Participants in the 30th annual Building Communities Conference and Trade Show, organized by the American Institute of Architects Lower Rio Grande Valley Chapter, began their two-day meeting at South Padre Island with a pre-conference tour. The tour focused on landscapes and buildings along a 50-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 83 Business between the cities of Mission and Harlingen. Conference chair Sergio Láinez, AIA, chapter executive director Maria Sustaeta, and chapter president Jesse Miller, AIA, planned the tour of seven sites.
Harlingen’s newspaper, the Valley Morning Star, popularized the phrase “Main Street of the Valley” for U.S. Highway 83 Business in 1929-30, reflecting the effort to link towns in Texas’ two southernmost counties, Hidalgo and Cameron, with a continuous paved highway. Highway 83 connected adjacent communities founded in the early 20th century along an earlier transportation technology — the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railway. Built in 1904, the railroad was also the reason that towns were established to anchor large agricultural tract developments fed by irrigation networks from the Rio Grande. Business 83, until it was supplanted by the U.S. 83 Expressway in the 1960s, was the vehicular backbone of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Its surviving buildings and landscapes reflect the contributions of 20th-century cash-crop agriculture to the regional economy and the emergence of highway-related building types.
The tour’s first three stops were in Mission, just west of McAllen. Founded in 1907, Mission was identified with the cultivation of grapefruit and citrus’s foremost regional promoter, real estate developer John H. Shary. The tour began in the mid-20th-century northside neighborhood of Shary Heights, developed by Shary in 1945, where many of the primarily one-story, brick-veneer, ranch-type houses were designed by architects. Participants visited one of the neighborhood’s rare two-story houses, built in 1949 for a Mission banker and occupied since 1970 by three generations of the Dovalina family. Originally, deed restrictions in Shary Heights barred sale to, or occupancy of property by, “Latin Americans.” Logan Dovalina, whose parents now own the house, spoke about his reaction to the discovery that in 1945 his grandparents would have been excluded from Shary Heights. It is because of his advocacy and research that Shary Heights is now a candidate for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Dovalina House was designed by Mission architect Warren C. Suter (1918-2010), who designed several houses in Shary Heights. Chapter member Manuel Hinojosa, FAIA, spoke about his relationship with Suter, his mentor, and the architect’s wife, Dorothy Suter, Hinojosa’s high school art teacher and the first to recognize and encourage his talent. Hinojosa also spoke about what it felt like to grow up in Mission in the 1960s, when class and ethnic barriers were strictly observed.
The second Mission stop also involved a “rediscovered” architect, Anselmo M. Longoria (1894-1936). Longoria designed the most imposing work of architecture built in Mission in the 1920s: Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. Located in Mexiquito (Little Mexico), south of Business 83, Our Lady of Guadalupe was Mission’s Spanish-language parish. A. M. Longoria, who practiced in McAllen, was one of only two Spanish-surnamed building professionals in the Valley in the 1920s who identified themselves as architects. Longoria’s great-grandson, Dallas architect David Contreras, AIA, provided family records documenting Longoria’s buildings, which include two commercial buildings still standing along the Mexiquito stretch of Mission’s main street.
The third Mission stop was at a rural site on the river: the 19th-century ranch chapel at La Lomita, built by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Roman Catholic religious order historically associated with the Lower Rio Grande border. Restored most recently in 2008 (and winning a 2010 Texas Society of Architects Design Award for architects Kell Muñoz), this humble vernacular structure is the “mission” for which the city was named. Built with walls of plastered rubblestone, the chapel is an emotionally poignant link to the pre-highway, pre-railroad landscape of the Valley, when the Rio Grande was the region’s primary highway.
Following the railroad eastward along Business 83, the tour crossed beneath the U.S. 83 Expressway to enter the city of Pharr on McAllen’s east edge. There, participants visited the Valley Fruit Company complex, built in phases between 1947 and 1957 and designed by Pharr architect Gene Devine (1914-1992). The largest and most architecturally ambitious of the fruit and vegetable processing plants that once lined Business 83, the Valley Fruit Co. is especially notable for its use of widespan wood lamella roof vaults. Now listed in the National Register, the complex is still in the food business as the regional headquarters for the nonprofit Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley.
In the afternoon, participants visited the Hotel Cortez (now called Villa de Cortez), a four-story downtown hotel constructed in 1928 where Business 83 intersects Weslaco’s main street. Designed by San Antonio architect Paul G. Silber, the Spanish-style Cortez had been abandoned by 1998, when Weslaco developer Larry Dittburner and his wife, Patti, bought and rehabilitated it. Today, the Cortez functions as a community event center, with retail on the ground floor, offices above, and a church in the basement.
From Weslaco, the tour headed into the still agricultural landscape of eastern Hidalgo County and western Cameron County for a stop at the grandest house in La Feria. Built in 1923 by a Kansas City developer, Al Parker, it is a showplace where Parker sought to entice Midwesterners into buying their own piece of the exotic tropical paradise he was selling. The house’s second owner, Harlingen media tycoon McHenry Tichenor, turned the exotic tropical paradise landscape trope into reality by replacing Parker’s extensive front yard orchard (killed by a freeze) with a magnificent grove of Washingtonia palm trees, which frame the intensely white house with their massed trunks.
The tour concluded with another neighborhood stop: La Hacienda Casitas on the western fringe of Harlingen. Completed in 2014, La Hacienda is a six-acre affordable housing community of 56 freestanding houses constructed on the site of one of the motel complexes that once lined Business 83. (Chapter member Michael E. Allex, AIA, wrote about the project in the May/June 2014 issue of Texas Architect, and it won a TxA Design Award in 2014.) Jesse Miller, who had worked for the nonprofit architecture practice buildingcommunityWORKSHOP when it designed La Hacienda, led a walking tour through the neighborhood, describing the issues that the developer, the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, and architect had to resolve to get it built. Visitors noted how carefully tended the whole neighborhood was and the excellent condition of the nearly 10-year-old houses.
What the AIA-LRGV’s trip down Business 83 demonstrated was the wisdom and practicality of reusing existing architectural resources. Not only is this more environmentally responsible and economical, it also invests landscapes with a palpable sense of historical depth and community identity. Sessions at the conference reinforced this message with presentations by Logan Dovalina on landmarking Shary Heights and Manuel Hinojosa on the architecture of education in the Valley. Architects discussing issues related to their practices — TxA President-Elect Derwin Broughton, AIA; Mark Schatz, FAIA, of Houston; Katia Zapata and Roberto Núñez of Monterrey, and Marianella Quiroga Franklin, Assoc. AIA, of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley — demonstrated how architects can profitably learn from each other’s experiences. Conference keynoter Michael Ford, AIA, NOMA, of Detroit (and now Dallas) delivered a lively presentation on Hip Hop Architecture, his effort to connect underrepresented youth with design culture.
Attendees saluted retired AIA-LRGV executive director Carmen Perez Garcia, Hon. AIA, and her husband, Rolando “O” Garcia, FAIA, who launched the concept of a local chapter conference in 1993, adding the tour component in 2003. As with state and national conferences, the Building Communities Conference gives architects from the geographically sprawling Valley chapter the opportunity to reconnect with colleagues and to learn from and reflect on the design cultures of their border home.
Stephen Fox is an architectural historian and a Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas.