It was long overdue, for Brownsville’s downtown is one of the most historic sites in Texas. The downtown has an impressive collection of 19th and 20th century architectural jewels. This newly designated historic district encompasses 76.5 acres – about 30 blocks – where 349 historically significant buildings are found. Of the 349, 240 are contributing structures meaning they now qualify for federal tax credits (20%) for preservation. If any of these 240 buildings qualify as Recorded Texas Historical Landmarks (narrative, photographs and drawings must be submitted to the Texas Historical Commission), the property owners can request a state tax credit (25%) after the remodeling is complete and paid for. This is extremely enticing and the potential start of a significant revitalization process for the city of Brownsville.
“We’ve been getting a lot of calls from entrepreneurs who are looking to invest in downtown Brownsville. There’s a lot of momentum right now because of the designation. These investors know how to take advantage of the tax credit system” said Brownsville Historic Preservation Officer Juan Velez.
Contrary to popular belief, national register listings do not come with any protections on their own. There are no federal preservation police. The only protections to prevent demolitions come from city codes and it is up to the city council of Brownsville to assure historic buildings are preserved.
Brownsville downtown buildings are protected by the city’s historic preservation board. Every alteration to a building must be reviewed and approved by this board. The biggest challenge is addressing the correct business models for this new downtown development said Velez. Recently elected Mayor Trey Mendez leads by example when it comes to preservation. He lives and works in two historic buildings he restored and just last year he opened “Dodici Pizza and Wine” in one of the most beautiful Border Brick style buildings in downtown; the 1883 Juan H. Fernandez building across the street from Market Square. Mayor Mendez is planning the opening of a Whiskey Tavern soon. Other new downtown businesses include Main Street Deli, Double Trouble, The Kraken Lounge, Half Moon Saloon now serving tacos, and a soon to open restaurant and bakery. Velez works with entrepreneurs stressing on the importance of a market studies before investing on a business.
According to Preservation Texas Director Evan Thompson, the potential of receiving federal and state tax credits is the most important aspect that comes with a district wide designation. But Brownsville does not stop there, for the city offers additional grant money to lure entrepreneurs. These are called BIG Grants where the city will match up to $7,500 for exterior work, $7,500 for interior restoration, and up to $1,250 for signage. Furthermore, these grants provide the new investor with an additional $7,500 for the first year of operation upon signing a 2-year contract. This is to help investors navigate the uncertainty of the first years in business. “These taxes and grants stimulate investment on preservation. Restoring these buildings will attract numerous visitors to the area because of its unique characteristics. The designation raises the visibility of downtown Brownsville and it validates the significance of the buildings in the entire district. We are not talking about saving 1, 2, or 3 ‘important’ buildings, but raising awareness of the more modest architecture found in the district” said Thompson. He added that the value of the designation comes from having all these buildings together, and from discouraging the idea of restoring only the select few fancy ones. Preservation Texas hosted their 2018 annual summit in Brownsville, Texas.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s website quotes Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who wrote about the economic advantages that certain types of businesses have when located in old buildings. Bookstores, ethnic restaurants, antique shops, neighborhood pubs, and especially small start-ups thrive in old buildings. Old buildings attract people and are a reminder of a city’s cultural complexity. But beware, for preservation is a one-way street; there is no turning back. One can never know what will be valued in the future and once a piece of history is destroyed, it is lost forever.
It is a great day when preservationists like me don’t have to fight to save a building. When we don’t have to wage war against a city government or an entrepreneur. It is a great day when a city like Brownsville celebrates a historic district designation and the dawn of an economic revival.
My story was published in the Rio Grande Guardian online newspaper in February 2020.
Additional reading from the office of Juan Velez
More than nineteen distinctive architectural stylistic influences are represented within the Central Brownsville Historic District. We are very grateful to have that unique Border Brick style that belongs to cities founded in the mid- 19th-century along the Rio Grande and in our case, inherited from our twin city of Matamoros.
The Border Brick style is represented by the outstanding Juan Fernandez & Brother Building, located at E. Adams St. & E. 12th St., where Dodici Pizza and Wine is located. An example of the Prairie style, developed at the beginning of the 20th-century, is found in the Stegman Building at the corner of E. Washington St. and E. 12th St. designed by Andrew Goldammer. It has been recently rehabilitated by the City of Brownsville.
We can also admire the Spanish Colonial Revival of the Aziz Brothers Building, located at the corner of E. Elizabeth St. and E. 12th St., and in the most famous building in Brownsville whose dome is used as the logo for the City of Brownsville: the Old City Hall & Public Market.
Brownsville has always had that magnet effect on people. Before 1930 there were six hotels; you might want to look to De Walt Hotel, just to the right of the Capitol Theatre at E. Levee St., or across from it, the very famous El Jardin Hotel.
Brownsville also had five theaters to entertain residents and tourists. Some examples are the Dittman Theatre at E. Washington St., practically in front of the Fernandez-Olvera Building, the building with green balconies recently rehabilitated by Larry Lof; or the Dreamland Theatre, located in the corner of E. Washington St. and E. 11th St., or the before mentioned Capitol Theatre at E. Levee St.
Through its nine wholesale merchants, nine dry goods companies, thirteen groceries, two hardware stores among several other stores. Brownsville was always willing to serve and inform through one English newspaper and two Spanish newspapers. The city had three telegraph offices, because Brownsville didn’t understand any other way to treat its diversified population. After the 1930s, new merchants came and offered their services through new concepts, locating their stores on E. Elizabeth St. like Kress, Sears, Woolworth, and J.C. Penney.
Architects were challenged to design attractive buildings since the early days of Brownsville: some of those were Samuel W. Brooks, builder of the Former Courthouse, now Masonic Lodge; Atlee B. Ayres, architect of the Dancy Building, and Page Brothers, designers of the Manautou Building and the Aziz Brothers Building.
With this designation, we are not only celebrating the past of Brownsville, but the future that awaits us.