BROWNSVILLE — In the late 19th century, the Rabb Plantation Home abutted the river’s shore, so close to the twisting river that Frank Rabb, for whom the house is named, could watch as steamboats chugged by, local historian Larry Lof said.
Brownsville resident Tammy Muñoz’s great-grandfather built steamboats during that same era, she said. It’s quite possible one of her ancestor’s boats passed the storied plantation.
On Saturday, more than 120 years later, his great-granddaughter Muñoz listened and watched as Lof, president of the Gorgas Science Foundation, described the home’s colorful past.
“It’s is an important part of our history dating back to the old river plantations,” Lof said, “and it helps to use something like this to tell the story of how the Rio Grande once was.”
The house, which has been closed for restoration, sits on the Sabal Palm Sanctuary. Once it’s fully functional, it will become the sanctuary’s visitor’s center, Lof said.
In anticipation of the home’s official opening, Lof has begun offering Saturday tours of the two-story structure.
“We thought if there is hope for this house we have to make it useful,” he said to more than a dozen people during the weekend tour.
The Queen Anne-style house was built in 1892 by Rabb and his wife Lillian, Lof said. They both came from what he calls “great land and cattle baron composite families.”
Queen Anne style was imported from England in the late 19th century, but is a result of varied architectural styles, according to Historic New England, a regional heritage organization. A characteristic of the style is wrap-around porches and gabled roofs, which the Rabb structure has, with New Orleans-esque qualities, Lof said.
Because South Texas was sparsely developed at the time, the region’s mode of transportation to other cities was the boats that traversed the Rio Grande, Lof said.
Overland travel was difficult, so Brownsville’s riverboats also connected the region to other port cities like Corpus Christi, Galveston and New Orleans; which heavily influenced the architecture of the time, Lof said.
“The highway for South Texas was the Rio Grande,” he said. “It wasn’t until the 19th century that all the other towns developed around the highway like Harlingen and San Benito.”
According to Lof, the National Audubon Society bought the land on which the house sits for the process of reforestation. But, its interest was only the land, he said.
The Gorgas Science Foundation took over the management in 2010, with the intention of restoring the house to its full splendor.
The house cost $15,000 to build, which was a hefty pricetag at the time, he said. Today, about $160,000 has gone into its restoration. It was scheduled to open to the public in January, Lof said, but the details are too many to glaze over.
“You can build a house and think it’s done,” he said, “but the details take almost as long.”
The details and its beauty are what brought Frances Weathered to see the house.
“Without a doubt,” she said when asked if it was beautiful. “It’s more than that.”
She said she’s seen many historical homes in the country, but this one is the most fascinating.
For Muñoz, a self-proclaimed history buff, the brush with the past is exciting, she said.
“It’s beautiful now. I can only imagine what it looked like over 100 years ago,” Muñoz said. “It must have been amazing.”
Lof said he hopes the people interested in past events will visit the Rabb Plantation when it opens.
Muñoz said she will be back.
“It’s really exciting to be able to see the history and actually touch it,” she said.