Preserving History in Brownsville
Old-timers and newcomers preserve history in Brownsville, spending years
and big bucks to resurrect architectural gems
'Mark and Betty Clark
recently moved to Brownsville to begin new careers. After success in the
travel industry and Mark''s work in a number of museums, including a 22-year
career with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., the Clarks
relocated to the southernmost part of Texas to preserve a historic building
and open a modern art gallery. ' Why downtown Brownsville? After many trips
to cities in and out of the U.S., the choice was easy for the couple:
Brownsville offered the best “'climate”' –' the community was open to
possibilities and had everything they were looking for. “'I''m on the leading
edge of the retirement-age Baby Boom generation,”' Clark said. “'Brownsville
is affordable' great food' music' racially advanced' safe, we can go out at
night and walk around' there is great wildlife, vegetation' on the water'
close to Matamoros' and there were no
galleries showing modern art in the area.”' The warm welcome from the
community and their neighbors was also a selling factor. “'Being welcomed in
our D.C. neighborhood meant being mugged or coming home to find out you had
been robbed,”' Clark said. ' In addition, Brownsville is very supportive of
preserving historic buildings. Historic Downtown District Director Peter
Goodman said there are two kinds of people who come to Brownsville interested
in preserving our historic buildings.
' ' “'Some just out of the blue
like the Clarks, and then others who grew up here, moved away and returned
and want to preserve their childhood.”'
' ' Mark and Betty purchased a
building at 409 East 13th Street, in the heart of downtown. Originally the
structure was home to two addresses: the residence of Henry Miller at 407 and
the John Webb “'Botica”' drugstore at 409. After finding a building suitable
for an art gallery and meeting the criteria for historic status, the real
THE ORIGINAL LOOK
Both of these structures required a lot of
masonry work' most of the windows and doors had been bricked over and stucco
had to be removed in order for the building to resemble its old appearance.
Fortunately for the East 13th building and the Clarks, Larry Holtzman
provided them with photographs and prints of the original structures –'
something critical to ensure that the look of the original exterior is
' ' With the assistance of Goodman, the Clarks found Matamoros
architect Juan Federico Celis, who has worked on a number of restoration
projects supported by the Mexican government and is an expert on preservation
and masonry work. There was stucco and an old skylight to remove, and opening
up the dropped ceiling exposed the roof beams.
' ' The bricks in the
structure are a combination of colors and styles. During the renovation, Mark
found that the back of his building was all red brick, a repair made after
an1867 hurricane imploded a neighboring building, damaging the property.
' ' After eight months of renovations, including 15 weeks of masonry work,
the East 13th Street property was finished. It now has two beautiful
balconies in front and a lovely courtyard in back with a spiral staircase
winding up to the second floor.
' ' The large windows and glass doors
allow light in, not to mention a lovely breeze, and illuminate the original
fireplaces and hardwood floors. The space is the perfect setting for a modern
art gallery and mimics the feel of a large metropolitan loft. The Clarks are
also interested in making their new space available to help support community
events and interests.
A NEIGHBORHOOD TREND
409 space isn''t the only such property in the area. Around the corner,
Francisco Cerme�a, owner of El Toro sporting goods, recently purchased the
building he had been renting on the corner of Elizabeth Street. He''s in the
process of preserving what was once a three-level department store. In
addition, the newly preserved Cameron County Courthouse will reopen to the
public sometime this July.
' ' There are a number of historic and
preserved buildings in Brownsville, including quite a few operated by
UT-Brownsville, all exquisitely restored and surrounded by beautiful
landscaping. Many of the UTB properties also serve the community and provide
services to their neighbors. The Cueto Building, for example, was once a
bakery and grocery store. It is now the new home of Buena Vida, a center for
civic engagement where community members can receive a number of services
from advice on opening a small business to language translation.
Also on the grounds of the Cueto Building is the Lucena House, believed to be
the second oldest wooden structure in Brownsville. The Lucena house is not
only a historical home, it has also provided inspiration for new homeowners
as a model home.
' ' “'What we are working on now is helping new
homeowners stay in their current neighborhoods close to friends and family
instead of moving out into the suburbs,”' Goodman said. “'The exterior of the
Lucena house was used as a model for one of our new homes built on a lot in
the neighborhood. This home and others in the area are consistent with the
architectural style of the area.”'
HELP WITH HISTORIC HOMES
There is assistance available for someone interested in restoring a historic
home, including providing colors that are allowed, advice from historians and
architects and aid in finding properties in the area.
' ' For
information on historic landmark buildings, locations, tours or additional
information on historical preservation in Brownsville, contract Goodman at
956.542.5556, or city Heritage Officer Joe Gavito at 956.548.6070. For
additional information on the 409 Gallery and upcoming events, contact Mark
Clark at 956.455.3599.
' ' Downtown Brownsville is still quite a bustling
shopping district with patrons from both sides of the border. Since many of
the historic buildings are open during the week, if you are interesting in
tours and interiors as well as the exterior restorations, you should try to
make your visits weekdays during regular business hours.
PRESERVING OUR HERITAGE
With the activity in Brownsville, along
with all the home-and-garden shows on television and the plethora of
restoration magazines, it is good to know there are folks interested in
saving our history.
' ' In addition to the possibility of state, federal
and local tax credits, there is something more to taking on a preservation
project: It is truly a labor of love. Too many times, we look back on what we
have lost in the name of “'progress.”' Our country is so young compared to
the rest of the world, and it''s important to ensure that future generations
have something besides old books and photos to teach them about who they are
and where they came from.
' ' As far as the Clarks, they have decided to
streamline their lives and are looking to downsize their living quarters.
Their newest endeavor is restoring the Old Tamayo Grocery Store on East 15th