EVEN WHEN IT WAS FALLING APART, the main plaza in the border town of Roma was charming enough (it served as the backdrop for 1952’s Viva Zapata). But thanks to a restoration project now in progress, South Texas travelers can discern much of its original grace. Originally a Mexican ranching outpost, Roma evolved into a thriving port in the mid-1800’s, after steamboats arrived on the Rio Grande. German-born architect Heinrich “Enrique” Portscheller helped create its hybrid style by using native materials but following European design principles.

Once the steamboat era faded, however, so did Roma’s plaza—until Mario Sanchez, who runs a heritage program at the Texas Historical Commission, lobbied for its restoration as part of a project called Los Caminos del Rio, an effort to preserve historic sites on both sides of the border. Dallas’ Meadows Foundation provided seed money, and the Conservation Fund  of Alexandria, Virginia, acquired the historic buildings. Soon the town center started to look the way it did in the twenties. “We would have had to destroy a lot of historic material to go back any earlier,” explains conservator Frank Briscoe, Jr. The old Guerra store, for example—once the headquarters of the Guerra family’s political empire—has again donned the whimsical peach, light green, and dark brown colors of bygone days. As an old-timer recently marveled, “This brings back memories.”