For 87 years, multiple generations of a single family walked up the front steps to the expansive front porch of their Southern colonial residence, past four grand Doric columns, and into the home where they spent their lives together.
The Skinner-Girardeau home at 1603 Broadway was built in 1873 by cotton broker and president of Texas Loans and Investment Company James Devers Skinner (1832-1901). The Kentucky native moved to Liberty, Texas, in 1850 where he married Sarah Adelaide “Sally” Chambers (1831-1930) ten years later. Sally’s brother Thomas Jefferson Chambers is the namesake of Chambers County, and her parents and other siblings hold a prominent place in Texas history.
In 1868, the couple and their two children James Sidney (1865-1936) and Mary Gertrude (1867-1958) relocated to Galveston Island where the patriarch of the family founded the cotton factoring and merchant business that would become J. D. Skinner & Son. Their youngest child William Cooke (1870-1953) was the first member of the family to be born on the Island.
Within five years, Skinner’s success enabled him to build an impressive two-story home on Galveston’s main thoroughfare with lumber shipped from east Texas by rail. The unusual floor plan incorporated 10 square rooms with soaring 13-foot ceilings and four hallways. Nine of the rooms were painted and accented with wallpaper, and there were four closets (a luxury at the time) and one bathroom.
Guests entered the home through a front door of beveled glass that led to an entryway adorned with Belgian tile. Double downstairs parlors were lighted with magnificent cut-glass gas chandeliers centered on plaster of Paris medallions in Rococo design, and the windows were accented with elegant gold leaf-trimmed cornices over four triple-sash windows.
Wide, white pine floors ran through the remainder of the home, and the other entries to the home were covered with newly popular screen storm doors which provided the opportunity for doors to be opened to the bay breezes without inviting coastal insects inside. Although the family always had a live-in servant, there was no back staircase.
One unique feature of the home that was touted in local newspapers was an ingenious heating system. Chimneys from the four downstairs fireplaces, each with a marble mantle, directed heat through ventilators into second floor rooms to spread the warmth.
The home also featured seven porches where the Skinner family and their friends could relax and visit. Five additional interior rooms, one with a fireplace, were added in later renovations.
In addition to his ever-expanding business operations, Skinner was elected city alderman for several terms beginning in 1877 and city finance chairman in 1897 during Mayor A. W. Fly’s administration.
As one of Galveston’s most prominent citizens, Skinner’s home was a center for the cultural and social life in the city. Numerous gatherings, including euchre parties filled the family’s entertaining calendar. A popular pastime during this era, euchre was a trick playing card game and credited with introducing the joker into the modern deck of card
The businessman’s daughter Gertrude, known to her friends as Gertie, married Edward Reed Girardeau (1862-1940) in 1889 after attending the prestigious Hollins Institute in Virginia. The couple lived with the Skinners, beginning in a separate smaller building on the property and eventually moving into the main home.
The following year, Gertie’s brother Sidney married Caroline “Carrie” Heywood Bacon in Washington, D. C., after meeting the lovely young socialite while he attended Washington and Lee University. The couple moved to Galveston after the wedding and built their home just two blocks away from the Skinner mansion at 1803 Broadway.
William Cooke, the youngest sibling, married Adele Preston (1874-1966) in Galveston in 1895, and established their own home at 1318 Sealy.
Gertie and Edward soon filled the home with activity again, with the arrival of their five children: Adelaide (1891-1987), Edward Reed Jr. (1893-1954), Gertrude (1895-1990), Dorothy (1900-1991) and Helen Frances (1904-1953).
When James Skinner passed away in 1901, he left his residence to Gertie, and his wife Sally remained in the home. The young Girardeau family entertained another generation of Galvestonians at dinners and celebrations in the large residence.
On the afternoon of January 2, 1905, Adelaide enjoyed a gathering of forty of her friends at her 14th birthday party. Live musicians performed as the attendees danced in the drawing room and adjoining parlor. Sprigs of mistletoe were suspended from the parlor chandeliers, providing temptation for the youngsters.
In the dining room where the dinner was served, a Christmas bell tied with red ribbons and bows hung from the chandelier, with strands from the ribbon draping to the four corners of the table. A large poinsettia from Mexico served as the centerpiece, and cut glass bowls filled with candies and almonds sat at each place beside the servings of ice cream in heart shaped designs. The hostess’ birthday cake sat at the head of the table adorned with fourteen red candles.
Adelaide later married Colonel Lathrop Clapham of the United States Infantry in 1914 and left her beloved family home to live on a series of military bases. Then in 1926, her sister Helen made her formal debut and was a princess of the Mardi Gras court, becoming the focus of several special family celebrations.
The matriarch of the family, Sally Skinner, passed away at the age of 99 in July 1930 in the home that she and her husband built almost six decades earlier. Her visitation was held in the parlor that had been the site of countless events of a happier nature.
The home sustained roof damage during the hurricane of 1943, known as the “Secret Storm,” but was able to be repaired within a few months. In 1950, the Skinner-Girardeau home was a featured stop on a Galveston homes tour, giving visitors a glimpse inside the impressive home they had admired for almost 65 years.
The home once again made headlines, yet in a more frightening way in February 1952 when the first-story furnace sparked a fire in the home’s living room during a flood. Luckily, the fire department was able to navigate the water-filled streets to extinguish the flames before much damage was done.
Helen, who had never married but became a popular English teacher at Ball High School, passed away at the age of 49 in the family home in September 1953. Her brother Edward Reed Jr. succumbed to cancer at their parents’ home the next year. He had married Henrietta Ward in 1924, but she tragically passed away due to tuberculosis just a few years afterward
The residence continued to be a center for community meetings, and it was within its walls in 1956 that the Colonial Dames first discussed merging with the Galveston Historical Foundation.
Unmarried sisters Dorothy and Gertrude had remained in the house through their entire lives, but finally admitted that the home was too spacious for them to maintain. In 1960, after unsuccessfully being on the market for two years, it was demolished so that a buyer could be found for the property. Only the towering palms and oleanders remained, framing the empty lot.
Gertrude and Dorothy passed away within a year of each other in 1990 and 1991, the last of the Girardeau family members who carried fond memories of growing up in the beautiful landmark home.