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A walking tour through the 'two cities' of Old Victoria

By BY KAYLA BELL - KBELL@VICAD.COM
Sept. 1, 2011 at 4:01 a.m.

Downtown Victoria at the edge of De Leon Plaza looking South at the intersection of Main Street and Constitution Streets. Victoria landmark sites for Discover Victoria special section.FRANK TILLEY/FTILLEY@VICAD.COM

ABOUT VICTORIA COUNTY

Population: 86,793

County Seat: Victoria

Major cities: Victoria

History of the county's name: Mexican empresario Martin De Leon colonized the area known as Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de Jesús Victoria in 1824. Later, Victoria County would become one of the original 23 counties established by the First Congress of the Republic of Texas in 1836. It was named in honor of Guadalupe Victoria, the first Mexican president.

Square miles: 882

Main highways: U.S. Highway 59, U.S. Highway 77, U.S. Highway 87

County's biggest employer: Victoria Independent School District with 2,128 employees

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Financial statements: records of any money that they already have saved.

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The history surrounding Old Victoria is heartier than even the chicken spaghetti soup you'll get at Fossati's Delicatessen.

Between sips of the cheesy concoction, imagine the year is 1824, and Mexican Empresario Martin De Leon is establishing a colony around this very block.

And when your tummy is full, burn off the calories on a walking tour through more than 150 years of construction, demolition, familiar names and little-known tidbits that have made Old Victoria the juxtaposition of historic and modern that it is today.

Join the president of Victoria Preservation Inc., Gary Dunnam, on a then-and-now trek across downtown Victoria in what he calls "A Tale of Two Cities ... Two Towns, Actually."

PLAZA DEL MERCADO

Dunnam begins his journey outside Fossati's, the oldest deli in Texas, which has occupied every corner of the Main and Juan Linn streets intersection. Take a few steps south on Main Street and conjure up a small log cabin with two bells - the church De Leon built for his family. The structure that was between the deli and the now federal building served as Victoria's first courthouse.

Hardly competing for attention from the modern post office, the 1904 St. Mary's Catholic Church shadows over Main and

Church streets. It's the second oldest Catholic parish in the state, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Next to the church is the old Nazareth Academy building, built by Jules C. Leffland to reflect the Dutch guild halls in the architect's native Denmark, Dunnam said.

Now, at the corner of Church Street, peer across the modern

pavement to the Lorenzo Dow Heaton house, the T.M. O'Connor home, and the J.D. Mitchell house, all on Bridge Street and all built in the late 1800s.

The son of Thomas O'Connor, the "Texas Cattle King," built his house in 1889, and the structure was later remodeled by the architect Leffland's son.

"The result is what you see today. It is a Neoclassical Revival masterpiece, still owned by the O'Connor family," Dunnam writes.

A block north, back on Juan Linn Street, picture a wheelright shop, feed store, livery stable and blacksmith shop serving the first Victorians.

Having completed a tour around Plaza del Mercado, or Market Square, enjoy a breather in the center. Take away 160 years and the city hall building, and you'll be in the old brick Market House, the only place in town to sell meat. Again, Leffland designed a city hall for the square, which was torn down in 1965 in favor of the new complex.

"It was nothing, if not lovely," Dunnam writes of the former city hall.

Take a break from the historic tour to delve back into the modern. A video at www.victoriaadvocate.com will explore north on Main Street to reach what Dunnam calls the second city, now De Leon Plaza. Along the way, hear about an unsolved murder, Victoria's first real skyscraper, an interesting explanation

of what's beneath your feet and examples of "how bad things can happen to really nice buildings," as Dunnam puts it.

PUBLIC SQUARE

After the Texas Revolution, the town began to grow north along what was called the Calle de los Diez Amigos, or The Street of Ten Friends - so-named because Victoria's original leaders lived along Main Street.

In 1873, the city council appointed a committee to "put names on all the streets," as Dunnam quotes, effectively wiping away the Spanish street names.

Starting on the southeast corner of Main and Constitution streets, Dunnam's tour heads west, past the First Victoria Bank. Before the granite building dominated the block, this street housed the Lone Star Saloon, Rita Theatre, Uptown Theatre and the old Rogers and Oliver Building.

Now that Bridge Street beckons, it's impossible not to notice the Romanesque Revival-style, 1892 Victoria County Courthouse.

The courthouse, restored in 2001, remains in the top 10 historic courthouses in Texas.

While schooling yourself on the historic markers outside the courthouse, notice the brass nameplates on the light posts around the square.

"It's a 'Who's Who' of Old Victoria," writes Dunnam.

Long before the 1967 courthouse - which is connected to the old one - towered above Bridge Street, a large trough served horses at the intersection. There was also a sugar mill, according to Dunnam.

The northern block of the plaza houses Victoria's tallest structure, One O'Connor Plaza, built in the 1980s.

A glimpse back down Main Street reveals the Six Flags monument on the northeast corner of the square. Victoria County is the only county in which all six flags of Texas were flown, according to Dunnam.

Across the street is that familiar name - the O'Connor-Proctor Building, was restored in 1985 to its original beauty by the Junior League of Victoria.

The 100 block of North Main Street is on all plats of the city as Presbyterian Church Square. Originally designed by De Leon as a site for a Roman Catholic cathedral, the Catholic church never made improvements to the property. The Presbyterians took up ownership of the block after the revolution, Dunnam writes.

Finally, on the corner is a sculpture commissioned in 1912 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Confederate Monument greets the end of the trip around De Leon Plaza, inviting guests to kick up their feet in one of the benches meandering through the plaza.

Feel free to oblige. Or, cross the street and cool off with a beverage from the Rosebud Fountain and Grill. This bright red building was for 150 years a drugstore, built from plans drawn up by, of course, Leffland.

The familiar, the out-of-place, the history and the nearly forgotten - they can all be touched, at least by the imagination, in the two cities of Old Victoria.

"It is our historic architecture, our tree-lined streets and our southern charm that has always drawn people to Victoria,"

Dunnam writes. "This is, after all, 'where the history of Texas began.'"

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