Wealthy businessmen and well-traveled islanders influenced Galveston architecture
The traditions of architecture and lifestyles from 19th-century Galveston were influenced heavily by happenings in Great Britain, specifically during the reign of Queen Victoria — from 1837 to 1901. And because of the steady flow of immigrants from Europe into Galveston, the island city bustled with the fashions and styles reminiscent of the Victorian Age.
House after house in Galveston’s East End or Lost Bayou neighborhoods are prime examples of that era: the overlapping Victorian styles, including Gothic, Italianate, Eastlake, Stick style and Queen Anne — most built by European immigrants. Galveston is home to one of the largest collections of Victorian houses in the United States, said Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation.
“The concentration includes houses from about 1870 until 1900 and a substantial number built and rebuilt after the 1900 Storm up to about 1920,” Jones said, adding that those constructed from 1900 to 1920 aren’t really “Victorian,” but many still reflected earlier building materials, forms and architectural styles.
Galveston Historical Foundation traces its roots to 1871, but the bulk of preservation of historic buildings began in the 1950s.
Victorian houses usually are two or three stories high, with steeply pitched roofs, ornate gables, rooftop finials, towers or turrets, large windows and wrap-around porches. The houses were large, and the distinct interiors reflected the era. The houses had formal rooms — living rooms, parlors and dining rooms. If the kitchen was attached to the house, it was behind those areas. Bedrooms usually were on the second floor and if there were servants, they stayed on the third floor. Closets were scarce and bathrooms often were outside. Focal points of the Victorian homes were the grand staircases and decorated fireplace mantels.
The rooms often were dim, gloomy and large, and densely decorated with heavy furniture and furnishings. The large windows were covered with heavily draped fabrics and the walls were adorned with decorative wallpaper. Handmade stained-glass windows caught the light, beaming into rooms a rainbow of colors. True craftsmen helped build the houses, evidenced by the ornately carved woodwork and moldings. The dark wood floors were covered with thick rugs, which served as an insulation but masked the beautiful oak or pine floors.
The houses were painted with special emphasis on the ornate architectural details: scalloped and fish-tale shingles, spindles and balustrades and the decorative towers or second-floor turrets.
Fred Huddleston, an architect who specialized in historic preservation and whose family goes back generations on the island, said the Victorian style in Galveston was so popular in the 1800s because so many of the wealthy merchants and businessmen came to the island from Europe or the northeast of the United States and brought with them the styles to which they were accustomed.
“Galveston was very much connected to the world and people brought with them the things they saw and liked,” said Huddleston, who is chairman of the city’s Landmark Commission, which keeps a watchful eye on building and renovating in the three historical neighborhoods. “Galveston had the best of everything at that time.”
Victorian homes were designed with climate in mind, resulting in large windows to catch Gulf breezes, huge porches for outdoor living and walk-through windows to expand interior living spaces.
“People lived on their porches because of the weather here,” said Huddleston, who shares his 1905 Victorian-style home with his spouse, Clay Rogers. “Everyone had a porch.”
Although the Victorian architecture was very popular and still is sought by people wanting older homes, it’s rare for houses to be designed today in that style.
“It is not too popular now — kind of faux Victorian maybe because of the present lifestyle,” he said. “But the historic nature of the existing houses is what makes them valuable. They are beautiful and give you a sense of place. You know where you are when you are here in Galveston mainly because of the architecture.”
Lifestyles in Galveston also reflected the Victorian period, said Jim Nonus, an expert in antiques and antiquities from that era. Many homes had large chandeliers and brass gasoliers to light the rooms, which were furnished with heavy settees, large wardrobes and armoires and other opulent furnishings, he said.
Nonus grew up in Galveston, spending much of his time with his grandmother in her home on Ball Street, which was decorated in the style of Queen Victoria.
“Galveston has a rich Victorian history and I have always been enamored with it,” said Nonus, who manages the Antique Pavilion on Postoffice Street.
Galveston attracted people in the banking, cotton and cattle industries and they were well-to-do.
“They were wealthy and well-traveled and wanted to emulate what they saw in other places,” Nonus said. “That was the Golden Age of Galveston — before the 1900 Storm.”
“We still have the remains of these opulent buildings that they had built,” he said. “Such opulence.”
Islanders dressed in the Victorian style, he said.
“The long, heavy dresses and coats, top hats and umbrellas — even in the summer heat,” Nonus said.
The beauty of the old homes in Galveston is evident by the popularity of two Facebook pages, set up by Ernest McKelroy, who divides his time between Houston and his East End island condo. More than 7,700 people comment and read his posts on Galveston Island — Paradise Across the Causeway site and another 1,800 members of his social media site Galveston East End Historical District — News and Beauty, which he set up more than three years ago.
McKelroy researches old files from various libraries and sources to find old photos from the island.
“I attempt to locate the subjects to see if they still exist,” he said, adding that he drives around the island photographing old homes — especially if he sees a blue construction permit in the window. “It lets me know work will be happening to the property. I love doing before and after posts.”
McKelroy got interested in Victorian architecture as a child, she said. He started visiting Galveston and was impressed by how much of the historical structures remained, he said.
“The old homes and buildings on the island can tell stories of events from 100 years ago,” he said. “It is interesting to find out who the occupants were. These homes and buildings are such a great testament to the will, determination and drive to survive after the devastating 1900 Storm,” he said. “The exteriors and interiors of the homes are so beautiful with all the details and craftsmanship. It is so good to see so many homes built or repaired after the 1900 Storm and that wood and debris from destroyed homes, buildings and ships were used.”