History Detective: Juan Velez preserves architecture in his hometown

December 3, 2018

Born in Brownsville but whisked away to Spain as a toddler, Juan Velez as an adult decided to return to the city of his birth to rediscover his past.

Now, as the city’s historic preservation officer, he’s helping Brownsville rediscover its own past.

Velez, who took the job a little over two and a half years ago, earned degrees in architecture, engineering and education in Spain, and served for seven years as associate architect for the Comunidad de Madrid, working on a number of historic rehabilitation projects in that capacity.

Among them was restoration of a Roman road through the Spanish countryside near Madrid and Segovia, and another to restore the sacristy of an old church in the Vallecas neighborhood of Madrid. In the process of figuring out how to proceed, Velez discovered the structure was a century older than previously thought.

“The church was built in the 18th century rather than in the 19th century,” he said. “That was pretty interesting, because the paintings were still on the ceiling.”

Equally fascinating is Brownsville, a city steeped in architectural and historical mystery, which Velez is in the process of teasing out through exhaustive research, though he admits he’s only scratched the surface so far.

Part of what makes Brownsville so interesting is the mix of architectural styles — from 19th century European-style homes with border touches and links to Matamoros and New Orleans, to a wealth of mid-century modern structures, Velez said.

Also, the majority Tejano settlers combined with a large population of émigrés from places like England, Germany, Scotland, Switzerland and Spain helped create a dense architectural/historical tangle, Velez said.

“You have absolutely a puzzle and a mix that makes a pretty interesting city,” he said.

Velez said a big part of his job entails researching the city’s historic buildings to find out if they qualify for state and/or national historic designation, then educating the property owners about tax-credit incentives available for such properties, the ultimate goal being to preserve Brownsville’s architectural treasures.

Many times, even if owners don’t care that a famous architect built their house, a potential tax break gets their attention, he said.

“That’s what the people don’t know,” Velez said. “When I came here I noticed that a lot of residents were not aware of this kind of help.”

It’s not just downtown and West Brownsville that contain historic properties potentially eligible for historic designation. Rather, they’re spread around Brownsville’s older neighborhoods, including Southmost, Velez said.

The city currently has about 40 properties with historical designation, though there are at least 60 more that could be so registered, according to the city’s historic preservation plan, and even more according to an updated survey, he said. The more a city’s architecture is officially designated as historic, the more people will visit the place to see it, Velez noted. It’s called architectural tourism, and many cities benefit economically from it.

“People will come here just to see those buildings, just to take photographs of the plaques,” he said.

Velez said it makes him “a little sad” that some Brownsville residents seem unaware of the historical and architectural gems surrounding them. He’s working hard to spread awareness, and said it wouldn’t be the same if he were doing it somewhere besides where he was born.

“It’s not only a passion for architecture,” Velez said. “It makes sense when I try to do something for my hometown.”


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