Military Architecture

By: Willard B. Robinson

Type: General Entry

Published: May 1, 1995

Updated: October 6, 2016

The settlement of Texas, like the colonization of other territories, was inevitably accompanied by conflict between existing inhabitants and nations competing to occupy the lands. Consequently, both civilians and soldiers often found forts to be essential to their endeavors, first to occupy the land, then to secure settled territories against aggression. In the wilderness of Texas, Spanish colonists applied knowledge of the European art of fortification. Several presidios established to protect missions, which themselves were fortified simply with either palisades or stone walls, reflected the Renaissance practice of building enclosing walls upon geometrical plans. At the salient angles of these enclosures were built bastions, triangular configurations with flanks designed to facilitate defense of the enclosing walls. However, while theory was based upon art, construction was of primitive wood, adobe, or stone, and so nothing remains of the early works. Representative was Nuestra Señora del Pilar de los Adaes Presidio, established in 1721 near Robeline, Louisiana, at a site then in Texas (see LOS ADAES). This wooden presidio was laid out on a hexagonal plan with bastions at alternate angles of the enclosure. In Mexican Texas, military works were thrown up by authorities to control the illegal entrance of people and goods. On plans somewhat in the spirit of Spanish works, they were also impermanently constructed of timber. They were, however, sometimes more massive, designed to resist attacks supported by cannon. At Velasco, for example, was a defensive work consisting of two rows of logs six feet apart, with an earth fill between the timbers.

After Texas independence, the poverty of the republic forced isolated civilians to provide many of their own works of defense, although the government apparently did erect some temporary works. Utilizing techniques employed by frontiersmen in other regions of the United States, settlers set up stockades forming rectangular enclosures sometimes with blockhouses at the corners. These are epitomized by Coleman's Fort (Fort Colorado), a stockaded work with two-story cabins at diagonal corners erected in 1836 near Austin. Upon the admission of Texas to the Union, the United States Army assumed the responsibility of defending the frontiers of the state. Both before and after the Civil War, several forts were established to protect settlements, roads, and borders. Chains of forts were built along frontier lines. However, since Indians of the West ordinarily did not attack military establishments, these forts consisted simply of open complexes of buildings located on sites near water, pasture, fuel, and building materials. Commonly, buildings were placed formally around a parade with officers' row on one side and quarters for enlisted men on the other. Since it was generally recognized that most of the posts were only temporary-in use only until unfriendly Indians were controlled-buildings were usually built with log or adobe walls and board or thatched roofs. In some instances, however, as at Fort McKavett, established in 1852, and Fort Concho, established in 1867, walls were durably built of stone. Fort Davis (Jeff Davis County), established in 1854, is representative of the Texas posts built around a parade. Officers' quarters lined one side of the parade and barracks buildings the opposite side. At one end was a chapel, at the other a sutler's store. Stables and storehouses were placed behind the barracks. A hospital, built according to an official plan issued by the United States Surgeon General's Office, was isolated behind officers' row. Both adobe and stone were used for construction. Although the forts built to provide bases for Indian control were ordinarily without fortifications, Fort Brown, near the mouth of the Rio Grande, was provided with earthworks as defenses to resist attacks by enemies armed with cannons. Fort Brown was established in 1846 and by the time of the Civil War had six bastioned fronts.

Meanwhile, consistent with national policy during the nineteenth century, a program for the defense of the Texas seacoast was initiated. At Galveston, before the Civil War, work was begun on thick masonry-walled forts designed to secure the city permanently against naval attacks by foreign nations. However, the war interrupted progress, and the works were never completed. Artillery with unprecedented power for destruction proved the designs obsolete. Nonetheless, the defense of the maritime frontier was considered vital to national security. During the 1890s at Galveston, massive reinforced concrete fortifications were built to protect mortars, heavy rifles, and rapid-firing guns installed to defend against attacks from armed ships. These fortifications were considered adjuncts to national defense through World War II. Today, however, air power has made these obsolete.

In the twentieth century a number of posts founded in the nineteenth century were enlarged and continued in service. Fort Bliss, originally established in 1848, was moved to a new site in 1893 and developed on an orderly plan characteristic of many older posts. As was common, buildings with red brick walls were constructed around a parade ground, although the post was expanded far beyond this. Fort Clark, established in 1852 and developed with stone buildings formally sited, also continued to serve twentieth-century needs. In addition, Fort Sam Houston, established in 1870 on land donated by the city of San Antonio and developed around a quadrangle with a large tower in the center, was expanded a number of times during the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century with numerous buildings of functional design. In 1928 a major program of construction was undertaken to expand the base, and in 1938 a large hospital was completed. These and other posts were self-contained communities.

Also noteworthy in the twentieth century was the establishment of a number of air force bases. In 1928 construction was begun on Randolph Field near San Antonio (see RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE). The initial plan was of a square periphery enclosing concentric circular streets, the whole recalling a Renaissance city plan. The administration building and officers' club occupy a central point. From these, streets radiate outward across the circular streets. On outer rectangular blocks are such buildings as barracks, hangars, and shops, all surrounding the circular street layout. Randolph Field was developed with attractively designed buildings situated along landscaped boulevards. The first buildings were built with Spanish character related to Southwest culture. The administration building, with Moorish details, and chapel, in Spanish Renaissance Revival style, are outstanding. In contrast, Kelly Field (see KELLY AIR FORCE BASE), established in 1917, was on a linear plan with buildings arranged along streets parallel to the runway. The one-story, functional, and efficient, buildings reflected World War I expediency.

World War II prompted the establishment of several United States Army Air Corps training fields. Among these were fields for pilots trained by civilian instructors. These installations, designed by civilian architects and built by civilian contractors, were formally planned. Representative was Gibbs Field, established in 1942 near Fort Stockton. The plan called for an axial road extending from a highway through an access loop to an operations building. The access loop provided communication to quarters, barracks, hospital, and other buildings, all with frame walls and located around a drill field. Hangars flanked the operations building on two sides. Corsicana, Ballinger, Hillsboro, and Sweetwater were also among cities with such training bases. Army Air Corps training fields were located at Lubbock, Midland, Wichita Falls, San Angelo, San Marcos, and Houston. However, while the large hangars were noteworthy structurally, other buildings at these bases possessed little architectural interest. Some of the state's historic forts have been preserved, partially restored, and are interpreted for public benefit. Among these are Fort Davis, Fort Concho, and Fort McKavett.

Herbert M. Hart, Old Forts of the Southwest (Seattle: Superior, 1964). William Curry Holden, "Frontier Defense, 1846–1860," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 6 (1930). Willard B. Robinson, American Forts (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977). Willard B. Robinson and Todd Webb, Texas Public Buildings of the Nineteenth Century (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974).


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May 1, 1995
October 6, 2016