• Tour participants pass in front of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Brownsville. - photo by John Faulk/Frontera Media

Participants in the 28th annual Building Communities Conference of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects began their two-day meeting at South Padre Island with a pre-conference tour on September 9 focusing on recent historic preservation projects in Brownsville. Conference chair Sergio Láinez, AIA, chapter executive director María Sustaeta, and chapter president Javier Huerta, AIA, were instrumental in organizing this tour of eight downtown sites that exemplify a wide range of architectural preservation practices. Participating in the tour were the conference’s charismatic keynote speaker, Enoch B. Sears, AIA, of Visalia, California, and 55 attendees.

The tour began at the Cameron County Office Building, a repurposing of the First National Bank, which is a six-story, midcentury modern, slab-on-podium building designed by San Antonio architects Phelps, Dewees & Simmons. John Pearcy, AIA, senior principal of Harlingen-based Megamorphosis, talked about his firm’s approach to rehabilitating a building that was structurally sound but whose exterior marble cladding was failing. Pearcy used the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation to argue the case for replacing the marble, since the county’s budget precluded restoring the marble panels or replacing them with new stone. Megamorphosis’ preservation of the dimensions, alignments, and proportions of the building’s stone cladding has meant that although almost all facing materials are new, the building’s architectural integrity has been preserved. The building remains quite recognizable despite the almost total replacement of its exterior finishes.

From the ex-bank, tour participants walked five blocks to a pair of rehabilitation projects by the Brownsville-based design/build/development/management firm ORIGOWORKS. Principal Javier Huerta and project designer Abel A. Alanis met participants at the Livery Building, the firm’s rehabilitation of a brick bearing-wall structure with a wood-framed floor and roof built in 1910 as a livery stable and buggy showroom. At the Livery Building and at Botica Lofts — ORIGOWORKS’ conversion of a three-story 1909 pharmacy (botica) and office building into residential units — Huerta talked about the challenges of dealing with deteriorated fabric, rising damp, sinking foundations, lack of maintenance, and no parking. Yet use of the Livery Building’s second floor as the Milliken-Garza Gallery and rental of all of Botica Lofts’ apartment units gave ORIGOWORKS the confidence to acquire an 1880s building on Brownsville’s Market Square, now being repurposed as a restaurant.

The tour’s most radical preservation project was located a block from Botica Lofts: the reconstruction of the two-story Stegman Building of 1912 as the George Ramírez Brownsville Performing Arts Academy. Academy music director and administrator José Alejandro Cruz explained that to provide code-compliant spaces for music, dance, and performance education for students from low-income families, everything but the Stegman Building’s exterior brick walls was demolished. San Antonio architects Muñoz & Co. essentially inserted a new building into the Stegman Building’s brick shell, recycling salvaged wood flooring as decorative paneling. A respectful exterior rehabilitation of the Stegman Building preserves its 110-year-presence at one corner of Market Square while equipping it to function as a state-of-the-art educational institution bringing students and their families into downtown Brownsville.

Following a superlative lunch at Terra’s Urban Mexican Kitchen, located in the rehabilitated Dennett Building of 1904, a block and a half from the Performing Arts Academy, participants walked five blocks to the law office of State Representative Eddie Lucio III. The Lucio law office occupies the Carlota Campbell and Joseph Webb House, a one-story, brick cottage with the center passage raised, wrapped on two sides by a gallery. The house was occupied for 106 years by four generations of the Webb-Martínez family, who both maintained and modified it as their circumstances changed. Thick brick structural walls, the shaded, southeast-facing galleries, 13-ft-high ceilings, louvered shutters framing windows that open from floor-level sills, interior transoms, and the central hall all played their parts in enabling the house to perform in Brownsville’s hot-humid climate. Maintenance of the house’s roof-to-underground-cistern water storage system and a complement of outbuildings preserve spatial practices and adaptive technology pre-dating the availability of modern city services in Brownsville.

From the Lucio law office, tour participants walked back to the Market Square vicinity to the latest project of Brownsville’s foremost architectural conservator, Lawrence V. Lof. Lof’s amazing “revival” of the Ashheim Star Store, an 1880s-era retail and residential compound that had been re-faced, roofed over, and so thoroughly disfigured by bland remodeling that it was not even listed as a contributing property when much of downtown Brownsville was designated a National Register historic district in 2019. Lof’s recovery of the Star Building’s historic fabric revealed an especially graceful interpretation of the 19th-century Border Brick style on the building’s Washington Street facade. It also revealed the complex’s unusual L-plan spatial organization, with the building’s residential component aligned along one of the side property lines so that, like the Webb-Martínez House, rooms face the side patio and into the prevailing southeast breeze.  

Around the block, on Elizabeth Street — Brownsville’s main retail street — participants next toured the J. L. Putegnat & Brother Building. The two-story brick building was rehabilitated by Fernando Ballí’s Ballí Management Group in 2018 for owners who are fifth-generation descendants of Jean-Pierre Putegnat, a French immigrant who bought the lot on which the pharmacy stands in 1852. Fifty-three years later, Putegnat’s grandsons built the pharmacy building on this lot. Although suffering from wear-and-tear and loss of some historic fabric, the Putegnat Building was still quite recognizable as a late-Victorian storefront. Ballí was able to locate historic photographs that enabled him to reproduce lost exterior detail. The ground floor was rehabilitated as retail lease space. The second floor preserves its historical layout as professional offices, displaying the system of interior doors, transoms, and windows that facilitated light-and-air transmission prior to air-conditioning.

Concluding the day-long tour was a visit to the ground floor of the Hotel El Jardín, an eight-story, stucco-faced, Spanish style landmark built in 1926 and shuttered since the 1980s. Boarded-up windows and no electricity gave the dark, vandalized interior a spooky feel. Yet what was apparent was the generosity of the hotel’s high-ceilinged public spaces and the potential they will offer when the building is rehabilitated by the Brownsville Housing Opportunity Corporation, a nonprofit subsidiary of the Housing Authority of the City of Brownsville, which bought the abandoned hotel in 2019. Upper floors and a rear wing will be re-programmed with 54 affordable apartment units. And the hotel’s rear patio (a parking lot since the 1960s) will be brought back to life. ORIGOWORKS is the architect for the rehabilitation, which will make use of federal and state historic tax credits for the building’s certified rehabilitation. Jesse Miller, AIA, principal architect at Megamorphosis and vice-chair of the board of commissioners of the Brownsville Housing Authority, joined staff members of the Brownsville Housing Opportunity Corporation in speaking about the process of funding and programming the adaptive reuse of the Hotel El Jardín. 

The LRGV chapter’s conference tour showcased the positive impact that preservation, rehabilitation, and adaptive reuse can have on a community’s sense of self-esteem. It underscored the range of practices — from “restoration” of the Webb-Martínez House, to “discovery” and “recovery” of the Ashheim Star Store, “rehabilitation” of the Livery, Botica, and Putegnat buildings, “reconstitution” of the Cameron County Office Building, and “replacement” of the Performing Arts Academy — encompassed by architectural preservation. Although not all of these approaches conform to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards (the baseline for American preservation practice), each has played a crucial role in enabling Brownsville to retain its historic architectural fabric while adjusting to new uses and changing economic circumstances. As Enoch Sears observed in his keynote presentation the next day, the sites that tour participants visited made him realize that Valley architects operate as part of a culture of architecture that transcends the limitations of daily practice, underscoring the formative role that buildings, cities, and design play in constructing, conserving — and rediscovering — community.    

Stephen Fox is an architectural historian and a Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas

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