Brick by brick, crews rescue an architectural masterpiece
As a child growing up in Galveston, Keith Bassett remembers going to Col. Bubbie’s Strand Surplus Senter, which occupied the entire 2200 block of The Strand in the island’s downtown.
Bassett would wander through the maze of dimly lit bins overflowing with army gear from all over the world: helmets, boots, bags, belts, khaki shorts and camouflage pants.
“I never paid much attention to the building; the windows were boarded up,” Bassett said. “You entered from a side door and it was literally packed top to bottom with merchandise.”
Three decades later — in 2013 — Bassett and his wife, Genette, purchased the deteriorating historic structure and immediately began an ambitious $5 million restoration in cooperation with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“This is by far the largest project I have ever undertaken and it will be an achievement when it’s complete,” Bassett said. “I believe it could only be done by someone who has a passion for the historical nature of such a renovation.”
Bassett has spent 25 years in construction and building redevelopment and owns other businesses on The Strand.
The massive red brick W.L. Moody Building was designed by renowned island architect Nicholas J. Clayton in 1883 to house the banking and business interests of the prominent Galveston family, said Jami Durham, a historian and property researcher at the Galveston Historical Foundation.
The family patriarch, Col. William L. Moody, moved to Galveston from Virginia in 1852, and began a cotton trading business. He prospered, expanded into banking and insurance and ultimately built a financial empire.
The original structure was four stories high with a mansard roof, but it collapsed in the 1900 Storm and the top floor and cornice were lost and never replaced. Clayton also managed the post-storm rebuild.
Triple windows are framed in Clayton’s trademark ornamental brick with inset bands of sparkling yellow tiles.
“The complexity and craftsmanship necessary to rescue this building is mind-boggling,” said Doug McLean, of McLean Metal Works, who is responsible for stabilizing and renewing the cast-iron front columns.
A herculean task, the rescue promises to be one of the most spectacular restorations in The Strand Historic District, McLean said.
Workers had to remove 4 to 5 feet of the 20-plus cast-iron front circular columns and the square structural columns and replace them because of 132 years of saltwater exposure. Using an elaborate engineering scheme, the building load was transferred from the columns while the work was done.
“Each of the Corinthian column tops has about 63 pieces of individual castings, all recreated from photographs and from some remaining pieces found in the debris under the first floor, probably from the 1900 Storm,” Bassett said. The re-castings alone cost $75,000.
Brick masons have been working for months to replace mortar in thousands of individual bricks. It’s all done by hand with a specialized mortar made from a mix designed by a preservation specialist in Pennsylvania, Bassett said.
The original mortar mix included coal, which is why the red brick has a black tinge, Bassett said.
Builders will recreate the grand staircase, which will rise from the entry level, and the original bank floor will be restored, if possible, or matched.
“We did have one happy surprise,” Bassett said. “Beneath the raised floor, we found all but two of the original 16 solid Cypress doors, which are 14 feet tall. I got a skeleton key from Chalmers Hardware and the old locks opened right up.”
State and federal tax incentives helped to make the project financially feasible. Project architect Brax Easterwood works closely with the Texas Historical Commission on every aspect of the restoration.
When the restoration is complete, probably in late 2019, the building will feature retail space on the ground floor and loft spaces on the second and third. The old bank vaults will be repurposed to serve as closets.
The lofts are designed to make the most of the unobstructed views of the port and the city.
“The views from the upper floors are incredible,” Bassett said.