TxDOT and Architectural History: Balancing Growth and Preservation

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Photo courtesy of UTSA Special Collections

What do Architectural Historians have to do with roads and highways?

Architectural historians work specifically with standing historic resources—those buildings and structures that remain from the past, but which are still important and vital parts of the present-day landscape. In the Cultural Resources Management field this important work complements archaeology and other environmental review processes to provide a comprehensive approach to project management.

One of the primary duties of the architectural historian is to provide Section 106 review (the National Historic Preservation Act) for building projects initiated by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). Section 106 review is required with any project that received federal funding or that requires federal permitting. Raba Kistner’s architectural historians are pre-certified by TxDOT for Section 106 compliance. The goal of the architectural historians is to ensure that TxDOT road projects do not negatively impact important historical, architectural, or cultural resources. Therefore, the Area of Potential Effect (APE) of the project site and its immediate surroundings are surveyed and researched in order to assess any potential impacts to historically significant buildings and landscapes. This initial step in the historical review process involves the completion of a Project Coordination Request for Historical Studies Project (PCR).

Initial Phase Research

Based in San Antonio, Raba Kistner’s architectural historians are often many miles (often hundreds of miles) away from the numerous TxDOT projects throughout the state. Thankfully, initial phases of historical research have been streamlined through the availability and accessibility of digital atlases and databases which have allowed much of the “desktop” research of the PCR to be completed remotely. Architectural historians consult digital resources such as the Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) Texas Historic Sites Atlas and the TxDOT Historic Resources of Texas Aggregator to identify historic and cultural resources within and surrounding the APE. These maps contain a real-time inventory of officially designated sites and structures and give historians an immediate understanding of the resources within and around the APE that need to be protected. Shown on these maps are individual properties and districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks (RTHL), State Antiquities Landmarks (SAL), locally designated historic districts, and the location of historical markers, cemeteries, bridges, court houses, and museums. Once these resources are identified, they are plotted on maps using GIS software. Sometimes, historic and cultural resources that are not officially designated are identified through map research and are noted for further investigation in the field.

Following this initial remote research, a site visit is made and a photo survey conducted of the APE and surrounding area. Particular attention is paid to the historical and cultural resources identified in the research. The context of the area is highlighted to show the proximity of resources to areas that will be developed as part of the roadway project.

If it is determined through the completion of the PCR that the project would have an adverse impact on designated historic and cultural resources within the APE and immediate surrounding area, or if there are a significant number of resources that could potentially be NRHP eligible that are not already listed, a comprehensive reconnaissance survey is conducted and a Historical Resources Survey Report (HRSR) is produced. This report is a more in-depth analysis of the resources and makes determinations of NRHP eligibility for each individual resource as well as the eligibility of the project area as a whole as a potential NRHP district.

Challenges and Solutions

Every project is different and architectural historians encounter unique challenges with each one. These can include diverse geographic locations and topography, the availability of research materials and time constraints related to research, varying levels of historic designation of resources, and the condition of those extant resources. These challenges, however, ultimately present new opportunities for problem-solving which result in new understandings and a refinement of processes that positively impacts future projects.

A recent project in Pharr, a city on the border in Hidalgo County in South Texas, highlighted some of the challenges and exciting discoveries that make the job of the architectural historians a continual learning experience. The Pharr Truck Staging Area project was undertaken to build a truck stop along Highway 281 just outside of the city. This border region is a vital part of the state economy. International trade with Mexico, agriculture, and the extraction and transportation of natural resources all rely on trucking, so this project was an important economic investment for the area. This investment, however, needed to be balanced with environmental review so that any impacts to sensitive cultural resources in the area could be mitigated. The location of the truck stop near key transportation arteries and the construction of the necessary facilities was crucial to its viability, however the specific needs of the project could potentially conflict with the protection and preservation of historic resources in the area. This balance of economic progress and historic preservation is at the crux of these projects, however they are not mutually exclusive. It is the job of the architectural historian to provide solutions so that these projects can move forward while at the same time protecting and making accommodations for historic resources.

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On the Ground in Pharr

To the untrained eye, the flat coastal plain surrounding the project area—dotted with farms and clumps of seemingly nondescript houses—may not seem particularly “historic”, but further investigation revealed a rich an interesting history of the area that needed to be assessed before work on the project could move forward.

Historical research conducted revealed that the site of the truck stop lay within the Louisiana-Rio Grande Canal Company Irrigation National Register of Historic Places District. This large National Register District included the city of Pharr and covers a huge area; approximately 45,000 acres. This area was designated as historically significant because of the important irrigation canals built between 1904 and 1949 which contributed to the early 20th century agricultural boom in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. These canals provided water for the many important crops grown in this area of south Texas, including cotton, sugarcane, and citrus fruit.

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Also nearby was discovered the Eli Jackson Cemetery and the Jackson Ranch Church. The Jackson ranch was established in 1857 by Nathaniel Jackson, a white man and former slave owner who came to Texas from Alabama with his black wife, Matilda Hicks, their children and his freed slaves. The ranch produced cotton and other commodities. On the ranch he also established a chapel to be used by the family, his friends, and the local ranching community. The ranch became known as a place of hospitality and was even a refuge for runaway slaves from Texas, Louisiana, and beyond who attempted to make their way to Mexico. These historic sites now bear the name of Nathaniel’s son, Eli, who inherited the estate and continued operation of the ranch. Eli’s granddaughter, Adela, continued operating the ranch and caring for the family cemetery until her death in 1992.

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Ultimately it was determined that the proposed truck stop would not have an adverse effect on the historic and cultural resources within the APE or immediate surrounding area and the PCR was approved with no need for an HRSR.

For The Greater Good

The work completed by the architectural historians shows how important historical research and assessment is to ensuring comprehensive environmental review by TxDOT. Sites that may on the surface seem insignificant can actually possess important historical value and prove to be areas rich in history when research and field work are conducted. These sites and stories are what architectural historians seek to preserve and protect. The research that goes into TxDOT projects is not only part of important economic development in the state, but ultimately contributes to the larger body of knowledge of the rich history and culture of Texas.

Get In Touch

Nicholas Fuqua, Ph.D. is the staff Architectural Historian at Raba Kistner, Inc. in San Antonio, Texas.  You can get in touch by e-mail at [email protected].