Brownsville preserves 160-year-old ranch house
By Steve Clark, The Brownsville Herald —
BROWNSVILLE, Texas — History has come to Brownsville — very slowly, behind a large truck. It was expected to arrive late today or possibly Sunday.
History, in this instance, came in the form of the Laureles Ranch House, built sometime around 1850 on what is now King Ranch by shipwrights hired by Charles Stillman, the steamboat magnate who founded Brownsville. Stillman got rich in the steamboat business with Mifflin Kenedy, founder of Kenedy Ranch, and Richard King, founder of King Ranch.
Now, thanks to efforts by Brownsville resident Alexander Stillman, a direct descent of Charles Stillman, and other members of the Stillman family, the historic house will soon call Brownsville home.
Stillman’s brick home at 13th and East Washington streets downtown is now a museum run by the Brownsville Historical Association.
The Laureles Ranch was an old Spanish land grant 22 miles south of Corpus Christi. Today, it’s part of King Ranch. The Laureles house was moved off the ranch several years ago and placed under the stewardship of the Corpus Christi Heritage Society.
The structure is in good condition considering its age, though definitely in need of restoration.
The house will occupy a city-owned lot next door to the Cueto Building on East Madison Street until a permanent location is found. Members of the Stillman family are covering the cost of moving and restoration. Ramiro Gonzalez and Roman McAllen with the city planning department coordinated the logistics of getting it moved — no easy task considering the distance.
Larry Lof, president of the Gorgas Science Foundation, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Brownsville and an ardent historic preservationist, said the house will require at least two lots.
“It’s not a townhouse, so it needs a little space around it even it if it’s in town,” he said. “We have a lot of buildings that are close to each other and close to the street. This one needs more space.”
Lof said Stillman is looking for a permanent location in the historic area around downtown and plans to make it open to the public once it’s restored.
“We have so many stories down here in our history that still can be and need to be told,” Lof said. “There’s plenty of room for another focal point.”
Even if the house wasn’t originally built in Brownsville, he said, the city is the logical place for it.
“Ranch country was a little bit north of us, but certainly the people who owned the ranches — the Yturrias, the Garcias, the Kings, all of those people — their roots are here,” Lof said. “It makes sense.”
The house itself is typical of old South Texas ranch dwellings, built to accommodate people who spent most of their time outside, thus the wide, shady eaves and 10-foot-deep, wrap-around porch of the Laureles house, for instance.
Lof told The Brownsville Herald that the structure is simple in design but with elegant details. Since it was built by shipwrights, or ship’s carpenters, the construction is meticulous, he said. Lof guesses it was built largely from old-growth yellow pine — which contains so much resin that termites hate it — shipped by schooner from New Orleans or Galveston.
The solid construction materials and craftsmanship, and some luck, are the reason it’s still around after more than 160 years of hurricanes, insects and the elements.
“The fact that you have a wooden structure that goes back to 1850 is a rare thing for us,” Lof said. “There are not a lot of them that go back that far in South Texas. Brownsville has one or two that maybe go back close to that age. Most of our structures that have survived from that period are brick, like the Stillman House.
“It’ll be a really nice addition to Brownsville. The fun part of it will be finally getting a chance to start working on it and restoring it, and of course when it’s finally open.”