According to Texas native and architectural maven Brantley Hightower, “You can read a town like a book…with plot points of its history revealed in its organization and architecture.”
In this tour, we will take him at his word and check out some “books”— thirteen historic Texas towns along the I-35 corridor, between Gainesville and Laredo.
We invite you to take a short walk around the town squares, streets, and plazas. Seek out the way each town’s development reflects its history and the events and people who influenced it.
Every town is unique, but there are some common patterns. We’ll refer to them as “types”— where there may be a dominant feature or experience you will detect.
However, keep in mind that these types are never pure. They overlap and change over time, and each community has plenty of layers.
Let’s look at three of those types — Spanish plaza, railroad, and courthouse.
First type — the Spanish Plaza town. When Spain set out to colonize Texas in the 1700s they faced many unknowns and in response developed an official government-imposed system to plan their settlements and towns. Typically, these towns were planned around a central plaza that provided an open public space with the important buildings around the plaza, facing into it.
Second type — the Railroad town. In the late 1800s, the building of railways throughout Texas connected the population and significantly reduced travel times between communities. Therefore, towns developed along newly built railroads. And their economies and layout were so closely tied to the rail line, that the railroad itself became a type of town square.
Third type — Courthouse towns were built in the 1880s, when the state provided funding for towns to build great monuments to “law and order.” In these towns, a courthouse would act as an anchor, establishing it as a regional commercial center. Businesses would line the courthouse square, creating an urban room that framed the ornate courthouse at its center. Although these town squares were the center of their communities, they also acted as the center of the wider region as well.
As you walk around the towns, we will guide you to look for what makes each town unique — seeking out the story inherent in its architecture, the pathways of its development, and the visionary choices of Texans who created and preserve the towns.
To experience all this, however, you will need to get off the beaten path — off the interstate — and head into town. Open your mind and imagination to how the town grew, and be sure to enjoy the whole town — explore its features beyond the tour.
Ultimately, these towns are changing even as we look at them. We have a role in preserving their stories because their stories are our stories too.