An impressive brick home that anchored the southwest corner of Tremont (23rd Street) and Broadway for over 100 years, constructed by Jacob Lawrence Briggs (1813-1870) in the 1840s, welcomed some of the most important figures in the early years of Galveston before fading into history.
Briggs and Nahor B. Yard co-owned Briggs & Yard on Tremont Street, a highly successful clothing emporium specializing in “gentlemen’s furnishings.” Local dandies who frequented the business could find everything from hats, boots and shoes, umbrellas, walking canes, travel bags, pocketknives, hairbrushes, and clothing to prepare themselves to make the best impression on society.
A native New Yorker, Briggs moved to Texas in his late 20s with his young family and took an immediate interest in the welfare of his newfound community. For years, Briggs offered his business as a clearing house for monetary donations to the Howard Association and oversaw the distribution of the funds to yellow fever victims and their families. His store sold Seat’s Fluid, thought to be a cure for Yellow Fever, and appeared as a supporter of the product in their advertisements.
The large residence Briggs built facing fashionable Broadway provided ample room for his growing family, which first included his wife Marcia Maria Garfield (1814-ca. 1850) and their children S. Oscar, Wellington B., and George Dempster. After Marcia’s death, he married Mary L. Quigg (1830-1904) with whom he had three more children: Frances “Fanny,” Mary, and Katie.
His business partner, who also had six children, lived next door and the families celebrated special occasions together for years. A forward-thinking businessman, Briggs purchased the first New York Life policy sold in the state of Texas in 1846. The $3,000 life insurance policy named his wife as beneficiary.
In October 1870, Biggs was attending a retreat with several other businessmen in New York when he received word that there was fear of another Yellow Fever epidemic in Galveston. He booked passage on the steamship Varuna to hasten home and help prepare his island community. It was his last attempt at charity.
The Varuna sailed from New on York October 15 for Galveston but floundered during a storm on the night of October 20 off Jupiter Inlet, Florida. Out of the entire crew and 36 passengers, mostly from Texas, all but five perished.
Biggs’ body was never recovered. He and several other prominent Galvestonians who were lost in the tragedy were deeply mourned in the community.
Briggs’ widow Mary remained in their home until 1887 when she moved to Portland, Oregon where she passed away in 1904. The family mansion was purchase by William Fowle Ladd (1846-1911) in 1888, who enlarged and improved the property to suit his family’s needs. Married to Caroline Willis (1857-1899), the family included children Carol, William Fowle Jr., Charles Haven, and Margaret Sealy.
Ladd made his fortune in cotton speculation through his firm Ladd & Company located on the Strand. He was also active in the community, holding such positions as the presidency of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce and the Galveston Cotton Exchange and Board of Trade. To accommodate his family and their social activities, Ladd added several rooms onto the Briggs mansion.
The home’s kitchen and furnace were located in the basement along with two bedrooms for staff and a playroom for the children. The ground floor featured a conservatory, ballroom, drawing room, dining room, closets, and pantry.
The family quarters on the second floor consisted of six bedrooms, five closets, a dressing room, and five of the ten bathrooms located in the home. All were connected by hallways adorned with stylish wallpaper.
Above the second floor was a large attic for storage of the family’s travel baggage and other belongings. The house featured five fireplaces for heating and gas lighting, but Ladd made the decision to fully electrify the home.
On a chilly night in February 1897, the Ladds hosted a “smoker” for the Galveston Quartette Society, only one of many entertainments hosted by the family who became known for their hospitality. Popular in Europe and during the Victorian era, a “smoker” was a social event featuring sketches, songs, and other performances, usually followed by smoking period for the attending men.
Members of the society walked from their meeting room at Cathedral Hall to the home and stopped just outside the gates to announce their arrival by singing a popular song called “The Night Is Still.” The visitors were invited inside by the couple and their friends Mrs. George Sealy, Mrs. Charles Fowler, and Mrs. J. G. Goldthwaite.
After visiting for a while, the ladies retreated to the parlor for refreshments, and Mr. Ladd showed the men into the dining room. There, “all of the essentials for smoking and toasting” greeted the 36 guests who could fit comfortably around their host’s immense oak dining table.
In 1898, Ladd sold the residence to the Galveston Artillery Club which had evolved from a military organization to a social club in the years following the Civil War. The Artillery Club hosted their meetings in the home and held social functions including dinners, cocktail parties, Mardi Gras dances, and deck and garden parties.
When the club acquired a new location at the Hotel Galvez in 1931, they sold the mansion to the Neapolitan Club and Ladies’ Auxiliary for $8,000. The new owners spent an additional $5,000 renovating and improving the building, installing clubrooms suitable for their activities, which included meetings, social hours, bazaars, lectures, musicals, and plays. The new entrance to the home faced 23rd Street, changing the address to 1013 Tremont.
Mrs. Vida Godwin, a well-known dance teacher, leased the home’s ballroom from the Neapolitans beginning in 1932 and opened a school of dance for children and adults.
The local post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars had a surge in membership in 1946 due to the large number of servicemen returning from World War II. They purchased the old Briggs home and moved it across the alley to be used as their headquarters. It was often referred to during this period as the VFW Memorial Home.
A fire in 1961 caused extensive damage to the mansion, and the decision to raze the building was made in 1962. The washateria that now sits on the property holds no trace of the beautiful home once enjoyed by so many generations.