Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Publications Committee Visits Lower Rio Grande Valley

Brantley Hightower
TSA Publications Committee Chair

In addition to the fulfillment that comes from assisting the staff of Texas Architect in the creation of the magazine, one of the best parts about being on the Publications Committee is the annual retreat. 

Normally, the committee meets in Austin once every two months to provide direction on upcoming issues and review the one most recently published, but once a year we take the meeting on the road and take a broader look at the magazine and how better we can serve our readership. Meeting in a place other than Austin provides us with an opportunity to interact with the membership of local chapters and see local projects that we might not otherwise have the opportunity to explore. This year was no exception.

While I had been to “the valley” before, this trip gave me a much better understanding of the diversity of the lower Rio Grande. The committee met on Friday at the Quinta Mazatlan, a Spanish-revival style mansion dating from the 1930s. We stayed nearby in McAllen at the historic Casa de Palmas Hotel, and after our business meeting we had the opportunity to take in the remarkably lively nightlife of the 17th Street District.

The following day we headed out to Brownsville at the southernmost tip of Texas. Because of its geographic location, the airport in Brownsville was once an important international hub for Pan-American flights to and from South America. In 1936, a Pan Am pilot hired Richard Neutra to design a house for him. In the 70 years that followed the house fell into an increasing state of disrepair, and in 2004 it was listed as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of the “Most Endangered Places." The house was ultimately purchased by the City of Brownsville and restored by the University of Texas Brownsville/Texas Southmost College. The house looks great now and is definitely worth a visit.


While in Brownsville, we also explored the city center as well as the university campus. Originally occupying old Fort brown structures, the school has grown into a modern learning institution that still retains the character of its historic past as it develops into the future.


From there we headed west and saw a number of houses by John York and Alan Taniguchi. While both of these midcentury architects would eventually leave the valley (Taniguchi would eventually become the dean of UT’s School of Architecture), they left a compelling built legacy in the valley. We toured a number of single family homes designed by the two both as individuals and in partnership and I think we were all impressed by the skill and efficiency of their designs. We were also impressed by the slenderness of some of their columns – structural engineers seem less likely to allow us to use 2” pipe columns these days.

Our day ended in Mission where we visited the World Birding Center and the La Lomita Chapel. The latter was an exceptionally impressive restoration project recently completed by Kell Muñoz. Located in an alluvial plain within view of the Rio Grande, the building has witnessed a vast amount of history despite its miniscule size.

All of us on the committee would like to thank local architect and hosting Publications Committee Member Mike Allex along with Carmen Pérez García, executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Valley AIA. The tours they organized were a treat and I think I speak for everyone on the retreat when I say I look forward to returning to the valley again. A special thanks is also due to Stephen Fox, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the valley (and of most other places in Texas) truly made this a weekend to remember.

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