When viewing José Antonio Navarro’s home from the corner across the street, where on a stone pedestal there also a stands a tall bronze likeness of him, it seems out of place. To the left and behind is a modern correctional facility, and to the right and across the street is an empty lot that was, until recently, a police station. It is a distracting and somewhat disturbing juxtaposition as neither structure can or could declare anything in common with the home’s mid 19th-century, southwestern architecture typical of the early Texas statehood years. But there is the awareness that, while it seems overshadowed by the urban setting, it is a lessor-known, but important artifact of Texas history that resides in a proper place.
Originally the house stood among more familiar surroundings in a gone, mostly forgotten neighborhood called Laredito. When Navarro purchased the property in 1832, a small cabin sat on its 1.5 acres located where Laredo and Nueva Streets meet. By 1855 Navarro completed the main house, the mercantile building, and the kitchen.
The mercantile building was built of blocks manufactured of caliche, a sedimentary rock made of deposited calcium carbonate. It served as his office and retail store, where he sold goods such as coffee, alcohol, and textiles, most of which he acquired from frequent buying trips to New Orleans. He learned how from his merchant father whom he successfully emulated, and even as he became more involved in a political life that would leave his influence on Texas history, he never lost his desire to be a merchant.
It is not possible to visit the house without becoming more interested in Navarro’s life and achievements. In its day, it was a mansion. Elegantly furnished rooms that are large and open lead to an equally large kitchen. Clearly, he was wealthy and influential, but how did he get that way?
His life is spelled out through placards and interactive video found throughout the home. He was not born poor; Navarro’s childhood was neither impoverished nor privileged. He was the son of Ángel Navarro and Josefa María Ruiz y Pena. His father was well educated, and impressed upon his son the importance of education. As the result of his father’s death and a leg injury when José Antonio was only thirteen, his formal education came to an end. In its place was the tutoring and mentoring of his uncle, José Francisco Ruiz.
Besides being a successful merchant, he was a large landowner. He viewed land as an investment. In his lifetime he acquired nearly 50,000 acres, an endeavor that may have positioned him for his later political achievements. He was named to two land commissions, fortuitous appointments that enabled him to strengthen friendships with influential Texans such as Stephen F. Austin.
He had an aptitude for business, but his political achievements did not come as easy. For his part in the 1841 Santa Fe Expedition, he spent several years imprisoned in Mexico while awaiting his execution. His captors offered to release him, but he refused to renounce Texas.
After escaping he became the only Tejano delegate to the convention who would decide Texas statehood. It was here that he became famous for support of Tejano rights. He ensured that the Texas government would recognize land claims by Tejanos who fled Texas during the revolution, and he also successfully negotiated for the right of Tejano men to vote.
Can his restored home–one he owned along with a home on a 6000-acre ranch in Sequin, Texas–motivate others to learn about Navarro’s place in Texas history? The answer is yes. It is a reflection of what he endured and accomplished. Through informative placards and interactive exhibits (one accesses a database with all documents related to his imprisonment), his indelible impact on Texas history, and in some small part on that of the United States of America, is made clear.
Visiting this house will make most visitors more curious about Navarro. Unlike the founding fathers of other US states, he had no formal name for the estate he built. But like those other American aristocrats, people who were aware of his influence vicariously lent his name to jurisdictions and institutions. A San Antonio street, a Texas county, and several public schools are named in his honor.
The city that grew around it was inevitable, and the antagonistic-looking buildings that lie near it are part of a modern plan intended to secure the safety of its citizens. After visiting the Casa Navarro State Historic Site, they may seem out of place. But Navarro’s home was there first; fortunately it’s still here.