OP-ED Alpine’s historic Murphy Street threatened by industrial brewery

In 2003, the Texas Historical Commission initiated a project to document historic structures in Alpine, with a focus on the area between 2nd and 11th streets south of the railroad tracks — the core of “Pueblo Viejo” — an area containing some of Alpine’s earliest residential structures, many built in the 1880s and 1890s. And because the commercial district north of the railroad tracks burned several times in the early 20th century, many of Alpine’s oldest commercial structures also reside on the south side, forming the basis for what the commission’s then- director, Larry Oaks, described as “south Alpine’s great potential for heritage tourism.”

The study concluded that Alpine’s southside had the distinction of containing the largest collection of historic adobe structures in the state outside of El Paso. Meanwhile, Murphy Street — the southside’s commercial district — was hailed as one of the most intact old-style Western front streets in the state. Significantly, the study noted that area was eligible for listing as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places — the nation’s highest honor bestowed upon historic areas.

Historically, Murphy Street served the southside of Alpine for most of a century before it was finally shuttered in the 1970s. But in 2008, the district enjoyed a renaissance after preservationist Betty Gaddis-Yndo purchased most of a city block and sold the businesses to hand-selected buyers who lovingly restored the structures and gave the street a new life. In 2018, when the Ritchey Wine Saloon and Beer Garden opened in the historic Hotel Ritchey, the transformation seemed complete. Murphy Street suddenly offered a full suite of services: a lively farmer’s market, restaurants and food trucks, beer and wine, along with stores offering imports, fine art, vintage clothing, and ornamental plants among other things. As a result, it has since become one of Alpine’s main attractions. But in spite of the uptick in activity, and the upgrading of its businesses, Murphy Street has been able to retain its National Register eligibility while remaining its humble, slightly ramshackle self.

Enter the industrial world. Along Murphy Street’s eastern stretch, an entire block has been purchased by a family from Midland, the Fielders, who have plans to build a modern industrial scale brewery that threatens to diminish Murphy Street’s historic appeal. Designed by a high-end Austin architectural firm specializing in breweries of the kind you find on every other corner in Austin, Dallas, and Houston, the proposed brewery would feature a large pre-engineered metal brew room with an attached grain silo and a two-story taproom complete with an observation tower and, of course, a catwalk. But the trendy and modern metal, glass and stucco-sided structure in both scale and style is a dramatic departure from anything else in Alpine, much less humble Murphy Street.

While it is true that some citizens and civic leaders are supportive of the plans due to the promise of increased revenue — along with enthusiastic support from Alpine’s Downtown Association — many others, including a sizable number of local residents and Murphy Street business owners, see little more than a strip mall in the making.

So far, the project remains mostly on paper, the only significant insult being an 8-foot tall metal fence to separate their property from neighbors who refused to sell to them. But the Fielders have further ambitions. During presentations of their project, Lisa Fielder, the family matriarch, unveiled plans to transform Murphy Street itself, including the erection of a huge lighted archway, reminiscent of a funhouse carnival. Instead of enhancing the historic aspects of Murphy Street, as they might have done, they seem content to impose their own prefabricated vision upon the area. And the impacts be damned.

It is not that Alpine, and Murphy Street, couldn’t use some upgrades. In fact, creative enhancements are long overdue. And some ideas have been proposed that are far more circumspect. In August of 2016, the College of Architecture, Construction, and Planning at the University of Texas in San Antonio conducted a study of downtown economic development in Alpine that envisioned a range of improvements to both enhance the downtown area for tourism while honoring its historic architecture and appeal. Adaptive reuse of historic structures as well as new construction in a style compatible with the existing historic fabric was central to the report’s plan. In other words, much better alternatives have been offered.

But countering the Fielders’ plans is not easy. They have a war chest of funds and enough audacity to pay the requisite number of attorneys to ramrod their vision through. It may not even matter that the street is zoned as a C1 — a neighborhood commercial district — which provides for “restricted commercial facilities, to serve the conveniences and needs of the immediate neighborhood” and that “must be compatible with the residential character and environment of the neighborhood.” In spite of this, and neighbors lining up against them, the Fielders are expected to press forward by gaining a waiver or by having the entire block rezoned to accommodate their business.

The fact remains, however, that the threat that the Chisos Brewery represents is not limited to aesthetic concerns, or increased traffic, or high-water use, or even the diminishment of the humble feel of Murphy Street. Perhaps the greatest threat of all is Murphy Street’s long-term viability as a recognized historic district. Because such modern development not only compromises the area’s historic ambiance, it also jeopardizes our eligibility for the National Register. And that, in itself, should be reason enough to stop it.

David W. Keller is an archeologist and historian living in Alpine’s historic Pueblo Viejo. He is the author of Alpine: Images of America and other books on local history.

Editor’s note (4/17/22): Following publication, The Big Bend Sentinel learned that David W. Keller is part-owner of the Hotel Ritchey, mentioned in this opinion piece. As it is in keeping with our newspaper’s editorial standards to make such disclosures to our readers, in the interest of transparency, we are providing this update accordingly.