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Now listed as national landmark for Latino cultural significance, Cotulla park will be rejuvenated
Baked mercilessly by the afternoon sun, seldom used before dusk, and surrounded by some of the community’s lowest-income neighborhoods, Plaza Florita has quietly endured for nearly 90 years as the recognized cultural heart of Hispanic Cotulla.
Last year, after extensive research, testimonial recording and planning for the long-term use of the site, the city of Cotulla succeeded in having its cherished plaza placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It lies directly in front of the Welhausen School, which has likewise been recognized as a national landmark, and the pair have been spotlighted for the role they played in the development and life of the community.
Cotulla City Administrator Larry Dovalina echoes the sentiments of Mayor Javier Garcia and the city council in promoting Plaza Florita as being of cultural importance to generations of Cotullans since the early 1930s.
In a brief statement to the city council last week, Dovalina said records indicate only two percent of the historic landmarks in the United States represent the Latino culture, and Plaza Florita is now one of that select number.
A ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. Monday, May 30, Memorial Day, to unveil a plaque identifying the plaza as being on the National Register of Historic Places, recorded by the US Department of the Interior.
A further application for recognition was submitted by the city last week to the Texas Historical Commission for designation as a state landmark.
Applications for each of the listings have been compiled by Terri Myers of Preservation Central, the organization contracted by the city for research and promotion of its historic sites, working with local residents who have known the plaza all their lives.
Before it was given its distinctive gazebo, its paved walkways, stone benches and whimsical fountains, the plaza was little more than an open area. During the years that Lyndon Johnson (later US President) taught school at the Welhausen campus at the end of the 1920s, the plaza was an unremarkable and dusty square on which children played ball.
Records show that the city of Cotulla had designated the area as its “Mexican Plaza” as early as 1925, but that the site remained barren until 1932-33, when the first fixtures were installed.
Although the documentation indicates the park was vacant before 1933, the gazebo bears a dedication date of 1932 and credit to Welhausen PTA President Mrs. LV Lopez and Secretary Mrs. E Mendez below the words “In honor of Mrs. JT Maltsberger.”
The Maltsberger dedication also names the site as “Florita Plaza.” Florence “Florita” Maltsberger had been active in Cotulla school organizations and as benefactor and leader who promoted local functions for the betterment of the community. The nomination was made by Nasario Garza.
Local historian and author Geronima “Jeri” Garza (no relation) is a member of the Plaza Florita Renovation Project Committee and has helped compile a history of the site’s events over the past century, many tidbits of information gleaned from the Cotulla Record, predecessor of the Frio-Nueces Current.
The earliest reference Garza has found to the existence of an open park area at the site dates to 1909.
“The history of the plaza is colorful,” Garza wrote this week. “Events such as Cinco de Mayo and 16th of September were multi-day events that brought participants from surrounding counties.”
Although already known as Plaza Florita, the park was formally given its present name in 1935, according to historical research performed on behalf of the city, and became the new epicenter for the Hispanic community. From the late 1920s onwards, it had hosted a variety of functions. Over the past century it has annually hosted festivals, family celebrations, church events, concerts and even school dances.
Architecture at the site reflects a style popular across the US in the early 1930s, with benches, gate posts, fountains and walls constructed in natural stone. The same is found in the designs of Cotulla’s downtown city park, the Bigfoot School and park in Frio County, and Garner State Park north of Uvalde, which typify the style and materials used by the Works Progress Administration launched by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935. Although contrasting sharply with the Art Deco style used for government buildings (among them the La Salle County Courthouse, 1931), the architecture was low-cost and used locally sourced materials.
Plaza Florita’s rough-hewn style, wood and stone gazebo with shingle roof, low benches in familial groupings, dance floor, shade trees and palms suited the community to a tee, and the site was quickly adopted as the meeting place for all outdoor events.
In the 1930s, Jose O’Valle penned a ballad about Plaza Florita, depicting its beauty, and described it as a place where “a fountain glistens,” also mentioning “the gardens, the rock kiosk, benches, and walkways where pretty girls talk about love.”
One of the earliest newspaper references to the park is from the Sept. 12, 1925 edition of the Cotulla Record and states that “beginning Sept. 24, a celebration lasting four days will be held at the Mexican plaza at Cotulla.” A 1926 event celebrating Mexican Independence Day lasted five days and was reported as “one of the biggest” ever held at Cotulla, featuring an address by the Mexican vice consul of Laredo.
In 1934, after a number of events had been reported as taking place in the plaza – including dances with music by “a transient Mexican orchestra” – the park whose trees and other features had been installed by the school’s PTA was given more of its architectural features, including a fountain, stone walls, walkways and planters. The job was paid for by the federal government’s Civil Works Administration.
Documentation of that addition, according to Jeri Garza, helped today’s city government apply for the national historic landmark designation.
Improvements to the site continued through the 1930s, prompted by the PTA and the county commissioners’ court, and supported in part by the federal government.
“The significance of this open space is cultural,” Dovalina told the city council last year when Cotulla made its bid for the plaza’s national landmark recognition. “All of the families of Cotulla have celebrated the most important moments of their lives as part of a close-knit community there.
“The plaza as we know it has featured as the backdrop for generations of families, in music, in collective celebrations, and as a place where generations of children recall some of the happiest moments of their lives,” the city administrator said. “We are planning to do it justice, to bring it back to the condition it should be in.”
Improvements and alterations to the park had been ongoing for decades. Today’s concrete walkways and dance floor in front of the gazebo lie at least eight inches higher than the originals.
Two decades ago, La Salle County government officials coordinated the development of recreational facilities with the city of Cotulla and secured a grant from the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife to make improvements to the plaza. Although well intentioned, the upgrades did not sit well with sticklers for historic preservation. A covered steel pavilion with a basketball court and a performance stage was built at the eastern edge of the plaza, blocking the full view of the historic Welhausen building. A concrete-block public restroom was added to the corner of the plaza, walkways were altered, original stone benches removed or rebuilt, and grassy areas were occupied with playground equipment.
Families whose names had been etched into the backs of the benches discovered that the plaza revamp had erased their memorials.
Although the performance stage and other upgrades meant that larger events could be hosted there and local youths could use the space for sport and exercise, civic leaders have eyed Plaza Florita askance for twenty years, and successive administrations have hoped one day to be responsible for far greater improvements.
The grant-funded alterations were made possible through a form of lease between the county and the city. The document, according to the city administrator, represents a mere formality and may be rescinded in favor of a new development plan.
Dovalina believes the consensus in the community is that Plaza Florita should be returned to its original 1930s appearance with some concessions to modernity. Additional parking and new restrooms off-site, for example, must be part of the plan. The view of the Welhausen school must be restored. The gazebo and its adjoining dance floor must be serviceable. Walkways must meet safety and handicap-access standards. Historic benches must be rebuilt.
In short, Cotulla plans a 21st Century version of a nearly 100-year-old park that still pays tribute to its cultural heritage.
This will be no mean feat, considering the space has now been listed as a historic landmark precisely for its original purpose and appearance.
Long-term planning for the development has included the city’s purchase of some housing lots directly adjacent to the plaza. These will accommodate restrooms and other facilities. The pavilion with basketball court must somehow be preserved, although not at the present site, since it was funded by a state agency. Demolition of the pavilion would necessitate returning the grant monies to the state. According to City Hall this year, preliminary drafts for the development include repositioning the structure or rebuilding it nearby.
Playing a key role in the design of a plaza that will continue to serve as a community focal point is Leslie Aboumrad, working in Cotulla for a number of years as part of the Laredo-based Frank Architects company responsible for creating a master plan in urban development.
Aboumrad addressed a public forum in late 2019 to show how she envisions Cotulla’s significant landmarks being connected by pedestrian walkways, how the city can capitalize on its historic sites by hosting events in and around them, and how giving modern use to older structures or repurposing vacant buildings can bring life back to a blighted downtown area.
Architect and company owner Frank Rodnofsky was responsible for the design and landscaping of the downtown Cotulla historic district, which now includes genuine gas lanterns and plant beds on Front Street.
City Hall expects to employ a number of ideas from planning meetings, from experience in the downtown beautification and from Aboumrad’s designs in its blueprint for the Plaza Florita.
“We recognize that the stone benches with the family names on them are very important to a lot of people in Cotulla,” the city administrator said last week. “We examined some of the alterations that were made to the park, and we have now discovered that the names could be revealed again.”
Funding for the plaza restoration is derived almost entirely from the city’s hotel occupancy tax. Revenues generated by the hotel and motel room surcharge can only be used for municipal projects that encourage tourism, such as downtown beautification, and help boost the local economy. Cotulla has spent some of its hotel tax revenues on Front Street, on the repurposing of a former garage as the new City Hall, and on the preservation and restoration of the former Stockmens Bank building for office space and museum displays.
The Plaza Florita gazebo roof was repaired last year.
“We could not make any significant changes to the gazebo, but we are bringing it back to its original appearance,” Dovalina said. “I believe that’s a promising start to a project that will be close to the hearts of the people of Cotulla.”