A Storied Coastline
Posted on June 2, 2017
Located at the junction of Buffalo Bayou and San Jacinto Bay, the town site of New Washington was settled by Col. James Morgan (1786-1866) who bought 1600 acres of land in the area in 1835. A native of Philadelphia, Morgan had come to Texas in 1830 and served at various times and places as merchant, civic leader and land agent. While away from his home, serving as a colonel during the Texas Revolution, Mexican troops burned the town of New Washington as they made their way to San Jacinto. As legend goes, it would be here that Santa Anna would take a young indentured servant from New York named Emily West (Morgan) as a prize of war. She infamously kept the general in his tent as Sam Houston and the Texas Army surprised the Mexican troops on the morning of April 21st leading to the defeat of the Mexican Army and winning Texas independence. This story is often retold with the heroine earning the handle, “Yellow Rose of Texas”.
After the war, Morgan and others rebuilt New Washington into a flourishing town. Morgan realized, however, that it could never compete with the growth of nearby Houston, and during the 1850s he began to promote plans for a channel along Buffalo Bayou that would increase the region’s trade potential. Having been part of the planning and the dream, steamship tycoon Charles Morgan made his dreams a reality in 1876 with the dredging of the Houston Ship Channel.
As the development of short haul rail lines made access to the coast more available, new resorts and communities began to spring up along the inland bays of the Texas Gulf coast as early as the 1890’s.
These early rail lines combined with local ferries made the popularity of the coast continue to grow. Sylvan Beach Park would become the most popular in the area, with people coming from across the state to enjoy bathing in the salt waters, days filled with beach side picnics and dancing in the pavilions, the evening’s air filled with the sounds of big bands.
On the western shores of Galveston Bay near Morgan’s Point, one of these resort communities would be the Bay Ridge Park Association. Atop a twenty five foot high ridge, twelve Houston families would subdivide a 40-acre tract where they envisioned simple summer cottages around a central pavilion where they would gather for communal meals.
As the immediate area and nearby Houston continued to grow, the cottages were replaced by more substantial homes including designs for corporate retreats. One of the lots was bought for the Peden Iron and Steel Company, but then was sold in 1927 to Franck Bullock, the president of Park Realty and Investment Company and the Eagle Petroleum Company. Bullock would commission John Staub, an architect know for his residential projects in Houston’s most prestigious neighborhood of River Oaks and for the Bayou Bend Estate, to design a bay cottage for his family.
Staub would draw from local precedent, not importing stylistic references from the east but instead drawing on the character of local forms creating a simple hipped roof home with cypress shingles. Its mass is articulated with strip pilaster and block capitals that frame a simple entry covered by an arched panel decorated with alternating triglyphs and stars.
Here Staub uses shingles to aesthetically tie back to the traditions of the East while marrying them with the star iconography that was tied to Texas identity. He also draws from the vernacular traditions of Bay Ridge’s earlier cottages in the use of the simple Victorian-proportioned ‘two over two’ windows and ornamental Chippendale pattern work in the framing of the porches and loggias looking out towards the bay.
Around this same time, Houston oilman Ross Sterling began to plan an estate on a 200 acre tract in Bay Ridge. The estate would be a departure from their former Craftsman summer cottage along six acres of bay frontage, and to realize what he wanted, he hired Albert Finn and his residential designer Robert Smallwood, as well as the landscape firm of Hare and Hare. Completed in 1928, this two and a half story limestone-faced classic home is said to have been based on the White House, the concept rumored to be derived from Sterling referring to the back of a twenty dollar bill and telling Finn to “build that”, but it may have been informed by the work of Charles Platt’s design of Gwinn Estate–a lake front country house outside of Cleveland, Ohio.
On its entry side the limestone façade stands boldly against the bay beyond with a glass awning covering a slightly recessed entry. The entry hall steps down to an opening to the great half round portico looking out across Galveston Bay. This is flanked by a grand stair hall that wraps around on both sides to the second level and its nine bedroom suites.
From the covered loggia, Sterling could gather with family or the elite of Houston and look out across the bay. The view also included his Baytown Humble Oil facility.
Albert Finn would go on to be known for his work in the rapidly growing downtown of Houston. Some notable projects are the design of a seventeen story addition to the Rice Hotel, the Lamar Hotel and the thirty-seven story, deco-inspired Gulf Building. He also designed residential projects for some of Houston’s leaders of the day. In the 1930’s, he would work as a part of the Public Works Administration to design the nearby 570-foot tall San Jacinto Monument, commemorating the Texans’ victory over Santa Anna and Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Nearby, another residence marks a different interpretation of Bay Ridge’s development at the time. While only a small stretch down the beach from the Sterling Residence, this bay cottage was built for the Irwin Family–the father was a Houston banker and confectioner–was inspired by the Spanish hacienda style. Designed by Joseph Finger, another noted Houston architect, this home stayed true to the bay area’s traditions featuring a stucco façade, decorative iron work, a clay tile roof and an open-air arcade supporting a second story veranda overlooking the water.
Recently our office had the opportunity to add to the architectural character of this unique place, and I hope that this residence might someday be looked on with the same regard as its earlier predecessors.