History

Mid-century modern architecture in the Valley attracted national recognition, the only time since the region became part of the United States in 1848 that its architecture won critical acclaim. The leading U.S. architecture journals—Architectural Record, Architectural Forum, and Progressive Architecture—regularly published new buildings in Harlingen and Brownsville during the first half of the 1950s.

In 1955 Progressive Architecture profiled Cocke, Bowman & York in a series called “The Architect and His Community.” Cocke, Bowman & York’s demonstration house in the Harlingen garden subdivision of Laurel Park, the House Designed for Modern Living, won an award of merit from the American Institute of Architects in 1951. In 1954 the Fort Brown Memorial Center in Brownsville by Wiltshire & Fisher won a First Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects for its design. St. Joseph Academy in Brownsville by Caudill Rowlett Scott won a Progressive Architecture design citation in 1956 and was published in Time magazine on 12 September 1960 as one of a one of America’s “schools of tomorrow.” Texas Architect magazine in September 1963 devoted an entire issue to what it headlined as the “Coastal Bend Revolution” in thin-shell concrete construction. The same month Mario Pani’s Puerta de México in Matamoros (1963) was featured in the Parisian journal L’Architecture d’ Aujour d’Hui.

Not until 1904 was the Lower Río Grande Valley linked to the rest of Texas by railroad. The construction of the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railway in 1904 brought capitalist modernization to this isolated territory with unsettling rapidity. In 1904 Brownsville, Point Isabel, and the border hamlet of Santa María in Cameron County, and the county seat of Hidalgo in Hidalgo County were the only towns in what is now the Cameron-Hidalgo-Willacy-Kenedy county area.

Between 1904 and 1911 six new towns were developed along the rail line in Cameron County and seven in Hidalgo County. Harlingen, on the Arroyo Colorado, a tributary of the Río Grande, was developed in 1905 at the point where a spur line of the railroad was built to run westward to the Hidalgo-Starr County line. Developers sought to entice affluent investors from the Midwest to move to their raw, new, gridded townsites in the flat, hot, humid (and also arid) delta of the Río Grande by planting subtropical vegetation (watered with water pumped from the river by steam-powered irrigation systems that the developers also installed) and by constructing winsome California Mission-style buildings in an effort to visually transform the Valley into an Exotic Tropical Paradise.

During the 1920s, the more sophisticated Spanish Mediterranean style replaced the California Mission style and in the 1930s the streamlined California Monterey regional style replaced the theatrical Spanish Mediterranean as an architecture of regional identity. It was the fictional narratives that these successive trends embodied that modern architects rebelled against in the 1930s. What modern functionalists proposed as a counter to the fictitiousness of stylistic adaptation was to invent an architecture that responded without historical pretense to the phenomenal attributes of sunlight, breeze, the need for shade, and the beguiling qualities of the landscape.

What such an architecture might look like was forecast in the first house in Texas built according to the postulates of modern functionalism, the George Kraigher House of 1937 on the northern outskirts of Brownsville. Designed by the Austrian-born Los Angeles architect Richard Neutra (1892-1970), one of the first generation of modern architects to practice in the U.S., the Kraigher House dispensed with historical fiction to embrace the future. It paved the way for transforming the Exotic Tropical Paradise construct into a new social construct: the Modern Tropical Paradise.

Kraigher House

Text provided by Rice University Professor Stephen Fox. For more on the Rio Grande Valley’s midcentury modern architecture visit RGVMod