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Celebrating the Life
Eugene George

George uses the historical record to collect data on the people and techniques involved in constructing various historic sites.

George on a research and documentation trip to Falcon Reservoir

Eugene George recounts an interest in historic buildings from his student days at the University of Texas in the 1940s, when he frequented downtown Austin to look at buildings, particularly the warehouses and storefronts that provided evidence of a nineteenth-century wagon yard on Fifth and Sixth Streets.  This interest continued during his military service in World War II.  While a prisoner of war in Germany, George checked out the only books on architecture available in the prison library - one on engineering, and another on the building of San Michele, which he later visited to see in person.

Eugene George’s approach to historic preservation is intensely scholarly; he uses the historical record, available through repositories like the Alexander Architectural Archive, to collect data on the people and techniques involved in constructing various historic sites.  His published research has focused on the Rio Grande Valley and the architecture of the Texas-Mexico border, a region not well studied when he first became interested in it.

Historic American Buildings Survey, Texas, 1961

George discovered the buildings of the borderlands when he led the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in Texas in 1961. View the HABS gallery

Governed by strict specifications, HABS reports document historic structures in multiple ways: through photographs, measured drawings, and written descriptions, including historical research.  Buildings surveyed must evidence historical or architectural significance and have sufficient historical documentation to be included in the project; the 1968 draft manual for the HABS project also stated that structures threatened with destruction or modification were to be considered high priorities.  Although the most prominent of the buildings surveyed in 1961 was San Antonio de Valero (otherwise known as the Alamo), George included the Hill County courthouse in Hillsboro, Kimball Academy, Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Austin, and several historic buildings throughout the Rio Grande Valley.  The 1961 HABS reports offer a glimpse of the diversity and richness of Texas’ architectural heritage.

“Though these structures are regional in nature, they are significant and valuable to our national heritage.”

George’s work on HABS in 1961 did more than document historic buildings; it also gave him a deep interest in the Rio Grande Valley, which has sustained his research in this area for nearly half a century.  As he noted in a 1972 letter concerning historic structures in the Rio Grande Valley, he became enchanted with the historic town of Roma during his survey work there, and “I hoped that it [the HABS project] would help bring to view historic structures in the Rio Grande valley.  Though these structures are regional in nature, they are significant and valuable to our national heritage.”

During George’s research on the historic brick and adobe buildings of Roma, he uncovered the existence of a nearly-forgotten local architect, deemed by George to be, with Father Peter Keralum, “one of the two most important architectural influences in the lower Rio Grande.”  With the assistance of local historian Florence Scott, George tracked down archival documentation for the architect and interviewed his descendants in the area.  His efforts ultimately provided a name and background for the mysterious mason: Heinrich Portscheller, an immigrant from Germany by way of Mexico.   This information, along with George’s HABS photos, drawings, and reports, contributed to the area’s designation as a National Historic District in 1972, and will be the basis of a forthcoming publication.

Lost Cities: The Falcon Reservoir, Texas and Tamaulipas, Mexico

The Falcon Reservoir was formed by a dam constructed jointly by the governments of the United States and Mexico in 1953.  Intended to provide water for irrigation in the area, the reservoir displaced many deep-rooted communities on both sides of the Rio Grande.   Entire towns, with homes, churches, schools, and stores intact, were submerged under the reservoir’s waters. View the Falcon Reservoir gallery

George credits Dr. Edward Jelks, an archaeoolgist who taught at the University of Texas, with the beginnings of his research on the settlements of this region.  In the 1960s, archaeologists were primarily interested in evidence of Native Americans in the area, and little work was being done on Spanish colonial settlements.  Jelks pointed George toward archaeological field studies carried out by Joe F. Cason, preserved in the archives of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, which had been carried out before the region was flooded.  Building on this research, George made numerous contacts in the region, enlisted students and interns to help with architectural drawings, and published his first book on the architecture of the Rio Grande in 1975.

By the late 1990s, many of the sites George and his students documented had been looted, resulting in the loss of much archaeological evidence.

In the 1980s, years of drought gave George another opportunity to investigate this region.  The water level in the Falcon Reservoir fell so low that from 1983 to 1986, ruined towns and ranch houses were once again on dry ground.  George and his students documented the buildings through photographs and drawings.  When another series of dry years caused the waters to recede again in the late 1990s, the value of this documentation was made strikingly clear: many of the sites George and his students had documented had been looted, resulting in the loss of much archaeological evidence.  George published the results of his research in the 1980s and 1990s as Lost Architecture of the Rio Grande Borderlands in 2000.

Socorro Mission, El Paso, Texas

The Mission of Nuestra  Señora de la Purísima Concepción del Socorro was founded in 1682 by the Franciscans, but the present church was built in 1843, after the original church was destroyed by floods in 1829.  By the late 1970s, the after years of continuous use, the building was crumbling.    View the Socorro Mission gallery

Gallery

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Eugene George was commissioned to undertake a research and restoration study by the Texas Historical Commission and local groups in El Paso.  He found that one of the most significant causes of the church’s deterioration was the application of cement plaster, which did not allow walls to “breathe” and give off moisture the way the original adobe plaster did.  George advised stabilization of the roof, re-plastering of the walls, and control of the moisture which threatened the building’s fabric.

“A local archival collection should be initiated with focus on the mission heritage of the El Paso region…”

Working with an archaeologist, George provided a detailed chronology of the site, and went on to provide recommendations for how restoration work should be carried out.  Interestingly, one of his primary recommendations was the establishment of an archive.  “A local archival collection should be initiated with focus on the mission heritage of the El Paso region. …  The main function would be that of continuing the chronology established in this report.”  George goes on to comment, “To reestablish the church safely in its proper context, investigations should be made using archaeological techniques and physical on-site architectural analysis – both combined with an in-depth program of historic documentary research.”  George’s detailed specifications for carrying out the work included techniques and materials with roots in his own work with archives and architectural records.  

George’s plan was not put into action in the 1980s.  Local officials decided to apply another coat of cement plaster to the church walls instead of beginning the lengthy restoration process.  Another restoration study was undertaken in 1998, and it was not until 2001 that historically appropriate recommendations like those prescribed in George’s report were carried out on the Mission.

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