Before the Harborwalk we know today, it was called Flamingo Isles.
S H O R E T H I N G
JOHN MECOM’S FLAMINGO ISLES WAS ONE OF THOSE GRAND PROJECTS THAT COULDN’T FAIL. BUT IT DID.
BY BRUCE C. WEBB I PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHULA ROSS SANCHEZ
IMAGINATION AND AN EXTRAVAGANCE of scale often seem to pump up the dreams of developers working the Gulf Coast. In a state so vast, hot and mostly dry, the Texas coast seems like the gold coast,especially when it’s only an hour’s drive away from the state’s largest city. Big dreams die hard, but every abandoned project isn’t simply a case of a failed business deal. Sometimes a plan is so audacious that by itself it should qualify as a work of conceptual art. The biggest, most grandiose and in many ways strangest development scheme for the Texas Gulf coast was Flamingo Isles, a project that Houston oilman John Mecom came up with in the 1960’s.
Mecom personified the Zeitgeist of those prosperous years: He assembled a 3,446 acre site in Hitchcock, just across West Bay from Galveston, and began to plan a city that he hoped would eventually accommodate 30,000 to 100,000 people. Details are sketchy and difficult to locate, but the original plans called for something like 20 miles of slips designed to accommodate some 5,000 boats,There were to be yacht clubs, a country club with an 18-hole golf course, and an executive-jet airport with a 7,000-foot runway —along with several major hotels, motels and an assortment of apartments, townhouses and family cottages. But this was only for starters. On October 9, 1966, the Galveston News reported on plans for high-rise business towers, apartments, retirement homes, schools, churches, and (of course) extensive recreation facilities.
More novel features included an amusement park called The Landing,described on the site plan as an amalgamation of New Orleans’ French Quarter, Six Flags and Disneyland. Mecom had purchased the monorail from the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and rumors floated that he planned to install it as a bay crossing between Flamingo Isle and Galveston’s West End. When that proved unworkable he promised instead cable cars that would also link to a chain of air conditioned off-shore fishing platforms. Several of the futuristic cars from the monorail lay idly rusting along Highway 6 near Hitchcock for many years.
Construction on the huge project began in earnest in 1966 with an army of “Mecom blue” bulldozers digging, dredging, and building roads. But by 1969, with expenses mounting and the investment turn-around point nowhere in sight, Mecom walked away from the project, leaving behind a modern archaeological site that included as its centerpiece a landscape of alternating concentric circular bands of built-up land and canals — land that was to have hosted the first residential development.
From the air the maze-like figure resembles a vast Robert Smithson earth work or one of those enigmatic earth markings that New Age gonzos interpret as evidence of ancient aliens. Five houses were constructed for the five utility directors, and an octagonal house was built for the harbormaster. A huge pink-and-blue Flamingo Isles sign located along Highway 6 remained long after Mecom had given up. Over the years, it lost several of its letters, and recently was torn down.
After lying fallow more than 30 years, the Flamingo Isles property is currently being developed by Watkins Properties of League City as a considerably more modest 700-lot master planned community called Harborwalk. But before the new developers had razed the few extant buildings and toppled the Flamingo Isles sign, University of Houston graduate architecture student Chula Ross Sanchez and her husband, Ramon, began visiting the site by boat. Their photographs depict the uncanny atmosphere of a big dream in ruins, recording a moment in extremis before the new developers began to chase the ghosts away.
From SHORE THING