Those with a vivid imagination can close their eyes and envision what it must have been like three-quarters of a century ago when World War II was underway. There would have been the syncopated thrum of marching soldiers doing close order drill and the sharp, shouted commands of men training on anti-aircraft guns. A military train huff-huffs across the base toward the depot, bringing supplies for the 10,000 GIs and civilians living and working here.

Off to another side, there’s the unmistakable but unexpected sound of German being spoken — hundreds of POWs being detained at the camp. Floating silently above all this, like something out of a dream, a silvery blimp glides by, on its way to patrol for U-boats in the nearby Gulf of Mexico …

Today, this is the site of the University of Houston Coastal Center (UHCC), a remarkable research facility the size and significance of which seems to be matched by the lack of awareness of it by the public and, for that matter, the University community. Even those quite familiar with all things UH often find themselves flummoxed by references to the “UHCC.”

Despite its intriguing background and considerable potential, the UHCC has remained a little known and relatively under-utilized resource for nearly four decades. Now, there are those who hope to bring about change.

Located about 35 miles down the Gulf Freeway from the main UH campus, the center occupies nearly 1,000 acres where the historic Camp Wallace military installation once stood. In operation since the early 1970s, the UHCC has been tasked with supporting environmental research on the Texas coast by providing UH (and other) researchers access to field sites, equipment and facilities. Scientific activities include studies of air quality and micrometeorology, geophysics, invasive species and prairie ecosystems, climate change and wetland ecology. The UHCC also seeks to broaden public awareness about science and the environment by supporting outreach activities with public groups and educational activities. More importantly, perhaps, it enjoys the distinction of being one of the country’s premier preserves for exemplary coastal prairie grass.

UH acquired this large parcel in the 1960s after the federal government declared the post-military land surplus and, in effect, donated it to the University. At the time, some envisioned it as a suitable site for the UH System institution planned for this general vicinity. However, that campus — UH-Clear Lake — was eventually built closer to Johnson Space Center. So, in the early 1970s, UH established a coastal research center here instead. Glenn Aumann, a young professor of ecology and animal behavior newly arrived at UH, was named director — a position he held from 1971 to 2010, keeping the center going about its business in a steady, if unspectacular, fashion.

After that, Steve Pennings, a professor in the Department of Biology and Biochemistry, assumed the director duties with Professor Barry Lefer, of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, serving as assistant director.

On a crisp Saturday morning, Pennings is showing me around the place. In the car, we follow the crumbly but still serviceable patchwork of asphalt roads that crisscross the acreage. Quickly, we find ourselves in the back brush, surrounded by overgrown trees and shrubs on both sides of the road.

“Parts of this place are still pretty rough,” Pennings says, with a mixture of apology and pride.

He’s taking me to see two of the more prominent remnants of the Camp Wallace days. Here is the foundation of the large movie house. On the sloping concrete floor, you can see where row after row of seats were once anchored, accommodating audiences of servicemen enjoying Betty Grable and John Wayne. Farther along, Pennings points out massive pillars and beams, part of the central depot where troop and supply trains arrived and departed. Even shrouded by the abundant brush, their size is impressive.

Here and there are chalky pockets of crushed oyster shell, remnants of parking lots and walkways from the military encampment. While Pennings and others at the center make use of them as a ready source of landscaping material, the biologist in him would just as soon not have it here. The calcium from the shells leaches into the soil and plays havoc with the pH. But trying to excavate and remediate all that is a herculean task. The impact of 10,000 people and 400 buildings at Camp Wallace had a severe impact on this land — and the center routinely finds itself fighting a rearguard action trying to ameliorate those lingering effects. Chinese tallow trees, once widely planted to provide quick growth and shade, ran amok and, as an invasive species, compromised much of the valued native habitat. Reclaiming it is a major undertaking … and, for the most part, not undertaken.

“OK, slow down,” Pennings says, “it’s right about … here.”

We’ve come upon a scraped-out cavity that’s been transformed into a fair-sized pond.

“Had an alligator calling that home for a while,” Pennings recalls. The wildlife at the center comes and goes, but usually includes coyotes, bobcats, feral hogs, armadillos and, of course, birds, all manner of birds. By rough count, there are also about 400 species of plants and 600 species of insects.

We swing by a couple of unobtrusive oil and gas drilling operations — they’re privately leased, and UH doesn’t own the mineral rights — and Pennings says off-handedly, “Maybe we should get our petroleum engineering students out here for some practical experience.”

After touring the center’s rustic back 40, we circle back to what amounts to the Spartan facility’s base of operations, where most of the long-term research activities have been set up. Across from a big, banked drainage channel that runs through much of the property are a couple of 200-foot high micrometeorology towers and a support trailer that transmits the collected air quality data, serving as part of H-NET (Houston Network of Environmental Towers). There are also four peculiar barrel-shaped devices that regularly produce loud whirling, whistling audio signals that project into the air, helping Lefer and colleagues analyze ozone, pollution and other atmospheric characteristics.

Director Pennings at the scruffy metal building that serves as the center’s base of operations

Over there, Professor Rob Stewart, director of the Allied Geophysical Lab at UH, has drilled a pair of 430-foot-deep wells into the coastal soil, accommodating various monitoring instruments. He and his students have been investigating well-logging and seismic issues. Also making good use of this special resource, earth and atmospheric sciences’ Bob Wang has established four real-time, high-rate GPS stations as part of a larger network that analyzes regional subsidence.

At the heart of the center is a squat, metal building, constructed in the 1970s and clearly showing its age. It serves as a combination lab, classroom and administrative office. Aerial photos of the property from different eras are thumbtacked to the walls, and cluttered shelving holds jars, boxes, beakers and gizmos.

“This place really needs to be fixed up,” Pennings says; then explains continuing challenges in getting that funded.

Along with the longer term projects like the towers and wells, the center hosts a parade of other researchers and scholars, not all from UH. (Non-UHers pay a nominal use fee.) A University of New Mexico researcher is maintaining plots of sunflowers, part of a study about how hybridization between related species accelerates the evolutionary process. Professor Evan Siemann from Rice University and his collaborators in China are using the UHCC to understand the rapid spread of invasive Chinese tallow and methods to restore sites invaded by it. Two years ago, San Jose State researchers set the place on fire — under controlled conditions — to study how wildfires move across a prairie. And there’s a steady procession of UH graduate students drawing on the center’s resources for their theses and dissertations.

While those various research projects are significant, UHCC’s most valuable resource may well be the land it sits on. About 300 acres are coastal tallgrass prairie, a highly endangered habitat, with less than one tenth of one percent remaining nationwide. Today, such swards are few and far between, and the particular strains of grass at UHCC are among the best specimens extant. What’s growing here is virtually the same as what covered vast areas of this region centuries ago.

A greenhouse is one of several research amenities.

“I’m told this is the highest quality coastal prairie in the country,” Pennings says. “This central area, we’re pretty sure, has never even been plowed.”

To those passionately interested in recovery projects, the UHCC grass is highly prized. As a community service and ecological commitment, UH allows the seeds from this pristine patch to be harvested by the Native American Seed company (for a small percentage of the modest proceeds) then made available to organizations and individuals engaged in prairie restoration and native plant projects all across the country.

“We mow the grass each year,” Pennings explains, recreating the natural wear and tear it experienced by grazing herds of buffalo two centuries ago. In the spring, they let it flourish and it comes flowering back with a vengeance, tall and sturdy and beautiful.

A little less than a third of the UHCC acreage is devoted to the precious prairie grass. Pennings and others would love to considerably expand that. But, reclaiming the prairie from the scrubby, insistent forest that has overgrown it then re-establishing the coastal grass would be arduous, requiring a lot of muscle and money. The center is short on both.

Maybe, someone suggests, each Greek fraternity and sorority chapter at UH could sponsor its own 10-acre plot, clearing the land and planting the grass. Pennings smiles and says, “Hey, we’re open to anything. Have them give me a call.”

He’s joking, but not completely. In recent years, as UH has worked ambitiously to achieve Tier One status as a research university, there has been speculation the low-key UHCC might be measured against a new benchmark and perceived by some as impractical.

Planning improvements, architecture students tour the property

“We’ve been trying to expand the research and ramp up the courses offered out here,” Pennings says, quietly but with clear meaning.

Fortunately, a significant effort is already underway to improve the center and raise its profile.

Patrick Peters, the professor with the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture who oversees a well-known Design/Build class, isn’t exactly the cavalry riding to the rescue, but may be the next best thing.

Each year, Peters’ student group designs and constructs projects for regional nonprofit organizations, giving the students an invaluable opportunity to see their ideas evolve from concept to construction. The UH Coastal Center has captured his imagination, and Peters has committed his class’ expertise and enthusiasm to helping enhance the facility.

“The Coastal Center is an intriguing place, one with a compelling history that begins with its former Native American inhabitants, extends through its use as Camp Wallace during WWII and, now, as a center of advanced research to support our highest aspirations for sustainable research and education,” Peters says. “There’s something very special about that. We’re lucky to have this place.”

With that in mind, Peters and his talented students are now designing a master plan for the center, analyzing the existing features and offering proposals for what could be included in the future. One of the possibilities, for example, is professor Max Shauck’s proposal to use UHCC’s expansive grounds as a prototype for developing simple, biomass-fueled “green” airports in under-developed communities around the world.

Grass seed and all manner of botanical material fill countless jars.

Along with such conceptual support, Patrick’s class members are also rolling up their sleeves and providing some sweat equity to improve the site.

Most notably, they are relocating the “ReFRAME x FRAME” edifice, an earlier Design/Build project that has been on display in Hermann Park as part of the centennial celebration, to UHCC. The striking solar-powered structure was constructed from reused office cubicle materials with additional steel components. Serving as a model “green” building and informal Visitor Center, it will also provide much welcome shade to those working at the seismic wells at UHCC during Houston’s brutal summers. Use of the UHCC by other courses in biology and earth and atmospheric sciences is also increasing rapidly.

Whether UHCC will remain a novel footnote in UH’s history or begin an important new chapter remains to be seen, of course. “The untapped potential here is tremendous,” Pennings says. He looks up at the sky, where blimps were once such a common sight and you have to wonder … if that really happened, who’s to say what else might?