Touring the grand mansions lining an upscale district of historic homes in Galveston, Texas, offers one of the more compelling collections of Victorian architecture in the United States. Built at a time when this city was a glittering gem on the Gulf, the rows and row of ornate designs, colorful facades, and restored porches offer a genteel collection of architecture classics. The Bishop’s Palace in the East End, a Victorian home adorned with Siena marble and cast iron, is one of the “Broadway Beauties,” a string of restored landmarks including the Ashton Villa, a rare antebellum Texas mansion.
Galveston’s comeback, from a bustling, cosmopolitan port city struck down by a hurricane to a small town of a little less than 50,000 slowly rebuilding its downtown, has had a number of ups and downs. The city had run as a resort center and “sin city of the Gulf” for decades, from Prohibition to the postwar period, taking advantage of lax law enforcement that helped it earn the unofficial title of “Free State of Galveston” to attract tourists and revelers. But a tough combination of competition from Vegas, a drop in military spending, and competition from nearby ports—including Houston, which was connected to the Gulf by a canal—led to a slow decline over the last half of the 20th century.
Walking through some of the city’s upscale neighborhoods now, such as the Strand, and it becomes harder to imagine the hard times that once hit this city, which was ravaged by one of the nation’s worst natural disasters (Isaac’s Storm, by Devil in the White City author Erik Larson, chronicles the devastation of the monster storm). Due to the work of preservationists, such as the Galveston Historical Foundation, as well as private homeowners who have restored these grand old residences, the city’s history has become a selling point and spurred on further restoration.
It’s an incredibly rich past. Established by settlers early in the 19th century and named after a Spanish military leader and colonial governor, Galveston quickly emerged as the state’s leading port and and one point was its largest city, rivaling even New York City. A profitable link in the cotton trade that attracted merchants and glittering, high-end homes, the city was an international destination, known as the “Ellis Island of the West” due to the steady flow of immigrants to its shores. Cosmopolitan and thriving, it was poised to be a major player in the 20th century.
Then the storm hit. The Great Hurricane of 1900, still considered the worst natural disaster in United States history, struck Galveston on September 8, 1900. With fatalities estimated at up to 12,000, the storm and surging water wiped most of the booming city off the map. Galveston bounced back as a seaside resort town throughout the early 20th century—witness the Hotel Galvez, a 1911 Mission and Spanish Revival-style hotel known as the “Playground of the Southwest”—but by the ‘50s, had become a bit of an afterthought.
The 21st century has seen the city resurgent, with developers and locals capitalizing on its heritage to rebuild and rebrand. Along the way, another storm, 2008’s Hurricane Ike, caused significant damage, and along with the recession, tempered momentum. But the city has bounced back, as new, upscale homes, Victorian restorations, and an increasingly vibrant downtown has led the New York Times to call the city “the Lone Star Equivalent of the Hamptons.” Home prices top $300,000, developments are booming, and the city has become firmly established as a tourist destination in its own right, beyond just a place to board a cruise ship at the nearby terminal.
Luxury development has been booming on the city’s waterfront and a trolley line is being rebuilt downtown, projects that could add fuel to a boom in upscale housing and make Galveston an even more attractive location for commuters and snowbirds. Old warehouses and historic buildings have been transformed into mixed-use developments and new businesses, leading to increased activity and tourist traffic.
“History adds value,” according to a Houston entrepreneur, Atul Chopra, who has expressed interest in converting a warehouse in town into a new restaurant/bar complex. That attitude is helping the city slowly but steadily reopen and rediscover some of the stately building from its heyday.