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Bldg. 2—Little Chapel

 

 

 

 

 

Text Box: Bldg. 2—Little Chapel
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

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Building Nos. 2 and 62 – Post Chapel

The Regiment House has been called by many names.  Although small in stature, it has a diverse history.  Not only has its use and title changed many times since it was built, it has also misled some local historians into reporting it as being located at different places.  Once affectionately known as “The Little Chapel at Fort Brown,” it originally stood with its back to the Rio Grande and faced the parade grounds near the present Gateway International Bridge and Customs facilities. 

Sources noted it had “been moved from its original location to a point near the international bridge.”  Another account described the chapel as once being located near the Jefferson entrance and used as a school for African-American soldiers.  These minor errors that crept into historical record made Building No. 2. an interesting study.  There were actually two chapels; each one moved one time and still in use today.

The first chapel was originally built to be used as a school and library. In 1889, plans were originally designed for it to be made of wood.  However, a hurricane in 1880 may have convinced the Army that a brick building would last longer.  Maps showed that building No. 2 was built between 1882 and 1884.  It was used as a school until 1907.  Between 1907 and 1922 its use is uncertain.  From 1922 to 1941 it was used as a Post Chapel, N.C.O. “Bachelors'” Quarters, Officers’ Guests Quarters, Post Office and N.C.O. Quarters, and the Chaplain’s office prior to October 1941 as will be explained later.  Earliest Post Engineer’s records show that a single 20’ x 30’ ft. bedroom and 16’ x 18’ living room comprised the floor space with an open porch.  At that time it listed a capacity for 50 persons.  “The larger room was the chapel’s auditorium, while the smaller room was its vestry.”  Later records show the building was divided with a hall to make three bedrooms and small kitchen to house a single family by 1938.  It was also painted at one time.  By then, the. porch was screened.

In 1951, the Little Chapel at Fort Brown was remembered at the time for being a “popular place for weddings of soldiers and local girls” when it was transferred by the city of Brownsville as a museum to the Brownsville Historical Association.  The BHA restored the building and opened it in 1952.  The BHA was organized in 1946 and granted a charter by the state of Texas in 1947.  They were granted use of the Chapel as a museum for 50 years.  However, by 1958, the Stillman house at 1305 E. Washington Street was purchased by Chauncey Stillman, a great-grandson of Charles Stillman, and donated to the BHA as their permanent home.  When businessmen in downtown Brownsville heard about this, they petitioned to oppose the BHA relocating there under the charge that “a museum would stifle the growth of the immediate area.”  The BHA restored the home and moved in by 1960. Now with the expanded Brownsville Heritage Complex, the BHA continues to organize a wide range of activities to promote local history and preserve historical records.

          From 1960 to 1991, Building No. 2 was used as an office for the General Services Administration (GSA) and a tool and maintenance building.  Little maintenance had been done on the building and after thirty years of neglect, the building had seen better days.  In 1992 when expansion of the U.S. Customs facility would require that it be removed, the “Little Chapel” was suddenly in need of a few small miracles.

Mark Lund, Director of City Planning, (Heritage Officer for Brownsville at the time) had first hand experience from the initial dismantling, storage, and restoration of Building No. 2.  He stated that the city had a contract with the GSA to remove (demolish) the building.  When the Texas State Historical Commission became involved, the “Planning staff and Heritage Council persuaded the City Commission to intervene such that the building’s demolition (disassembly) was done carefully to allow it at a future date to be possibly reassembled.”

The GSA was anxious to remove Building No. 2 because it delayed construction by standing in the way of a road that had to be widened for trucks to make a sharp turn from the bridge for inspection.  Once the Historical Commission was satisfied assessment requirements were met, the process to demolish was approved.  When the city was contracted by the GSA to demolish Building No. 2, Mr. Lund involved the Heritage Council and Planning Director Joe Galvan, who spoke with Butch Barbosa of the City Commission, to find what could be done to save the little building.  

Bricks were not numbered as previously believed.  Instead, temporary workers were hired and instructed to carefully remove the bricks and place them on pallets to be stored for future use.  The City Manager, Kirby Lellijedahl, sent Parks Department trucks to transport brick and wooden pieces, which were labeled and protected by tarps.

There was no funding to immediately relocate the building.  One ideal plan was to situate the building near the entrance at the Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course as a visitor’s center.  Until Building No. 2’s fate would be known, components would be temporarily stored in Brownsville Compress warehouses free of rent for several months by compress owners.  After several months, the city was asked to begin paying rent.  Since the building was eligible to receive funds from the Community Development Block Grant – Community Development Funds (CBDG), approximately $1,200 was used to keep the parts in storage until it could be decided where it would be rebuilt.  Around this time Los Caminos Del Rio was producing a film to highlight significant architectural buildings along both sides of the Rio Grande Valley to be aired by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).  The Dallas-based philanthropic Meadows Foundation supported this production and representatives were visiting Brownsville.  After learning about Building No. 2, they advised the City to write a formal grant proposal. 

Once funding by the Meadows Foundation was assured, TSC got involved with the Texas Historical Commission and the City Planning Department in planning a new site for the building on the historical campus.  TSC officials must have considered Building 2 as an inherent part of the historical assemblage of fort buildings and that it would be turned over to them, even though it had fallen under ownership of the GSA and later, transferred to the City.  The project was entitled “Building Number Two” by the City and an Inter-Local Agreement was signed between the City and TSC under which the City would pay all costs once a $50,000 grant was secured by the Meadows Foundation.  Construction was to be supervised by Heritage Officer Mark Lund and progress of the work would be reported to Michael Putegnat, TSC Executive Director.  Once the job was completed, the City would “turn over title and control to TSC.  Costs involved for TSC would be time and landscaping.”

Bricks were delivered near the parking lot on the site it would be rebuilt.  This pile caused rainwater to flood the parking lot and Michael Putegnat, was pressured to correct this situation.  For a short while, stagnant water became known as “Putegnat’s Pond.”  Bricks had to be reset aside to allow for proper drainage.

          During reconstruction, the contractor became dissatisfied with the amount of his reimbursement when the small building proved to be a bigger challenge than he anticipated.  He had stored some of the wooden pieces from the Brownsville Compress in his garage and held up construction.  Mark Lund was faced with two problems:  One was to hire a new contractor to complete the half-finished project with the amount of funds that were left over (most contractors would not want to bid on a half-finished job) and the second was to get the wooden pieces back.   Lund had the police called in as a precautionary measure to ensure parts would be delivered.  The Parks Department was used again to deliver wooden parts to the second contractor, Carroll Adams, who saw the project to the end.  (His nephew, Jearel Adams, worked on the Cavalry building).  Some wooden pieces had become damaged from being taken apart, stepped on, or exposed to moisture.  Carroll Adams, having worked on historic building restoration jobs before and seeing Mark had been scraping pieces of interior wood trim so that they may be used again, took it upon himself to purchase wood pieces with his money to see the job be done correctly.

Another obstacle to rebuilding was met below the ground on which Building No. 2 now stands.  Because of its heavy 12” brick walls, a continuous concrete brick foundation had to be placed below the ground.  Utility pipes obstructed digging and created problems for re-builders:

Boxed openings were made in the reinforced concrete foundation.  Steel pieces were placed on the top of the openings after the concrete cured.  This was done to handle the loads of substantial masonry walls.  The City sidewalk crew (under the direction of Santana Vallejo) built this concrete foundation.  They did very well in dealing with the challenges presented by the existing utilities.  The foundation design was done by the City Engineer, P. J. Garcia, P. E.  The private contractor was hired to do the subsequent work… after the foundation was completed. 

Mark Lund also had the odious task of placing insulation from the crawl space beneath the floor of Building No. 2.  Work was completed by 1993 and it now sits near the Art Annex Building No. 89.  Most peculiar about this building is that there is no historical subject marker on the Little Chapel for visitors to inform them where the building was once located, what it was used for, and to memorialize the people who all worked together to save it.

A second Post Chapel (Building No. 62) once stood in the area between Tandy Hall and the Lightner Student Center, next to the Post Theater.  This chapel was the actual “Regimental” chapel.  It had a larger capacity to hold services for a larger number of men.  The large wood-frame structure with a steeple was built in 1941 and had a 350 person capacity.  It measured 81’-3” long and 37’ wide.  The Quartermaster record lists it as a “temporary” building and classify it as a “Regimental Chapel” on the floor plan.  It was dedicated on Sunday, October 26, 1941.  There was a movable altar for Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant services.  Before that, services were held in the service club near Building No. 2.  Chaplain Stephan K. Callahan moved his office from Building No. 2 into the new chapel the following Monday. 

In 1947, the two chapels and other buildings at Fort Brown were declared surplus property by the War Assets Administration (WAA).  An appeal was made to the WAA to secure Building No. 2 (The Little Chapel) as a museum for the BHA that  had just had its first annual meeting at the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce after being chartered by the State of Texas.  Immaculate Conception Church bought Building No. 62 for the St. Joseph Church on the corner of Sixth and 555 W. St. Francis.  Luke Waters of Harlingen took the job of moving the building from the fort to its new site.  For a job that would have normally lasted a few days or couple of weeks at the most, it actually took nearly five months.  It was a burden Mr. Waters carried to the end.

Waters began the task in October of 1947.  To move it presented a problem because streets were only 30 feet wide.  Weighing 150,000 pounds, it was moved by heavy trucks.  Telephone cables were either lowered or raised to make way for the chapel.  Electric lines were also cut.  This upset some people who found themselves temporarily without electricity.  The weather caused the greatest problems.  Whenever it rained, the job would be halted, as the earth was too soft to move over without getting the load stuck in the mud, which it did at various points.  The "front end" was pulled out of one of Water’s trucks.  Two winch trucks were damaged and cable lines broke several times.  Mr. Waters also broke his arm in a fall on January 2nd.  Asked if he remembered the exact route that was followed in moving, his reply was “I certainly do.  I’ll never forget it.”

After leaving Fort Brown, the building proceeded on Jefferson to East Ninth, turned north to Madison, west on Madison to Seventh, north on Seventh to Van Buren, west on Van Buren across the Southern Pacific railroad tracks to Ninth, south on Ninth to Jackson, west on Jackson between the Resaca and City Cemetery, across Palm Blvd. to West First, south across vacant lots to Jefferson, west on Jefferson to W. Seventh, south to Elizabeth, east to half-way between W. Fourth and Fifth, west again to Seventh, south on Seventh to St. Francis, and finally to its destination at W. Sixth and St. Francis.

For the “wandering church” to reach its destination, brush had to be cleared on some vacant lots to move it.  It finally reached its destination on February 17, 1948.  Father Chateau officiated services and Father Casey was appointed first pastor in 1953.  It remained a parish until 1962 when a new church was built across the street. Research material showed that historian A. A. Champion and his wife, Isabel, were members of this church.  The church has been covered in brick with an addition on its west side and the steeple has been removed.  It now serves as a youth center for the church.

 

Studies in Rio Grande Valley History is published by the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.  Look for the 31-page article in the book titled: “From Old to New: The Alteration, Restoration and Preservation of Historical Fort Brown Buildings of UTB/TSC.”

                               

 

         Postcard images courtesy of Ambrosio Villarreal.

Find the Little Chapel in these aerial photographs before it was moved in the early 1990s.  Remember, it is next to the bridge.

                        

 

If anyone would like to donate photographs, documents, books, or magazines pertaining to our historic city or the Rio Grande Valley to share with future generations, please contact us!  We can also scan or photocopy documents if you would like to share them. 

Phone: (956) 882-7410

Fax: (956)-882-7105

Email:  nancy.goodman@utb.edu


              

The Arnulfo L. Oliveira Literary Society

The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College

80 Fort Brown

Brownsville, Texas

78520

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This site was last updated 02/14/07