A historic landmark is known for grand entertaining, but to owner Fred Burns, it feels like home
Formally, it’s known as the 1856/1859 John H. Hutchings Home. But the present owner, Fred Burns, considers it his family home, where he entertains and hosts events for his friends and relatives, as well as for politicians and charitable organizations he supports.
“It’s a large home, but it ‘lives’ small and comfortable,” said Burns, a trustee and former chairman of the Wortham Foundation in Houston, which supports the arts. He moved to Galveston in 1997 with his wife, Pat, and the couple immersed themselves in social, historical, arts and community groups.
“We have always been involved,” he said. “It is important and this is a great venue for not-for-profit get-togethers.”
The three-story house, originally built as a two-story brick Italianate villa, has undergone two major renovations. It sits on 3 acres of land and property where 80 oaks trees and 30 palms also reside.
The house was commissioned in 1856 by newlyweds John and Minnie Hutchings. He was a banker who wanted a Greek Revival/Italianate villa, reminiscent of the romantic Renaissance Italian villas, according to etchings at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston. It originally featured a double gallery porch that spanned the front of the house and a tiny enclosed widow’s walk. But after the hurricane of 1885, Hutchings hired famed Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton to “modernize” the structure, and it was redesigned in a Romanesque fashion, with arched windows and a skin of stucco all over. He added a carriage house with a turret, and revamped the main house’s floorplan with an expansive third story and a porte-cochère on the side of the house. He also transformed the main entry to the front porch to a one-story, Southern-style veranda.
Even in the heat of the summer, the fresh Gulf breezes keep the porch comfortable, Burns said.
“It is so pleasant out here,” he said, noting that the busy Avenue O is never a distraction.
“There are lots of shade trees and the yard and house stay cool,” he said.
The 2-foot-thick solid brick walls add to the temperature control, he said.
Burns credits his late wife’s design skills and color choices with making the 19th-century home a timeless, livable residence. The ceilings are high — 14.5 feet on the first, second and third floors — allowing for delightful acoustic opportunities for the grand piano in the hallway or the third-floor orchestra pit at the top of the stairs.
“You can hear the music throughout the house — whether it is coming from downstairs or from upstairs,” he said. “The third floor was where the ballroom was built for Hutchings’ daughter’s wedding.”
When his own granddaughter married, they had a large gazebo built on the side yard to match the style of the original house.
Architectural characteristics — such as the goldleaf decorative design on the hallway arches and along the ceilings and fine details sculpted into the seven fireplace mantels — create an elegant, yet unfussy look. The main staircase, carved in Switzerland and installed in 1885, includes a “mythical-looking beast” crawling down the banister, Burns said.
Entry into the house is either through the grand veranda or from a side entrance.
Once inside the hall, two things stand out: the incredible light that pours in from the many large windows and the details ingrained in the interior’s woodwork in every room.
Two floor-to-ceiling matching mirrors from 1885 dominate the walls of the front parlor. Comfortable couches and chairs in yellows decorate the room, along with a large fireplace, which is original to the house. A stunning portrait of Pat Burns hangs above the mantel. Beyond the parlor is a well-stocked library, with floor-to-ceiling shelves. A glass-enclosed elevator is nestled in the corner.
The original kitchen and butler’s pantry — bright twin rooms in a black and white motif — are conveniently next to an intimate breakfast room and the large, maroon-colored dining room, with a table to easily seat at least 12. A lovely leaded-glass door opens from the dining room to the garden outside.
Above the table is a massive Baccarat crystal tiered chandelier, one of the few fixtures Fred and Pat did not have to replace.
“It probably doesn’t shine as brightly as new ones, but it’s original,” he said.
A nearby wine cellar is filled with bottles and smartly decorated with the finely honed walls that came from philanthropist Gus Wortham’s Houston office, when it was being renovated. The room features an antique French wine scale and barrel acquired at an auction.
Burns pays homage to the home’s origins with photos of the house and its owners: the Hutchings (1856-1926); Honorary Consul to Japan John Henry Langben (1926-1947); first owners’ grandson Sealy Hutchings Jr. (1947-1995), who bequeathed it to the University of Texas Medical Branch. The Burnses bought it from the medical branch in 1996 and began a massive restoration. The property and house were declared Texas Historic Landmarks in 1962.
The second floor of the house is where Burns lives and includes bedrooms, closets, bathrooms and his office. It’s rather traditional in style, but things get very interesting on the third floor, which was added by architect Clayton in 1885.
At the top of the third-floor staircase, a huge skylight illuminates the dark paneled area during the day. A massive hallway and four rooms on this top floor — a sitting room, a wet bar, a media room and an exercise room — are connected with pocket doors that open up to make a ballroom. The sitting room, which has a pool table, is encircled by a high shelf with a model Santa Fe train — again paying tribute to Hutchings, who made part of his fortune in the railroad business.
One of Burns’ favorite things to do on his property is observing a hawk that has nested in one of the old oaks.
“He’s always chasing the squirrels,” he said. “He’s never caught one, but it is interesting to watch them.”
The Burns family’s contribution to historic preservation in Galveston has been immense. In 1994, Fred and Pat Burns bought the nearby historical 1838 Menard House and donated it to the Galveston Historical Foundation in 2016. Burns loves living on the island, he said.
“What’s not to love?” he asked.