Galveston, Oh Galveston

25 Aug

Galveston's Sacred Heart Catholic Church, built on the site of the original church destroyed in the storm of 1900. Photo by author.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the wealth of the American Gulf Coast was concentrated in and mediated by two major port cities, both of which have become famous for their destructive encounters with hurricanes. The first was New Orleans, settled by the French in the late seventeenth century at the mouth of the Mississippi. I was lucky to spend four years of architecture school in New Orleans and that unbelievable town with its incredible architecture is still the place I call “home.”

Until my visit there this weekend, I knew far less about the other great late 1800s Gulf Coast port city: Galveston, once the northernmost of Imperial Spain’s colonial ports along the coast connecting its North and Central American holdings. Settled in the first years of the nineteenth century, Galveston’s location on a two-mile-wide barrier island at the entrance to a brackish navigable bay made it a strategically important trade asset for Spain during its last faltering years as a player in North America. Control of the city transitioned to the Republic of Texas in the late 1830s, then to the United States when Texas entered the Union as a state in 1845. As the major trading and shipping center for the priceless cotton grown on farms further inland, cosmopolitan Galveston grew rich, so much so that by century’s end the tiny island city was doing business with markets around the world and its close-knit community of millionaires, whose mansions lined Broadway half-a-mile from the seaside beach and its string of resort hotels, was one of the richest in the country.

"An opened passageway in the debris." A post-1900 hurricane view of the devastated city. Photo from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

As we all know, Galveston’s forward momentum slammed into a wall of waves when surges from the Hurricane of 1900 almost completely destroyed the city.  The public shock and media coverage provoked by the event was almost a preview of reactions to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  The horrific impact of the storm can be seen in unbelievable photographs taken in its wake. Multiple books have been written on the event including one by Erik Larson, author of the fantastic ode to Chicago, The Devil in the White City (2003), who had his first big success with Issac’s Storm (1999), a recounting of the deluge that nearly washed Galveston away and in the process killed at least 8,000 unlucky residents and visitors (scholars believe the true death toll might have been almost double this number). Galveston rebuilt but only after raising the city several feet and building a tall seawall facing the ocean (the waterfront street is now called Seawall Boulevard). Seawall Boulevard stayed fairly dry during Hurricane Ike in 2008, but water swells from Galveston Bay still managed to submerge much of the city again.  When I visited Galveston this weekend, work on rehabilitating the island post-Ike was in full-swing but the city still has a long way to go.

Water, time, and neglect have left some parts of old Galveston in need of help. Photo by author.

Galveston is awash (no pun intended) with stories to tell, stories of rich and poor, black and white.  Looking at its historic architecture, however, most of the places that could help visitors today understand the history of Galveston were either washed out to sea in 1900 or were hit with even more water destruction in 2008.   The city has a pretty rich history of embracing diversity.  Galveston had a vibrant African American community both before and after the storm.   As a strategic link between water transportation and cross-country railroads, the city was also known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” particularly when thousands of Eastern European Jews passed through the city after 1900 as part of the Galveston Movement (many of these new Americans came to Galveston and stayed).  But today what we mostly have left to tell their stories are the homes of Galveston’s wealthy that survived the 1900 storm.

The Walter Gresham House. Photo by author.

Among the sturdiest of the city’s buildings have turned out to be the Gilded Age mansions along Broadway Avenue, the once posh thoroughfare built along the ridge that marks the city’s highest point.  I visited two of these former homes that have now set up shop as house museums. One was the Walter Gresham House, designed by local architect Nicholas Clayton and completed in 1893, is an enormous combination Renaissance Revival/Queen Anne style house that got its current name, “The Bishop’s Palace,” when Galveston’s Catholic Diocese purchased the home in the 1920s.  (HABS drawings of the Gresham House can be found online here.)

The Willis-Moody House. Photo by author.

The other, the Willis-Moody House  (called the “Moody Mansion”) was designed by another local architect, English-born William H. Tyndall. The interiors were outfitted by Pottier & Stymus, a New York-based firm with a long list of illustrious clients, including Thomas Edison, William Rockefeller, George Westingouse, Jr., and Leland Stanford. They even did work at the White House in the 1870s. The Moody family who house in 1900 (the sale of the house closed in the aftermath of the hurricane) were pretty illustrious themselves – they were major cotton brokers and were the founders of American National Insurance Company, the headquarters of which stands by far as the tallest building in downtown Galveston. The Moody family still owns the house and has done an outstanding job of maintaining its interiors. Pottier & Stymus’ work on the interiors is really a sight to see, especially the second floor corridor’s elaborate aluminum gilt stenciling.  Wow.

Ashton Villa, today owned by the City of Galveston. The Galveston Historical Foundation operates a visitor's center out of the carriage house. Photo by author.

Galveston has a functioning municipal landmarks commission that to date has landmarked ten structures including the fantastic Italianate-style Ashton Villa , another of the Broadway mansions that serves as the city’s visitor’s center (HABS drawings of Ashton Villa can be found here).  More visible on the preservation front in town is the Galveston Historical Foundation which in addition to owning several historic properties (including the Bishop’s Palace) acts as a general preservation advocate for the whole island.


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