Hidden history: Local restoration reveals 19th century building - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Hidden history: Local restoration reveals 19th century building

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Posted: Monday, November 18, 2019 10:44 pm

As clues go it was easy to miss: An old brick box sticking up from the roof over a couple of abandoned storefronts on East Washington Street, visible only from certain angles at street level.

The box, it turns out, is the uppermost story of a long-forgotten building once a fixture of a bustling, bygone downtown, nowadays concealed behind an ugly, modern facade. Long referred to as the “Bigelow House” by the few who knew about it, it also turns out there was never any connection between the hidden structure and Israel Bigelow, first mayor of Brownsville and first Cameron County judge.

He’d been dead a decade, in fact, before the border brick store/family residence was built, according to Larry Lof, who purchased and is restoring the building at 1242-1246 E. Washington St.

Lof is president and CEO of the Gorgas Science Foundation and a historic renovation expert. Through research he discovered that Solomon Ascheim bought the lot around 1875. At the time, the property contained a sagging wood-frame house occupied by Porfirio Diaz, the future president of Mexico. Ascheim evicted him in order to demolish the house and build his family residence, with the section facing Washington Street housing his business.

“He had the first men’s store,” Lof said. “It was called the Red Star.”

Ascheim, who later became country treasurer, sold stiff collars, shirts, ties, shoes, hats and other accessories, Lof said.

“You look at any of those old pictures of people,” he said. “It may have been 100 degrees, but they were wearing a starched collar.”

Lof, who acquired the property in July, has made substantial progress peeling back the layers of time in order to restore the old structure to its former glory.

“The most critical thing is that you’re kind of paying attention during the demolition period, because that’s when all the evidence comes out,” he said.

The original shop front featured four wooden doors like shutters, common to the 19th century border brick architecture found in the region. Behind the shop was the Ascheim family’s living space.

“This was their formal parlor,” Lof said, leading a tour. “There’s a fireplace here.”

Ascheim added onto the structure as the business grew more prosperous, Lof said.

“Different additions were built in a seven-year period,” he said. “It wasn’t all built at once.”

The upper story visible from Washington Street represents the apex of the family’s fortunes. Leading to the section, a pair of plain, original French doors still hang on their original hinges, handmade glass panes mostly intact.

Downstairs, Lof pointed out an enormous door built when the family was living large, and which he found somewhere in back and re-hung in the original location.

“When you have a door that’s that big, you’re showing that you’re doing well, because it’s a beautiful big door: four feet wide, eight feet high,” he said. “Probably cypress. Probably shipped from New Orleans. Buildings were built from old-growth pine, though cypress was used for doors and shutters.”

Like a number of historic structures in Brownsville and Matamoros, the kinship with the French Quarter is obvious. Originally, one side of the Ascheim building going back to the alley gave onto a New Orleans-style side yard overseen by a wrought-iron balcony, long since removed, only to be covered up and turned into low-end retail space by subsequent owners.

“There used to be a lot of these long-side-yard houses in Brownsville, influenced from New Orleans, and they’ve all sort of disappeared,” Lof said.

With only some old insurance maps and a grainy image from a long-ago aerial photo to go on, he’s having to rely on the detective skills he’s honed over many years and many restorations.

“It was quite a while before I had a handle on exactly what was going on,” Lof said.

Still, the building eventually began giving up its secrets — shadows, as Lof calls them, clues to what came before based on subtle physical traces invisible to most people.

“The first door started right here and you can see how high it went,” he said, indicating where the front wall had been before being replaced by plate glass. “That tells me exactly how high and where the first door started. At first you think there’s no evidence. How are we going to put this back together? But little by little, if you’re kind of watching, you can pick out all the evidence. ... It lets us bring back this really neat border brick building.”

Lof said he doesn’t know what the building will be used for once the restoration is finished, though it will help reintroduce historic character to the block, just up the street from the Miller-Trevino-Stillman House. The Ascheim building is far from the only historic structure downtown hidden and forgotten behind changing times and cheap siding, he said.

“I think people don’t realize how many historical buildings Brownsville has and how much is still left that kind of got covered up,” Lof said. “I think there’s a lot of these, and frankly the future of downtown is actually looking backwards and bringing its history back. It isn’t just because the buildings are neat, and they are, it’s because there are stories.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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