Exploring the Vernacular Heritage of Central Texas
How can history and heritage be so easily overlooked when it is right in front of you? Buildings can conceal their story or blend into the urban landscape many of us reside in. Smaller structures are lost in the shadows of larger ones. We take for granted that the crumbling house or dilapidated former business is merely a remnant of a time long gone versus a key piece to understanding the puzzle of where we came from and a symbol of the rich heritage of a community. Sadly, many historic vernacular structures no longer stand as there is a tendency to protect the unique, the exquisite, or historical properties built by famous architects versus the average joe. Buildings outside this scope are frequently torn down to make way for the latest and greatest of modern structures in the name of progress.
For the past two weeks, I searched the central Texas landscape for vernacular structures reflecting the cultural identity of the region. Here is the definition I used for a building representative of vernacular architecture: a historic building built by local people from local materials without the oversight of a professional architect.
Based on my wanderings and research into examples of the built vernacular, I learned the state has several periods of architecture recognized by the Texas Historical Commission and the Texas State Historical Association. The two main periods of pure vernacular construction in Central Texas (San Antonio and the surrounding Hill Country) with examples of those buildings available to see today consist of the Spanish Colonial Period (1682-1835) and the Republic Antebellum Period (1835-61). The Spanish Colonial Period is a construction style blending Native American, Mexican, and Spanish building techniques. The Republic Antebellum period is diverse and the most representative vernacular designs to be found from it are those of the regional German settlers. I am not ignoring the living traditions of those that existed prior to the colonization of the state. There simply aren’t many examples of structures built by the pre-colonial indigenous people available to see today. Additionally, per sources I read for this assignment, the native peoples of this region were hunter gathers who did not build many permanent structures or sites like their brethren in the western areas of the state.
The San Antonio Missions, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2015, display the craftsmanship of indigenous peoples and Spanish missionaries. While the churches are certainly the centerpieces of each location, the surrounding out structures where kitchens, workshops, mills, and simple living quarters can be found are great examples of everyday buildings from the Spanish Colonial period. Each building viewable today is made from locally quarried tufa, river rock, and limestone. However, the Missions themselves began as mud, lumber, and adobe style structures. As time passed, more elaborate stone and fired brick replaced the mud and timber frames adding to the security of the people residing within the mission walls. The native peoples like the Coahuiltecans frequently served as the labor force creating the stone blocks or firing bricks in addition to constructing the compounds. Mission Espada is the only one of the five missions where brick and tile manufacturing occurred. Sadly, with the lack of preservation until the nineteenth century these every day community structures fell into significant disrepair. All that is left of many of the original structures are the stone foundations. However, the Work Projects Administration in the 1930s gave them life once more. The original foundations and materials found onsite at Mission San Jose were used to salvage the mission buildings or new structures were built leveraging local materials and similar construction techniques. Mission San Jose’s gristmill was also restored in the 1930s. Visitors can view the mill along with the wheel room and forebay from the eighteenth century. The surrounding neighborhoods still contain some original homes of individuals who supported the operations of the Missions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Like their Spanish predecessors, German immigrants brought their traditional building techniques to the Americas further altering the built environment of nineteenth century Texas. German towns and ranches sprang up across the Texas Hill Country. Gruene, New Braunfels, Boerne, and Fredericksburg are well-known communities with German influence and German style vernacular architecture. With lumber readily available in this region, German families constructed cabin style homes made from limestone, adobe block, and timber called Fachwerk. Due to the harsh Texas climate, the timber sections of these cabin style homes would be covered by some sort of protective coating such as plaster, a limestone white wash or weatherboarding. Overtime, these cabins evolved into two-story structures reflective of the occupants’ German roots. The lower floors of these buildings would be constructed using hewn stonemasonry: a stone based construction technique found in the “Hessian and Frankish regions of Germany.” The Germans introduced large, decorative porches on their homes to cope with the Texas summer heat.
The next time you find yourself walking past an old building falling apart or strolling through an older section of town, pause and take a moment to really look at the structures around you. They share the story of more than a by gone era. They display the intertwining of diverse peoples serving a physical testament to the unique journey each community travels.
 “ARCHITECTURE | The Handbook of Texas Online| Texas State Historical Association (TSHA),” accessed August 14, 2016, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/cmask.  “Mission San José Y San Miguel de Aquayo – Spanish Missions/Misiones Españolas (U.S. National Park Service),” accessed August 14, 2016, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/travelspanishmissions/mission-san-jose-y-san-miguel-de-aquayo.htm.  “San Jose,” accessed August 14, 2016, http://www.missionsofsanantonio.org/san-jose.html; “ESPA.pmd – Espada_2007.pdf,” accessed August 15, 2016, https://www.nps.gov/saan/learn/education/upload/Espada_2007.pdf.  “GERMAN VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE | The Handbook of Texas Online| Texas State Historical Association (TSHA),” accessed August 14, 2016, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/cbg01.  Ibid., 111; Gordon Echols, Early Texas Architecture (TCU Press, 2000), 111.
“ARCHITECTURE | The Handbook of Texas Online| Texas State Historical Association (TSHA).” Accessed August 14, 2016. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/cmask.
Echols, Gordon. Early Texas Architecture. TCU Press, 2000.
“ESPA.pmd – Espada_2007.pdf.” Accessed August 15, 2016. https://www.nps.gov/saan/learn/education/upload/Espada_2007.pdf.
“GERMAN VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE | The Handbook of Texas Online| Texas State Historical Association (TSHA).” Accessed August 14, 2016. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/cbg01.
“Mission San José Y San Miguel de Aquayo – Spanish Missions/Misiones Españolas (U.S. National Park Service).” Accessed August 14, 2016. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/travelspanishmissions/mission-san-jose-y-san-miguel-de-aquayo.htm.
“San Jose.” Accessed August 14, 2016. http://www.missionsofsanantonio.org/san-jose.html.
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