Ever since I was wee lad in the early 1950s, I was intrigued by the massive and interesting houses on Ocean Drive. I had no interest in WHO lived in them, since I had no conception at that time of individual wealth and prestige. So, these were nothing more than BIG, interesting houses to me.
One Ocean Drive house that always fascinated me was the one behind the green wrought iron fence at 1717 Ocean Drive at Del Mar Blvd.
It was not so much the house as it was the grounds of the place that were so intriguing…. and that magnificent, ornate, green iron fence.
In my younger days, the fence could be clearly seen all the way around the property, with a clear view of the house and the grounds of the estate.
The grounds were covered with palms and magnolia trees, exotic plants and flowers of every description, walkways and fountains...and a massive, glass arboretum that was bigger than my house!
In later years, I uncovered the mystery of this enchanting place.
In July of 1931, Mr. Frank Crook, owner of Port Compress Co. since 1924, paid $2,050 for the lot on Ocean Drive. (Today, the 1.4 acre lot is valued at $939,000).
In March of 1935, an $18,000 permit was issued for construction of the two story house.
Mr. Crook was married to the former Miss Marie Pease. Her father was Clark Pease, President of City National Bank, and former mayor of Corpus Christi (1910-1913).
The opening of the Port of Corpus Christi in 1926 made Mr. Crook's Port Compress a hugely successful and profitable business and made Mr. Crook a very wealthy man. But, his passion was not bales of cotton. It was the raising of exotic and rare plants and flowers.
Crook filled his yard with multiple varieties of trees and rare plants. Azaleas in great numbers first bloomed in Corpus Christi at the Crook house.
A pond was built specifically for the growing of giant Victoria Regia waterlilies, whose pads can reach a diameter of seven feet across.
At midnight on the night of August 21, 1954, family and friends gathered to watch a rare blooming of the giant lilies, which made headlines in the next morning's paper.
Mr. Crook's greenhouse was full of rare varieties of orchids (one variety named in his honor in 1956) and African violets. And during the 1940's and 50's, tours of the Crook greenhouse and grounds were popular with the city's garden clubs and civic groups.
The Crooks also hosted numerous teas and garden parties.
Mrs. Crook died on May 6, 1972 in her Ocean Drive house at the age of 79. Her husband continued living in the house and continued tending his plants.
In 1975, he became infuriated with the city when they broke a promise that they had made to him in the 1960’s.
He had gifted the city part of his property on the bay side of Ocean Drive when the city made plans to greatly expand Cole Park. The one condition that Crook demanded was that nothing would ever be built in the park directly in front of his house (impeding his view of the bay). The city must have been crossing its fingers when it agreed to his conditions because that was exactly where the Bicentennial Amphitheater was built in 1975! Crook called the amphitheater a “monstrosity and a disgrace”.
But….back to the magnificent green iron fence.
As I said earlier, in my youth the fence was clearly visible, all the way around the Crook property. Hurricane Celia in 1970 damaged a large part of the fence on the Naples Street side. Mr. Crook sold that portion of the fence to Lady Bird Johnson for use on the LBJ Ranch.
Mr. Frank Crook would die in December of 1980, and the house eventually sold.
Subsequent owners (for security and privacy, I suppose) planted vines along the perimeter of the fence. Eventually, the majestic fence would become, for the most part, completely hidden by the vines.
I considered it shameful to hide such a beautiful fence as that.
Then came the deep freeze of 2021.
The freeze was devastating for many outdoor plants and trees in CC….including the vines that covered that green fence on Ocean Drive.
Photographs that I took in July of 2021 show a fence covered with dead vines…..vines that will eventually have to be removed. If that happens, take the time to look at that fence. What you will be seeing is, perhaps, the oldest structure in Corpus Christi!
In a Bill Walraven interview with Mr. Crook in 1978, he talked about the history of the fence. He bought it in 1926 when the house it surrounded in New Orleans burned to the ground.
When he purchased the fence, it was already 176 years old! It was cast by Imden Iron Works of New Orleans in the year 1750! That’s 1750….twenty-six years BEFORE the Declaration of Independence!
Made from malleable iron, it is resistant to rust and corrosion, one reason why it has survived for this long. And, while the house and grounds of the old Frank Crook house are fascinating, the ancient wrought iron fence may just be the most interesting thing on the property.
Robert Parks is a special contributor to KRIS 6 News. Parks was a history teacher at Carroll High School for 19 years and is now retired. His knowledge of Corpus Christi history makes him a unique expert in the subject.