Once on the brink of ruin, nationally important building undergoes restoration
After 14 years, two hurricanes and $3 million, the First National Bank Building, 2127 Strand in Galveston’s downtown, is restored down to the flourishes beneath the cornice. Its structure and future are secure.
It has teetered on the edge of ruin at least four times in its 140 years, but this nationally recognized architectural treasure has survived despite the odds and thanks to champions who came forward in dark times to rescue it.
“It’s good for another century or more,” said Doug McLean, owner of McLean Metal Works, who has worked on every facet of the building, top to bottom.
It’s McLean’s labor of love.
Even among The Strand’s array of classic 19th-century architecture, the First National Bank Building is a standout. With its gleaming red brick walls, cast-iron front and intricate Corinthian columns, it’s an easy building to admire. Galleries of windows on the north and west sides flood the upper floors and classrooms in sunlight.
Built in 1878 to house the first nationally chartered bank in Texas, it was commissioned by Thompson Harden McMahan, a Galveston merchant and a banker, and designed by architect P.M. Comegys, according to its listing in the Historic American Buildings Survey of 1980.
Rising above muddy oyster shell streets, the building was just a short walk from the bustling harbor.
“It was a testament to the end of the wartime blockade and the entrepreneurial explosion where fortunes were made and Galveston earned the title of ‘Wall Street of the Southwest,’” McLean said.
A fashionable red and brown tile sidewalk, brought from England, still survives at the center’s entry.
Two decades later, a devastating hurricane, the 1900 Storm, flooded the entire island, killing thousands of people, and leaving the city in economic oblivion. A long recovery virtually killed Galveston’s economic engine.
Commercial structures were hardly a priority, with much of the population rendered homeless, and little or no maintenance was done on the building. By the late 1950s, Galveston businesses were struggling and the now unfashionable ornate commercial buildings were used for storage or left vacant, including the First National Bank Building.
It came to life a second time in the 1970s, when The Strand underwent a renaissance. Owned by the Moody family interests, the building was leased to the Junior League and ultimately blossomed as a home for the Galveston Arts Center. The Strand district was placed on The National Register of Historic Places, and the Galveston Historical Foundation, led by Peter Brink, worked with the city to realize the district’s potential to draw tourists to an arts, entertainment and shopping district.
By the year 2000, the building was showing its advanced age. It was clear the cast-iron front was separating from the brick and mortar.
“The building suffered from rust-jacking, which is the expansion of rusting steel,” McLean said. “It can expand up to seven times the original material thickness, and can lift a building off its foundation, crack walls and brick and cause catastrophic structural damage.”
It was necessary to take action immediately or risk losing the building.
Hope for its third salvation came when several foundations offered to assist and a major $250,000 grant from the National Trust fund for “Save America’s Treasures” virtually guaranteed the Galveston Arts Center’s ability to save the exterior.
“That’s the largest single gift that the National Trust gave nationwide that year and it was given to our arts center,” McLean said. “This building is that important to national heritage.”
Hurricane Ike, which struck in September 2008, derailed that effort midstream by pushing 5 feet of water into the building and causing more than $1 million in damage.
A $1 million grant from the Moody Foundation helped to buy the building’s most recent incarnation, and this one is good for many years. The building serves as the home of the Galveston Arts Center and a focal point for the city’s visual art and artists.
It’s significant to create art inside a building that also is a work of art, McLean said.
“It exemplifies the importance of historic preservation, but our mission at the arts center is not about worshiping the past — it’s about the future of the arts for our children and grandchildren and how we can bring a higher quality of life to our community through the arts,” McLean said.