Corpus Christi Caller Times

"The Rest is History"

Park-like rest stop near Falfurrias offers a cultural repose for South Texas motorists

They come in droves, the tired, the hungry, the bathroom seekers. They nibble bologna sandwiches at concrete picnic tables, stretch their knotted backs and stare blankly at the yellowed map with the big arrow showing where they are. The one constant for Americans on the road is the rest stop those drab, utilitarian outposts that dot the nation's highway system.

But near one South Texas town, the rest stop is more than a place to seek respite from "Mommy, are we there yet?" and other existential questions. Just south of Falfurrias on Highway 281, there is a place that (or more than half a century has cried out to travelers and locals, calling for them to lie down for a picnic lunch in a local park as a place for the road weary to rest. Now this rest stop has been redesigned and revitalized to reflect a new. history-conscious approach to the construction of rest stops by the Texas Department of Transportation.

It is a showplace in the Texas rest stop network, another step above the roadside places where regional history has begun to emerge in ceramic-tile wall murals. The architects and builders have drawn from the history to the south, creating architecture that reflects the buildings being restored along the Rio Grande from Laredo to Brownsville in the Los Caminos del Rio Heritage Project.

Historical theme stop

"This is a really unique site," says transportation department project architect Paul Campbell. "We had high goals when we started, we were calling it the Gateway to South Texas' and the 'Jewel of South Texas.'" The architects for the Falfurrias site, David and Elizabeth Chu Richter of Corpus Christi. traveled the heritage corridor along the river and drew their inspiration from towns such as San Ygnacio and Roma.

San Ygnacio's town plaza in the Mexican style, fIanked by buildings of native sandstone and plaster and banquettes - benches of masonry adjoining and running along a wall - inspired the Richters to create a similar "community space" within the larger rest stop.

Restrooms are stationed around a quadrangle in the shape of a town square, with banquettes along the walls. The quad becomes a civic or shared space, we imagined people might have Easter there with egg hunts and sack races," Elizabeth Richter says. At San Ygnacio's Jesus Trevino Fort, the Richters observed cacti growing up from the roof, so they put cacti atop their building, she says. A low wall waves up and down in height along the outskirts of the rest stop-park site, adjoined by covered picnic tables with barbecue pits. Within the enclosure are single picnic tables. There is a suggestion of small structures within a compound, she says. "It's not a finished image. You bring your imagination to it, and it evokes a fortress or village."

Just as the Heritage Project buildings show their decay, the Falfurrias rest stop incorporates rubble recycled from the site's prior buildings. During their travels, the Richters drew more inspiration from the piled stones revealed by worn-away plaster than from the newly replastered, renovated Heritage Project sites. To reflect that, concrete chunks were placed within a curving brick pattern created by the Richters and embellished by bricklayers. The chunks break out from walls in an unusual style.

The bricklayers loved working on a project that demanded their creativity; they carefully considered where each brick would be placed, Richter says. She says the project which was budgeted before, the Richters became involved never went over the originally designated $1.2 million renovation.

Building an ordinary rest stop would have cost the same amount says Andy Keith, a facilities manager and district supervisor for the transportation department. And although the Falfurrias site is unique, Campbell and Keith are adding touches of history at rest stops statewide.

Near Columbus, along Interstate 10, in a project that takes off where the Falfurrias site left off. Campbell has helped take the Germanic heritage to the road in a rest stop where the architecture reflects the town square's stylized brick buildings and clock tower. And on a smaller scale, they're adding historic ceramic tile murals to rest stops all over Texas.

Campbell admits the rest stop decor is more than art for art's sake. It's also a stab at preventing the unfortunate, but seemingly natural, instinct to scribble graffiti on rest stop walls. "One thing we felt was that if the building looked nicer people would take better care of it." Campbell says. "If there was some involvement in the mural, they might take some ownership of it." And one of the murals main purposes is just to take up space, Vandals tend to go after blank space, he says. Since murals are "busy" space, vandals are more likely to save their spray paint.

Stopping place of memories

While vandals may be a threat to the Falfurrias rest stop, a sense of community is already well-developed. It began as a much-visited "shady place" by a single-lane road, and evolved into a popular picnic ground with ladies' and men's rooms between the traffic of multi-lane 281. Local couples have said their vows beneath those trees and families have camped out on the picnic tables Easter eve to reserve their spot for the following day's picnic.

Falfurrias natives call the rest stop "Mother's Cafe," though according to Ann Wilkinson, a Falfurrias genealogist who is knowledgeable about local history, the dance hall and restaurant that gave the rest stop its name was on an adjacent lot, and no longer exists. "I started going there as a little girl," Wilkinson says. She frequented the area in the 1930s and says the rest stop was also called Oak Grove.

Consuelo G. Garza also remembers visiting the site as a girl and later as a mother with her own children. Easter was a favorite time to picnic at Mother's Cafe, but getting a table there meant arriving early. Long before rock' n ' roll fans camped out to buy tickets to concerts, Garza was camping out at the rest stop to claim a picnic table for Easter Sunday. "Sometimes, it was just my husband and myself, sometimes we took the whole family," she says "We'd take blankets, in those times we were not afraid. Not like nowadays. We took cots and slept in those. It was nice to sleep out."

Garza's nephew, County Judge Joe B. Garcia, remembers cars lined up along the road, with families sleeping inside, all there to reserve a space. "Sometimes we'd go at 5 in the morning," Garcia says, recalling that during his childhood Mother's Cafe was a favorite spot to spend holidays and family celebrations. Garcia says up to 150 people could show up at the site the night before Easter. Garza has fond memories of children hunting Easter eggs. "We loved it for many years. There aren't so many parks here," she says, "It was just like a park, very beautiful, we'd play baseball there with the kids." Garcia says the rest stop served as a park for years until the state passed a resolution that prohibited locals from barbecuing and throwing parties at the site. "I hope that won't be the case again," he says, now that the rest stop has reopened. "I hope they've changed the concept." Despite the fact that Falfurrias is seeking a $300,000 grant to build a park locally, Garcia says Mother's Cafe has a special meaning for the community.

There is hope for those who see Mother's Cafe as more than a place to stop the car and stretch the legs. The rest stop provides access to birding trails to the north and south, says Steven Walker, the project landscape architect. It may be selected as a site on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail," he says.

And, according to Elizabeth Richter, the rest stop, which opened to the public in early September, is of life, just as the designers hoped it would be.