“Nueces County comprises 847 square miles of the Coastal Prairies region. The terrain is generally flat. The elevation ranges from sea level to 180 feet above sea level.”
“The earliest Europeans to reach the area of the future Nueces County may have been the party of Alonzo Álvarez de Pineda, who reputedly reached Corpus Christi Bay on the feast of Corpus Christi, 1519. Conclusive evidence, however, is lacking because the records of his expedition are lost. Nine years later Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his crew were shipwrecked on the Texas coast. Although Cabeza de Vaca’s exact route is unknown, historians believe that some members of his party skirted Corpus Christi Bay.”
“Between 1800 and the end of Spanish dominion much of what is now Nueces County was granted to ranching families, most of whom were related by marriage. In 1812, after an Indian uprising, the colonists abandoned the area and sought refuge in the Rio Grande valley. The colonists returned, but repeated skirmishes with the Indians continued until about 1824, when peace was made with the Comanches and Lipans.”
“After Mexican independence, the region became part of Tamaulipas. During the period from 1829 to 1836 most of the land in the lower Nueces valley that had not been granted under Spanish rule was deeded to individuals by the Tamaulipan government.”
“In 1830 new attempts were made to establish colonies in the area. Gen. Manuel de Mier y Terán proposed founding two towns near the mouth of the Nueces. One settlement was to be located at the site of present-day Corpus Christi, but it was never realized. The other settlement, however, a military post known as Fort Lipantitlán, was established in 1831 in the northwestern part of the future county at the point where the road from Matamoros to Goliad crossed the river.”
“After the [Texas] revolution, the area south and west of the Nueces River was a no-man’s-land. Texas claimed the territory, but Mexico said it was part of Tamaulipas. Neither exercised effective control. Both Texan and Mexican raiding parties made periodic forays into the region between 1838 and 1841. Mexican Federalist forces twice sought sanctuary at Fort Lipantitlán in the late 1830s, and in 1838 Gen. Antonio Canales organized his army for the Republic of the Rio Grande nearby. During this period both Mexican and Texan merchants engaged in illegal trading in the Nueces valley. Among the most prominent of these was Henry Lawrence Kinney, who established a trading post and fort on Corpus Christi Bay in 1839.”
“The small settlement soon became the focus of trade in the area. Repeated attacks by Mexican bands forced Kinney to abandon the post in 1842, but he returned a short time later and reestablished his trading business. A post office opened in 1842 with William P. Aubrey as its postmaster. The population of the small settlement—now known as Corpus Christi—boomed briefly when Gen. Zachary Taylor‘s army arrived there in September 1845, but it quickly shrank again after the Mexican War.”
“Nueces County, including the entire area south of Bexar County west to the Rio Grande and east to the Gulf of Mexico, was formed from San Patricio County in 1846 and organized the same year. Corpus Christi, which was incorporated in 1846, became the county seat.”
“During the early years of the Civil War, Corpus Christi was an important center for Confederate commerce. In 1859 no fewer than forty-five small vessels carried trade between Corpus Christi and Indianola. Small boats sailing inside the barrier islands transported goods from the Brazos River to the Rio Grande, while inland cotton was moved along the Cotton Road through Banquete to Matamoros and the mills of England. In an effort to halt the trade, Union forces seized control of Mustang Island in the fall of 1863. Corpus Christi was twice bombarded by federal gunboats, but the overland trade continued without interruption until the end of the war.”
“Although the black population before the war had been very small and no Ku Klux Klan chapter was organized in the county during Reconstruction, political violence was commonplace, as Republicans and former Confederates struggled for control. Turmoil continued along the Mexican border, and cattle rustling and raids by bandits were frequent problems. In the end, however, because of its relatively small population, Nueces County was spared much of the fighting that other Texas counties experienced, and order was generally restored by the early 1870s.”
“During the latter half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the population of Nueces County grew markedly, particularly in the decade after the turn of the century. In 1860 the county had only 2,906 residents, but the number increased rapidly in the post-Civil War years, to 3,975 in 1870, 7,673 in 1880, 8,093 in 1890, 10,439 in 1900, and 21,955 in 1910. Much of the population was centered in and around Corpus Christi, which gradually emerged as the commercial hub of the region. As the city grew in importance as a shipping center, efforts were made to improve access to the ocean.”
“During the 1920s agricultural mechanization began in the county. Tractors and other machines appeared in increasing numbers, and by the eve of World War II Nueces County farms were among the most mechanized in the state. The onset of the Great Depression, falling cotton prices, and the arrival of the boll weevil brought new hardships for county farmers. Many were forced to move to the cities. The total number of farms in the county fell from a high of 1,969 in 1930 to 1,306 in 1950.”
“In 1926 the port of Corpus Christi was opened. The legislature made the port a state project by allocating the taxes from seven adjacent counties for the construction of breakwaters, jetties, and other ancillary improvements. The channel from the Gulf of Mexico to the turning basin is a part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which connects the port with cities of the Mississippi valley as well as with foreign markets and makes it potentially one of the chief ports of America. In 1935 the depth of the channel was increased to thirty-five feet so that large ships could be accommodated.”
“Since World War I Nueces County has shown a remarkable growth in population, increasing from 22,807 residents in 1920 to 165,471 in 1950 and to 237,544 in 1970. In 1991 the reported population of the county was 296,527. Hispanics were about 50.5 percent of the population, non-Hispanic whites 44.1 percent, and African Americans 4.4 percent. The largest towns were Corpus Christi, Robstown, Port Aransas, and North San Pedro.”
“Leading attractions in Nueces County include Padre Island National Seashore, Mustang Island State Park, the Texas State Aquarium, the Art Museum of South Texas, and the USS Lexington, a World War II aircraft carrier-museum in Corpus Christi Bay.”
- Handbook of Texas Online, Christopher Long, “Nueces County“
I was the guest of Corpus Christi and Nueces County from June 20 to June 23, 2015.
Nueces County Courthouse – 1877
(Photo Courtesy: THC)
After the county outgrew its 1856-model courthouse, all requests to demolish the building were refused. Instead, officials constructed the next building on the exact same lot, just a few feet more to the north. That’s the 1856 one you see in the middle of the picture, partially obscured by the larger and more impressive Greek Revival/Italianate 1877 version. The latter cost the county approximately $15,000.
In this era, Corpus Christi was a rapidly growing community and Nueces County was receiving a vast population influx. The needs of the people soon surpassed the available square feet in this building. In the early 1910s, both courthouses and a jail that had stood since 1892 were razed. The jail is the building on the far left side of the photo above. At some time between 1912 and 1913, the lot these three buildings had shared was wiped clean.
Nueces County Courthouse – 1914
(Photo Courtesy: THC)
(Photo Courtesy: Corpus Christi Caller-Times)
With a prime piece of real estate in the heart of Corpus Christi cleared, thus began one of the saddest tales in courthouse history.
On the 1856/1877 shared lot, Nueces County began construction of a massive, six-story, Classical Revival temple of justice. The dominating design was provided by Harvey L. Page and the contractor was the Gordon-Kreuger Construction Company.
“The courthouse is a 6 story brick veneer building with classical white terra cotta details, and is one of the oldest remaining buildings in the city. The tall, narrow, projecting entrance wing projects out towards Corpus Christi Bay. It is dominated by an Ionic colonnade flanked by brick pilasters, which support a classical entablature. Above the dentilled cornice are four terra cotta figures seperated by three square windows. The four story wings to the north and south contain pedimented bays on each facade, with two story engaged Ionic columns framed by brick pilasters. Above the third floor is a classical entablature, topped by fourth story windows.” - Texas Historical Commission
The Corpus Christi area is one of the largest and most populous communities along the Texas Gulf Coast. From its humble beginnings in 1839, the city has grown exponentially. That’s bad news where courthouses are concerned. The 1914 building’s purpose was to satiate an expanding populous, and thus, the county “humanely” demolished the previous courthouses that had lost their use.
In the 70s, Nueces County realized that the issue they’d combatted over sixty years earlier had reared its ugly head again. Huge though it was, the 1914 courthouse was now too small to deal with the pressing legal needs of the populous area. The first attempt at remedying the problem was to build an addition in the 30s. Though this prolonged things, it didn’t successfully solve the issue. In 1977, the current courthouse was completed and the 1914 version ceased operation altogether. But did the commissioners demolish it? No. They sold it.
In 1978, a cavalcade of owners began when a Mr. Lex Land purchased it at auction. The $100,000 purchase made by Land was actually funded by both the THC and the National Park Services (NPS). One year later in 1979, Charles Bennett & Associates took the building over and kept it for some twelve years. In 1991, the ownership passed to an organization called “Courthouse Solutions”. A quick Google search finds that there is no such affiliate existing today. In 1992, control moved to the also vaguely named: “Justice Building Inc.”. I’ve received this information from the THC, and would assume it’s accurate, but I have no knowledge of these organizations.
Between 1992 and 2003, what happened to the courthouse is unclear. All I can say for sure is that in that eleven year period, the building continued falling apart in progressively larger droves. In 2003, an initial rehabilitation process began. However, due to low and limited funding, the only renovations to occur included the restoring of brick and terra cotta elements and columns on solely the south wing of the courthouse.
Flash forward eight years later to 2011 when an issue on the minds of many in Nueces County boiled into the limelight: the condition of the 1914 courthouse. This began getting heated a month after a structural engineering study found the building “unsound”. After this test, Mike Pusley, a county commissioner, began a county-wide effort to support the historic building’s demolition. His only obstacle? The fact that it’s a historic building.
In 1978, the State of Texas registered the property and courthouse as a Texas State Historic Site. To top this off, a stipulation in the state granted funds to restore the south wing (a $3 million ordeal, $1.9 of which came from the THC) provided for the building’s safety from demolition until the year 2027. Pusley’s campaign began attacking this clause and it wasn’t long before the Corpus Christi City Council backed his effort.
Leading the charge in city hall was Kevin Kieschnick, who made his stance based on the amount of money it would cost taxpayers to restore the courthouse (approximately $41.1 million). He argued that it would cost a mere $3 million to demolish it.
Discussions began with the THC to lift this ban earlier than in 2027, as Kieschnick claimed that the courthouse had long been providing visitors to Corpus Christi with “a negative perception of the city”. One councilman, David Loeb, believed that the demolition would bring a fury from citizens, as had been the case when the council voted for the destruction of the Memorial Coliseum in 2010. However, like all of Corpus’ city council, this did not sway Loeb’s opinion of the courthouse’s imperative demolition.
And then came a major change in 2016. After years of moaning and groaning from both the Nueces County Commissioners Court and the Corpus Christi City Council over the Historical Commission’s steadfast commitment to prevent the demolition, two resolutions were passed by the commissioners on September 28, 2016. First, the decision was approved to formally rescind the county’s intent to demolish the courthouse. Secondly, the motion was passed to put the courthouse up for sale. At a meeting that October, the court approved a price of $800,000. That price was deemed appropriate after citing a 2007 appraisal that listed the courthouse itself as being worth “next to nothing”, but listed the property as being worth that much.
The stipulation is that outstanding back taxes (owed by that Justice Building Inc. group) of approximately $1.5 million will have to be paid for whoever takes this property on, bringing the price tag up to roughly two million dollars. All standards of the Texas Historical Commission will also have to be followed. Regardless of who owns the land, the courthouse is still a registered historical landmark. Therefore, the county’s hope is that someone will eventually be willing to come along, adhere to the THC’s wishes, and fix the courthouse up.
Yet today, after forty years of no inhabitants (among the living, anyway), it still sits in a depressing cloud of dilapidation and despair. Calling it “a shame” is just not enough to describe this building in full. For people like me, it’s heartbreaking to visit in person. We can only hope someone out there will someday show it some love.
For now, we wait.
Here it sits, just off Highway 35 in downtown Corpus Christi.
That’s the large Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge in the backdrop.Compare this photo to the second historic one above. Much has changed since 1939.
Chain-link fence and barbed wire are the only eyesores here.
The main entrance, a solemn reminder of the glory that once was, faces Mesquite Street.
The southeast corner, at the intersection of Mesquite and Water StreetsAlong the southern side of the building is a pedestrian bridge that provides some helpful angles for photography.
The maiden statues acting as columns are a very poignant nod to Ancient Greek architecture (hence the Classical Revival style). They call these “caryatids”. The most famous example can be found at the Erechtheion on the Athens Acropolis.
The whole of the courthouse, as seen from the pedestrian bridge above Highway 35
Nueces County Courthouse – 1977
Opened in 1977 to replace the 1914 courthouse, this modern creation was designed by a whole team of architects. They are as follows: Smyth & Smyth, Kipp & Winston, Wisznia & Petersen, Bennett, Martin & Solka.
Anchor Constructors Inc. broke ground on the courthouse in 1974 and it was completed three years later.
This side of the courthouse faces north towards a parking lot and the city’s Upper Broadway Park.
A closed handicap ramp used to provide access to this side of the courthouse. But now, the ramp and this large concrete pit it once skirted are out of use.
Downtown Corpus Christi, glimpsed from the top of the pit (using the closed handicap ramp)
There’s also room in a sizable annex to the west of the courthouse.
The U.S.S. Lexington Floating Museum
The Texas State Aquarium
A memorial to Selena on Shoreline Boulevard
Previous Courthouse: Frio County
Next Courthouse: Aransas County