Located on a crescent-shaped bay in the Gulf of Mexico, Corpus Christi is defined by its port. Unlike Brownsville, with neighboring Matamoros as its economic role model, or Laredo, with its colonial past linked to established trade routes, Corpus Christi was challenged to create its own trade connections and to turn its geography into an asset.
One who saw the strategic potential of Corpus Christi, both commercially and militarily, was Henry L. Kinney, a Pennsylvania-born speculator-adventurer who came to Texas in 1839 and established a trading post on the bluff overlooking the bay. Essentially a smuggling operation to trade Mexican and U.S. goods, Kinney envisioned that a network of roads, a deepwater harbor, and a railroad were the essentials required to turn the perilous bay with shallow waters into a lucrative transportation hub.
Ever the ceaseless promoter, Kinney put Corpus Christi on the map in 1845 by audaciously convincing the federal government to launch the invasion of Mexico from his tenuous settlement. In 1847, he ensured the city's designation as the seat of Nueces County and spearheaded an intense lobbying effort for road, rail, and port development. After his death in 1861 those efforts continued, but with uneven results as exemplified by the ephemeral economic boom instigated by Elihu H. Ropes in the early 1890s.
It would take the legendary Storm of 1919 to turn the coastal city into the desired deepwater port advocated by generations of its citizenry. As if on cue, just one month after the storm, city government and influential citizens mounted an aggressive campaign to bring federal, state, and local resources for permanent port development. Tied to the port development was an ambitious bayfront protection program that included a breakwater and seawall to raise the city's shoreline in a stunning feat of civil engineering.
By the time the port opened in 1926, all the components identified by Kinney were in place to turn Corpus Christi into a regional trading center. At the same time, as if perfectly orchestrated, the discovery of oil and gas in the 1920s added to a growing tourism and agricultural trade set the regional economy to grow at exponential rates, along with the city's population, which doubled every decade between 1920 and 1950. Working in tandem, the port and the city attracted additional industries and ensured the selection of Corpus Christi as the location for a new U.S. naval air station in 1940.
Spatially, given its distance from the lower Rio Grande, the urban layout of Corpus Christi was not bound by Hispanic traditions. Without a historic precedent to follow, the city plat of 1852 contoured itself to its coastline, and to its forty-foot-high bluff that gave the budding settlement its distinctive vertical separation. Executed by Kinney to generate real estate sales, the city plat comprised colliding grids linked by the 166-foot-wide “Broad Way” that followed the alignment of the bluff. Three public squares were provided for civic affairs, with streets named for persons admired by Kinney, and for animals and Indian tribes of the region. With Nueces and Corpus Christi bays restricting growth to the north and east, respectively, urban expansion extended south and west, with the original city grid filled in by 1910.
Reconstruction efforts following the Storm of 1919 and the sustained growth created by the port and the oil industry provided a fertile field for practicing architects within and outside the city, including Richard S. Colley. After opening his office in 1938, he led Corpus Christi's architecture into the era of modernism, a style suited to the city's forward-looking mentality. While the drive toward the new allowed significant intrusions into the city's historic central core, it also turned Corpus Christi into an outstanding repository of twentieth-century architecture in Texas.
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