When driving near Falfurrias off Texas Highway 281, you might happen to stop on a long journey at a uniquely graceful safety rest area. Built in 1998, the project replaced a ’70s-era rest stop that was nothing more than restrooms and a few picnic tables. It was the first completed building in a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) campaign to modernize the state’s rest areas.
Situated on 12.5 acres, the rest area sits lightly on the land, made of materials that fit the landscape and a design that reflects the unique cultural context of the Texas-Mexico border region. The result is something that feels a bit like a rest stop and a bit like a museum. The project was designed by Richter Architects, a Corpus Christi-based firm that received the Texas Society of Architects Architecture Firm Award in 2011.
Describing the project in 1998, Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, said, “We wanted the design to grow out of the earth … and to echo the historical references in scale, form, and texture.”
The rest area has a simple plan — four restrooms, picnic arbors, and a walking path — but the sensitivity of the design transforms the ordinary into something transcendent and memorable. Some of that magic comes from the site’s oak trees, more than 1,000 of them. None were removed or damaged during construction, their placement influencing the siting of the buildings. Many of the buildings’ design features reference the oak trees, from the wood-beam-and-glass ceilings in the restrooms that allow visitors to see the tree canopy, to the windows that allow dappled light to filter through.
The details of the project allow the space to transcend its status as infrastructure, becoming something altogether more distinctive. Referencing both Texas ranch vernacular architecture and the Mexican hacienda, the rest area design manages to merge the two styles. The craftsmanship of the masonry, with concrete rubble used to weave a unique pattern into each structure, speaks of history and dedication. The restroom mosaics echo this brickwork as well as the leaves of the trees outside. In combination, the design details make the space feel whimsical, not constrained by the necessary restrictions of public architecture.
In addition to being a waystation for weary travelers, the rest area also needed to function as a community hub. It’s listed as a stop on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, a state-designated system of trails and nature preserves that runs the length of the Gulf Coast. As such, the architects envisioned the rest area as a kind of village square, comfortable for all types of visitors.
When the rest area was awarded jury favorite in TxA’s 1998 Design Awards, it was lauded for its intricate details and common materials. Juror Cal Lewis, FAIA, described it as “clearly the best” they saw, “of national quality that would stand up with any piece of architecture in any awards program.”
Lewis was right. The Brooks County Safety Rest Area went on to win a national AIA Honor Award in 1999 — the only public-sector project in Texas to earn the honor in more than a decade.
The purpose of TxA’s 25-Year Award is to honor architecture of enduring significance. The Brooks County Rest Area achieves significance through design, but moreover, its legacy has influenced architecture across the state. Buoyed by the success of this initial project, TxDOT has amassed more than 75 completed projects to replace rest-stop infrastructure since. Other projects in the program have gone on to win Texas Society of Architects Design Awards as well, including the Kenedy County Safety Rest Area (also by Richter Architects) and the Hale County Safety Rest Area by SLA Architects. In 2018, 20 years after the Brooks County project, Richter Architects’ Pecos West County Safety Rest Area opened. Continuing the legacy of their earlier work, the rest area consists of two striking, duplicate buildings whose design echoes the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
In addition, the Brooks County Safety Rest Area’s plan, with space for nature and family activities as well as restrooms, was so popular with the community that the inclusion of these features is now a tacit requirement for many similar TxDOT projects. In 2015, the Native Plant Society of Texas received federal funding to install native pollinator gardens to attract monarch butterflies at TxDOT rest stops, cementing the idea that these rest stops are not just waystations but a public good and a place to interact with the natural world.
The building was intended to look historic from the day it was built. After 25 years, the sense that the Brooks County Rest Area has simply always existed in the landscape has only grown. In the nomination letter for this award, Andrea Riojas, AIA, 2023 chapter president of AIA Corpus Christi, described the project at 25 as having transcended time and style, with buildings that look so natural in the landscape and community it seems as though they’ve always been there. And for the travelers who continue to pass through, it’s a welcome respite from the road and from thoughtless institutional design.
Alyssa Morris is a freelance writer based in Austin.