BROWNSVILLE — The Neale House, thought to be the oldest wood-frame structure in Brownsville, finally looks as though it may have a future after all.
Saving the rotting relic, built by Englishman William Neale in the mid-1800s, has been a topic of conversation for years though nothing has been done aside from strapping a blue tarp to the roof. The house, which made the Preservation Texas “Most Endangered Places” list in 2018, has been quietly falling apart in a remote corner of the Texas Southmost College campus since the city of Brownsville moved it there from its original location, 625 E. 14th St.
Things are happening, however. A June 1 work session for Brownsville city commissioners in part featured an update on progress toward relocating the structure to Linear Park, where it would then be restored, a project already approved by the city commission as part of a planning department work plan.
Rick Vasquez, the city’s director of planning and redevelopment, said a general site for relocation has been selected near the Laureles Ranch House in Linear Park but not the specific site or orientation, though as part of phase one the engineering/consulting firm KCI Technologies has been hired for $38,050 to design the house’s new foundation in Linear Park, with a June 20 deadline for the company to submit drawings to the city.
The other part of phase one entails securing the services of a qualified house mover, he said. The city placed a Request for Qualifications in the Brownsville Herald on May 30 with a June 14 response deadline, Vasquez said. Applications will be evaluated by his department and the city’s departments of public works, facilities and police, he said.
The highest scoring firms will be selected by June 24 and asked to submit price proposals by July 2 for the actual moving of the structure, Vasquez said, adding that the selection will be made based on price and qualifications. Mayor Trey Mendez voiced concerns about the project’s time frame and said the restoration should be done soon after the relocation to Linear Park, and that in the meantime the house should be secured against vandalism.
“Certainly it’s a very sensitive structure,” he said. “Some people are going to be upset it’s at Linear Park in that condition.”
The Laureles House, also built in the mid-1800s and once owned by Brownsville founder Charles Stillman, was moved to the park in 2013 in a dilapidated condition, though it was eventually restored and is now one of the park’s central features.
Mendez also wondered whether a 1950 addition to the house by Ruth Young McGonigle, charter member of the Brownsville Art League and the first female architecture graduate from Rice University, would survive being separated from the original structure, which is necessary before it can be moved. The Neale House was the first home of the BAL, now the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art.
There was debate over whether the addition is architecturally or historically significant enough to save along with the original house, which is much smaller than the addition.
Local architect Calvin Walker, chairman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, said Hansel Hernandez, historic preservation and cultural heritage conservation specialist with the Texas Historical Commission, recommended that the McGonigle addition be saved.
Walker himself disagrees, though he said it’s his personal opinion and not necessarily the official position of the preservation commission.
“Personally I think it’s kind of ugly,” he said. “The other thing to realize is, if we get our way where the house is oriented to that middle (pedestrian path) between Sixth and Seventh Street just like the Laureles House is, then the part that you’re going to see when you’re driving down 7th Street is the ugliest part of the house, the McGonigle addition.”
Walker asked that the preservation commission be involved in the placement and restoration of the Neale House, and said local architectural historian Larry Lof, veteran of dozens of historic restoration projects, is the most qualified person to manage the project.
“I know Larry will be involved in the process,” Mendez said. “We certainly want you and Larry to be involved in the process.”
Mendez and Walker estimated the restoration would take about a year, judging by the Laureles House project and depending on funding.
Commissioner Rose Gowen said she would prefer to have the preservation commission’s official opinion on the McGonigle addition before the city commission decides whether to save it or not, and that it shouldn’t be discarded merely because it’s cheaper to do so. Gowen noted that last year a rare the 1962 J. Kendall Hert House, was demolished by new owners in the Rio Viejo subdivision.
“I’d hate to lose another piece of her work if she is historically significant,” Gowen said.
At any rate, the house needs to be protected quickly since hurricane season is upon us, she said.
Commissioner Ben Neece said he thinks the focus should be on saving the original structure and that excluding the McGonigle addition should be considered, especially if it’s more cost effective, and asked Vasquez to provide each option with cost to the city commission. Neece noted that the Laureles House was secured with fencing before its restoration and that the same could be done for the Neale House.
As for when all this may take place, Vasquez said that if the process of securing a mover stays on course then the move itself would occur in August or September.
“Once that’s complete we would return immediately to the commission to secure additional direction on what to do with the structure, including temporary repairs or security for the building, and then how the commission wants staff to proceed with a restoration strategy,” he said.
Vasquez said the restoration would probably begin “toward the end of the year.”
Mendez said phase-two plans for the Neale House should be determined to the extent possible so the restoration/remodel can move quickly once the relocation is done.
“Obviously we have to go through the procurement process on the move,” he said. “I just think that we need to make sure that we have a process a real solid timeline in place.”
Since it was a work session discussion and not an action item on the agenda, the city commission was unable to issue specific directions to city staff regarding the project, though City Manager Noel Bernal said it was fairly clear which way they were leaning in terms of next steps, including bringing in the preservation commission on the first phase.
“We’ll take our marching orders now,” he said. “I would suggest though that for the second phase there be formal action taken so there’s more clarity up front as to expectations from the commission, and formal direction.”
Members of the preservation commission on June 11 voted to table an agenda item calling for discussion and action to consider relocating the Neale House and McGonigle addition or the Neale House only, and to decide the final site orientation of either option within Linear Park.
Lof, a member of the preservation commission, said he doesn’t think the addition goes with the original house though McGonigle is worthy of recognition, and that he’s open to saving the addition at another site, possibly in Linear Park.
The commission made a motion to ask the city for an emergency stabilization of the Neale House roof as well as some idea of what the structure, with or without the addition, will be used for once it’s relocated — a step Lof stressed shouldn’t take too long.
On a second agenda item, the preservation commission voted to authorize Walker, as chairman, to represent the body in developing a contract between the city and the Brownsville Historical Association to complete the phase-two restoration/remodeling.