Established in 2000, the Houston Maritime Museum (HMM) is an extension of founder James “Jim” L. Manzolillo’s unique experiences, personality, and lifelong association with the ocean. As a naval architect, Manzolillo traveled extensively, collecting artifacts from around the world. He eventually decided to share them with the public, and Houston offered a logical place to do that. Hence, Manzolillo began channeling his resources to create a museum to engage people of all ages in the history of ships and sea exploration.
Jim Manzolillo first became interested in boats growing up near the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania. He carved his first boat at age six, and after building a raft at age twelve, he decided to pursue shipbuilding as a career. He studied naval architecture and marine engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology, before serving with the Merchant Marine during World War II, and earning a degree in mechanical engineering from the Colorado State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. From 1950 to 1959, he traveled the world for Caterpillar Tractor Company. Explaining the connection to shipbuilding, he noted, “Caterpillar felt there was a market for their tractor engine to be used as a marine engine, so I was hired to help to develop a marine department.”
In 1959, Manzolillo founded his own company in Mexico, Astilleros Imesa, to build shrimp trawlers. Unable to find a suitable location in a coastal city, he began building boats in Mexico City—7,400 feet above sea level and 200 miles from the ocean. Nevertheless, Astilleros Imesa successfully shipped its forty-six-foot fishing vessels to ports. Manzolillo recalled, “After we got some of them ready to move, I had to design a trailer to put them on and find somebody who was local enough to drive his tractor-trailer to pull this flatbed with the boat on it. . . . And boy, I’ll tell you, to get to Acapulco you have to go to a place called Cuernavaca, which is 10,000 feet up, and then come down, and then the highway [is] narrow. . . . While you’re making these curves, you’re looking down 5,000 feet and you’re thinking ‘mama mia!’” Manzolillo also created the first commercial vessel with a quarter-inch copper-nickel plate on its hull to inhibit the growth of barnacles, which reduced friction and fuel consumption.
In 1979, Manzolillo moved to Houston where he worked for Cunard Line giving on board cruise lectures. Calling at most of the world’s ports, he frequently visited museums and bought ship models, which he sent home. Having amassed quite a collection of maritime items and realizing Houston did not have a maritime museum; he contacted the Museum of Natural Science about donating his collection. When he failed to receive a response, he thought, “The hell with this, I’ll open up my own museum.”
When Manzolillo saw a sign on a vacant building on Dorrington Street, the Museum’s current location, he called and made a deal for the property that afternoon. He worked tirelessly to restore and enlarge the building and filled it with his personal collection and other artifacts he acquired at this own expense. His daughter, Dr. Deborah Nightingale reminisced, “Some of the things in there were things I played with as a little girl.” Although Manzolillo passed away in 2007, the Museum remains a tribute to his vision.