Photo Courtesy Texas A&M Special Collections
Preserving Texas Architecture
Raiford Stripling’s restorations and designs grace some of Texas’ most historic sites.
by Kayla Meyertons
If buildings could talk, those in Goliad could tell some stories. Mission Espíritu Santo, constructed in 1749, observed the birth of a new culture, while Presidio La Bahía bore witness to two important events of the Texas Revolution: the Goliad Declaration of Independence and the Goliad massacre, where Col. James Walker Fannin and his men gave their lives for an independent Texas.
Courtesy Texas A&M Special Collections
Today, the walls of the mission and presidio stand tall, proud and solemn, skillfully reconstructed thanks to Texas’ famed restoration architect, Raiford L. Stripling.
“You can safely say that there’s no single person who had more of an impact and an importance in making Goliad what Goliad is than Raiford Stripling,” says former history professor Raymond Starr, a Goliad resident. “He really did shape what this town is.”
Stripling’s architecture career, spanning from his college graduation in 1931 to his death in 1990, was a prolific one. Stripling designed and restored dozens of Texas historical buildings, including Independence Hall at Washington-on-the-Brazos, and pioneered the practice of restoration architecture in Texas.
Stripling was born in San Augustine, the oldest of six children. He developed exceptional drawing skills early in his childhood and in 1931 graduated from what is now Texas A&M University with an architecture degree.
“Stripling is generally regarded as a dean of Texas preservation architecture,” says David Woodcock, former Texas A&M architecture professor. “He started the idea that there was a branch of the profession of architecture that could focus on existing buildings and understand how they were designed in the first place, so that the repair could be done in keeping with the original design intent.”
After graduation, his architectural career took flight. Texas A&M architect Frederick Giesecke hired Stripling to help A&M staff architect Samuel Charles Phelps Vosper with the new building program. Stripling swiftly realized that his job was much more than the average internship. The team was highly prolific, designing many important buildings in the 1930s on the Texas A&M campus and at the University of Texas at Austin.
The buildings designed by Vosper with Stripling on the Texas A&M campus included a new administration building, as well as geology-petroleum, chemistry, civil engineering, agricultural engineering and animal industries buildings.
Vosper and Stripling left A&M in 1933 to work at the University of Texas at Austin (supervised by Robert Leon White), where Stripling spent most of his time drafting and detailing the design for the Main Building’s library. Woodcock says Stripling’s knowledge of the Tower helped police locate and kill on-campus shooter Charles Whitman in 1966.
“I could see the ambulances coming into Brackenridge Hospital over there from the French Legation,” Stripling told Texas A&M architecture graduate student Katy Capt when she interviewed him. “Of course, I didn’t get anywhere close to it, but I had detailed all of that thing, so I knew every stone he was hiding behind up there in that Tower.”
Stripling arrived in Goliad in 1936 to work for the National Park Service with Vosper. The two designed the Keeper’s Cottage, Goliad Memorial Auditorium and Fannin State Park (now Fannin Battleground State Historic Site).
Six feet tall and a gangly 125 pounds, Stripling oversaw World War I veterans on the various Civilian Conservation Corps projects in the late 1930s, including the reconstruction of Mission Espíritu Santo, a mission established by the Spanish which lay in ruins.
The Keeper’s Cottage, a one-story sandstone building that embodied the National Park Service’s “rustic” style design, was used by the pair as a studio to test the methods they’d use for mission reconstruction. The residence featured native materials, handmade joinery, “antique natural” finishes, clay tiles fired on site, and blue and red dadoes (lower walls). Finishes and flourishes replicated at the mission reconstruction were prototyped: plastered clamshell windows, latilla ceilings, hand-carved doors and cabinets and forged iron hinges. An attic work room provided extra space to lay out and store blueprints.
A black-and-white image at the Keeper’s Cottage, now Goliad’s El Camino Real Visitors Center, shows a smiling 30-year-old Stripling next to former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who toured it in 1940.
“What distinguished [Stripling’s] work from your typical architect is he’s not only trying to build a building, but he’s trying to present it in the way it would have looked in the 18th century,” says Goliad’s assistant park superintendent, Jared Ramirez.
Stripling and Vosper took an architectural road trip through South Texas, Mexico and California to look at existing Spanish colonial architecture for replication purposes. Stripling’s rebuilding of Mission Espíritu Santo required the combined efforts of architects, historians and archaeologists.
“He was around in a really crucial time period when the idea of historic sites was so new that they could do really cool experimental stuff, use their imaginations and pull from all these different disciplines,” Ramirez says.
Stripling, nonetheless, ran into the issue of replicating a deteriorating piece of Spanish colonial architecture that had been altered since its creation in the 18th century. Experts in Spanish colonial architecture came to Goliad in the 1970s to reassess the historical accuracy of the reconstruction. Despite the liberties taken, Stripling worked to the best of his abilities within the preservation mindset of his time, Woodcock says.
“When [Stripling] was working on Mission Espíritu Santo, he was absolutely insistent that the archaeology studies of the buildings be done before any work on restoring the building,” Woodcock says. “He really did try very hard to explore what was really there and what the history was.”
Stripling began preliminary work at the ruins of Mission Rosario in Goliad, but World War II forced construction to halt, never to be resumed. During the war, Stripling worked in the camouflage unit at the Washington Navy Yards, returning to Goliad in 1942 to marry Roberta Ragland; their son Ray “Raggy” was born in 1943.
After the war, Stripling opened his own practice in his hometown of San Augustine in 1947. Stripling and Vosper’s decades-long association ended with Vosper’s death in 1958. Stripling then reached the second peak of his architectural career: reconstructing Presidio La Bahía for the Catholic Diocese of Victoria. He returned to Goliad in the 1960s to direct the presidio’s rebuilding with the support of the Kathryn O’Connor Foundation.
Photo by J. Griffis Smith / TxDOT
Architect Raiford Stripling rebuilt iconic pieces of Texas history such as Mission Espíritu Santo in Goliad (top) and Independence Hall at Washington-on-the Brazos (above).
Presidio La Bahía was established in its current location in 1749 as a Spanish fort to prevent future French incursions. Stripling’s restoration of the presidio relied on a lithograph based on a plan drawn by Capt. Joseph Chadwick in 1836. Stripling searched in vain for Chadwick’s original drawing but couldn’t locate it, so he had to use his instincts with La Bahía’s restoration. The Chadwick drawing was found two weeks before the dedication of the restored presidio — confirming Stripling’s intuition in the reconstruction.
Stripling remained an active architect until his death in 1990. Additional significant restoration projects by Stripling include the Fort House and the Earle-Harrison House in Waco, numerous structures in San Augustine, the French Legation in Austin, Ashton Villa in Galveston and Independence Hall at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site.
In the 1970s, Stripling once again returned to Goliad to reconstruct the Zaragoza Birthplace State Historic Site, adjacent to La Bahía, in honor of the hometown hero of Cinco de Mayo.
Since 1993, the Texas Old Missions and Forts Restoration Association has provided funds for the Raiford Stripling Scholarship, presented each year to a Texas A&M architecture graduate student with a stated commitment to the preservation, restoration and reuse of historic buildings. Capt interviewed Stripling as a recipient of this scholarship.
The title of Capt’s thesis, “Starving to Death on My Own Terms,” references Stripling’s infamous comment about the granting of his license to practice architecture in Texas.
“I have registered architect license No. 198. That gives me the right to starve to death on my own terms,” Stripling told Capt. “I’m going to sit right here and practice architecture. That’s why I’m still here.”
Stripling had another great love in his life — bird hunting. The architect would close down his office every fall at the start of hunting season.
“You wanted to know if I had any marks of distinction,” Stripling told Capt. “Yeah, one I’m proud of is I have continuously owned a bird dog since I was 8 years old. And that’s true. I have never been without one.”
Stripling died in 1990 at 79 after a lengthy illness in San Augustine. He spent the last years of his life still happily designing and bird hunting.
Courtesy Texas A&M Special Collections
Stripling, the “dean of Texas preservation architecture,” worked on the Fannin Battleground and restored Presidio La Bahía in Goliad.
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