When Brownsville City Planner Roman McAllen arrived in Brownsville a little more than a year ago, he went to Mass at St. Thomas Catholic Church at Second and Jefferson streets. He vividly remembers the view he encountered as he followed the priest out after the service -- the former Old Parra Grocery Store, abandoned and in disrepair, framed in the church's front doors
"I was in the Mass and those doors opened and they perfectly framed that building," McAllen said. "And every Sunday they were faced with that blighted structure."
On Tuesday morning a silver-haired woman sat on the church steps at 11:30 a.m., gazing at a much different sight: the smoking, charred ruins of the old store that burned to the ground in the early morning hours.
Fire Chief Lenny Perez said the building had been vacant for approximately 30 years, but McAllen said it was being renovated before it burned down.
The fire department is investigating the incident as a suspicious fire.
"There was nobody living in there. It's been vacant for 30 years and my understanding is they were trying to remodel it," Perez said. "So that makes it suspicious."
The building had no electricity, he said.
The fire department was called to the scene after midnight Tuesday morning and responded to a fully engulfed structure. Firefighters had it under control within an hour.
According to Brownsville Historic Downtown District Director Peter Goodman, the building was erected in 1929. It was originally called L.T. Martinez and Sons.
It was one of hundreds of historic buildings in downtown Brownsville, he said.
"It had been a grocery and palm hat factory and the family lived upstairs and conducted business downstairs," Goodman said. "This one (the building) is a great loss because it had been vacant for so long and finally started to come back and everybody in that neighborhood was very proud of that."
He said the building was unique because it was board and batten, which creates a barn-like appearance with the use of 8- to 12-inch wooden boards nailed vertically.
Goodman said it's unusual to have a structure built in that style that is two stories tall.
"It was really a very beautiful building," he said.
For McAllen, the loss of such an exceptional building that was on the verge of restoration is disheartening.
"It was so exciting to know that people were going to come out of that church in a few months and be faced with a beautifully restored building, and so to come around that corner this morning and see that pile of rubble," he said, his voice trailing off. "You'll never get back that piece of history."
But McAllen said regardless of the fire's cause, it's important for the community to know that the structure was heading toward renewal.
"The building was on its way to be better than it ever was, with a superior restoration having just begun by the talented and big-hearted Miguel Del Poso, who took it upon himself to come into the community and attempt to make a grand difference," McAllen said.
Del Poso wasn't available for comment Tuesday afternoon.
"If it was a crime, and so far I don't know that, then I would simply refer to the criminals as such and talk about the loss to the community of a great building with great history and value to the city," McAllen said.
Written by The Brownsville Herald
Courtesy of YellowBrix - YellowBrix