PALESTINE — Many downtown buildings reflect how different architectural trends and different big patterns of history collide with what’s there and contribute something new to each time period, Jacob Morris, Palestine’s historic preservation officer, said.
Several structures represent various 19th or 20th century architectural styles and illustrate how some materials used in construction were not durable and were weeded out as time passed, Morris told a group on a walking tour during the recent Dogwood Trails Celebration.
Instead of just looking at and discussing architectural styles, Morris pointed out how different trends of history and trends across the world have shaped development of downtown.
Palestine is a great city for showing “cultural weathering,” which is what happens to buildings when they are immersed in culture over a period of time because many different time periods are represented downtown, Morris said.
One of the things noticeable about the Carnegie Library, a Richardson Romanesque architectural style building now used for other purposes, is that it’s set off by itself, which makes a statement, Morris said.
Andrew Carnegie was a generous benefactor and he wanted everyone to know he brought the library to Palestine, Morris said. “It was designed to be a centerpiece on the block on which it exists,” he added.
Sacred Heart Catholic Church also sits on a block in a way to signify it is an important space, Morris said. Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton, one of the most famous 19th century Texas architects, designed it.
“It’s very refined in terms of architectural detail. This church over the years has changed how it looks from when it was first constructed,” Morris said. “You can see (in it) an architect with a strong sense of proportion and also in the 19th century it was important to show that you understood the history of architecture and culture and you see all that in Sacred Heart Church.”
The C.E. Dilley Building, which now houses the Palestine Chamber of Commerce, shows the use of cast iron on storefronts when it was constructed in 1882. “Detail was important in those days and you could put a lot of detail in casting,” Morris said.
Dilley was an iron maker and operated a steelworks inside the building.
Throughout the years, there was less and less detail and more and more simplified designs, tying into modernism and suburbanization, Morris said.
Different faades of buildings emerged over time as people experienced facades differently through the years, Morris said. People walked along the streets in the 19th century but some storefronts in the 20th century were meant to be driven by, he said.
Even the design of vehicles and how much passengers could see out affected storefronts, Morris said.
Upper floors of some buildings still reflect a 19th century structure while storefronts have changed quite a bit based on the needs of the times, Morris said.
Throughout time, downtowns had to compete with malls and with the ability of people to get in their cars and drive a long distance, he said.
It is more economically feasible for small business owners to live above their business downtown and to create a distinctive place where people want to not only come to visit but stay, Morris said.
When buildings are lost due to a tornado or for other reasons, that changes the ratio of open space and the view scape and cities such as Palestine have found the answer to open spaces is to have small parks and places where people can sit, Morris said.
“It’s important to look at resources and to think comprehensively what will contribute and still show off what you have that’s unique and what you have that’s irreplaceable,” Morris said.
Palestine has a faade grant program to help owners in the historic downtown area with historic preservation, which is called heritage conservation in European terms, Morris said.
Storefronts made in the late ‘30s and early ’40s slope in for several reasons, he observed. Back then, they didn’t like soft surfaces like awnings and another consideration was they didn’t want reflection from headlights on vehicles, Morris said.
In the mid-1950s cars could be driven faster so use of a geometric shape and logos for signs on store fronts and billboards evolved, Morris said.
Big trends of transportation play into why a storefront is the way it is, he said, recalling that Palestine was a big transportation hub historically, especially when the railroad was popular.
Morris observed simplified storefronts and a classical architectural design for a bank embodying the idea that the building was tough to rob.
Older buildings have transom light because there was little or no electricity in the 19th century and early 20th century and there were sophisticated ways of dealing with how to get enough light into a building to maximize the amount of time it was useful during the day, Morris said.
The second story of the elaborately styled Heinzie-Summers Building appears to be virtually unchanged since its construction in 1878.
But through the years, the first floor has served as an architect’s office, a men’s store, a ladies clothing store, a fish and oyster market, a jewelry store and now a law office.
With the advent of modernism, Morris said, a “slipcover” material was put on some older buildings, but important architecture may still be underneath.
Palestine has several examples of the use of pigmented structural glass applied to modernize buildings, starting in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Morris said. Vitrolite glass became a popular way to sanitize and streamline, he added.
Gazing at the Palestine Community Theatre, Morris said the reason Palestine has a Spanish colonial style theater is due to the building of the Panama Canal and influence of the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego in 1916-17.