Project restores, beautifies benches along seawall
Along a lengthy stretch of Seawall Boulevard sits a handsome convergence of science, artistry and Galveston’s coastal heritage.
The enhancement is the result of a project conceived eight years ago in the wake of Hurricane Ike by Artist Boat, an island-based collaboration of artists and scientists dedicated to preserving and promoting Galveston’s coastal heritage.
Project SIT — the acronym stands for Seawall Interpretive Trail — is expected to be concluded this fall with the restoration and adornment of 70 formerly derelict benches atop the seawall.
“They were just haggard, 70-year-old concrete benches that over time had been beaten up by hurricanes and skateboarders,” said Karla Klay, Artist Boat’s founder and executive director.
All have since been rebuilt, and most now are adorned with painted and glazed tiles that reflect various aspects of the island’s history and culture and are intended to educate visitors about that heritage.
“The educational element is critical,” said Amanda Rinehart, Artist Boat’s education project manager, who has nearly completed the requirements for her doctorate in biological sciences from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “All of these benches represent one aspect or another of our coastal heritage. The tiles speak to our history, our economy, our culture and our coastal heritage.
“We have this opportunity to reach people, and maybe they’ll take home something they didn’t know before.”
Klay conceived the project; Rinehart has overseen it.
Project SIT has cost about $210,000, half of which was paid for by a $105,000 slice of a Texas Department of Transportation grant to the city of Galveston for seawall enhancement; the rest was raised through corporate donations from the likes of Reliant Energy and its parent company, NRG Energy, and through $3,000 in individual sponsorships.
One such sponsorship covered the costs of rebuilding and beautifying a bench that sits in front of the spot that once boasted the Balinese Room, the legendary club on a pier that in its heyday featured drinks and illicit gambling and such renowned performers as Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.
That bench was sponsored by three couples to honor their family matriarch, Gloria Levy Herman, a native Galvestonian whose fiancé, Carl Herman Jr., had dropped to a knee inside the club one warm evening in 1948 and proposed to her.
“It was for Gloria’s 90th birthday, and there was nothing in the world she needed,” her daughter-in-law Randi Faust, of Houston, said. “So we were trying to think of something to honor her.
“At the time, I was working with Artist Boat on the Coastal Heritage Preserve, and when I saw that bench was available for sponsorship, it seemed like the perfect gift and so I suggested it to the other couples and they agreed to sponsor it.”
To date, all 70 benches have been sponsored and more than half have been completed.
They are designed to withstand the coast’s intemperate weather, the tiles adhered with a modified thinset mortar, which is commonly used to attach tiles to concrete surfaces and is especially suitable for outdoor projects.
So-called skate stoppers, metal impediments with marine motifs, are being installed on each bench to dissuade skateboarders from riding on, and damaging, the tiles.
All of the artists involved are based in Texas and receive a modest stipend for what essentially is a labor of love. Their submissions are vetted by a five-member jury comprising two scientists and three artists for scientific accuracy and aesthetic value.
Klay began soliciting permits for the project in 2008, the year Hurricane Ike devastated the island and points farther inland. Now, Project SIT is nearing completion.
“We hope to be finished by the end of October,” Klay said as she stood inside Artist Boat’s studio on Avenue O. “Right now, I’m praying to the creative gods, the kiln gods and the nature gods.”