The coast of Texas curves to frame the northwest corner of the Gulf of Mexico. Much of this coast is lined with barrier islands, separated from the mainland by shallow bays and tidal marshes. The coastal plain slopes gently upward from these bays at an extremely shallow degree of inclination of one foot of rise per mile: a flat grassland stretching approximately sixty miles inland. Stands of trees cluster in the floodplains of the rivers, creeks, and bayous. The climate is hot and humid. High but irregular rates of precipitation decrease the farther southwest one moves.
By the mid-twentieth century, this territory was customarily divided into four geographic and cultural subregions: the Golden Triangle between the Sabine River (Texas's border with Louisiana) and Trinity Bay; the Galveston-Houston region between Galveston Bay and the Brazos River; the Columbia Bottoms, the rich bottomland between the Brazos and Colorado rivers; and the Coastal Bend, stretching from the Colorado River southwest to the Nueces River. This Gulf Coast region includes Houston (the largest city in Texas), Galveston, Victoria, and the three cities of the so-called Golden Triangle—Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange.
This region was the first part of Texas to be explored and tentatively settled by Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was also the part of Mexican Texas through which immigrants from the United States arrived in the 1820s and established their initial communities and farmsteads, most under the leadership of American empresarioStephen F. Austin. During the nineteenth century, the Columbia Bottoms contained the richest sugar cane production land in Texas and until 1865 was the epicenter of African American slavery in Texas. On the plains between the rivers, where impervious clay soils and poor drainage made farming more difficult than in the rolling prairies farther inland, open-range cattle ranching was pursued. Not until the twentieth century did the Gulf Coast cohere as a region. In the nineteenth century, land ownership, transportation, and cultural exchange tended to move inland along the rivers, creeks, and bayous, patterns reinforced by the routing of the state's initial railroad lines.
The flat, open ranching plains between the rivers began to be developed and marketed during the 1890s as farming tracts centered on newly surveyed townsites. These tracts often lay on former public lands deeded to railroad companies in the 1870s and 1880s. Construction of the New York, Texas and Mexican Railway between Rosenberg and Victoria in 1882 and of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway between Houston and Corpus Christi in 1905 provided the transportation armature for the formation of a coastal region and stimulated a new cash-crop agricultural economy. Italian railroad entrepreneur Joseph Telfener named a number of new towns along the New York, Texas and Mexican line—Edna, Inez, and Louise—after his American relatives. The discovery of oil near Beaumont in 1901 reinforced these transportation networks as further exploration led to the development of oil fields along the coast in the first decade of the twentieth century and especially during the 1930s and 1940s. Concentrations of petrochemical plants along the ship channels of Houston, Beaumont–Port Arthur–Orange, Freeport, and Port Lavaca–Point Comfort are a testament to the economic, cultural, and ecological impact of oil on twentieth-century Texas.
Although the towns of Goliad and Refugio originated as Franciscan missions to indigenous peoples in the late eighteenth century, permanent town-sites began to be developed in the 1820s and 1830s while Texas was part of the Mexican State of Coahuila y Texas. Liberty and Victoria are townsites of Mexican origin; both preserve their Laws of the Indies plaza-centered grids. In addition to Galveston, the state's primary seaport city in the nineteenth century, other seaport settlements were established after the Texas war of independence of 1835–1836. Like the now-semi-inhabited town of Matagorda, most of these coastal villages—as well as such pre–Civil War river ports as (East) Columbia and Richmond—fell victim to the superior economic importance of railroads or the destructive impact of tropical hurricanes. Houston's role as a railroad nexus was crucial to its triumph over its rival, Galveston. Yet as late as the 1890s, the new town of Port Arthur, with its naive City Beautiful plan of radial avenues and undulating waterfront corniche,was built to be the seaport of Kansas City, Missouri, to which it was connected by the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railway. Following Port Arthur's example in the 1890s, purpose-dredged navigation canals provided deep-water seaports at Orange, Beaumont, Houston, Texas City, and Freeport buffered from the full impact of hurricane storm surges and integrated with the railroad network. Oilfields, petroleum refining facilities, and defense-related petrochemical production during the New Deal era spurred the development of Texas City, Pasadena, and Baytown on Galveston Bay, Freeport and Sweeny, and Port Lavaca and Seadrift. The new town of Lake Jackson, designed by Alden B. Dow in 1941, owes it existence to petrochemicals, as does, in a more indirect way, The Woodlands, a planned community of the 1970s designed by Ian McHarg and his associates. Bayside resort communities form another distinct town typology: Bay Ridge and La Porte near Houston, Palacios, Port O'Connor, Fulton Beach, and Rockport are early-twentieth-century examples. In the second half of the twentieth century, highways I-10 between Orange and Houston, U.S. 59 between Houston and Beeville, and I-45 (running from Galveston through Houston then north to Dallas) provided the primary armature for commercial transportation and urban development.
Architecture reflects in its distribution and concentration the spatial, temporal, and demographic patterns that these economic and transportation trends imply. The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife has excavated the failed encampment of seventeenth-century French explorer René Robert Cavelier de La Salle on Garcitas Creek, south of Victoria, revealing archaeological indications of its dwellings as well as those of the Spanish expeditionary force sent to rid Texas of French intruders. The limestone chapel at Presidio La Bahía ( GB15) on the San Antonio River near Goliad, dating from the last quarter of the eighteenth century, is the oldest building in the coastal region. It is joined by twentieth-century reconstructions of the church of Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga of 1749 ( GB14). Anglo-American wood buildings of the 1830s through the 1850s constitute the region's architectural threshold; these were joined by such brick public buildings as St. Mary Cathedral Basilica in Galveston ( GV12). The extension of the railroad network enabled professional architects to claim an often precarious footing in the region's building economy beginning in the 1870s, with offices in Galveston, Houston, and Victoria. However by the 1890s, so could rival architects operating from Austin, San Antonio, and—affecting the uppermost part of the coast—New Orleans.
The architectural transformation of towns into regionally important cities was first visible in Galveston by 1860, then in Houston by 1880, and Victoria in the 1890s. Oil revolutionized the cycle of urban transformation. It spurred urban growth and created the basis for architectural practices in Beaumont and Port Arthur after 1900. Skyscrapers emerged in Houston in the 1890s and Galveston in the 1910s. By the 1920s, Beaumont and Port Arthur acquired skylines of multistory office and hotel buildings.
The decade of the 1920s marked the consolidation of the region's cities, and the 1950s of its smaller towns. After the mid-1960s, Houston and its metropolitan area began to grow at the expense of small towns, either by submerging them in a tidal wave of suburban development or gradually eroding the economic bases of more distant competitors, a process that Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange, and Galveston have all experienced. Economic dependence on petrochemical processing seems to correlate with urban stagnation, as the deteriorated historic cores of Orange, Port Arthur, Baytown, Pasadena, Texas City, Freeport, and Port Lavaca imply. Galveston, having experienced this phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s, was able to economically reinvent itself beginning in the 1970s on the basis of its nineteenth-century architectural resources. The inland tier of towns fared better in the late twentieth century, perhaps because their economies, in which agriculture and ranching still play a large part, retained a greater degree of local control. Even so, after 1960, the pattern of unregulated suburban sprawl, for which Houston is the model, became dominant for urban growth in settlements of all sizes in the region.
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