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Cotulla’s Welhausen School and Plaza Florita earn Parks Service recognition
The historic and cultural significance of the Welhausen School and Plaza Florita on Cotulla’s east side has been recognized by the US National Parks Service and will be marked with a plaque early next year.
In a brief statement to councilors at their October meeting, City Administrator Larry Dovalina said he and Mayor Javier Garcia are pleased that the National Historic Landmark designation has been handed down from Washington, DC, as it will now trigger extensive preservation and restoration of the popular site.
Dovalina added that the two-year process of application for the designation was both exhaustive and exhausting, involving in-depth research into the site’s history and the significance of the plaza and school, both to the community and to Texas and national history.
The Welhausen School is a red-brick building dating to 1926 and includes two classroom wings on either side of an auditorium. It was built to accommodate the community’s Hispanic students in the decades before Cotulla schools were integrated.
The majority of students at Welhausen came from an economically disadvantaged population and included the children of laborers and migrant farm workers.
The school earned its place in US history in its later years when one of its former teachers, Lyndon Baines Johnson, entered politics and became a senator, house majority leader in Congress, vice president of the United States and – in November 1963 – US president. Johnson often made references to his early years as a teacher in Cotulla and based many of his domestic policy agendas on his recollections of the plight of the underserved, the minorities, and those for whom much of the nation’s education was unavailable.
After Cotulla ISD built new school campuses in the 1970s and all elementary school students were housed together at the Ramirez and Burks elementary schools, the Welhausen building was occupied by a succession of service agencies, including South Texas Rural Health, and briefly served as the La Salle County Courthouse before becoming home to the county appraisal district offices.
A bronze of Lyndon Johnson was unveiled by the former president’s daughter in front of the onetime school building in April 2019; Dovalina said at the time that the city expected the application for national landmark designation to be on a successful trajectory but that he could not predict the outcome.
Plaza Florita, situated directly in front of the Welhausen School, was named after local benefactor Flora Maltsberger in 1932 and includes paved walkways leading to a centrally positioned gazebo built of stone and wood. The design of the park and the style of its fixtures predate the 1930s architecture of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the federal employment relief agency whose workers built parks, public facilities, bridges and other critical infrastructure. Among the WPA projects were the Bigfoot School and park in Frio County and City Park (now renamed Veterans’ Park) in downtown Cotulla.
Built on the recreation ground where Lyndon Johnson’s students played ball, Plaza Florita has been central to the predominantly Hispanic community on Cotulla’s east side.
Cotulla residents, churches, schools and civic organizations have used the plaza for the past 90 years as a venue for festivals, dances, ceremonies, traditional celebrations and other public events. According to City Hall in its application for the historic landmark designation, the plaza’s role in the histories of Cotulla’s Hispanic families has been vital to the fabric of South Texas culture.
For most of its life, the plaza included stone benches etched with the names of local families, although some of those fixtures were removed during renovation and modernization by the county government in 2001 with funds through the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife. Playground equipment was added, a pavilion with a stage was built on the eastern side of the property, blocking the view of the Welhausen School, and public restrooms were installed on the southeast corner of the plaza.
According to City Hall, the landmark designation has come through with a view to the plaza being restored to its original appearance. Both the mayor and city administrator have confirmed that this means removal of the pavilion and restrooms. The city has purchased property directly beside the park and expects to build the public toilets there, Dovalina said.
Relocation of the pavilion and some of the playground equipment will also be necessary, the city administrator said, as they were funded by a state grant.
The city expects to restore both the plaza and the school to their original appearance while making both attractive to tourists and the plaza popular again as a venue for local festivals.
Dovalina said this month that he understands public frustration at what has appeared to be city inaction on repairs or upgrades to the plaza.
“We were in the long process of applying for the landmark designation, and it had to go to the National Parks Service in the nation’s capital, and that’s what has taken a long time,” the city administrator said. “We couldn’t change anything at the plaza until that was done. This new announcement means that we can begin activating our plans for the site.”
Dovalina told councilors that City Hall expects the public to recognize the cultural significance of the plaza as well as the part that the school played in the education of the community’s Hispanic children.
“They are a cultural landmark, not just of historic value,” the city administrator said. “The plaza has been central to generations of Cotulla families, as they celebrate their respective milestones in life. The school itself is one of the last remaining structures of its kind by that architect, and the functions of that school have been identified in the landmark designation.”
Welhausen was designed by Page Brothers Architects of Austin.
“Our constituents are always asking about the plaza,” Mayor Garcia said of the public demand for upgrades to the site. “We submitted this two years ago, and we haven’t been able to do anything until now. You are going to start seeing changes now that we have this part out of the way.”
Dovalina confirmed this month that National Historic Landmark plaque designs are on the drawing board and that ceremonies are being planned for March 2022.