Smith-Perry Boarding House

1101 Tremont

By Kathleen Maca
Placeholder image 

The large, rambling house at the corner of 23rd Street and Avenue K may be a portrait of abandonment in its current state, but it has a long history of hosting visitors and being called home by generations of Galvestonians.

It was built as a boarding house in 1912-1913 by George C. Smith, a telephone operator at the Galveston Daily News, and was designed by his new wife Louise Dowling Smith. They lived there with her two children from a previous marriage, 14-year-old twins Louise Faye and Louis Holmes.

The local newspaper touted that their establishment would open on February 1, 1913, with “strictly modern” single and en suite, furnished guest rooms with southern exposures, each featuring washstands with hot and cold running water, private bath tubs, as well as electric call bells, and “speaking tubes” to communicate with other areas of the house. It also offered the luxury of an ice water faucet on each floor, which was likely a popular feature in the days before air conditioning.

The original 27-room design incorporated twenty rooms for rent, four toilet rooms, three porches, six halls, 27 closets, two brick fireplaces, and a ground floor kitchen and dining room. The owners’ quarters on the ground floor were the only accommodation with full private bath facilities.

During the cool months of the year, heating was provided by a floor furnace and a Humphrey gas heater in the kitchen. Built on four lots, the structure provided more than 7,700 square feet of living space and gracious grounds for residents to enjoy.

The exterior of the three-story frame house balanced on brick piers retains a distinctive mansard style roof, punctured by the dormer windows of the third story. The front elevation is L-shaped with an off-center one-story porch with square columns that wraps around the left corner; that is topped by a wide balcony with a stick baluster railing.

Jean Lafitte 

A three-story bay flanks the center of each side of the main building, giving character to what would otherwise be an expanse flatness, and a narrower three-story wing projects from the back.

In addition to the four family members, residents of the home in its first year included Miss Lula Durr, her brother Sebastian (a local clerk), and their relative Peter M. Gengler who was a bookkeeper at Garbade, Eiband & Company.

Other housemates were butcher Ely Johl, bookkeeper James A. Price, office clerk Eugene P. Theis, and druggists William Roscoe Manor and T. Charles McCormick who worked for Wilder, Michaelis & Hughes. The Smiths also had several “table boarders,” who paid for meals at the house but who did not live there.

The Smiths divorced in 1915, after less than five years of marriage, and Louise reverted to her previous last name of Holmes. Her daughter Louise Faye married Edward O’Brien in 1918, the same year that son Louis was away serving in the military during World War I.

Louis served in the marine corps and was involved in transferring four German prisoners during the Battle of Chateau-Thierry in June 1918, when he was shot multiple times in the legs. His mother was notified via telegram from Washington D. C. on July 7 that he had made the ultimate sacrifice.

Adding confusion to her grief, she received two letters from her son shortly after the notification of his death, and assumed they had taken longer to arrive by mail service. In October, she received word from a military hospital in Paris that her son was alive, and after several operations had made a full recovery.

Tragedy averted, Louise returned her attention to the rooming house and entertaining friends with bridge parties and luncheons.

Louis returned to the island after his recovery and eventually married Mary Borman in 1922. They moved away from the island, leaving his mother to run the business alone.

Placeholder image Unfortunately, her daughter died in May 1925, during a visit to San Antonio. The funeral and visitation were held at the boarding house.

In 1926, Holmes sold the house and all of its furniture to Jessie Belle Cather Perry, a widow who had lost her husband during the 1919 Spanish Flu epidemic. Perry lived there with sons Francis Thornton and William Preston, as well as her sister Ella Cather.

Though the new owner initially renamed the establishment the Paramount, after two years people simply referred to it as Perry’s Place.

Perry made much needed repairs and repainted the home in 1929. Generations of young married couples, blue collar workers, and retirees lived there in the following years.

Perry ran the house until her death in 1951, one year after her sister passed away. She operated the establishment longer than anyone else in the home’s history.

The building, which retained the name Perry’s Place, lingered as a boarding house through the early 1970s. It later had an incarnation as an antique store.

For the next two decades, the home changed hands, but underwent few constructive changes, other than a new roof and some interior repairs in 1979. Items that were no longer needed, such as metal shaving cabinets, pipe fittings, and a few furnishings, were sold in the early-1990s.

Norman Jones purchased the property about 1996, and began renovations. He added a wood deck, screened the lower front porch, restored the interior and filled it with carefully chosen antiques.

Jones applied for a permit for the location to be used as a bed and breakfast, and renamed it the Normandy Inn. Soon after making the improvements, however, he listed it for sale complete with contents.

Among the interested investors who inquired about the property was one of Galveston’s most notorious figures. Millionaire Robert Durst and his wife Deborah Charatan expressed interest in purchasing the large home for their personal use just before his 2003 acquittal in the murder trial of his neighbor Morris Black. In 2021, he was convicted of the murder of his long-time friend Susan Burman, and died in prison earlier this year.

Placeholder imageJones died in 2004. His family completed refurbishment of the home including replacement of all electrical and plumbing in 2005. The woodwork, wainscoting and other original features were restored, and the floorplan was improved to offer six full en suites with private baths, three with two bedrooms each. A new roof was installed in 2007, replacing the original shake style shingles with metal replicas, completing all necessary improvements.

The historic property was offered for sale once again, fully furnished for a drastically reduced price, but struggled to find a buyer.

It remained for sale until investment partners George Wood of League City, and Matthew D. Wiggins, former mayor of Kemah (2006-2011), purchased it on September 4, 2007. The pair acquired multiple derelict properties together with the intention to resell them, but have since been involved in legal disputes with each other.

Just over one month after buying the home, the pair sold the entire contents of the Normandy Inn.

Largely due to the home’s abandoned status, vandalism and state of increasing neglect, local lore has developed about the property. Tales of hauntings and Satanic rituals have most likely developed from frightened trespassers unexpectedly encountering transients who occasionally inhabit the home.

Jean Lafitte 

Placeholder imageOne popular tale relates how a former child resident was chased out of a second story window of the house. This has undoubtedly evolved from an incident about 20 years ago when a group of teenage trespassers dared one of their group to jump from the window. Luckily, the boy was unharmed.

Local urban legends aside, the building’s spooky appearance is simply due to neglect. Until legal matters are solved and a new owner appears, the fate of the large 110-year-old home sadly hangs in limbo.