The two-story building, located behind the south wall of the Tecate Brewery, is no longer prominent and takes a little searching to find. When Curry discovered it, it was in a shambles, covered with graffiti, a situation that could have been prevented. "Eight years ago, it was in perfect condition. Even in 2000 it was in good shape. But passenger service was ended, and the caretaker was let go because of privatization. It was abandoned, which is the worst thing you can do to a building. A woman who is rumored to be the wife of the late caretaker has been staying there every night until recently. During the winter, she made fires inside the depot. Everything was wood, the furniture, the floors, everything! And she was using it to make fires inside! We cannot believe the depot didn't burn down. But these old stucco buildings are very fire resistant. You can see the hole she used to burn things in and all the damage from the fires, but she didn't burn the building! And that was in the upper level!"
"It's a building in the prairie style, part of the arts-and-crafts movement. There's not another building like it for the next 140 miles. There are different theories about who designed it. The historian Kathy Flanagan said it must be Eugene Huffman from San Diego. Some people believe that it was a son of Frank Lloyd Wright, and there's a man from Tecate who swears it's from Frank Lloyd Wright himself. SOHO is offering a $250 reward to whoever can prove who built it. We don't know."
One of the foremost experts on Frank Lloyd Wright and his work is local architect Spencer Lake. Lake discovered Wright in 1959 as a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "I was already looking for something that had a philosophical grounding as a career. I didn't just want to do something like be an airline pilot. With architecture being so multidisciplinary and engaging and, on top of that, the Wrightian belief that architecture derives from a deeper thread in human history, that was enough to get me excited."
Although Wright had died by the time Lake's interest awakened, Lake started what would become an extensive collection of books on the famous architect and began studying his writings (including 10,000 pages of correspondence). Within three years, Lake had a substantial reference on Wright, the subject of the first of three architectural exhibits Lake curated while at Cal Poly. "That gave me access to his drawings and photographs. I was able to get into a lot of his work intimately." Lake went on to become friends with two of Wright's sons, Lloyd Wright and David Wright. In 1988, Lake developed a multimedia production, "Frank Lloyd Wright: Architecture as a Quality of Mind," which was presented at universities across the country. He maintains contact with David Wright's widow and is currently writing a book about her husband, who died in 1997 at age 102. Lake has also worked with architect Sim Bruce Richards, one of Wright's apprentices, and is often consulted when one of Richards's homes is restored.
Lake had heard about the Tecate depot restoration but had never seen the building. After looking at a photo, he doesn't think it is a Wright design, though he agrees it is unique for a railroad station. "It doesn't have the fundamental visual scale [Wright] used. For example, he used broad roof eaves. These eaves are cut back. The fenestration [windows] is broken up. These look like holes in the wall, and by the time Wright was working in his Prairie period, he had solved the requirements to actually make the windows a feature in the design. This is too broken up to be a Wright building."
The Prairie period, roughly 1900 to 1910, refers to the Chicago Prairie school of architecture. "The Prairie School evolved in Chicago under the leadership of Frank Lloyd Wright," Lake explains. "You can see a little of the Chicago Prairie School in [San Diego architect] Irving Gill's work, and you can recognize it in the windows. In Gill's works, you read the windows the way you would read a musical score. In the Prairie School, windows aren't only a hole in the wall, but an actual feature of the design. I only speculate, but I have heard other sources say that [the depot] might be an Irving Gill building. It's very curious, because it definitely has the Midwestern look to it, and I don't know of any 'kit' building like this.
"Train stations were mostly kit buildings," Lake continued. "You'd buy the blueprint, and they'd all be practically the same building from small town to small town. The Prairie style continued in a fragmentary way in his work all the way up until about 1915. But it's very unlikely that Wright would have been involved with that [station] in any respect, because by 1910 he had quit his family and fled to Europe with the wife of a client. But the building has little figments of Prairie in it. I'd say it's an exaggeration to say it's influenced by Wright, unless you can find a link with somebody local or perhaps somebody out of L.A. who may have worked with Wright. It was definitely influenced by the so-called Prairie School," Lake concludes, "a term that was actually coined by a newspaperman or art critic."
While most of the work on the station is finished, Curry is hopeful that some additional touch-ups will make the restoration more historically accurate. "We had an excellent institution help us with this, but they didn't send their experts for this project. They put some aluminum stripping on the roof to protect against humidity and some modern tiles in the building that don't really look right. To remedy that, we are working with trained professionals on both sides of the border for future projects in Tijuana and Ensenada. They have the expertise in restoration, and they can train more people in Mexico about proper techniques and architectural accuracy. But the building is no longer threatened with destruction. Our grassroots efforts have paid off."