For decades the Seahorse Inn was an open secret perched high on a massive Port Aransas dune. From the mid-1950s through the ’90s, the secluded compound offered famous politicians, opera divas, and writers an off-the-beaten-path retreat. The inn also gave refuge to people skirting the margins of South Texas respectability: gay men and women, academics, and Democrats. Locals gossiped about the days-long parties that spilled from the social club down to the beach, the au naturel sunbathing, the queer design sensibility, and a kitchen that produced international cuisine beyond Southern-fried seafood platters.
The need for discretion, however, meant that much of the inn’s lore was shared only among tight social circles. Next to nothing has been written about this Texas legend, and most stories have been lost to time. For the record, here is mine:
As a graduate student at UT Austin in the early ’90s, I heard rumors of a gay-friendly beach hotel with a reputation for big characters and freewheeling parties. Intrigued and in need of some time away from the library stacks, I headed down to the coast.
The Seahorse Inn and Club Miyako, a beachside boutique hotel and dining club, was built by Jack Cobb in 1956. Cobb had helped build the family hospitality business, centered on tourist motor courts, in the years following the war. But his new concept was something much more ambitious: a smartly designed lodge and social club, boasting the island’s first swimming pool and most elegant dining room, all nestled unobtrusively within an undisturbed natural environment.
Over recent decades, design of the compound has been (controversially) attributed to O’Neil Ford, the father of Texas modernism. However, a search of the O’Neil Ford Papers at the Alexander Architectural Archives at the University of Texas reveals a different story. In one diary entry, Ford noted that he reviewed plans for the Seahorse that Jack Cobb drew up himself. Ford was taken by the accomplishment of the polished young Renaissance man, who held a music degree from North Texas State and a master’s in English from Columbia University. The plans for the lodge were impressive for an amateur; nonetheless, Ford expressed reservations. The architect who had created substantial beach compounds in the area for wealthy oil executives felt that Cobb’s extraordinary property, isolated atop one of the highest dunes on the coast, called for a grander design.
Although I had hoped my hours in the archives would clear up the long-standing controversy by proving once and for all that the inn was indeed designed by the master of Texas modernism, on reflection I realized that the truth jibed with the greater narrative of the Seahorse: that a young man, working outside the mainstream of professional architecture, created a space beloved by outsiders fits beautifully into the improbable history of the space.
Despite O’Neil Ford’s reservations regarding the design, the inn was an instant success. Early travel reviews were glowing, but perhaps also coded to suggest that something more than bird-watching was going on at this nature lodge. A 1957 Houston Chronicle review noted the contrast between the remote locale and the high style of the guests and service. Visitors could be assured of privacy and a mostly empty beachfront, because cars had to “rumble over three miles of a rickety one-way causeway and then board a ferry” before reaching the secluded destination outside of town. Once tucked away in the wild dunes, adventurous guests could “swim in a circular pool, have breakfast served poolside …. Romantics [could] go for a midnight splash in the ocean a short walk from their bedroom. On some evenings, special entertainment [was] brought in.” In 1957, The San Antonio Express News noted the unique sun terraces overlooking the ocean, a fine restaurant for gourmets, and the only wine-cellar bar for hundreds of miles.
A surprisingly camp review in the Amarillo Globe-Times (1960) reveled in the scene: an artsy, well-dressed, even “stunning” crowd that made it past the fish houses to mix at the cosmopolitan resort. “It’s another world: an adult, fashionable, sophisticated world.” Two women travelers, taking in the views from the great room, were written as foreign aesthetes and foils to the rustic wildness of the surroundings: “From behind plate glass it was a particularly chaotic bit of nature we were observing. ‘Absolutely breathtaking,’ the woman with an Eastern accent confided to her companion, ‘Breathtaking!’ Gathering from the conversation, she had been doing some painting earlier in the afternoon.”
The travel writer’s description of a standout male character bubbled over with innuendo: “One tall gentleman was alone — at least while we saw him — but he was dressed fit to kill: white shoes, white Bermuda socks, Bermuda shorts, a white plaid jacket and a flamboyant necktie that I wouldn’t attempt to describe. He was deeply suntanned and moved about the place effortlessly, ignoring everybody.”
As I climbed the steps up into the compound on my first visit, I had no idea I was entering the site of such a fashionable scene from years gone by. But the charming, if aging, boutique hotel seduced me. With no traditional grand entrance, I had to wander my way in, as if stumbling upon a secret garden. Texas sabal palms and birds of paradise set the mood, while shadowbox views of the Gulf, framed at the end of a long, latticed breezeway, compelled me to explore further. A beautiful garden room, where ferns mixed with outsider art looked out over a courtyard pool. No wonder the fabulous Seahorse was reportedly the main draw for the earliest Port Aransas Garden Club home tours.
I found the inn’s mid-century aesthetic — clean lines and indoor-outdoor living — crisply articulated, yet laid-back. The thoroughly modern space somehow felt timeless and familiar to me, a born-and-raised Texan. Vernacular Southwestern building forms like deep porches and cooling breezeways, ranch-style profiles, and an enclosed courtyard at the center placed me back in many old, familiar buildings. The natural cedar siding, Southern red-clay-colored bricks, reclaimed Texas swamp cypress, and discolored copper roofing softened the angular geometries while grounding the building firmly in South Texas.
The effects were also sensual. A walk along a brick lattice breezeway offered quick, sexy peeks into the pool courtyard where guests lounged or swam. Many of the guest rooms opened onto alluring, semi-private sunbathing patios. The reception area — a glassy garden room theatrically staged with rattan lounge chairs and a noisy parrot — was sultry and fecund.
Michael Robert, the proprietor at the time, welcomed me at a lovely antique reception desk cluttered with books. (Jack Cobb, upon his death in 1985, had bequeathed the inn to Michael, his partner.) After I complimented a unique orchid, Michael chatted with me about plants before offering a tour of the storied entertaining rooms and owner’s suite. The relaxed harmony of the exterior spaces did little to prepare me for the theater of the “main house.”
All rules of minimalism were put aside as Venetian chandeliers, gilded European antiques, and Asian ceramics took center stage. Here, the building receded into the background, more a display case for an eye-opening collection built from decades of world travels. A remarkable array of paintings, portraits, and traditional works on various media from Asia and the Middle East all mixed joyfully. And in the tradition of all artist salons, landscapes gifted by visiting painters added local color.
Artifacts from the post-Stonewall ’70s and ’80s — nude sketches, political statement pieces, a poster of gay icon Harvey Milk as a saint — cut the seriousness with cheeky irreverence. New Age crystals caught the coastal light in one window, and a colored glass bowl, looking like a grandmother’s candy dish, offered brightly packaged condoms. Michael relished my sense of wonder as I surveyed his cabinet of curiosities. He would casually drop lines like, “Oh, we picked that up in London.”
Club Miyako, as the dining and social club was originally christened, showed off an imported red marble fireplace and massive antique glass-fronted cabinetry holding crystal, French tea service sets, and random treasures. The club’s second floor had been lost to fire by the time of my visit, but the large windows of the dining room still offered lovely views of the illuminated pool and starry Texas skies.
In its heyday, the Seahorse famously hosted musical ensembles, opera divas, and a talented house piano player. The club, boasting floor-to-ceiling ocean views and a unique modernist take on the hearth, set a beautiful stage for Jack Cobb’s beloved Steinway, star of the most colorful Seahorse stories and legends. One oft-repeated story has a powerful hurricane sweeping the piano through a plate glass wall and into the pool.
Although there was no live piano my first night in Port A, The Cure and The Cranberries on a boombox provided a perfectly lovely soundtrack for a birthday party Michael insisted I crash. Canapés and good wine were served — at a Texas beach house! As the celebration wore on into the night, couples or new friends would wander down the dune path for night swimming.
The party scene at the inn was matched only by its political scene. One origination story included a young Hillary Clinton, working her first political campaign (McGovern ’72), stopping in when she crisscrossed South Texas. In later years, Michael Robert worked both the Ann Richards and Clinton/Gore campaigns — from the inn. Michael loved showing his prized photos taken with Lady Bird Johnson and Ann Richards, as well as the jokey driftwood “Governor’s Suite” sign he posted on occasions when “Ann” quietly escaped to the island for long nights of bridge and story-swapping.
Michael, a long-time Democrat and gay rights activist, generously funded many campaigns and served on the Texas Human Rights Foundation Board. He was an out-and-proud role model: When most individuals or businesses only donated anonymously to Texas gay rights organizations, Michael insisted that his full name, as well as the Seahorse Inn logo, be displayed prominently in any publications of the organizations he supported.
But perhaps his defining role was that of the movement’s Mrs. Madrigal. He enjoyed being photographed in black tie at Governor’s Mansion soirées, but he also put on an apron to cook festive holiday meals for Coastal Bend-area AIDS patients. He hosted progressive groups for parties and fundraisers while carrying on the queer tradition of infusing political action with joy, style, and comradery. Port A’s bon vivant was always fashionable, even while attending staid Austin political events, where he was known for pulling up in his Cadillac convertible.
Diane Hardy-Garcia, Executive Director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas (LGRL) in the ’90s, told me that Michael’s graciousness wasn’t simply frivolous: “His generosity to the movement — and to me personally — was very meaningful.”
Upon taking the LGRL position, Hardy-Garcia set out to achieve workplace protections and health benefits for partners who could not be legally married. However, just a few months into her term a wave of anti-gay violence swept the state. When several gay men were brutally murdered (by packs of armed teen boys or young adults), Hardy-Garcia knew the organization’s focus had to shift.
“But when we organized a press conference to raise awareness about a young man who was tortured before being murdered in Tyler,” Hardy-Garcia quietly remembered, “not one local elected official would show up or even publicly condemn the violence.” Supporting and consoling the victims’ families amid such trauma was emotionally draining. “I was just running on adrenaline when Michael invited me to the beach to recoup.” The two did talk strategy some, but her host insisted she take time for reflection and fun. “Michael told me I needed to take care of myself. And, of course, he was right.” Hardy-Garcia, staring down a long, brutal fight, had to learn to lean on friends and community to be the leader we all needed.
My own journey as an educator and activist took a left turn at the Seahorse. As I was smitten with the place, and Michael charged me a random “grad student rate,” I returned for writing retreats while completing my studies. One visit found me perseverating over my dissertation topic: either a noncontroversial, very marketable ed tech project or a cutting-edge ethnography exploring how gay youth used novels and films to navigate coming out. Years of investment in my Ph.D. gave me pause: Did I dare risk my employment chances in a ridiculously tight academic job market?
A discussion with a vacationing couple by the Seahorse pool convinced me to follow the more treacherous but consequential path. They both shared compelling stories of reading life-altering books at pivotal moments. But I will never forget how one of the men emotionally recalled a librarian who saved his life as a suicidal teen by recommending a series of books one summer. After hearing his story, I had no choice but to follow this inquiry further, and I remain grateful that the community I found at the Seahorse gave me the courage to do the right thing.
I could not know for sure if Jack Cobb’s vision for his resort included a great salon, but the design did indeed nurture community and conversation. The comfortable gathering spaces transitioned smoothly between public and private. Some views looked outward to the Gulf where inspiration might be found, while others focused inward to a safe enclave where individuals and a community were free to be themselves. Beautiful nooks and sunny patios abounded for quiet talks or serendipitous meetings. The unique, forward-looking design broke longstanding rules and suggested that we could as well.
Once I finally submitted my completed dissertation, I invited a friend to celebrate with me in Port A. On the drive down I told him that anything could happen at my Oz on the Beach. However, upon arrival, we were greeted with the shocking news that Michael Robert had been murdered by a troubled acquaintance. The person at the front desk did not volunteer much information, but years later I would learn that, when the attack took place, Michael was excited to be packing for the 1996 Democratic National Convention.
The new proprietor, set on attracting a more mainstream clientele, had changed the name to Belles Sea Inn and made clear that the main house was now solely a private residence. The most valuable art and antiques in the collection had been sent to Dallas for auction during probate, so the emptied club spaces would surely disappoint anyone who had experienced the once-grand interiors anyway. At check-in my friend and I were sternly warned — like teen boys arriving at church camp — against any public displays of affection or pool parties. The once-lively resort was eerily empty and completely joyless. We checked out early.
The new iteration of the inn struggled over the ensuing years. Marketing to a family demographic might not have taken off for Belles in part because the design of the compound was never really child-friendly. No discernible identity was constructed to replace the old parties-and-politics brand. Belles became nondescript — one of many, as the large tracts of ancient dunes surrounding the compound were sold off and developed. Blocky condos filled in the inn’s once-spectacular ocean views, and the dreamy beach path was paved over for a ridiculously oversized parking lot.
The Seahorse, and the beautiful people I met there so many years ago, faded to occasional warm memories, especially on gray winter days in New York, where I now live. But recently I have been reflecting more on those exhilarating but dangerous times. As reactionary politicians and clergy have once again fired up culture war rhetoric, book bans have swept the state. Predictably, violence has followed. This time the victims are more likely to be trans women and men, even schoolkids just trying to get through their day with access to a bathroom. I wonder about safe places where they might gather or beautiful parties where they could just be.
On a more hopeful note, my husband David and I are in the process of building a home in the Catskills, prompting a lot of thought and discussion about design choices of our favorite retreats. My mind has returned often to the queerly modernist beach house Jack Cobb built high on a dune and how it made me feel. We have been lucky to find a design firm — North River Architecture out of Stoneridge, New York — that champions a philosophy that honors the local, respects the environment, and designs for “emotional aliveness.” The passive solar home they are crafting for us will sit lightly on the edge of an escarpment, intimately connected to the natural and built history of the surrounding mountains.
Recently I shared my memories of The Seahorse with the current Belles owner, Andy Taubman, who graciously invited me down for a visit. As I made my way up the steep drive to the top of the dune — for the first time in 25 years — I was taken aback. The rush of memories and emotions, elicited by a building, caught me off guard. Although Hurricane Harvey had devastated so much of the island in 2017, this midcentury classic miraculously held her ground — and on sand, no less. Walkways are cracked; the impressive plant collection is no more; and midcentury furnishings in the guest rooms are long gone. But the small pool area is still uniquely inviting, and in many other ways the 70-year-old dame has still got it.
This legacy building remains largely intact because it was constructed sans false architecture, with quality materials and a healthy respect for the environment. The compound is a proven model for climate resilience. Built high and employing buffering dunes for protection, the inn presciently pioneered Texas xeriscaping. To this day, native plantings — hardy succulents, sea grasses, and sunflowers — blanket the seaward side of the massive dune, offering the stabilization of deep roots. By contrast, more recent, disposable developments close by have bulldozed the dunes, built on low, flattened lots, and planted shallow lawns and fussy exotics.
Because the compound was built to last — the solid brick interior walls aren’t going anywhere anytime soon — modifications over the years have been kept to a minimum. Thankfully, the steep site is now outfitted with ADA-compliant ramps. Tile showers have been covered with one-piece vinyl kits, and French doors have replaced some glass walls and sliders. Rare, native pecky cypress ceilings were removed in response to guests fretting over the natural holes in the wood. (“Our room has termites!”) Perhaps most telling: the sexy sun lounges for couples were replaced with family-friendly kitchenettes. However, the gist of the original design remains, making historically mindful restoration and upkeep both doable and warranted.
The inn is in good hands with Taubman and staff. The current manager, Patsy Martin, grew up in Port Aransas knowing the Seahorse in headier days. Patsy is a keen Texas storyteller, with many gems to share: “They wanted everyone to feel special, treated to linen on the table and cut crystal glasses,” or, “You didn’t know how someone might show up at the pool: maybe in a Japanese kimono or sometimes next to nothing!” Her love for the place is as contagious as her laugh.
Taubman and Martin embrace the inn’s history and are set on sprucing up the weathered beauty for a new generation. Ideas include a retro pool bar concept to bring back some of the old Club Miyako mystery and glamour.
I love the vision of employing history to entice an adventurous, artsy crowd back to Port Aransas. Highballs served around the vintage pool with Nancy Sinatra on stereo would surely sell. My husband and I would be the first to reserve a room for a few weeks each winter! But such a scene could be about more than mod design drag. Modernist ideals — experimenting with new ways to live and create — have been intertwined with the project of queering culture from the beginning of both movements. This historic site makes those connections visible and concrete.
A long float in the warm pool to close my visit brought home for me the continuing relevance of our disappearing countercultural enclaves. Within the protected courtyard, a sense of calm washed over me, as it had decades ago. My vision, framed and directed upward, took in the wide-open Texas skies animated by massive Gulf clouds drifting by. I felt free. Reflecting on my journey since my first visit, I breathed in gratitude for a simple truth: Like the inn, I am still here. I finally popped the cork on that dissertation celebration and toasted the big-hearted people who came before and made my gay life imaginable.
I was, alas, alone at the inn that afternoon. But visions of the storied pool — alive again with larger-than-life characters, smart conversation, community organizing, maybe a vintage soundtrack heavy on The Cranberries — were easy to conjure. This one-of-a-kind place, so evocative of emotion, history, and resilience, should be saved and valued. Movements are emerging to document and preserve both sites of LGBTQ history and exemplars of modernist design. I believe the improbable salon on the Texas dunes should long be remembered as among the most life-affirming and stylish.
Rob Linné, Ph.D., is a professor of education and cultural studies at Adelphi University, New York.
This is absolutely a wonderful story. I have done a lot of research about the Seahorse Inn, Jack Cobb and Michael Robert. Rob Linne has written a masterful account of the inn and its contribution to Port Aransas and LGBTQ people of the Corpus Christi Bay Area and like-minded tourists. He was the right author to tell this story that was in danger of being lost to time.
What a wonderful “story”….so artfully and compassionately written….of a beautiful and unforgettable time in PA! My, how I miss those days. I am O’Neil Ford’s eldest daughter and spent many times visiting the Seahorse off and on during the years! Your writing is not only helpful, it expresses so much about “the way we were”! Thank you…Thank you!!!!!! Many blessings….Wandita Ford Turner
I spent a lot of my childhood at the Seahorse Inn and knew Jack and Michael,as they were friends of my mom. Very well written. I thoroughly enjoyed this.
My partner Suzi Boyd and I Vickie Ellison bought the Seahorse Inn in 1997 from Michael Robert’s trust. Suzi passed in 2009. I kept the Inn until 2015. Sold it to Andy. It was a wonderful place. I miss it every day.
Exactly how do I find the Inn? I’ve been going to Port A for 74 years and have never even heard about
this place. I would love to just visit and see the setting. Please respond. I am a property owner now
in Port A. Thanks.
I’ve written a screenplay based on this historical inn.. I first visited the Inn when I was 14, with my aunt. I revisited it when turned 60 plus..funny how things change and stay the same.. I base the screenplay on Jack”s love of art and him wanting to build an art colony. I’m in the process of rewriting this project….thanks for the helpful insights…the Good Jim Jones…
I love this story so much. Such a beautiful place.
This is such a fantastic piece – so full of history and love. Thank you!
You can find the website here: http://www.bellesseainn.com/