Goliad’s Custodian’s Cottage: A Living Laboratory

Raiford Stripling and CCC men at the cottage, testing the methods they would use to reconstruct Mission Espíritu Santo at Goliad State Park.

Working at the Custodian’s Cottage
Raiford Stripling and CCC men at the cottage, testing the methods they would use to reconstruct Mission Espíritu Santo at Goliad State Park.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Goliad County Library

Visitors to Goliad State Park and Historic Site in South Texas marvel at the park’s architectural centerpiece, Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga. Many are surprised to learn it’s a reconstruction, built on top of the mission’s 1749 foundation and wall remnants, completed by the National Park Service (NPS) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1941. How did a group of park planners, architects, and CCC enrollees manage such an impressive and seemingly authentic architectural feat?

The answer lies across the road just north of the park. Off Highway 183, hidden among county baseball fields and a recycling center, is a low-slung, one-story limestone building with a wooden roof. It’s the Custodian’s Cottage, built by the CCC to house the site’s caretaker. This five-room, one-bath park residence, erected between 1936 and 1937 in the style of the region’s vernacular ranch homes, served a purpose higher than staff housing alone. An embodiment of NPS Rustic style design tenets, architects Samuel C.P. Vosper and Raiford Stripling used the residential cottage as their experimental studio, testing the methods they would use to reconstruct Mission Espíritu Santo.

The First Lady toured the residence in 1940 while visiting the park.

Eleanor Roosevelt
The First Lady toured the residence in 1940 while visiting the park.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Goliad County Library

Inspired by their architectural road trip through south Texas, northern Mexico, and California, the architects designed, built, and worked in the cottage. It was a space where ideas incubated, draftsmen drew, and CCC workers tested construction techniques. 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. CCC Company 3822(V), comprised of middle-aged veterans from Texas and Oklahoma, was entrusted with this “historical reconstruction” project, atypical of NPS/CCC park development work.

The cottage’s charm was readily apparent after completion: “[D]ouble worth as a thing of beauty and as a practical service building”[1] assessed the local press. The residence featured native materials; handmade, mortised joinery; “antique natural” finishes; clay tiles fired on site; blue and red dadoes, and a “Mexican charcoal stove” (a concealed gas stove). Inspiration spread from the inside out to a pleasant patio, native garden, and enclosed service yard, marrying interior and exterior to form a fully-landscaped vision. The cottage graced the pages of the seminal 1938 NPS publication, Park and Recreation Structures, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt toured the residence in 1940 while visiting the park.

Postcard: Custodian’s Building in Goliad State Park

Postcard
Custodian’s Building in Goliad State Park
Photo Credit: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

While Goliad’s Mission Espíritu Santo has been well-visited and maintained over the years, the custodian’s cottage—partly because it operated as the superintendent’s residence until 2007 in an area not accessible to visitors—experienced decades of alterations and intrusions that compromised its historic fabric and diminished its importance at the park. Visitors learn about Spanish Texas, Goliad’s ranching history, and the work of the CCC while touring the mission, but they remain unaware of the cottage’s role in that ambitious project.

Thanks to a grant from the Texas Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, the cottage will soon be rehabilitated as park offices and a visitor center. Displays inside will explore the CCC’s architectural legacy and early sponsorship of historic preservation. Visitors will discover how the cottage ensured the success of the mission project, and in turn, the park. This diamond-in-the-rough will shine bright again as an architectural jewel.