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THC official says residents & businesses should respect Castroville's history

Officials with the State of Texas who have worked with Castroville and it's residents for over 40 years, are well aware of the city's many awards and grants, and they salute the city's preservation efforts.

Derek Satchell, the Texas Historic Commission's new Community Heritage Development Division State Coordinator for the Certified Local Government Program, said Castroville is a unique state treasure and noted people living in the city had a responsibility to comply with historic preservation regulations in the same way people living in Texas have a responsibility to comply with traffic regulations. Both traffic and historic preservation regulations protect the rights of everyone, according to Satchell.

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Satchell is THC's State CLG program coordinator, which is a federally sponsored matching grant technical assistance program. Castroville has been in the CLG program since Oct. 26, 1999. "Castroville is one of our earliest CLG's in the state," he said of the Little Alsace of Texas.

The city received THC grants in 1970 and 2001 to perform surveys of historic structures, according to Satchell. The 1970 survey documented 97 historic structures, while the 2001 survey identified over 400 historic assets.

"Castroville is extremely important because it is one of many towns in Texas that has a very distinctive collection of buildings that date back to it's origins," said the State Coordinator. "It was founded in the mid-19th century, with some of it's earliest structures, primary the parishes, like Saint Louis Catholic Church, dating back to 1840s. It has a wonderful collection of historic structures. Therefore, the community is maintaining that architecture in terms of overall scale, massing, use of materials, and setbacks from the street. In doing so, the residents can preserve and maintain the architectural and historical character of the town, the sense of place for that community."

No one in Castroville disagrees when it comes to the surviving original buildings from the 19th century but there is a question about new buildings needing to be compatible with the town's distinctive history. "What does that have to do with new buildings and new developments within this community?" asked Satchell. "It has everything to do with that because a new structure or new business that is introduced within a historical context and setting can either enhance and contribute to the feel and sense of place; or, to the other extreme, it can diminish or totally obliterate that scene or setting. That care and concern isn't limited to just buildings. It could be a site or historic place that has a certain degree of integrity or conveys a sense of history of that place. Therefore, it is important for a community to know what makes the place special. What are the characteristics defining features of that place or resource that makes it special? Knowing that (then) you can make intelligent decisions and prudent decisions in terms of future developments so you do not diminish what you have."

Castroville's founding builders used wood beams, rocks, local materials, low sloping roofs, and even a stucco type exterior on their first structures. "All of those things should be mentioned and certainly included and encouraged in design guidelines, given that they are indigenous construction materials and methods. They should be encouraged for new construction and development," said the historic state official. "Not in the sense you are trying to falsify historical development, such as making a structure look older than it is, but to create a sense of architectural compatibility with an area so the structure, in this case a barbeque restaurant, does not stand out to the point it is the most obvious thing you see."

As an example, Satchell used the Capitol grounds in Austin as an example. "The Capitol is obviously a stately majestic building, very detail architecturally with certain features, but the primary material of the capitol in pink granite. There was a conscious effort here in Austin to make buildings that are going to be part of the capitol grounds have a contributory look, feel and sense of place in terms of this locale," he said. 'Therefore, not all, but the majority of the buildings that are located in the immediate capitol complex area are constructed with pink granite, have some kind of pink granite veneer or architectural aesthetic features to it. They don't all mimic the capitol in terms of specific detail. But, by using the same material for it's exterior cladding, you create and you contribute to the contextual setting of the area."

Form and scale are basic qualities of architecture that should be regulated via design review guidelines for new buildings to preserve a historic sense of place. Castroville has large lots with compact mostly one story, small to medium foot print buildings, noted Satchell. The spatial relationship, small or compact structures on big lots and ample space between buildings, is also a basic aspect of historic place that should be preserved.

"If the city evolved historically where there we're significant distances and open space surrounding it's building and in between one building and another, then you certainly wouldn't want development to come in that is very dense because, as you move into that area, you are going to have a different visual impact relative to what spacing was employed historically or traditionally in that area," Satchell said.

For example River Bluff and Country Village look dense compared to homes in the originally platted roads of Castroville.

Construction materials are also basic in design review guidelines. "If roofs we're made with standing metal seems or wood shingled roof or things of that nature, you want to encourage use of those materials," said the THC officer. "There are exceptions for wood siding, shiplap siding and stucco. Those are all noble materials, or original type materials, that we're used."

There may be exceptions required in substituting materials necessary, because either the original material is no longer available or it is extremely cost prohibitive or there are specific problems with the use of the original or noble materials so a builder or developer would have no choice but to consider using alternate materials, according to Satchell. "That is okay," he said. "Where design guidelines come into play. They can suggest scenarios where it may be appropriate to use an alternate materials, especially if it is a manmade material, if certain aspects and relationships are still maintained. In some cases where the use of noble materials is not possible, feasible or in new construction, man-made alternative materials such as HardiPlank, Dryvit, etc. can be used provided that they maintain the same appearance and dimensions as the original."

For example, Satchell said, in the community of Park City, Utah they receive a lot of snow fall and therefore around the back of the historic homes that we're sided with wood, the snow would build up and the water would rot the lower boards towards the rear of the sides of these houses, the places where the snow would build up and seep in over time. "That was a significant maintenance issue because every other year, homeowners we're replacing those boards and it started to become impractical to continue using wood," he said. "In the past, they would have continued to do so because wood was so plentiful and that was the primary material available."

With advances in technology, a semi cementitious (cement like) siding material was invented which withstands rot, said Satchell of the product commonly known as HardiPlank. "A lot of property owners wanted to use this material as a replacement siding material. A compromise was reached," said the state coordinator. "They still wanted to preserve the same look, feel and appearance of the structures so wood siding was the required material on primary facades and visible facades. But, in those specific problem areas that we're not highly visible, HardiPlank was provided as long as it maintained the same profile and dimension as the surrounding original wood siding and it was all painted and treated the same. In doing so, they could still maintain the overall appearance of the wood-sided houses and keep the original fabric that was still there. But, in those problem areas, they could address the issues in a way that did not diminish the overall integrity or appearance of these structures."

HardiPlank is a cementitious composite material, with cement like properties. It is manufactured and poured into molds, and it can be made into various shapes, sizes and profiles. Specific manufactures, like HardiPlank, the brand name manufacture, can create the material in a style that conveys a visual graining effect like painted wood, and it can be made with a colorant in the mix of the composite so the product does not require a user to paint it after installation. "You can just cut the pieces of boards and install them directly," said Satchell. "Obviously, there are certain advantages to those synthetic manmade materials. However, the apprehension most preservationists have when it comes to new technological advances in these materials is that they have not been around long enough for us to see how they really hold up over time. Rather than give blanket approval for all these technological advances in materials only to find out too late that they failed, most preservationists are apprehensive about embracing them all together. Obviously, any replacement material - be it manmade or natural - is not the same as the original material in terms of how it was fashioned, used and constructed."

If Castroville gutted it's design guidelines and did not require the use of historically compatible exterior materials, the town would loose it's historical identity, which would be much more than just a local loss but a state and national loss as well, according to Satchell. "For example, a very historic battlefield in Virginia, it is still open land. It was the site of the Battlefield of Fredricksburg, VA," he said. "In the fields we're specific vistas where there we're overhead power lines that traversed the battlefield. Obviously (those electric lines) we're not around at that time and the (cables) had such a negative visual impact on certain areas that the community decided to bury the power lines underground in order to preserve and present a more accurate aesthetic appearance of what the area would have looked like in it's past. It made a tremendous difference in terms of enhancing the vistas' interpretation of that site, which increased visitation and generated more revenues for the area's businesses. They we're able to do the right thing in burying those overhead utility lines because they would have had a negative impact, not only on the local level but that state and national level, given the importance of that site to our collective history."

Such is the case with Castroville and the Castro Colonies founded by Impresario Henri Castro via land grants from Republic of Texas President Sam Houston, according to Satchell. The Castro Colonies, of which Castroville is the most popular and well-preserved, served to settle the western frontier in the 1840s. The Alsatian, French and German settlers of the area put feet on the ground in the hostile land formerly occupied by roaming bands of native American Indians, who resisted the agricultural settlement and occupation of what they considered their land. Spanish troops had also traversed Medina County, before Castroville was founded, but the presence of the hardy Europeans helped America continue it's settlement of west Texas and western America to the coast of California, which was the site of a the famous Forty-Niners gold rush just five years after the settlement of Castroville.

"Castroville obviously has local importance," said Satchell. "But, it also made significant contributions to Texas history which is significant. Therefore, if Castroville did not regulate and help manage the type development that occurs in it's community, we will lose that sense of place which makes Castroville different than Galveston, different than Lubbock and different from Paris, Texas."

According to Satchell, the distinctiveness, sense of place, cultural identity and roots provided by a community with a historic past benefits the residents, economy and overall health of the community. Historic identity benefits the community itself on an individual basis, and at the level of each individual. "The people who live there, especially people who have grown up there, they have specific ties to their built environment through landmarks and it is through our built environment that we associate specific memories of who we are and where we come from and what values we represent in terms of our lives. A sense or feeling of being 'home' is what makes us comfortable in our environment and when our built environment and landmarks are obliterated or diminished, then we lose physical and tangible references to our own collective memory, which is a significant loss. If we lose that understanding of what makes us special, who we are and where we come from, then we lose that fundamental understanding of ourselves."

When a city loses it's sense of historical identity, provided by traditionally distinctive architectural preferences, the people are unanchored from themselves and their environment, according to Satchell.

"It is extremely important and beneficial for the local residents to identify what gives them that sense of place and what makes their community special and do whatever they need to keep that sense of place, be it through regulatory control and ordinances, to the development of design guidelines, which serve as a written and graphic interpretations of what those regulatory controls are meant to achieve."

"When someone new to the community, or even someone within the community, wants to build something, design guidelines are a ready reference so they know what is going to be expected of them," said Satchell. "As the potential builder proceeds through the design review process, there should be no surprises or hiccups for the applicant and, for the DRB, the design guidelines serve as the foundation, or the basis, on which their decisions are made so decisions do not have the appearance of being subjective."

Historic preservation also benefits a city's economic health, explained the THC official, as tourism is a multi-million industry in Texas because of the state's wide variety of historically distinct environment, both natural and built. "The local economy benefits because, one of the primary reasons is we Americans like to travel so much is because we want to experience new and different things, we go to places that have things we can't normally find in our own community, where we are from. Accordingly, we seek out these different places and we may go overseas to completely different countries. But, even within our own country, especially our own state, there are differences and nuances from one community to another that are intriguing to us. Thus, we seek them out and we will contribute monetarily to the community in the form of visitors and tourists spending money in hotels, restaurants and local stores while we are taking in the sights, sounds and the culture of that community."

The loss of unique identity, especially in historically significant communities like Castroville, has an equally adverse affect on the economy, according to Satchell. "When a city's distinctiveness is gone and one community looks like every other community across the country, that has a tremendous impact and discourages people from coming to visit," he said.

Why visit Castroville when there is nothing especially attractive compared to Leon Valley or anywhere else? One stretch of fast-food restaurants looks and feels just like any other, according to the historic commission's CLG Director. "If I go to town X and while I am traveling along the highway I drive through town A and they have a stretch of buildings that employ corporate architecture which makes them all look like they do in every other community along that highway, then chances are I am not going to stop there, as opposed to coming across a 'Castroville' with such unique and diverse architecture that is different than everything else that I have seen," explained Satchell

Still, some residents want to know why a new building should have to adhere to design review guidelines intended to preserve the town's historic character. However, Satchell said it would be a visually distracting and it would degrade the city's ambiance and property values if design guidelines we're not followed.

"When I say 'visually distracting' it is not just about aesthetics either," he said. "I mention that first because that is what most people readily see, recognize and appreciate. But it all has to do with money. If you own a Victorian house on a street in a neighborhood with other Victorian houses and I own one on that same street, then those buildings and houses are going to have a certain property value. Now, if someone new comes in and builds a pyramid home that looks nothing like any of the other buildings on that street or there is no sense of architectural compatibility or continuity, then that new property owner, or developer, has basically thumbed his nose at the other people on the street. Therefore, property values are going to decline because no one, or should I say, few people, are going to want to live in a context juxtaposed like that."

The THC official likened buying an individual lot in the Little Alsace of Texas to owning one piece of the entire pie that constitutes the City of Castroville and it's pivotal place in the settlement of the southwestern United States of America. He noted the pie is much more important than any one piece, but each piece was needed to round out the pie as a whole.

"As an owner of that slice of pie, I have to be mindful of that and protect it's value, aesthetic, monetary, whatever, as part of my contribution to this particular community," said Satchell. "The weakness of the argument 'I have the right to the maximum profit from my land' is it gives the individual a personal benefit but then, if someone builds a 10 story building next to a one story house, they've maximized their profit from someone else's property. Then if someone next to them comes in an builds a 20-story building, then (the 10-story building property owner) is now the victim. Each person's home affects the value of the entire community."

In other words, too much individuality in architectural style ruins the communality of a distinctive historic community which requires residents to be more cooperative and less self-interested than property owners in towns without a historic identity, according to Satchell. "It is about being respectful of a town's history and it's heritage, our culture, in terms of a specific resource," he said. "And, it is also about being respectful of one another's property values and the collective values of that community."

Satchell said preserving Castroville's history and heritage is actually a responsibility each home and business owner shares with the entire community. Each homeowner and business in a historic town enjoys the sense of place and adds to, or distracts from, the entire community's attractiveness to tourists.

"I find it so ironic that property owners in Texas are so quick to yell out 'I don't want the government to tell me what to do with my property,' and scream that to the rafters," said Satchell. "Yet, they fail to realize that just about everything else we interact with and deal with on a daily basis is regulated, from the number of buttons on their shirt to the number of threads, to the number of egresses and exits from rooms and building. Everything is regulated. Why is it regulated? To ensure a continual benefit from everyone who is enjoying and participating in society and, most importantly, to protect the value of the resource in question. We have emergency exit and egress requirements in our safety codes for buildings to protect our safety and to ensure we enjoy the beneficial value of getting out alive. We do not have regulations just for individuals but for everybody. So, if we are being regulated for all these wonderful reasons for everything else, why should our historic properties - these structures, places and buildings that mean so much to us - be an exception to that type of regulatory control, especially if that regulatory control is only going to benefit you and your community in the long run?"

Satchell seemed confused when told some residents had objected to being included in any proposed historic district because they feared their property values would drop by virtue of having a normal non-historic home in a district in which remodeling materials and new buildings had to be pre-approved.

"How many historic neighborhoods, like you find in Texas and other states, that look great and are well-maintained, have low property values?" asked Satchell. "Everyone is clamoring to live in and wants to visit a historic neighborhood and historic district. It is the Wal-Marts and box stores that people are not clamoring to get to. When a bride wants to take pictures of her wedding and her wedding day celebrations, a very memorable event, she goes to a capitol or courthouse. She goes to a landmark that has architectural and aesthetic distinction. She does not go to a fast-food restaurant that has a cookie cutter design, like every other similar establishment across the nation."

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