Sealy Smith Mansion

822 Tremont

By Kathleen Maca
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Numerous grand homes from Galveston’s prosperous early days have been lost as families died out or their descendants moved away from the Island. Unfortunately, this category includes the original Sealy mansion built for one of Galveston’s most prominent families.

Most residents and visitors to Galveston are familiar with the elaborate mansion built by George Sealy (1835-1901) in 1889 on Broadway known as Open Gates, but George’s brother

John (1822-1884) built his own elegant home two decades earlier in 1869. The men spent years establishing themselves in business and the community before they could afford their impressive homes. John, a prominent Galveston banker and merchant, married Rebecca “Beckie” Davis (1832-1898) in 1857. In 1860, they appeared on the census sharing a home with George and a few other relatives who had moved from Pennsylvania to the Island. During the Civil War, John helped open and maintain trade through Mexico to supply the Confederacy but eventually moved his firm to Houston because of the Union blockade in the Gulf.

After the war, the couple returned to the Island and built an impressive home at the corner of 23rd Street (Tremont) and Avenue I (present-day Sealy St.) where they became the parents of two children: Etta Jane “Jennie” Sealy (1868-1938) and John Hutchings Sealy Jr. (1870-1926). The house was large enough to comfortably accommodate the small family and four relatives.

Sealy SMith

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The Southern colonial home on the corner lot had an imposing appearance with columned double galleries and an intricate wrought iron fence surrounding the grounds. The interior was just as remarkable with nine rooms, four bathrooms, 13 closets, a 10’x12’ cedar storage room, and eight mantled fireplaces.

The first floor featured inlaid hard woods, mahogany mantles, and a beamed dining room ceiling. Tile covered the kitchen and pantry floor and walls.

Circulation was enhanced by a large number of windows, 12-foot first floor ceilings, and 11-foot ceilings on the second floor. To shelter family members from the elements as they entered or exited their carriage, a porte cochere extended from the back of the home.

Two live-in servants resided on the second floor of a two-story frame building at the rear of the property that housed the stables (later a garage) and laundry. A large hen house as well as one brick and one wooden cistern sat nearby. By 1880, the four-person family had the home mainly to themselves, with only a housemaid and coachman living in the servants’ quarters.

The Sealy home was one of the most important stops during visits made among society on New Year’s Day each year. Rebecca, assisted by her daughter and a few other young ladies from prominent families, would entertain visitors who arrived to present calling cards and New Year’s greetings.

John Sr. passed away from an apparent heart attack in his room at home on August 29, 1884, after several weeks of being confined with an illness. He left an estimated fortune between $1-$1.5 million dollars. The philanthropist left $50,000 to be used for a “charitable purpose,” and his brother and wife made the decision to build a new city hospital to be named in his honor.

The Sealy family also paid for additional construction costs not covered in the bequest, and John Sealy Hospital opened in January 1890 with 108 ward beds. Within the next few months, 1,000 inpatients and 400 outpatients had been treated at the facility.

Three years after his father’s death, John Jr. became a member of the first graduating class of Galveston Ball High School in 1887, after which he attended Princeton University.

Rebecca oversaw an extensive renovation of her home in 1889, greatly changing its appearance. Most of the Southern elements were removed and replaced with high Victorian details such as bay windows and gingerbread accents. The front section of the structure was extended and a three-story turret was added, with the top story room featuring an 11-foot ceiling.

The following December, she had the opportunity to showcase the renovation when she hosted one of the most talked about events of the season: a cotillion to celebrate Jennie’s formal debut to society. The reception featured a ‘German’ style cotillion that involved improvisational dances, games, and party favors. The parlors of the palatial house were elaborately decorated, and the dance was followed by an elegant dinner.



Additional renovations were made to the Sealy mansion. Between 1892 and 1899, the rear section of the home was extended and the servants’ quarters were enlarged to 20’x52’.

In 1896, Jennie Sealy married Robert Waverly Smith (1865–1930), the Galveston city attorney, on September 29 at the Imperial Hotel in New York City. That same year, Smith hired local architect George B. Stowe to design and build a wood frame Queen Anne style house at 3017 Avenue O (now known as the Smith-Rowley House). While the couple’s home was being built, they lived with the bride’s mother Rebecca at the Sealy mansion.

After the matriarch passed away in 1898, the Smiths decided to remain in the family home, sharing it with Jennie’s brother John Jr. They rented out their other home, and eventually sold it to the Rowley family.

When the devastating hurricane of 1900 struck Galveston Island, the mansion was within blocks of the worst devastation. It was one of the few large structures in the area that were able to provide shelter to the wounded and homeless. In the years immediately following the storm, the Sealy’s neighborhood changed dramatically, and included the addition of Rosenberg Library and a new First Baptist Church to replace the one next door that had been destroyed.

Thirty-year-old John Jr. leapt into action to help his community following the tragedy, helping to manage relief operations and taking part in long-range recovery planning. He was instrumental in the construction of the Seawall and raising the grade of the island.

After the grade raising was complete, a concrete wall was added around the perimeter of the house. Soon the old Sealy home resumed its role as a center of hospitality in Galveston, with Sealy and the Smiths hosting numerous events and celebrations.

In addition to his business dealings, Sealy Jr. was an avid golfer and yachtsman. He maintained memberships in the Aziola Club, the Oleander Country Club, the Columbia Yacht Club of New York, the Yacht Club of New York, and many other social and civic organizations. His 60-foot yacht Naulahka, named for the popular 1892 work by Rudyard Kipling, sailed in several regattas and was considered one of the most attractive yachts on the bay.

Jennie was an active member of Trinity Episcopal church and followed in her parents’ footsteps by becoming involved in a number of charitable causes. She also oversaw the home and planned the business and social entertainments of her husband and unmarried brother. One of her joys was participation in the Ladies Musical Club that sponsored concerts and performances at the Scottish Rite Hall.

Electric wiring was added to the stable and servants building in 1908, and Jennie hired two new housemaids: one for the upstairs of their home and one to tend solely to the dining room.



A new glazed tile roof was added to the mansion in 1910, updating its appearance once again. That year, the household had four live-in servants including two housemaids, a cook and a male gardener. All were immigrants from England and Germany.

In order to heat the growing space of the mansion, the owners installed a 1,200-gallon fuel oil tank in 1925. The home utilized both gas and electricity for its lighting.

Smith was named to the board of directors of a group of local businessmen in 1910 that would be tasked with bringing a new beach hotel to the Island. Their efforts resulted in the construction of Hotel Galvez.

John Sealy Jr. and his sister Jennie Sealy Smith contributed an estimated $1 million to John Sealy Hospital and a woman’s hospital built in 1915. The two later established the Sealy-Smith Foundation to ensure the continued prosperity of the hospital.

John Sealy, Jr. died in 1926 during a trip to Paris, France where he had traveled for health reasons. His sister Jennie commissioned a set of ten bronze bell chimes and windows for the tower of Trinity Episcopal Church in his memory, with the provision that they be rung twice daily and on his birthday.

Four years later, Jennie would also lose her husband who passed away at the couple’s summer home in Glen Cove, New York after a brief illness. Shortly afterward, Jennie took two lodgers into her home for company: a female student and a female nurse.

Jennie succeeded her husband as president of the First National Bank of Galveston soon after his death, becoming the first woman bank president in the state. She relinquished the position a year later to tend to matters closer to her heart.

After her husband passed away Jennie spent most of her time at their summer home in Glen Cove Long Island, and her apartment in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City, where she died in 1938. The hospital, University of Texas Medical College and Galveston city hall flew their flags at half mast when they received the news of the loss.

There were no direct heirs to the family fortune, since neither Jennie nor John Jr. had children, and they left most of their money to causes that would benefit their beloved Galveston community.

The empty Sealy Smith mansion was loaned to the Red Cross in January 1940 to be used for first aid classes and space for volunteers to make surgical dressings for the military. Maco Stewart, Jr. purchased the property at the end of that month, but never intended to reside in the home. Instead, on February 5, 1940 he presented the deed to First Baptist Church pastor Dr. Harold Fickett as a memorial to Maco Stewart, Sr.

Given the name of the Stewart Memorial Center, the upstairs bedrooms of the large home were used for Sunday school classrooms and the downstairs areas for lectures and meetings. In 1944, Galvestonians had their last chance to glimpse the once elegant interiors of the former Sealy Smith mansion when it was included on the Oleander Trail Homes Tour.

Because the church always planned to build a new auditorium on the land, there were no attempts to retain the appearance of the original structure. A Sanborn map from 1947 shows that the Stewart Memorial building had been extended in a manner incongruous to its intended design.

Plans were completed for a new $500,000 building for the church in 1956, and the parsonage next door to the mansion and its garage were torn down in preparation. The former Sealy two-story carriage house and servants’ quarters were moved to 4509 Avenue Q ½.

A notice ran in the Galveston Daily News in June 1956 announcing that before the wrecking ball arrived at 822 23rd Street, the materials of the home were available to purchase including the large columns, interior wall paneling, lumber, and windows. There is no record if these components still exist in other homes on the Island.

The Sealy Smith mansion, once one of the most coveted residences in Galveston, was demolished on June 7, 1956.