A stunning white plantation home on a large lot has stood watch over the corner of Fifteenth and Market Streets for generations. The original portion of the home, on the west side of the main building, was built in 1851 by Lorenza Sherwood who sold it to Judge Edward Tailer Austin (1822-1888) on January 10, 1867.
Austin enlarged the home by adding the Greek Revival east wing with its impressive double gallery supported by twenty columns. The majority of building materials used in the expansion were shipped from Maine, including white pine and doors of mahogany and walnut. A two-story porch with elaborate scrollwork ornamentation provided areas for the family to enjoy gulf breezes, and walls frescoed with classic scenes in subtle blues and grays created a beautiful retreat on the interior.
Edward was the first cousin once removed of Texas icon Stephen F. Austin, and their families were very close. He traveled to the California gold fields after their discovery in 1849, but lost his fortune working the mines. Edward eventually migrated to Hawaii where he worked as a plantation overseer.
Austin married Estelle Hebert (1831-1873) on May 30, 1857, in Louisiana, and migrated to Galveston where they raised eight children. He later became an attorney, county judge and served for a time as acting mayor of Galveston.
After Edward passed away at the residence in 1888, his son Valery Austin (1863-1938), a city commissioner, acquired the property and occupied it with his wife Ida L. Smith (1858-1938).
The couple offered two rooms on south side of the home for rent with “bathroom privileges” and table board in the 1890s.
With no children of their own, they spent their time and energy supporting a number of organizations in the community. Ida formed the Ida Austin Bible Class of First Presbyterian Church in 1884, and instructed the group the rest of her life. A former president of the Texas division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, she was also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of 1812.
On September 7, 1900, a lawn fete was held at the residence from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. to raise funds for the Broadway Memorial Presbyterian Church. The program included a zither and mandolin duet, piano solo, vocal solo with violin accompaniment, German dancers, recitations, and a performance by the Galveston Quartette Society. Attendees remembered remarking about the beauty of the moonlit night, unaware of the danger the next day would bring.
Valery left town the following morning for business, and Ida busied herself bringing chairs and tables in from the lawn and rearranging the house. About two o’clock in the afternoon, she heard a man in the street exclaim that the waters of the gulf and the bay had met at Fifteenth Street. She and her niece rushed to the upper gallery, where she saw that what he said was true.
Within minutes water was creeping into the yard, and the women rushed to move portable furniture and decorative items upstairs. As water washed over the lower gallery, they brought their cow into the dining room where it spent the night.
“We opened the doors and let the water flow through, and soon it stood three feet in all the rooms,” Ida later wrote.
When the storm was at its height, two neighboring men who remembered the women were alone at home struggled through neck-high water to reach them and offer assistance.
Later, as the water began to recede, the group drank milk from their cow, coffee made in a chafing dish and ate cold bread as a midnight meal. Though the home had sustained some damage, Ida later spoke of her gratitude for their safety and of the horrors experienced by others.
As late as 1920, the Austins kept chickens and a Jersey cow on the property to provide themselves and their boarders with fresh milk and eggs.
Ida and Valery’s gardens were often praised for their colorful displays. Numerous poinsettias in December, as well as beds full of gillyflowers, carnations, and long-stemmed Japanese spider lilies earned the admiration of the community.
In December 1936, the local paper described the home as being decorated with electric lights over the front door and across the front porch, and a blue and silver Christmas tree on the upper porch.
The couple died at the residence three months apart in 1938, three years after celebrating their golden wedding anniversary, and both of their funerals took place in the parlor.
Joseph Selwyn Ibbotson (1907-1990), from Waterville, Maine, purchased the home for his family that same year. He lived there with his wife Anna (1907-1980) and their son David. Ibbotson was the head librarian for Rosenberg Library from 1936-1947. He is credited with instituting the plan for the Friends of Rosenberg Library.
Anna hosted meetings of the study group of the American Association of University Women, as well as book review and discussion groups in the home.
When Ibbotson accepted a position with the Fort Worth library system in 1947, he sold the grand home to Colonel Milo Pitcher Fox (1887-1951), a retired district engineer of Galveston. He was a West Point graduate and decorated veteran of two wars.
Fox and his wife Agness Peel (1896-1967) had one daughter, Shirley. The Fox family affectionately called the home “Monte Volpe,” which is Italian for “Fox Mountain,” but the community continued to refer to the house as the Austin home. It was awarded a Texas Historical Building Medallion in 1962, which is still proudly displayed on the building.
Continuing in the literary tradition of the former owners, Agness Fox was a longtime supporter of the Rosenberg Library home and provided funds to establish and maintain a space there to house its valuable collection of rare books. The Fox Room was formally dedicated in December 1967, and it was furnished with antiques from the couple’s home on Market Street, including an Ingraham mantle clock. The book collection was later moved to a climate-controlled storage vault, and the Fox Room transformed into a public meeting space.
When the next owners of the Austin Home, Margie and William Simpson, removed layers of old wallpaper in 1975, they discovered that the walls and ceiling of the east wing drawing room were covered with elaborately detailed murals executed in what appears to be a classical revival motif. Elegant shades of blue and gray formed broad decorative panels on the walls, and cornices bearing what appeared to be gargoyle faces were uncovered above the windows.
These frescoes, created with a technique hundreds of years old in which artists painted directly onto wet plaster, were most likely done in 1865, when the section of the house was completed.
Simpson claimed that the murals were a gift to the Austin family from New York’s John Jacob Astor. The Astors, a powerful railroad family, reportedly sent a German artist to Galveston to execute the work as a sign of friendship to the local family who were large land owners in the area.
Miraculously, the frescoes, which are the only creations of their kind on the island, evidently survived numerous wallpaperings, and the 1900 Storm when the water rose to four feet in the room.
The Austin Home is now finding a new purpose in the community, welcoming visitors as an inn owned by Graham George. Renamed The George Manor, it will once again welcome people to gather inside and on its beautiful grounds. Regardless of its name and ownership changes through the years, it remains a Galveston treasure.