Texas-Mexican Vernacular Architecture

By: Joe S. Graham

Type: General Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: January 28, 2020

Hispanics in early Texas had a distinctive vernacular (folk) architecture, i.e., architecture built without formal plans with materials found at hand (as in German vernacular architecture). Models were scarce in America: when the first Spaniards arrived in the future Texas, they did not find permanently established communities of Indians except in the west, for most Texas Indians were nomadic hunter-gatherers who did not build houses. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, for example, did not find any permanent Indian villages until he reached the area of La Junta de los Ríos (the site of present Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Chihuahua), where he found large permanent settlements of agriculturists.

In South Texas, rather than using the choza of Spain as the model for their Texas dwellings, the Spaniards borrowed the jacal structure of Mexico. The word jacal (Spanish for "hut," from Nahuatl xacalli) came to refer to a specific type of rectangular-shaped vernacular dwelling, consisting of four corner poles (horcones) buried in the ground at the bottom and forked at the top to hold the roof vigas. Between these upright corner posts were smaller intermediate posts also buried a few inches in the ground. Horizontal sticks were fastened at intervals to the inside and outside of the upright posts, and these sticks formed a framework that held the wall materials in place. The walls, supported by the horcones and the horizontal sticks, could be made of rubble, rammed earth, stone, mud, or other handy material. Some jacals, like those in present-day Brackettville, had palisade walls of thicker posts. When plastered inside and out with mud or lime mortar, the walls of most jacals were from six to ten inches thick and provided excellent insulation. A gabled roof was supported by a stout ridgepole resting in the forks of two long poles in the center of the narrow side of the house. A steep pitch was required to shed the sometime torrential rains in South, Central, and East Texas. The roof was thatched with grass tied in bundles, palmetto leaves, animal skins, tule, yucca leaves, or similar material tied to a framework of poles supported by the ridgepole and the viga sitting atop the walls. The thatch had to be replaced every three or four years, and some roofs were eventually replaced with handmade shakes and subsequently with galvanized metal. The jacal usually had a door in one gabled end and small windows on one or more sides. It had a floor of packed and hardened dirt or, among those with the means, of a lime, sand, and gravel mixture known as chipichil. When kept in good repair and whitewashed with lime inside and out, the jacal was a comfortable, attractive home that could last for decades. The South Texas jacal was normally from eight to ten feet wide and twenty to twenty-five feet long. It most often had one room, perhaps divided with a hanging cloth. The ridgepole was ten to fifteen feet from the floor. The size was limited by the materials available. The steeply pitched gabled roof made adding rooms impractical. For the poor, the jacal was often a permanent home, but for the more well-to-do it was looked upon as temporary shelter until a better house could be built. Houses of ciar (clay blocks cut from the earth), stone, and adobe became permanent residences for the more fortunate. Some of these can still be found in places throughout South Texas-Zapata, Roma, Laredo, Brownsville.

Between the 1870s and the 1930s, the jacal slowly gave way to the second-generation house type for most of the population of South Texas. As communities grew and cut lumber became more available and less expensive, Tejanos began building small board-and-batten houses, the dominant second-generation house form. The board-and-batten house usually began with one or two rooms built on a framework made of rough-cut two-by-fours and enclosed with one-by-twelves nailed vertically to form the walls. One-by-fours were then nailed over the cracks between the wider boards; hence the term board-and-batten. These small houses had wooden floors and gabled roofs of wooden shingles or, later, of galvanized metal. As the family grew and financial circumstances permitted, rooms were added to the back of the house and perhaps a porch to the front. The first addition was usually a kitchen on the back of the house, followed by a bedroom. Many board-and-batten houses are still in use in South Texas, some with as many as five additions to the original structure. The second-generation board-and-batten Tejano house likely evolved from the jacal, rather than being borrowed from Anglo-American culture (see BOX AND STRIP CONSTRUCTION).

West Texas was a different matter. When Cabeza de Vaca arrived in the La Junta region in 1535, he encountered large communities of Indians living in permanent dwellings with flat roofs. Later Spanish and Mexican colonists who came into the region adopted the native house form, which had evolved from the earlier pithouse. This dwelling, also called the jacal, was found from the Big Bend north to El Paso and into New Mexico. Like its South Texas counterpart, the West Texas jacal was a rectangular building with walls supported by large corner posts planted in the earth and forked at the top to support the roof. The walls were usually made of branches of ocotillo or other small branches held in place by horizontal lath attached to the inside and outside of the corner posts and then plastered with mud and sometimes a lime plaster. This jacal had a flat roof made of a framework of cottonwood and willow covered with grass, ocotillo, yucca stalks, or brush and covered over with a layer of adobe mud three or four inches thick. The roof sloped just enough to shed water without washing away. Both the walls and the roof had to be replastered from time to time, the frequency depending on rainfall. The floor was hard-packed earth. Although the West Texas jacal was usually a one-room dwelling, it may have as many as four or more rooms. Jacals measured and photographed in the Big Bend region between 1979 and 1984 averaged fifteen feet long, thirteen feet wide, and about seven feet high. When in good repair, the jacal was an attractive, comfortable dwelling. It was common well after the turn of the twentieth century.

Spaniards also introduced sun-dried adobe bricks to West Texas, material that revolutionized the architecture of the region. The customary flat-roofed adobe building originated in Spain and was spread throughout northern Mexico and the American Southwest by early soldiers, clerics, and colonists. It was ideally suited to the hot, arid climate, for it was comfortable over a wide range of temperatures. It was also built of easily available materials and provided effective protection against marauding Indians. Some communities in West Texas and northern Mexico still have more than 90 percent adobe houses. The typical folk adobe house begins with one or two rooms and grows with the family and economic circumstances. The one-room adobe dwelling usually measures about twelve by fourteen feet and has a door on the south (less often to the east and very seldom to the north or west, unless a highway or street requires such an orientation) and a window on the north or east (again, seldom on the west because of the hot afternoon and evening sun during summers). The first addition is a room of equal size added to the side, with a door connecting to the first room and a second front door. When a third room is added, about 25 percent of the time it is placed beside the first two rooms, again with interconnecting doors and a front door. Other rooms are sometimes added until the house may be sixty feet long. It is not uncommon for married children to bring their spouses and live in these large houses. However, about 75 percent of the time, the third room is added to the front of the house to form an L-shaped structure with two front doors opening into the open patio, which may be used as living space (e.g., for sleeping outside in the hot summer months). A fourth room will fill in the L and make a square house. Other additions may also be made, as circumstances dictate.

Anglos also adopted adobe as a building material, but their house forms are usually quite different. Numerous public buildings in West Texas are made of adobe. While some Tejano vernacular structures in the region are made of stone, railroad ties, or other materials, the typical adobe folk dwelling is most common and has become the stereotypical Mexican-American dwelling throughout the Southwest. Tejano folk dwellings in both South and West Texas are rapidly being replaced by popular, mass-produced housing. Social class rather than ethnicity has become the stylistic determinant. One can still find jacals in West and South Texas. Second-generation adobe structures are very common in some West Texas communities. Whole barrios of small board-and-batten houses are found in some South Texas communities. See also ARCHITECTURE.

Howard G. Applegate and C. Wayne Hanselka, La Junta de los Ríos del Norte y Conchos (Southwestern Studies 41 [El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1974]). Eugene George, Historic Architecture of Texas: The Falcon Reservoir (Austin: Texas Historical Commission, 1975). Joe Graham, "Folk Housing in South and West Texas: Some Comparisons," in An Exploration of a Common Legacy: A Conference on Border Architecture (Austin: Texas Historical Commission, 1978). Joe S. Graham, "Southwestern Hispanics," in America's Architectural Roots, ed. Dell Upton (Washington: Preservation Press, 1985). Willard B. Robinson, "Colonial Ranch Architecture in the Spanish-Mexican Tradition," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 83 (October 1979).

  • Architecture
  • Styles, Methods, and Technological Innovations
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Visual Arts

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Joe S. Graham, “Texas-Mexican Vernacular Architecture,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-mexican-vernacular-architecture.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996
January 28, 2020

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