, destroying hundreds of homes and numerous historic communities that dated back to Spanish settlement, along with thousands of acres of pastureland and farmland.
According to the historic structure report, the U.S. Department of State considered the residents who were displaced “as humble folk of Mexican origins, illiterate, and inexperienced in such matters.” Ranchers received minimal compensation for their property. People who survived at a basic subsistence level off the land were left with little means to replace that which had taken 200 years to build.
San Ygnacio and the Treviño-Uribe Ranch, however, once again managed to survive. The town escaped the fate so many Hispanic communities faced by having 200 of its residents sign a petition to exclude San Ygnacio from condemnation, citing the town’s heritage and location high above the expected maximum reservoir levels.
Not much has changed since the ’50s, it seems. The state-sanctioned construction of a wall that will arbitrarily condemn the property of families who have owned their land since the original Spanish grants makes this amply clear.
The roots of such treatment reside in a history of American neglect of the borderlands and its Hispanic heritage. The fact that there are so few buildings left like the Treviño-Uribe complex that represent Texas’ borderlands architecture — and that they are widely unrecognized — attests to this. These buildings complicate and even threaten the binary image of America, and Americans, as being altogether separate from Mexico.
“The roots of so much of our South Texas architecture are inextricably tied to northern Mexico,” Briscoe says. “To try to say that there’s a border between them is just nuts, because there’s nothing that you can separate in the architecture. It is absolutely seamless.”
In a period of near ceaseless squabbling over border politics, the River Pierce Foundation’s restoration of the Treviño-Uribe Rancho is a tribute, not only to San Ygnacio’s Hispanic heritage, but also to Texas’. And perhaps it offers hope that if this community was able to withstand so many tribulations in the past, the people of the borderlands will also be able to overcome the threats they face today.
“I don’t think you can find many places more indicative of what we’re capable of, that express just the range of being human, than right along that border,” Briscoe says. “And especially now; this is a whole new chapter.”
Christiana Sullivan is a freelance journalist based in Austin.