• Nave of St. Paul Lutheran Church, McAllen, 1956, Zeb Rike, architect; Henry Steinbomer, consulting architect. - photo by John Faulk, Frontera Media

Participants in the 29th annual Building Communities Conference and Trade Show, organized by 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 8. The tour focused on the adjoining cities of McAllen and Edinburg. Conference chair Sergio Láinez, AIA, conference committee member Marta Salinas-Hovar, AIA, chapter executive director María Sustaeta, and chapter president Erick Darbo Díaz, AIA, planned the tour of six sites in McAllen and two in Edinburg with timely assistance from McAllen architect Robert Simpson, AIA. The tour’s theme was “Constructing the Magic Valley.” Tour participants visited sites representing the successive stages through which 20th-century architects sought to project compelling identities for McAllen with their buildings. 

McAllen is a 20th-century city. It was founded in 1908 following the construction of railroads linking the southern tip of Texas to the rest of the state in 1904. Two tour sites focused on the early chapters of McAllen’s architectural history. Participants visited McAllen’s iconic landmark, the three-story, twin-towered, California Mission style Casa de Palmas Hotel, built alongside the railroad track in 1918. M. L. Waller, a prolific San Antonio and Fort Worth architect, not only designed the Casa de Palmas but also headed the investor syndicate that built it. Participating in the tour was Corpus Christi architect Johnny Cotten, AIA. In 1972, Cotten’s firm, Turner, Rome & Cotten, designed a substantial addition to the Casa de Palmas that, as it was nearing completion in 1973, was struck by lightning and completely destroyed. Cotten, who oversaw the addition’s reconstruction in 1974, joked that he got to build his design twice. The use of patios, both in the original portion of the Casa de Palmas and in the 1974 extension, stands out. These spaces draw on Mexican prototypes as sources of not only imagery but also environmental responsiveness. The second early-20th-century site was the two-story country house that civil engineer and real estate developer Edwin M. Card built just east of McAllen’s original town site in 1921. Now overshadowed by McAllen’s tallest building, the Card House nonetheless feels secluded, thanks to its profusely planted site. What stands out at the Card House is the way its designer, Austin architect Hugo F. Kuehne, aligned ground-floor rooms to funnel the southeast breeze while protecting the house’s northwest corner entrance with an arcaded wraparound porch capped by a second-floor terrace. The Card House’s construction of salmon-colored, mesquite-fired adobe brick struck a material note that would echo through the rest of the tour.

Two other morning stops were at churches. St. Paul Lutheran Church of 1956 was the work of congregation member Zeb W. Rike, AIA, who practiced in McAllen from 1946 until his death in 1997. St. Paul is an exuberant mid-century modern design. Rike paid tribute in its design to the churches of the Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen. St. Paul’s pastor, the Rev. Gregory Lorenz, engaged with architect and chapter member Mike Allex, AIA, a partner in Rike’s successor firm, Rike Ogden Figueroa Allex (ROFA) Architects, to talk about conservation issues with the church’s walls and tower, which are faced externally and internally with porous adobe brick. The congregation had considered the feasibility of demolishing Rike’s church and replacing it with a new one, but the onset of the pandemic caused them to reconsider. Pastor Lorenz illustrated the proposal prepared by ROFA for a new church building that paid architectural homage to Rike’s design. In contrast to the architectural dynamism of St. Paul, St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church of 1967 is solemn and straightforward. Located on McAllen’s west side, St. Joseph was designed by architect (and parishioner) Julio Rafael Guerra, AIA, who, in the 1950s and ’60s, was the only registered architect in the Valley who was Mexican American. Like St. Paul, St. Joseph is based on Nordic modern prototypes. While at St. Joseph, former colleagues of Julio Guerra who were on the tour spontaneously paid tribute to him, recalling his modesty, encouragement, and support.

The afternoon stops focused on a sequence of houses north of downtown McAllen. Notable was the modular, flat-roofed William H. Wilson House of 1962 by Weslaco architect Merle A. Simpson. Of wooden post-beam-and-deck construction, the Wilson House incorporates an interior patio, floor-to-ceiling windows screened with louvered wood shutters, ample use of skylights, and a verdant landscape setting. Together these attributes craft an idyllic image of domestic life in a modern tropical paradise. The Morris Atlas House of 1965 reiterated the use of the patio enclosed by walls of adobe brick to shield the house’s glass-walled interiors from the street. The Edinburg leg of the tour (the two cities share a common border) entailed a visit to what was originally a country house built in 1951 and designed by O’Neil Ford and Jerry Rogers. Owned by the second generation of the family who built it (and astonishingly intact), the linear-plan, one- and two-story house is a catalogue of Ford’s modern regionalist materials, finishes, and details. As enthralled tour participants discovered, these characteristics make the house feel simultaneously unassuming and sensational! 

The tour concluded with a visit to the Echo Motor Hotel in Edinburg. Occupying a 16-acre site next to a golf course, the Echo is the last of the Valley’s mid-century tropical resort motels. Opened in 1959, it is still in operation. The complex consists of a five-story slab, faced with projecting brise-soleil units and salmon-colored Roman adobe brick, set atop a one-story podium housing function and service spaces. The lobby flows from an angled porte-cochère entry to an expansive patio-lawn that at its widest measures 220 feet by 550 feet and is enclosed by a pentagonal ring of one-story lanai units. Designed by Dallas architect J. N. MacCammon in collaboration with Texan-born Miami architect Carlos B. Schoeppl, the Echo begs for the kind of loving restoration lavished on its fraternal sibling, MacCammon and Schoeppl’s Fredonia Hotel in Nacogdoches.  

The conference tour displayed the contrasting architectural and cultural histories of McAllen and Edinburg buildings and how their architects, across a range of building types, sought to address the physical, emotional, and social well-being of occupants. The sites visited exhibited the ingenuity and inventiveness of architects, especially in deploying sustainable techniques in the design, siting, construction, and operation of buildings. The tour enabled participating architects and designers to reflect on the impact that architectural design trends had in a specific regional landscape as they experienced the ways 20th-century architects, whether intentionally or otherwise, formulated cultural identities for their communities. 

In addition to the tour, the conference featured an impassioned keynote presentation by Houston architect Mark Schatz, FAIA, on how architects can serve their communities as informed and resourceful defenders of the environment. Luis Murillo, Assoc. AIA, of buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, spoke about bc’s affordable housing initiatives involving both historic preservation and new construction. Houston architect Hill Swift conducted a session on becoming a contemporary classical architect. Mario Peña, AIA, of Able City, spoke about his firm’s restoration of the San Agustín Catholic Cathedral in Laredo. And architect Murad Abusalim, Ph.D., dean of Texas Southmost College’s STEM division, spoke about the future of architectural education in the Lower Río Grande Valley.

In its 29th year, the Lower Rio Grande Valley architects’ conference demonstrated its resilience by providing continuing education courses that draw both local practitioners and design professionals from other parts of Texas to South Padre Island for a weekend of learning and fun.  

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

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