By: Jillian Becquet
Simply put, a landmark is someplace special. Landmarks are places where you walk in the footsteps of people who made your community. They built them, protected them, and in some cases dedicated their lives to them. Landmarks in turn create the things that make our community a place people want to live.
A landmark doesn’t have to stand tall, like the Harbor Bridge. It doesn’t have to be an expensive piece of real estate or a building from when our roads were paved in oyster shells. By general definition, landmarks just need to be 50 years old. But in order to have landmarks in the future, we must also care for those things that we’d like to see make it to 50 years and beyond, so they will be here to treasure then.
Whether it’s sitting down for a meal on a street corner that’s seen many lives or just taking a walk past a structure decades older than you, you’re setting foot somewhere generations before you have, as well – and that is something special.
* National Register of Historic Places
Centennial House, 1965. Image Courtesy of La Retama’s Local History Room
The Centennial House is older than the City itself. Nearing 170 years old, this house holds the title of Corpus Christi’s oldest surviving home in its original location. The Britton-Evans Home was built in 1849-50 by Forbes Britton, a statesman and businessman who came to Corpus Christi with General Zachary Taylor during the Mexican War. Returning to the city to settle, Britton purchased the site for this Greek Revival-style home from the city’s founder, Henry Kinney.
Britton sold the home at the start of the Civil War. It was used as a hospital by both sides at various times, as well as an officer’s mess hall. After the war, it returned to use as a family home for several owners including the Evans family, who called it home for nearly 50 years. Mrs. Evans replaced the original spiral staircase and added electricity, with the wiring installed in the basement and run beneath the floors. The Evanses sold the building to the Southern Minerals Corporation, which maintained the building from 1936 until it built a new headquarters on N. Upper Broadway.
Since being purchased by the Corpus Christi Area Heritage Society in 1965, Centennial House has stood as a museum in tribute to Corpus Christi’s early beginnings. When tours resume following their suspension for COVID-19, you’ll once again be able to view the inside of Corpus Christi’s oldest home, but for now you can walk the grounds and take in the same vantage point over the city as so many who came before you.
524 Twigg, Corpus Christi • Est. 1854
Artesian Square, early 1900s. Image Courtesy of La Retama’s Local History Room.
Artesian Park has been a public space longer than there’s been a City of Corpus Christi. The park gets its name from an artesian well drilled on this site by General Zachary Taylor’s army when he and half of the American Army lived here in 1845-46, awaiting what became the Mexican-American War. Most found that the sulfur-rich well wasn’t good for drinking, but some claimed it held medicinal qualities.
In recognition of the importance of the well and camp, the city’s founder H.L. Kinney deeded the acre surrounding the well to the newly formed City of Corpus Christi in 1854. It is one of the earliest gifts of a public space to a Texas city.
In the decades following, this park became the city’s town square. The city and civic groups invested in improvements to the space, including a bandstand for music and speeches, tables and chairs for playing games, a drinking fountain, walkways, benches, and landscaping.
Archaeological digs at the park several years ago unearthed game pieces and other remnants of these decades of service as the town square. It’s continued to develop in its usage recently, gaining lighting, new landscaping and irrigation, and serving as an anchor of ArtWalk—with more improvements to come.
* National Register of Historic Places
* Texas Historic Landmark
Tarpon Inn, c. 1910s. Image Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
Named for the tarpon that were so abundant that people traveled from all over the country to fish here, the Tarpon Inn has welcomed guests since 1886. The original structure was built using lumber from a Civil War barracks, but it met its match with a fire in 1900, and its successor was damaged in the 1919 hurricane.
In 1925, new owner J.M. Ellis rebuilt the structure to resemble the old barracks in the same perfectly coastal style. Today, you can still relax in a rocking chair on what is said to be Texas’ longest covered porch, running the full length of the building. The engineering to reinforce the Inn against future hurricanes involves pilings placed in concrete at the corner of each room; they run the entire height of the structure, and are attached to the roof. They’ve served the Inn well, as the 1925 structure has stood through every storm since.
More than 7,000 tarpon scales, signed with names, dates, and measurements, line the walls of the Inn as a guestbook of those who visited on their fishing trips. The most famous of these is President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s May 8, 1937 scale from his 5’1” 77-pound catch. The Inn’s famous restaurant, which brings fine dining to the waterfront, is named Roosevelt’s in his honor. They’ll even cook your catch if you’re one of the many who have come to fish this sportsman’s paradise.
317 Fulton Beach, Rockport • Est. 1877
* National Register of Historic Places
Fulton grandchildren at Fulton Mansion, c. 1880s. Image Courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission
Overlooking Aransas Bay, among windswept live oaks, stands the magnificent Fulton Mansion State Historic Site. George Fulton built the home, which the family called Oakhurst, and moved his family here in 1877. The French Second Empire architecture makes it one of the earliest of its kind in Texas, and one of the grandest standing today.
George Fulton’s influence is felt across many industries in the Coastal Bend. He was involved in shipping and ranching, and was a patent-holding inventor. His ingenuity found its way into his home through his decision to install state-of-the-art amenities, including central heating, gas lighting, and indoor plumbing. In a time when many area residents were living a rough life on the frontier, the Fultons’ luxurious home stood out.
The State of Texas bought the home in 1976, and after a major restoration to roll back time and restore the mansion’s appearance and furnishings to the period when it was owned by the Fultons, it opened as a museum in 1983. Today, it is run by the Texas Historical Commission, which undertook major renovations in 2013 and after Hurricane Harvey to bring the home back to its former glory and ready it for visitors.
Ada & Sam Wilson Home
3745 Ocean, Corpus Christi • Est. 1937
Wilson Home, 1977. Image Courtesy of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times
Cruising down Ocean Drive, it’s hard to miss what locals know as “the castle house.” Located at the corner of Ocean and Dodd-ridge, this house unites a famous architect, a Corpus Christi legend, and an owner with the flair for embellishment.
Built in 1937, it was designed by world-renowned architect Richard Colley, who designed many homes and civic buildings across Texas, including Memorial Coliseum. The turret was added later, after Ada Wilson learned of her late husband Sam’s supposed royal lineage during a trip to England.
The original Austrian crystal chandelier and much of the Italian-style flooring remain in the house today. It has a tunnel to the bayfront that has been closed for safety now, but very little has changed on the exterior of the home.
The contributions of the Wilsons to their city are the true legend here. Convincing the state to purchase Mustang Island for a state park, starting the Ada Wilson Hospital (later merged with Driscoll), owning commercial buildings including the Wilson building uptown, Ada penning the city’s official song—their gifts to this city influenced the lives of all who live here and those who get to enjoy the beauty of Mustang Island.
Days are numbered for “the castle house,” as its owner, the Ed Rachal Foundation, plans to demolish it and redevelop the site, so plan a drive down Ocean and appreciate the work of Richard Colley and the life of the Corpus Christi legend, Ada Wilson.
Corpus Christi Seawall
Downtown Corpus Christi • Est. 1938
Seawall, c. 1940s. Image Courtesy of La Retama’s Local History Room
Soon after the incorporation of the city, residents began speculating about what it would take to protect the city and its people from severe weather. The catastrophic damage of the 1919 hurricane coupled with the government’s requirement to build a breakwater to secure the new port finally mobilized action on a seawall.
In 1938, after years of red tape and failed plans, voters approved two bonds to fund the city’s portion of the bill, and engineers Myers & Noyes were signed on. The seawall they designed is a Texas Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, not only for its functionality in protecting the city, but for its ingenuity and unique construction as an “amphitheater to the sea.”
The design called for the addition of 500 feet of land to be added to the bayfront—everything between the seawall and the previously waterfront Water Street. Next time you’re walking down Water Street and approach an intersection, look toward the bay, and you’ll notice the ground slants slightly upward; 14 feet were added to the elevation at the bayfront with the infill.
The seawall was completed in 1941 and has continued to serve the community as Noyes intended—providing protection and a great view. Walk, bike, or scooter the 1.5 miles of bayfront and take in the sights and sounds of the marina, visit the Selena Memorial, and book a dolphin cruise from Harrison’s Landing on the Japonica (named for a touring boat operating nearly a century ago) to get a view of the seawall and the skyline from the Corpus Christi Bay.
1632 Agnes, Corpus Christi • Est. 1950
* National Register of Historic Places
Galvan Ballroom, 1953. Image Courtesy of the Rafael Sr. and Virginia Galvan Family Papers, Mary and Jeff Bell Library at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMUCC)
In the days of big-band orchestras, those orchestras needed a home. Corpus Christi’s largest, the 15-piece Galvan Orchestra, played the opening of the Galvan Ballroom in March of 1950. Rafael Galvan Sr.’s streamline moderne building designed by architect E.E. Hammond has been continuously owned by the Galvan family.
The shows featured performances in both Spanish and English with Black, white, and Hispanic musicians and audiences gathered together during a time when segregation was still common. This positioned Galvan Ballroom as not only a place to find great music, but a melting pot of the community where everyone was welcome.
The 9,000-square-foot ballroom hosted some of the country’s biggest acts, including Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra and Duke Ellington. The house orchestra included Galvan family members as well as incredible musicians who went on to found the Texas Jazz Festival.
The Ballroom is located on the second floor above the Galvan Music Company, where you can stop in and peruse sheet music or shop for instruments. Walking into the ballroom is like walking back in time, with the big-band Galvan logo in gold on the pink art deco stage, still open to rent for private events.
4760 Leopard & 4434 Weber, Corpus Christi • Est. 1953
Snapka’s on Leopard, opened 1953. Image Courtesy of Kathy Snapka.
It’s been a Corpus Christi tradition for generations, and has the Texas Historical Marker to prove it. Brothers Method and Rudy Snapka searched the area for a location for their new drive-in restaurant before settling on Robstown after their car broke down there. The first Snapka’s Drive-Inn opened there July 5, 1948, and the business of 20-cent hamburgers grew into a second location, on Leopard Street in Corpus Christi, by 1953.
The family’s business grew to five restaurants with two still operating today, on Leopard and Weber. Just like in the beginning, your food starts cooking when your order reaches the kitchen and is delivered right to your car. Dine during the aptly named Nostalgia Nites, when classic car owners bring added vintage atmosphere to Snapka’s, for an extra step back in time.
Snapka’s serves all the classic foods you’d expect at a drive-in that has done its best to maintain its ’50s vibe: burgers, fries, onion rings, hot dogs, and … tacos. With a custom-made form to fry the taco shells made by Method, Snapka’s was the first in town to sell crispy tacos, starting in 1953.
Method Snapka worked at the restaurant he’d devoted his life to building for the rest of his life, and today his wife, Maxine, and daughter, Kathy, aim to keep the Snapka’s Drive-Inn legacy and tradition going for years to come.
202 S. Palmetto, Rockport • Est. 1966
Big Tree, c. 1940s. Image Courtesy of La Retama’s Local History Room.
It’s unusual for a landmark to actually get more impressive with time, but that’s exactly the case with the Big Tree in Rockport, near Goose Island State Park. From 1966 until 2003, it held the record for the largest live oak in Texas, an impressive feat given the coastal winds and 40-plus hurricanes it has survived. During 2011’s drought, firefighters poured nearly 100,000 gallons of water on the tree to save it. Big Tree shows its age after the many struggles of recent years, but is under special care of certified arborists and the Texas Parks & Wildlife department so future generations can witness its grandeur.
Dating a tree that’s still standing is difficult, but estimates of its age are consistently over 1,000 years. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Big Tree stands at 44’ tall, has a circumference of approximately 35’ 1.75”, a trunk diameter of 11’ 2.25” and a crown spread of 89’. Go take a walk around Big Tree and think a moment about who else has trod on that ground before you: Indigenous people, who fished these shores thousands of years before Big Tree was even a seedling, the French, the Spanish, the Texans, and the visitors from across the world once stood right here.
On your visit to Goose Island State Park, fill your day with walks in nature, bird watching, boating, camping or fishing after your stop at Big Tree to appreciate one of the biggest, one of the oldest, and one of the most special live oaks in the nation.
Art Museum of South Texas
1902 N. Shoreline, Corpus Christi • Est. 1972
AMST, 1972. Image from the archives of the Art Museum of South Texas.
The importance of the Art Museum of South Texas (AMST) lies not only in the museum organization and its collections but in the building itself, which turns 50 in 2022. Corpus Christi had a handful of arts organizations prior to AMST, and art was exhibited and shared with the community starting in the 1930s.
The current building is two structures, both by world-famous architects, that blend seamlessly into one as they connect. The poured white concrete building by Philip Johnson opened in 1972. Johnson’s design is sculptural; an all white building, perched on the edge of the Corpus Christi Bay, with skylights that pour sunlight into the galleries—a piece of art, itself.
The museum flourished in its new location, and by the 1990s, it was outgrowing its space. Modernist architects Legoretta and Legoretta of Mexico City designed the 2006 addition, whose design was approved by Johnson prior to his death in 2005. Its 13 20-foot-tall copper-clad pyramids are now an iconic part of the silhouette, even appearing in the museum’s logo.
Today, AMST provides arts programs for all ages and brings world-class exhibitions to the Coastal Bend. The museum holds thousands of pieces in its permanent collection, ranging from ancient pottery to contemporary paintings and large installation pieces. The museum offers more than a dozen exhibitions annually, so this is one landmark worth visiting again and again.
Then & Now
715 N. Chaparral, Corpus Christi • Est. 1929
Top: Ritz Theatre, 1940. Image Courtesy of La Retama’s Local History Room.
Bottom: Ritz Theatre, 2021. Image by: Jarred Schuetze
The story of the Ritz can not be told only as a “then” and a “now,” because its story today is one of planning for decades into the future. The Ritz opened at the end of 1929, months after the stock market crash, and provided entertainment to the community for the following 57 years.
For 30 cents for adults and 10 cents for children, Corpus Christi residents could enjoy the elaborate theater while taking in a movie or vaudeville acts. The theater’s interior, designed in the popular “atmospheric” style, features a blue sky with twinkling stars, giving theatergoers the illusion of being seated beneath an open sky in an exotic Spanish courtyard.
The theater thrived during the Great Depression, providing an important leisure activity to the community. As times changed and screens got bigger, the Ritz adapted and removed the decorative proscenium, a framed opening, from around the stage to make space. Movies continued at the Ritz until 1972.
Two years later, The Ritz Music Hall debuted and hosted some of the nation’s biggest musical acts through the ’70s and ’80s, including Elvis. After its closure more than 30 years ago, the Ritz has stood waiting for its next act.
Today, it is owned by Corpus Christi PATCH, whose goal is to repair, restore, and revive the historic Ritz Theatre. This project, when completed, will be an economic driver for a revitalized downtown, as historic theaters have been in other cities. Visiting a restored atmospheric theater is like stepping back in time, and you can help make that happen in downtown Corpus Christi by supporting The Ritz.
Then & Now
1581 N. Chaparral, Corpus Christi • Est. 1985
Top: Heritage Park Opening, 1985. Image Courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Bottom: Heritage Park, 2021. Image by: Jarred Schuetze.
With a walk through Heritage Park, you can see homes tied to people from every generation to live in Corpus Christi since its founding. None of these homes were built in this location originally; each was relocated to this site from neighborhoods across the city, and they have been restored to their appearance from their time as family homes. The grounds are open to the public and are the site of many popular festivals in Corpus Christi, including the Texas Jazz Festival.
Heritage Park is owned by the City of Corpus Christi, but many local civic organizations have contributed to the homes’ upkeep while they’ve served as tenants since Heritage Park’s opening in 1985. The first three homes were moved to this block in the 1920s, including the Lichtenstein home, which originally stood where the Ritz Theatre is today.
From the Merriman-Bobys House’s (built 1851) open porch and shellcrete fireplace typical of Early Texas regional architecture to the Sidbury’s High Victorian style (built 1893), you can see Corpus Christi’s development from a frontier town to a bustling city during a walk through these homes.
Although no tour is available of the site as a whole, information about each home is on the Texas Historical Markers near each building, and buildings open to the public have posted hours.
Then & Now
424 N. Chaparral, Corpus Christi • Est. 1930s
Left: Sun Pharmacy, July 22, 1943. Image Courtesy of La Retama’s Local History Room.
Right: Dokyo Dauntaun, 2021. Image by: Jarred Schuetze.
The last decade has seen much change at this corner, but that’s something this site is used to. Since the 1850s, a slew of businesses have come and gone at the corner of Schatzell and Chaparral Streets. When the city began in the 1850s, it was a two-story wooden building that had been dismantled and shipped from New York, which housed the business headquarters for wool and hide dealer William Headen, operating under his father’s initial, M. Headen and Son.
The wooden building passed through several owners and was known as the Rankin building, serving as a grocery store, a law office, and several restaurants after a renovation. In the 1930s, the building was demolished and a new one was built at the corner in 1936. It housed Modern Pharmacy and Hall’s Credit Clothiers. By the 1940s, Sun Pharmacy moved in, along with a city bus terminal.
If you’ve been around Corpus Christi for a while, you may have shopped at Lester’s Jewelry, Vo-craft shoes, or the Maverick Market convenience store. In the last 30 years, this building has been home to several restaurants, including Sonja’s Restaurant and Bakery, Urbana, and now Dokyo Dauntaun.
It’s fair to say the builders of this building in 1936 couldn’t have imagined a sushi restaurant inside it, but that’s the beauty of adaptive reuse in the preservation of historic buildings. We don’t have to start over to move into the future.
Then & Now
La Retama Park
501 N. Mesquite, Corpus Christi • Est. 1986
Top: Market Hall, c. early 1900s. Image Courtesy of La Retama’s Local History Room.
Middle: La Retama Library, post-1955. Image Courtesy of La Retama’s Local History Room.
Bottom: La Retama Park, 2021. Image by: Jarred Schuetze.
One thing has been constant amid the changes at this wedge-shaped lot at Mesquite and Peoples Streets: It’s always been a public space. In 1871, Market Hall was built as Corpus Christi’s first public building. Residents shopped for basic goods, including meat and produce from vendors on the first floor.
The second floor was a large hall where the community gathered for social events, including the annual Fireman’s Ball. A bell hung at the west end to summon the all-volunteer firemen to an emergency. In 1911, Market Hall was demolished and a new brick city hall was constructed on the site.
City Hall welcomed residents on Mesquite Street until 1955, when it was remodeled to become La Retama Library. The library was named at its inception after the club that founded it, and the park bears the name today in its honor. The building’s structural issues and the growth of the library led it to move to a new location in 1986, and the 1911 building was demolished.
Today, La Retama Park continues to serve as a public space and has been host to many ArtWalks and farmer’s markets, and most recently the Port of Corpus Christi Holiday Tree’s debut in 2020.