Homeowner keeps traditions and story of three island sisters alive
Flossie the pink flamingo stands almost 7 feet tall beside Ted Hanley’s front door in Galveston’s historic East End. She’s only a metal sculpture, but her bright smile extends a warm welcome to all who approach the 101-year-old home that has witnessed secret marriages, unbreakable sisterly bonds and an over-the-top tradition of hospitality.
Built in 1914 as a sedate family residence, the home took on a new role when three sisters — Ethel, Mary and Mildred Boillin, better known as Bunny, Mimmie and Teddi — bought the property in 1925.
“For the next 70 years, this was a party house, and the sisters who lived here were party girls,” Hanley said.
When Hanley bought the house with its contents, he found himself also taking on the role of historian and caretaker for the sisters’ story.
“These young women loved to entertain, and, as you can see, they loved to collect,” he said, pointing to the exuberant collections of furnishings, paintings, art objects, china, glassware and serving pieces that fill the first two rooms. Everything you see here belonged to them, and, yes, they seemed especially fond of items featuring elephants and any type of crystal.”
The sisters, often referred to as “the girls,” hosted some type of social engagement in the home almost every day. They also all worked — two of them with the railroad — at a time when marriage and a woman’s working outside the home were mutually exclusive. Some companies would only hire unmarried women believing married women should tend to family and home.
As the story goes, however, two of the sisters married on the sly, keeping their matrimonial state a secret for years. A perfect cover was provided by their very active social life, in that each evening — in view of the neighbors — they could bid certain male “guests” goodbye at the front door, then clandestinely welcome them back in through the rear door as husbands.
Even in their later years, “the girls” continued a heady social whirl, and it was their fondness for entertaining that brought the home to Hanley’s attention.
After moving to Galveston in 1985 to open the Our Daily Bread outreach program to help feed the needy, he often bicycled home from work. Time and again, as he passed a certain house, he would hear laughter and clinking ice cubes.
“I would look up, and there would be this group of elderly ladies and gentlemen sitting there on the front porch, each one wielding a fly swatter and usually a glass of iced tea, and all having a really great time,” he said.
A decade or so later, when Hanley was offered an opportunity to buy that same home, it not only satisfied the needs of his young family but also provided an opening into learning more about the family that had lived there.
“As I explored, I discovered Mimmie’s 1925 Ball High School year book, Murano crystal with price tags still attached, plus letters, sales receipts, vintage linens and cookbooks. An old, but working Victrola and its 78 rpm records revealed the sisters’ favorite dance tunes, music that spanned our first two world wars.”
Today, Hanley is continuing the “party house” tradition with his own brand of hospitality, and especially enjoys hosting tea parties and acquainting guests with different varieties of tea leaves and the various ways of serving tea.
“Whether a person comes from African, Asian, European or regional North American roots, the service of tea and coffee is found at the heart of most civilized hospitality,” said Hanley, himself a transplant from New York.
Having studied architecture at the University of Texas in Austin, Hanley compliments Galveston on its preservation of historic buildings, but feels the “people story” has been neglected.
“It’s time to place equal emphasis on collecting and protecting the stories of the individuals and families whose lives and livelihood shaped this coastal island we call home,” he said. “The story of the Boillin sisters is just one example of a legacy that could have been lost.”