Las Reliquias (Part 1): Casa de la Corte and the Last Man on Franklin Street

Windowless, roofless, doorless, its walls crumbling and shrouded in undergrowth like ancient ruins swallowed by a jungle, it hunkers on a hillside in the shadow—literally—of massive county government buildings under the courthouse bluff.

You might call it “Casa de la Corte.” This shell of a house stands today as one of the few remains of the barrio La Corte (“the Court”), where a Hispanic community lived a century ago along the river on the northwestern fringe of downtown.

And like much of Fort Worth history, Casa de la Corte gives us more questions than answers.

But maybe with a little urban archeology we can come up with a few facts and even one theory about the ruins.

Casa de la Corte stands on a terrace cut into the side of what once was called “Franklin Hill” because Franklin Street ran down the hillside under the bluff from the north end of Houston Street west to a bridge that crossed the river to Courthouse Avenue (White Settlement Road).

Today Franklin Street along the bluff has been replaced by a sidewalk that runs east to west behind the county parking garage. The terrace runs parallel to and below the sidewalk. The yellow dot locates Casa de la Corte north of the parking garage. (This Google satellite photo mislocates Franklin Street. The yellow line shows the path of Franklin Street.)

Casa de la Corte has two levels. Today both floors are littered with clothing, blankets, food containers, and other detritus left behind by temporary residents who sought shelter within the four walls of Casa de la Corte even though it put no roof over their head.

One temporary resident left behind a pair of shoes.

The floors of the house are concrete. The walls—interior as well as exterior—are made of concrete, stone, and brick. Some of the exterior walls are twenty inches thick. This house was built by someone who knew his way around a trowel and hod.

Only the roof of Casa de la Corte was wooden, and it has been gone since at least 1990.

Mi casa es tu casa: Nature, who abhors a vacuum, has invited itself in to stay a while.

This view looks through a window on the east wall, through a doorway in the interior wall, and through a window on the west wall.

The terrace of La Corte has two retaining walls. The top wall (shown) is concrete, stone, and brick; the bottom wall is dry-fit stone and brick.

The terrace also has two sets of concrete steps. The top set connects the terrace to the sidewalk where Franklin Street once was and passes to the east of Casa de la Corte.

The bottom set of steps connects the terrace to the river bottom.

At the bottom of the top set of steps is a landing that includes Thurber bricks. (The triangle contains the letters BT, and T for “Brick, Tile and Terra Cotta Workers’ Alliance.”)

Poking around in the undergrowth that covers the terrace, I found the ruins of four houses made of concrete, stone, and brick. Casa de la Corte is by far the most complete, but it is flanked by less prominent ruins: two on the east and one on the west.

This cubbyhole is in a wall of a ruin on the east.

This is the ruin on the west: a floor and a wall.

The yellow arrow on this 1956 aerial photo points at Casa de la Corte.

E electric power plant
PV Paddock Viaduct
C courthouse
CJB Criminal Justice Building
RAP Ripley Arnold Place (see below)
S electric substation

Note that the photo shows at least three houses behind the houses on the terrace along Franklin Street. Those three houses probably were below the terrace level and were reached from the terrace by the bottom set of steps. I found no ruins of those three houses.

Indeed, city directories show that some lots in the 300 block of Franklin Street, such as 310, had more than one residence. The addresses of the rear residences had a letter suffix appended to their number (as in 310b and 310d in the 1952 city directory below).

So, you ask, what is the history of La Corte barrio with its concrete ruins?

Historian Carlos E. Cuellar in Stories from the Barrio: A History of Mexican Fort Worth says La Corte was Fort Worth’s second barrio. It grew out of an earlier enclave known as “Battercake Flats,” which was populated mostly by poor African Americans with some poor whites at the beginning of the twentieth century. Franklin Street was the main drag—albeit unpaved—of Battercake Flats. The enclave was located between West Belknap Street and the river from the courthouse bluff west to beyond the confluence of the two forks. Most of the land was prone to flooding. Most houses were shanties. There were few city services. Disease was a problem. And crime. Police officers patrolled Battercake Flats in pairs.

According to the Star-Telegram, the Daughters of Isabella founded the first Mexican mission in Fort Worth in 1912 in Battercake Flats at Franklin and Bridge streets, although the 1914 city directory shows that Franklin Street had no Hispanic-surnamed residents.

But by 1920 people of Hispanic heritage made up about 3 percent of Fort Worth’s population.

Like many outgroups—African Americans, Irish, Slavs—Fort Worth’s Hispanics formed enclaves—barrios—for mutual support.

Cuellar says Fort Worth’s first barrio, called “Little Mexico,” was located on the southeastern side of downtown in Hell’s Half Acre. The Star-Telegram in a 1923 article about police beats in the enclaves called Little Mexico “the romantic beat” “where dreamy, dark-eyed senoritas with gay colored mantillas haunt near beer ‘cantinas.’”

Cuellar locates two more barrios: El TP near the Texas & Pacific railyard west of downtown and La Loma near Meacham Field.

Historian Kenneth N. Hopkins in “The Early Development of the Hispanic Community in Fort Worth and Tarrant County, Texas, 1849-1949” locates two early barrios near major employers: the stockyards on the North Side and the steel mill on Hemphill Street on the South Side.

Hispanics also worked as barbers, tailors, shoemakers, wood choppers, stonemasons, teamsters, and food vendors.

By the 1920s the makeup of Battercake Flats was changing. It was becoming more Hispanic, as shown by the 1925 city directory. Hispanics lived on the alley (abbreviated “AL”) of the 400 block of West Bluff Street just south of Franklin Street.

Likewise, in 1923 most of the residents of Franklin Street had Hispanic surnames. Battercake Flats was becoming La Corte. La Corte had two levels, Cuellar says: an upper level (el barrio de arriba) and a lower level (el barrio de abajo). On the lower level were several wood yards where barrio residents bought wood for stoves and fireplaces. Many residents of La Corte, Cuellar writes, worked at downtown eating and drinking establishments. La Corte also had its own resident curandero (natural healer).

Note in particular one resident of Franklin Street in 1923: Bonifacio Maldonado at 328 Franklin Street. (Later city directories show the last house in the 300 block to be 310, so the addresses apparently were renumbered after 1923.)

By 1930 Maldonado was living at 401 Franklin, just on the other side of the electric substation from today’s ruins of Casa de la Corte. Maldonado and wife Rosaria were born in Guanajuato, Mexico and came to the United States with their children in 1913. Living with them in 1930 were son Jesus (“Jesse”) Maldonado and daughter-in-law Carmen. Jesse had married Carmen Arteaga in 1925.

By 1930 Bluff Street was still mostly Hispanic but with several non-Hispanic surnames.

By 1941 Bonifacio (“Barney”) Maldonado and Rosaria and Jesse and Carmen were living in two houses at 304 Franklin with two other family members. Bonifacio was a carpenter; son Jesse was a laborer.

The 1941 city directory shows that the address of the electric substation was 320 Franklin. The last house on the block was 310, indicating that an empty lot acted as a buffer between the substation and the house at 310. By my calculation, 310 Franklin was the ruin (W) to the immediate west of Casa de la Corte (C), making the address of Casa de la Corte 308. That would make 304 Franklin, where the Maldonados lived in 1941, one of the ruins east of Casa de la Corte at 308. But notice that there was no 308 Franklin in 1941.

Ah, but there was by 1945. And who lived there?

Jesse Maldonado. (Photo from Find-A-Grave.)

And what was Jesse Maldonado’s occupation by 1945?

He was a cement (concrete) contractor. Who lived, if my calculation is correct, in Casa de la Corte, a house made of concrete, brick, and stone. With concrete houses on either side of his. And two sets of concrete steps. And retaining walls made of concrete, stone, and brick. In a poor neighborhood were such sturdily built houses were rare.

By 1945 the Maldonados certainly had a work crew capable of building such houses: Living side by side were two carpenters, a cement contractor, and a cement worker. (Tuno may have been Jesse and Bruno’s brother Fortunato.)

If Jesse Maldonado indeed built the concrete houses of La Corte, he almost certainly built them to house himself and his extended family but perhaps also to rent for income. Because Franklin Street no longer exists, its deed records are not available to give us clues.

The concrete houses of La Corte may have replaced earlier wood-frame houses of Battercake Flats.

The Maldonado houses are better situated than most in Battercake Flats and later La Corte. The terrace was on higher ground than the river bottom in the days before the Corps of Engineers floodway project of the 1950s straightened and widened the river channel. In 1935 Reverend G. A. Walls (see Part 2) of the Mexican Presbyterian Mission reported that the homes of Hispanics in the lowlands of La Corte had been flooded.

By 1952 only seven houses on Franklin Street (three of them on one lot) were occupied—all by people with Hispanic surnames. Jesse Maldonado was still living at 308 Franklin Street.

The barrio was shrinking. In 1941 the federal Ripley Arnold Place public housing project had taken some of La Corte.

And by 1953 the sprawling Leonard’s Department Store parking lot had displaced the barrio from Taylor Street west. The Leonard’s shuttle buses passed Casa de la Corte (red dot) on Franklin Street.

By 1957 only Jesse Maldonado and Earl Hammond remained on Franklin Street to watch the buses pass.

By 1968 Jesse Maldonado himself was a reliquia: the last occupant of Franklin Street, alone among the concrete houses he probably built. He had lived at 308 Franklin from at least 1945 to at least 1968. His family had lived in La Corte at least forty-five years.

Tomo Jesus (“Jesse”) Maldonado, the cement contractor who may have built the concrete reliquias of La Corte, died in 1982 and is buried in Laurel Land Cemetery.

(This just in: “BrendaPW” at Family Search.org confirms that Jesse Maldonado built Casa de la Corte. The house originally had three floors. The kitchen and dining room were on the middle floor. A wooden staircase (now gone) connected the middle and top floors. BrendaPW also confirms that Maldonado built the retaining walls and steps. He sold the property to the city shortly before his death.)
(Thanks to Mike Wegner for his help.)

Las Reliquias (Part 2): Mexican Presbyterian Church

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