City of Presidio approves architectural designs for Lipan Apache Cemetery 

A rendering of the architectural plans approved by Presidio City Council this week. Photo courtesy of Mass Design Group.

PRESIDIO — After months of deliberation, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA) announced last week that architectural designs for the memorial at the Lipan Apache Cemetery in Presidio had been finalized. MASS Design Group — a world-famous firm that specializes in memorial sites — unveiled the plans, helmed by Indigenous architect Joseph Kunkel. 

The cemetery’s history dates back to the 18th century, when the Spanish colonial government forced the Lipan Apache onto a reservation in what’s now Presidio. Even as Spanish rule faded and Indigenous presence in the region shifted, the Lipan Apache stayed, becoming some of the first Presidians — if not the first — to continuously occupy the site from the colonial era through the present day. 

For generations, the little cemetery on Market Street was tended by descendents of the interred, predominantly from the Ornelas and Aguilar families. As the city was incorporated, roads were cut into the burial mound and homes were built around the site. Concerned locals continuously fought against the incursion of urban development to protect this important sliver of Presidio’s past. 

Last year, the city and county of Presidio voted to deed the land under the burial ground to the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, which is headquartered in McAllen. The site was designated as a State Antiquities Landmark, which grants special protections through the Texas Historical Commission. The BBCA brought a procession of surveyors, archaeologists and regional locals with Lipan roots to offer input on how to protect the site for future generations. 

For Mayrah Udvardi, senior architect at MASS Design Group, the project was a perfect fit for the organization. Much of their work around the world — the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, for example — focuses on memory and healing. “We see the design as a real opportunity to guide people through a healing journey, in a way that ensures that the site stays protected and honored,” she explained. 

The project in Presidio wasn’t without its own special challenges, but the architects arrived in town willing to listen and think creatively. “We talk about ‘groundbreaking’ a lot in our field,” she explained, referring to the typical term used for starting construction on a project — one that wouldn’t fly with the Texas Historical Commission. “This was a really exciting opportunity to think about how to design and build site elements that don’t dig into the ground.” 

Additionally, the group received a lot of feedback that descendents didn’t want to completely wall off the site from the street. They eventually decided on a more fluid and organic gabion wall construction — essentially, baskets full of rocks — that protects the site from erosion, but also invites passers-by to enter and interact with the site in a respectful way. “It needed to be more than a wall — thinking beyond the wall allows for there to be an element of education,” Udvardi explained. 

That education will eventually consist of a historical marker and interpretive materials to help tourists and neighbors engage with the complex Indigenous past of the area. Lead architect Joseph Kunkel felt it was an important step in honoring a frequently-erased aspect of the region’s history. “The mission is really to inspire others and acknowledge this as a sacred place,” he said. “It’s a small piece of the larger project of acknowledging Indigenous lands.”

On Monday, BBCA Director Shelley Bernstein gave a presentation to Presidio City Council about the proposed design. Though the design won’t impact city services, the proposed plan will dip into city-owned right-of-ways. The construction crews will also eventually need proper permits and to designate staging areas for materials — BBCA hopes construction will begin in January 2023. 

After a two-year process of getting the site designated, surveyed, and designed, Presidio City Council unanimously approved the designs and access to city-owned land. “It’s something that we’ve been working really hard to get,” said Councilmember Arian Velázquez-Ornelas.