A walk into Quinta Mazatlan takes patrons into a visual and architectural history of McAllen.
It was on this 80-acre site over eight decades ago that adventurer and writer Jason Chilton Matthews built one of the larger adobe homes in Texas. The 10,000-square-foot home stands tall today with a regal dignity overlooking an estate of lush green habitat.
Quinta Mazatlan is one part an architectural wonder in how the Spanish Revival style mansion has been preserved and restored to its original grandeur. Its secondary piece is as spectacular with wildlife corridors and “palm condos” providing pathways through vibrant natural settings. The Matthews estate of mid-1930s origin sits just east of McAllen’s airport. It is today an urban sanctuary with a wide reach of programs, events and youth education.
The mansion was saved in 1998 from the wrecking ball when the City of McAllen purchased it during an auction and recognized it as a local jewel. It was too valuable to lose forever. The big house and grounds reopened as a “mansion with a mission” in 2006. It has become just that, welcoming 80,000 annual visitors of all ages and types. Birders to 15,000 students come annually to learn about the Tamaulipan forests once prevalent in the Rio Grande Valley.
“Since its origin, Quinta Mazatlan has been about engaging children of all ages with the natural world,” said Colleen Hook, the facility’s manager. “The beautiful sanctuary is used to teach and inspire others to grow nature throughout the city and region, starting in one’s backyard.”
Students Drawn To Sanctuary
On a recent Friday morning, a large group of high school-aged students were busy in groups of twos and threes, transplanting tree seedlings.
Quinta Mazatlan has “strong academic alliances,” according to Hook. Those partnerships include agreements with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and over 20 area school districts. The most notable partnership, perhaps, is the one with the McAllen Independent School District. Quinta’s current contract with McAllen ISD includes on-site field visits by third-, fifth- and seventh-grade students along with high school students in advanced science classes.
The school district’s presence at the urban sanctuary will grow in the years ahead with approval of $4 million in funding to expand Quinta Mazatlan. It will construct a McAllen ISD Discovery Center in the coming years. The school funds came through federal dollars meant to assist students returning from the pandemic to safe school activities. The initiative drew some local opposition and unfavorable national media coverage that the project would use pandemic-related funding.
It is an investment, however, into something that is already working. Quinta Mazatlan gives students across many grades a look at something unique. The ecosystem and native habitat of the Valley attracts visitors and birders from all over the country and the world. Students see firsthand what people travel thousands of miles to observe in the literal backyard of where Valley youth live.
“Our space will be doubled in order to accommodate more students and more hands-on learning opportunities,” Hook said of what she called the Center for Urban Ecology. “Environmental stewardship doesn’t magically happen at age 18, or when one begins one’s first job. Caring for the environment must begin at a young age and in various formats, programs and opportunities. The CUE will offer Valley students more learning and research opportunities.”
Splendor Of A Mansion
The grounds of this urban sanctuary are a visual treat which seem sufficiently spectacular.
And then you step into the Matthews mansion.
There are bright chandeliers hanging atop tables and furniture from decades past. Carved front doors engraved in the 1930s by a Swiss wood carver warrant a written historical account, saying they were meant to recreate a Spanish governor’s palace. Sunlight streaming in from large windows light long hallways.
This was the headquarters for Matthews and his wife Marcia, who traveled the world during World War I. Legend has it that he fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia. Matthews somehow found his way to what he called the “crossroads of the Western Hemisphere” of McAllen of the 1930s. It’s where he built his mansion with an adobe swimming pool and a Roman bath.
“For the walls of his mansion, he experimented with his own secret formula for adobe bricks, descended from, he claimed, King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in ancient Babylon,” a framed poster says near Quinta’s entrance. “Local townspeople scoffed that the first heavy rain would wash Quinta Mazatlan away. But the bricks survived – outlasting the owners.”
Indeed, it has, with Matthews and his wife passing in the 1960s after living long lives. Their mansion today is home base for tours, special events, folk art and all manner of discussions and information about birds, butterflies, plants and wildlife. The home and the habitat, as its builder intended, have become a new crossroads with rare bird sightings, and tourists and students coming to see the mansion that is still on a mission.