Press & Media

Restoration of Market Square Bell

BROWNSVILLE, Texas - The iconic dome atop the Market Square bell tower was in worse shape than anybody expected when the city started work last November to replace it.

Time and the elements had taken their toll, leaving gaping holes and other miscellaneous rot, according to project engineer David Licon. The tower itself wasn’t in bad shape, requiring some cosmetic repairs here and there, plus all new wiring and new or reconditioned exterior doors and windows, he said.

The dome and tower project was completed Aug. 1 after delays of a couple of months or so, due in part to rain and having to coordinate with the larger Market Square renovation project, which is still underway, Licon said.

Market Square opened in 1852 as Brownsville’s first open-air market. It served as the city’s bus terminal from 1984 until 2012, when the new La Plaza terminal on International Boulevard was completed. Originally, the tower and dome were on the north side of the market building until the entire second floor, belfry and bell were destroyed by a hurricane in 1867. Occupying Union Army forces had silenced the bell more than one decade earlier by breaking its clapper.

A new half-story was built in place of the second floor, plus a new belfry minus the bell. A replacement bell wasn’t installed until 1875. A firehouse was added in 1912, and the belfry and bell were relocated over it. The 1933 hurricane blew down the bell tower again.

It wasn’t until 1949 when a new, Spanish-revival cupola was built to house the bell, which in 1935 had been given to the Guadalupe Catholic Church, which stopped using it in 1961. It wasn’t until 1974, however, that the bell finally found its way into the belfry that had been provided for it 25 years earlier.

Forty-plus years later, that same cupola was carefully demolished and a new one built in its place using a “pneumatic form” — basically a giant balloon inflated to the size of the old dome. A new reinforced-steel skeleton was erected over the balloon, slathered with a wet-mix concrete called “shotcrete” and painted as close as possible to the original colors, Licon said.

“We found out that over the years it had about four or five colors of different shades on the dome,” he said.

The cupola was empty except for the old bell, which just hung there with no rope or other means to ring it, Licon said. As part of the project, the bell itself was rehabilitated and rehung — this time with a mechanism for ringing it, should the occasion arise, he said.

The project was overseen by the Texas Historical Commission, which required a narrative of the market building’s history and an explanation of the city’s intentions in restoring the tower and dome, Licon said. The architect used historic photos as a guide, he said. Licon said the goal is for the renovated tower and dome to last at least 50 years.

Roxanna Rosas, city public relations officer, said the total cost of the project was $246,000, nearly $122,000 of which came from the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation in the form of a capital project grant awarded to the city’s planning and zoning division in 2016.

AssistantCity Engineer Doro Garcia, overseeing the overall Market Square renovation, said the project was scheduled to be complete by the middle of 2017 but probably won’t be finished until the end of the year due to several delays.
The $3.4 million project is in the process of relocating above-ground electric utilities underground and adjusting the height of existing junction boxes so they won’t sink after the pavers have been installed, he said.

The revamped Market Square will be pedestrian only, with no streets and curbs between East 11th and 12th streets, though there will be access for emergency vehicles and deliveries, Garcia said. All the electrical relocation should be done in a couple of months, after which the paving of the alleys will commence, he said.

Garcia said weather-sensitive finish work on the square will start just in time for October and November, and the dicey weather that often accompanies them.

“You do what you can,” he said. “You’re not going to stop because of the weather.”

Rosas said once Market Square is done, the city will celebrate the completion of both projects together. Restoration of the cupola, so central to Brownsville’s identity that it appears in the city’s official logo, was an especially important project, as is the restoration of Market Square, she said.

“It’s not only a major effort to preserve the icon, but to preserve our history,” Rosas said. “Market Square has always been a center of economic activity for bringing people together, so both these projects coming to fruition is going to be a major transformation for downtown.”

Garcia noted that the domed cupola is such an iconic symbol that it’s been replicated elsewhere in town, including La Plaza station (repairs on that dome, which sustained heavy damage from an electrical fire in November, will begin soon, he said), and the north-side bus transfer station.

Licon is glad to play a part in saving a vital piece of Brownsville history.

“We just really want to make sure it stays preserved and that future generations can benefit from the work we’re doing today,” he said.
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