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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 texas art 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 work began.

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 restored.
 ' ' 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
The 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 and Monroe.