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Galveston Monthly

Chapter 9 - The Seawall Chronicles

Jun 02, 2019 11:55PM

The dawn of this new decade carried with it the momentum of the one prior, as Galveston’s ever-expanding population continued its vicarious love affair with the vices of its frequent visitors and all of the prosperity it afforded. The fog of economic depression had at last lifted from the rest of the country, but since it had not greatly impacted the Island in the first place, the city merely continued along its upward trend of growth and expansion. As the nation was content to breathe a sigh of relief at the return to normalcy, the Seawall verifiably boomed.

  The Sui Jen remained a priority destination, and the hotel industry flourished by way of the gamblers and thrill seekers. By the end of 1940, Galveston boasted twenty-seven hotels, and massive developments along the Seawall such as the Buccaneer Hotel (1939) and the Jack Tar Motor Inn (1940) were unabashed proclamations of Galveston’s adventurous reputation.

  The city’s sense of invincibility even carried over into its officials, as they were stubbornly steadfast in their attempt to let residents pick up the tab for the raising of the East End Flats. In May of 1941, ten years after the initial filling of the swamp land at the far eastern end of the Seawall, yet another bond proposal was put to the population for a vote. This time, the city wanted $350,000, and Mayor Brantly Harris (1939-1942) did his best to sell voters on the fact that it would allow eastward expansion and the ability to develop new neighborhoods. The proposal was rejected outright.

  That summer, city commissioners once again made headlines when they revived the notion of installing parking meters and voted to implement paid parking on July 10, 1941. But the wall technically belongs to Galveston County, and county officials were staunchly opposed to the city using it to generate revenue. They obtained a restraining order against both the city and the company hired for the meters’ installation, and an appellate court upheld the political maneuver until the City of Galveston acquiesced.

  Meanwhile, Sam and Rose Maceo decided to reinvent their restaurant on the water into a full scale dinner and dance club, with plans to make it outshine even the Hollywood Dinner Club. The pier of the Sui Jen was extended to a remarkable 600 feet out into the Gulf, and the Maceo brothers slated their grand re-opening for December of 1941. However the world had other plans.

  On December 7th, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. In one day, the United States went from sentimental supporter to country at war, and suddenly the Sui Jen’s Asian motif went from exotic and enticing to entirely anti-American.

  As the brothers pushed back their opening and hastened to fully redesign the club’s interior, the two military outposts on Galveston’s Seawall were undergoing modifications of their own. Previously dormant, and with no developments since the 1920s, Fort Crockett and Fort San Jacinto were instantly on active duty, and visitors were prohibited for the duration of the war.

  Fort Crockett was fortified with 100 foot watch towers, searchlights, ten- and twelve-foot gunneries, anti-aircraft batteries, and equipment for monitoring marine traffic.

  Aside from the slight delay for a change in theme, the Maceos were undeterred in their quest to reopen their new dinner club. They decided on a South Seas motif that incorporated golden palm trees, a large aquarium, and elaborate hand-painted murals that depicted native dancing girls and tropical beach scenes.

  The designer, Virgil Quadri, recommended that the club be renamed in accordance with its transformation, and the name he suggested was one that still today echoes through time as a hallmark of Galveston’s past. The Balinese Room opened on January 17, 1942. Despite numerous efforts by the Texas Rangers to raid the club, it would remain untouched and unrivaled for the next fifteen years.

  Mayor Harris was in the final year of his service to the city and despite his unsuccessful attempt to develop the East End Flats, in 1942 he launched other visionary ideas that did indeed take hold. The first was the creation of Stewart Beach, where his ideas of a full-service beach arena and entertainment area were fully realized. It debuted the following year, and included areas for surf-bathing, skating, tennis, surfboarding, dancing, and playground equipment.

  Harris was also the mastermind behind the original Pleasure Pier. In July of 1942 he announced his vision of a pier that extended far into the Gulf, where young people could go dancing and find other modern amusements. Construction began almost immediately.

  Even though Islanders were busy with their war-time lives that included price controls, gas and sugar rations, and scrap driving, they wholeheartedly embraced the continuation of Galveston’s commercial development. In fact, they saw it almost necessary, as the Island became a refuge and retreat for the military stationed in and around Galveston.

  Between 1942 and 1943, German U-Boats sunk 116 ships in the Gulf of Mexico, but this very real threat to the Texas coast did not deflate the city’s progress. Shockingly, neither did the establishment of Fort Crockett as a prisoner of war camp. In November of 1943, Galveston received its first detainees, 165 German troops from a North African conflict. At its peak, Fort Crockett housed 650 prisoners.

  Construction on the Pleasure Pier at 25th Street and Seawall was briefly interrupted for use as an air depot during the war, but at last it was presented to the public on June 15, 1944. Unfortunately, the hot, windowless, metal ballroom “drew little more than flies.” It was closed at the end of the summer, but its final fate was yet to be determined.

  The next year, the Hurricane of 1945 struck the Texas coast on August 28th and left behind major destruction between Galveston and Port Lavaca. Although it was directly hit, however, the Island city sustained only minor damage.

  Five days later, World War II ended, and the collective rejoicing over the conflict’s termination yet again invigorated the city’s commercial and municipal interests.

  As the city tried and failed one last time to pass a bond proposal for the East End Flats in January of 1946, it was also trying to decide what to do with the Pleasure Pier that had been vacant for nearly two years. A group of local businessmen stepped forward. W.L. Moody, Sam Maceo, and H.S. Autrey formed the Galveston Pier Corporation, and signed a ten year lease on the property.

  The Galveston Pier Company executed nearly $200,000 in improvements such as air conditioning and new carpet, drapes, and tables. When completed, the 1130 foot pier included a large aquarium, museum, fishing pier, an outdoor movie theater that could seat 1500 people, and a 36,000 square foot exhibition hall that included a ballroom and convention hall. The Pleasure Pier reopened on May 29, 1948, six years after the onset of its construction, and Galveston residents were more than pleased that the extraordinary vision was fulfilled.

  As the 1940s drew to a close, the raising of the East End Flats was finally completed with funds from the private landowners, the long defunct Crystal Palace was demolished to make way for new development, and parallel parking was permanently implemented along the Seawall which greatly eased traffic congestion on the boulevard.

  Most importantly, the magic of the Maceos had shielded the local population from yet another decade of woes. Wading through war, prisoners, and yet another hurricane, Islanders had taken it.

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