Tecate Train Station's Architectural Mystery

What was Frank Lloyd Wright's role?

Tecate train station. "Train stations were mostly kit buildings. You'd buy the blueprint, and they'd all be practically the same building from small town to small town."
  • Tecate train station. "Train stations were mostly kit buildings. You'd buy the blueprint, and they'd all be practically the same building from small town to small town."

Restoring the Tecate train station is Maria Castillo Curry's obsession. As a member of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a think tank located off the Ensenada toll road, Curry is devoted to saving historical buildings on both sides of the border. "My Ph.D. dissertation is on railroad stations. When I started work, the railroads were undergoing privatization, and the Mexican government didn't know how many railroad stations were in the country. So I traveled around the country and have 1500 photos of railroad stations in Mexico. There are 2611 stations there, and I've seen all of them. I know that there is no other railroad station like this in Mexico. I'm so busy that I don't sleep at night anymore!"

Curry has worked as a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History and is also on the board of the San Diego Railroad Museum. "When they started building the wall behind the Tecate brewery two years ago, a lot of people asked me to come and help them, and that's how I ended up in the museum, trying to save this building. The depot and the older buildings next to it all came in stages. Every few years, there was a new building, and it revolved around the depot. It's the oldest part of the town, and that's the town's history, but the wall divided all of that. And when you arrive by train, the wall reflects the noise of the train back at you."

Describing the restoration as a "grassroots effort" — something unusual for Mexico — Curry recalls the outcry when the brewery first built the wall. "There were protests. It was in violation of the preservation law of Baja California. After two years, the state government responded. People want to protect their history in Mexico, but in a different way. The preservation of our monuments was under the jurisdiction of the federal government for some buildings. But Baja California is a different region and has its own state law. We've moved from a centralized system to a decentralized system, and it's been very, very hard. Preservation is more grassroots in the U.S. and more centralized in Mexico, but now they want to do it at the state level. And the focus has always been on ancient structures — colonial and pre-Hispanic. That's our national history, but the depot is in the north of Mexico, and most of the country wouldn't think it was important. They look at it as something made by foreigners, which doesn't help. However, the people say it is important to them. I come from Mexico City, and I didn't think anyone would care, but to my surprise, I found there are people who care for these buildings. They remember from when they were kids. It's an emerging movement."

One look at the station reveals it as an American project. Built by the San Diego Arizona Railroad, the design is American and the materials found on the site come from San Diego. Curry holds up a brick with the letters "UBCo" embossed on it. "This came from San Diego. It was a brick from one of the chimneys. I think it stands for Union Brick Company or United Brick Company."

No one seems to know exactly when the station was built or who exactly built it, but Castillo believes it had to have been between 1914 and 1919. "We have photos of a previous building there, and this is the second one. I lead historical tours from Carrizo Gorge to the depot. I tell people that when it was built, Tecate had just one street and the depot. There were only about 400 people in Tecate back then. It was a ranch, but they put in this terminal like it was a big city. I don't know if they saw potential or thought something was going to happen. But it's one of the best railroad buildings in Mexico."

While working as a Smithsonian fellow, Curry met Mexico's director of railroads. "I told him, 'You are privatizing the railroads, and you don't know what you have!' " After lobbying the government of Baja California as well as the Great American Station Foundation in Las Vegas to designate the depot as the Most Endangered Station of 2001, Curry managed to get the station listed and persuaded the state government of Baja to pay for the restoration.

Restoration poses a number of difficulties. The biggest obstacle is the state government, which mistrusts grassroots organizations, Curry claims, and tends to take credit for historical preservations. "I have tried to convince them that this will not threaten them but make them look good."

Further, the company contracted for the restoration was supposed to be finished by December — a timetable too tight for historical restoration. To the local contractors, "restoration" means building anew, without any respect for the architectural integrity of the original design. "We don't have courses or schools that teach preservation [here]," Curry says. "We have to have standards." For instance, even though the building has three bathrooms, the construction chief wanted to build an additional modern bathroom and attach it to the back of the building until Curry stopped him. There are no original blueprints to consult, and Curry has relied on the volunteer efforts of San Diego's Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) and San Diego architects to advise the Tecate architects. "We are doing cross-border cooperation. I have a master's in historical preservation, and the experts in San Diego help me, and I go to Tecate to advise the architects there. I go every day."

There are many reasons why Curry believes the station is worth saving. "It reflects the history of the region, the history of Mexico and the U.S. at a very important moment. This was built during the Mexican Revolution. When it was built, the U.S. had stopped work on all other railroads, but not this one. It was also during World War I, and this location was very strategic. It's also important in the history of the border." She pulls out a map of the San Diego Arizona Railroad. "This railroad goes from San Diego through Tijuana-Tecate. It happens to go through Mexico because of the topography. It's less mountainous and more smooth, which made it less expensive to build the railroad that way."

The two-story building, located behind the south wall of the Tecate Brewery, is no longer prominent and takes a little searching to find. When Curry discovered it, it was in a shambles, covered with graffiti, a situation that could have been prevented. "Eight years ago, it was in perfect condition. Even in 2000 it was in good shape. But passenger service was ended, and the caretaker was let go because of privatization. It was abandoned, which is the worst thing you can do to a building. A woman who is rumored to be the wife of the late caretaker has been staying there every night until recently. During the winter, she made fires inside the depot. Everything was wood, the furniture, the floors, everything! And she was using it to make fires inside! We cannot believe the depot didn't burn down. But these old stucco buildings are very fire resistant. You can see the hole she used to burn things in and all the damage from the fires, but she didn't burn the building! And that was in the upper level!"

"It's a building in the prairie style, part of the arts-and-crafts movement. There's not another building like it for the next 140 miles. There are different theories about who designed it. The historian Kathy Flanagan said it must be Eugene Huffman from San Diego. Some people believe that it was a son of Frank Lloyd Wright, and there's a man from Tecate who swears it's from Frank Lloyd Wright himself. SOHO is offering a $250 reward to whoever can prove who built it. We don't know."

One of the foremost experts on Frank Lloyd Wright and his work is local architect Spencer Lake. Lake discovered Wright in 1959 as a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "I was already looking for something that had a philosophical grounding as a career. I didn't just want to do something like be an airline pilot. With architecture being so multidisciplinary and engaging and, on top of that, the Wrightian belief that architecture derives from a deeper thread in human history, that was enough to get me excited."

Although Wright had died by the time Lake's interest awakened, Lake started what would become an extensive collection of books on the famous architect and began studying his writings (including 10,000 pages of correspondence). Within three years, Lake had a substantial reference on Wright, the subject of the first of three architectural exhibits Lake curated while at Cal Poly. "That gave me access to his drawings and photographs. I was able to get into a lot of his work intimately." Lake went on to become friends with two of Wright's sons, Lloyd Wright and David Wright. In 1988, Lake developed a multimedia production, "Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture as a Quality of Mind," which was presented at universities across the country. He maintains contact with David Wright's widow and is currently writing a book about her husband, who died in 1997 at age 102. Lake has also worked with architect Sim Bruce Richards, one of Wright's apprentices, and is often consulted when one of Richards's homes is restored.

Lake had heard about the Tecate depot restoration but had never seen the building. After looking at a photo, he doesn't think it is a Wright design, though he agrees it is unique for a railroad station. "It doesn't have the fundamental visual scale [Wright] used. For example, he used broad roof eaves. These eaves are cut back. The fenestration [windows] is broken up. These look like holes in the wall, and by the time Wright was working in his Prairie period, he had solved the requirements to actually make the windows a feature in the design. This is too broken up to be a Wright building."

The Prairie period, roughly 1900 to 1910, refers to the Chicago Prairie school of architecture. "The Prairie School evolved in Chicago under the leadership of Frank Lloyd Wright," Lake explains. "You can see a little of the Chicago Prairie School in [San Diego architect] Irving Gill's work, and you can recognize it in the windows. In Gill's works, you read the windows the way you would read a musical score. In the Prairie School, windows aren't only a hole in the wall, but an actual feature of the design. I only speculate, but I have heard other sources say that [the depot] might be an Irving Gill building. It's very curious, because it definitely has the Midwestern look to it, and I don't know of any 'kit' building like this.

"Train stations were mostly kit buildings," Lake continued. "You'd buy the blueprint, and they'd all be practically the same building from small town to small town. The Prairie style continued in a fragmentary way in his work all the way up until about 1915. But it's very unlikely that Wright would have been involved with that [station] in any respect, because by 1910 he had quit his family and fled to Europe with the wife of a client. But the building has little figments of Prairie in it. I'd say it's an exaggeration to say it's influenced by Wright, unless you can find a link with somebody local or perhaps somebody out of L.A. who may have worked with Wright. It was definitely influenced by the so-called Prairie School," Lake concludes, "a term that was actually coined by a newspaperman or art critic."

While most of the work on the station is finished, Curry is hopeful that some additional touch-ups will make the restoration more historically accurate. "We had an excellent institution help us with this, but they didn't send their experts for this project. They put some aluminum stripping on the roof to protect against humidity and some modern tiles in the building that don't really look right. To remedy that, we are working with trained professionals on both sides of the border for future projects in Tijuana and Ensenada. They have the expertise in restoration, and they can train more people in Mexico about proper techniques and architectural accuracy. But the building is no longer threatened with destruction. Our grassroots efforts have paid off."

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