- Master Builder of the Lower Rio Grande: Heinrich Portscheller by W. Eugene George
Heinrich Portscheller (1843–1915) is perhaps the best-known brick mason to have worked in the Rio Grande Valley in the nineteenth century. Born in the Rhineland-Palatinate of Germany into a family of masons and carpenters, he came to Mexico in 1865 and settled on the U.S. side of the border. His reputation is based on eleven buildings, most in the town of Roma in Starr County. He built newly fashionable brick structures (considerably more “modern” than previous stone buildings) with doors, windows and cornices ornamented with classical details.
This slim volume is a tribute to Portscheller and also to the late lead author, Eugene George, who initiated scholarly study of Portscheller and worked on this project for many years. The work began in 1961, when George and two students documented Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) then moved on to document a group of buildings in Roma, Texas.
The work has been brought to completion by George’s widow, Mary Carolyn Hollers George, herself a well-known architectural historian. Chapters treat the life of Portscheller, the early histories of Roma and Rio Grande City in Starr County, the works of Portscheller, and finally the after-life of Portscheller’s buildings, from decline to appreciation and restoration to their present still-uncertain status. The volume concludes with a substantial afterword by Stephen Fox, another leading architectural historian. [End Page 107]
The result is a short book with several interesting layers. It outlines the facts of Portscheller’s life, providing a solid documentary foundation, and discusses most of his building projects. The book also features the photographs taken by George in 1961 and the measured drawings of the Nestor Sáenz store that were done by his students, which are now virtually primary sources in their own right. These photos and drawings are freely available on the Library of Congress website American Memory, but the book enhances this in several ways.
First, the documentation about each building is amplified and updated. Especially valuable is a transcription and translation of the 1884 contract between “Enrique” Portscheller and Manuel Guerra for construction of a store and residence. Second, the photos in the book are better quality than those on-line. Most notably the book has color illustrations rather than the standard HABS black and white; this means one can see the original buff color of the unpainted bricks, but also track different paint treatments over many decades. This is further enhanced by photos taken by the Texas artist E. M. “Buck” Schiwetz when he was passing through Roma in 1940, a drawing and photo from the master’s thesis of David Hoffmann (later a noted preservation architect), and more recent photos, some post-restoration.
The chapter titled “Interventions” is especially thought-provoking. Most of the Portscheller buildings survive because Roma’s old plaza was bypassed by Highway 83, and the town grew in other directions. This led to decades of benign neglect, followed by a U.S. Bicentennial project that turned the Convent Avenue plaza into a pedestrian mall in 1976. Fortunately, the creation of the Lower Rio Grande Heritage Project led to the restoration of the plaza and the Portscheller buildings that surround it. Yet, the authors note, there has been little local buy-in. As a result, many of the buildings remain unoccupied or under-utilized. One bright spot is the use of the Jose Camilo Sáenz residence as the Roma branch of the World Birding Center.
Stephen Fox’s afterword is both an acknowledgment of Eugene George’s important work and a roadmap for a study which would place Portscheller’s work in the context of the lower Rio Grande Valley. Fox sees the roots of what he calls Portscheller’s “creolized classicism” in Matamoros and, beyond that, in New Orleans. He compares the Roma...