It was never easy to stand up for the old Nueces County courthouse.
For years (actually for more than four decades) I’ve been asked countless times, perhaps over a glass of wine with someone I’ve just met who is looking for a conversation starter, “What do I think of the old courthouse?”
Not just me, of course. I assume that every architect, planner, citizen and neighbor was asked too. That’s a good question. Most thoughtful people are genuinely at odds over what to do with this important community asset / liability. I always had a very simple opinion on this question – but always had a very long answer.
First I ask: “What is your favorite city?”
I could hear Santa Fe, New Orleans, New York, Paris, San Miguel de Allende, and San Antonio. Endless possibilities.
“What is your favorite place in this city?” I could hear a square, a cathedral, an avenue, a neighborhood – but almost always a place with a bit of vintage. History enriches places, makes them more interesting and engaging. Even people who have no interest in their own local history or architecture will appreciate other places precisely because history is written in architecture. I’ve always found this confusing.
Then we discuss why our beautiful city lacks historical buildings. Newcomers suspect hurricanes. We all know better. Corpus Christi had at least five urban city hotels – the Nueces, Princess Louise, Plaza, Driscoll, and Breakers. Only one died from storm damage. Big houses on the cliff, classic schools (only Wynn Seale and Menger are left), auspicious banks and downtown churches – we’ve been confusing demolition for progress. Personally, I thought that the Memorial Coliseum still had a lot of customization potential to enrich cultural activities and activities on the bay. Well
“But the courthouse is a thorn in the side! How long are you waiting “With only part of my tongue on my cheek, I ask in return,“ Have you been to the Roman Forum or the Greek Acropolis? ”They may be tourist attractions now, but for a few millennia they were only ruins and remains – great obstacles to everyday life What is more offensive to the eye, a large building in disrepair or some other vacant lot?
“But that’s not the forum or the Acropolis!” True. But it’s ours. And it’s still here (for now)
More:A case for the demolition of the old Nueces County Courthouse
Next I am asked how to know when it is worth saving a structure. This subject deserves its own essay, but suffice it to say that every building should be able to convey its own case to every thoughtful citizen. Is it important historically? Is it an important feature in its neighborhood? Do you like it Has it touched people’s lives? Does it illustrate skill, craft or art? Would it be easy to build today? Is it long lasting? (Remember, the courthouse survived nearly half a century of neglect.) Finally, since it’s already here, why would we want it gone?
Nueces County’s Old Courthouse is the pre-eminent historic town house in Corpus Christi. It was built during the neoclassical courthouse boom in the late 19th to early 20th centuries and is one of the few that has not yet been restored. As architecture, it remains powerful and articulated – properties that are often controversial in people. The terracotta ornamentation is evidence of masters of a rapidly fading art. The concrete frame was built not long after reinforced concrete first pioneered in Paris – and is still solid. The classic size of the building speaks for the optimism and trust of our great-grandparents. There are still steps – just like in the forum.
There is reason to be optimistic. The new bridge will open up strategic and valuable land for development around the courthouse. And it doesn’t take centuries for a meaningful historical urban legacy to be established – Miami is younger than Corpus Christi and nurtures a vibrant Art Deco and early modern heritage. But we have to cherish and protect our own historical architecture.
Here is a single rule for maintaining a sustainable historic urban fabric, expressed in three ways: Only remove an important historic town house if it needs to be removed in a demonstrable way to achieve something better. Don’t trade civic and cultural architectural assets for empty space. Demolition in itself is not a creative enterprise.
We finally found the simple answer of what to do with the old courthouse:
We are stabilizing the decay and continue to actively pursue adaptive reuse opportunities. As we drive by, we look through the decay to appreciate the past and future of beauty. We strive to be careful about irrevocable decisions. We give the benefit of the doubt to our fathers and mothers, who have worked to build what we have been given, and our children and grandchildren, who can enjoy an embedded value that we may miss today.
David Richter is a Corpus Christi architect.
More:Plans to develop Nueces County’s old courthouse fail