Celebrating History

Author Kathleen Maca Releases New Book about the Tremont House Hotels

By Donna Gable Hatch
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The enduring enchantment of Galveston Island is partly attributed to its intricate fusion of captivating historical tales and splendid architectural design, influenced by the ravages of military conflict, fires, and natural disasters - and the triumph over all three.

 Galveston’s lovingly restored architectural treasures, steeped in the patina of time and tradition, whisper tales of eras long past, drawing wanderers into the depths of bygone days. Rooted in its profound maritime legacy and indomitable spirit, the island stands as a living testament to a resilient heritage, proudly showcasing historic landmarks that shape its identity. 

 The island has a true champion in author and historian Kathleen Shanahan Maca. She has made significant contributions to capturing the essence of Galveston Island through her literary work, which includes A History of the Hotel Galvez, Galveston's Broadway Cemeteries, Ghosts of Galveston, and The Ghostly Tales of Galveston. 

 A book signing for her latest offering, Galveston's Tremont House Hotel: A History, will take place on Saturday, May 18, at Galveston Bookshop, 317 23rd Street, from 1pm to 3pm. 

 Another book signing will take place on Saturday, May 25, at the Henry Toujouse Bar (inside The Tremont House), 2300 Ship Mechanic Row Street, from 6pm to 8pm. 

 The bar pays tribute to the legacy of the distinguished French entrepreneur, hotelier, and saloonkeeper whose original 1888 hand-carved rosewood bar adorns the hotel’s lobby. During the event, guests can indulge in an authentic recipe of a classic old-fashioned cocktail reminiscent of those crafted by Toujouse himself more than 130 years ago. 

 Placeholder image“The Tremont is unique in that, although it has existed in multiple incarnations, it has always held a place of importance and respect in the community,” Maca said. 

 “For many years, it was the meeting place for important organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and city leaders making decisions that dramatically affected the future of the island.” 

 The 192-page book features more than 60 photos, twice what the publisher originally requested, she said. “I have enjoyed finding lesser-known images to share in addition to the more familiar ones.”

 Tracking the history of the Tremont led the author on a journey spanning multiple states. Navigating through various archives and repositories, and accessing research sources posed significant challenges, compounded by the loss of materials over time.

 “I’ve been able to locate archives in multiple states that have had a variety of items that have helped tell the hotel’s story. There are also many stories about the Tremont in the community, but before I shared any of them in book form, I needed to confirm that they were true. In that process, I usually found many more details, as well as other unexpected tales that I think readers will enjoy,” she said.

 The story of The Tremont House is one of triumph over adversity, beginning with its inaugural construction in 1839, coinciding with the founding of the City of Galveston itself. However, tragedy struck in 1865 when the original Tremont House fell victim to a devastating fire that ravaged the Strand District, leaving the once-grand hotel in ruins for over five years. 

 Maca was particularly struck by the history of the second version of the Tremont House, “a grand creation designed by architect Nicholas Clayton” that rose from the ashes in 1872. 

 Clayton was a prominent figure in the realm of High Victorian architecture, characterized by his vibrant creations that embraced diverse elements such as shape, color, texture, and intricate detailing. His mastery extended particularly to decorative brick and ironwork, showcasing his adeptness in crafting visually captivating structures. 

 Notable clusters of Clayton's architectural marvels are found in the enclaves of the Strand Historic District and the East End Historic District, showcasing the enduring legacy of his contributions to the region.

 For decades, visitors approaching the island were greeted by the striking architectural elegance of Clayton’s Tremont House. The lookout tower, atop its unique mansard roof, stood as the tallest structure on Galveston Island. The tower became a destination in its own right, providing panoramic views spanning from one end of the island to the other. 

 Besides standing as an impressive symbol of Galveston’s grandeur at the time, it incorporated innovative features that presented a superior experience to its visitors. 

 While conducting research, Maca uncovered what was believed to be the sole surviving guest registry of the hotel from that era. Upon further examination, she realized it was actually a guest book for those folks adventurous enough to ascend a small wooden ladder into the lookout tower - an impressive feat. 

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 The guest list at the Tremont House Hotel reads like a prestigious roll call, featuring renowned figures throughout history.

 Guests of note included: Clara Barton, celebrated for her establishment of the American Red Cross; President Ulysses S. Grant; Harry Houdini, the iconic magician famed for his daring feats and escapes in theaters, vaudeville performances, and public spectacles; and Sam Houston, the leader of the Texian forces during the Texas Revolution. Houston's pivotal role culminated in the triumphant Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, securing Texas independence after defeating the Mexican army.

 Placeholder image“I loved pouring over the original architectural drawings of the second - and grandest - Tremont and figuring out how every nook and cranny was used and figured into the bigger story. Which room did Clara Barton use to conduct meetings of the Red Cross in the days following the 1900 Storm? Where was King Momus’ throne in the early years of Mardi Gras? Where did President Grant eat dinner? Little details bring the stories to life.” 

 The resilience of The Tremont House would be tested once more in 1900, when a catastrophic hurricane - dubbed The Great Storm - laid waste to Galveston, claiming thousands of lives and leaving the island in ruins. As the economy faltered, so too did the once-thriving hotel, eventually succumbing to condemnation and demolition in 1928, fading into memory as a relic of a bygone era. 

 However, the spirit of The Tremont House refused to be extinguished, thanks to the vision and dedication of Cynthia and George Mitchell, pioneers of Galveston's revitalization efforts. Inspired by a preservation program they encountered in Savannah, the Mitchells embarked on a mission to breathe new life into Galveston's neglected downtown area, laying the groundwork for the resurrection of The Tremont House. 

 “The Mitchells were such a gift to our island - preserving historic structures that otherwise would have been lost,” she said. “They used the former Blum Building, which has a colorful story all its own, to house the newest incarnation of the hotel and carry on the Tremont House name.”

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 In 1981, the Mitchells acquired the Leon & H. Blum Building, a historic structure dating back to 1879, and transformed it into the third incarnation of The Tremont House. Opening its doors in 1985, the revitalized hotel marked a renaissance for downtown Galveston, becoming the first major hotel to grace its streets in 60 years. 

 “One of my favorite people to interview was Michael Gaertner, Sr., who was the supervising architect for the formidable task of transforming the Blum Building into the newest Tremont House,” she said.

 “Hearing about challenges they faced, from weather and collapsing walls to which room was Cynthia Mitchell’s favorite, was priceless.” 

Today, The Tremont House is a testament to the enduring allure of Victorian-era architecture and old-world hospitality, seamlessly blending historic charm with modern amenities to offer guests an unforgettable experience. 

 From the soaring ceilings and hardwood floors of its guest rooms to the meticulously curated food and beverage offerings, every detail has been thoughtfully crafted to transport visitors to a bygone era of elegance and refinement. 

 “The present-day Tremont House is an elegant hotel, with an incredibly gracious staff. It will be a top choice of accommodations for years to come for dignitaries, travelers, and - because of its proximity to the 1894 Grand Opera House - celebrities and performers. And, of course, from the beginning, the Mitchells positioned it as ‘the’ hotel of Mardi Gras.” 

 With an understanding of the deep-rooted connection between the Tremont House and the residents, the author - who is already at work on two more Galveston history-related books - aims to deepen this sense of pride through the stories they share.

 “I know the Galveston community is already proud of The Tremont House, so I hope that the stories I share about it make them even more so - and opens visitors’ eyes to how amazing it is that the legacy is continuing and that they can take part in it,” she said. 

“Everyone who has ever stepped inside the door of one of the Tremont Houses is part of its history as much as others before them, like Sam Houston, Clara Barton, Harry Houdini, and more.” 

 In addition to her literary pursuits, Maca - a long time contributor to Galveston Monthly - actively shares her expertise in cemetery history and restoration as a valued contributor to the Association for Gravestone Studies. As a Certified Tourism Ambassador, she leads engaging historical tours in Galveston, particularly within the Historic Broadway Cemetery District and along the renowned Strand. 

 Her involvement extends to various organizations, including the Texas Society Daughters of the American Revolution (Sam Houston Chapter), the Bay Area Genealogy Society, and The Laffite Society - a nonprofit dedicated to exploring the legacies of privateers Jean and Pierre Laffite and their contemporaries.

 As an admiral in the Texas Navy Association, Maca helps preserve its heroic legacy. Initially part of the Texas Military Forces, the Texas Navy disbanded after annexation, with its ships transferred to the United States Navy in June 1846. 

 After a century of obscurity, the Texas Navy was revived by Governor Marion Price Daniel, Sr., in 1958 as the Texas Navy Association, anchored in Galveston. Operating as a charitable organization, it safeguards Texas maritime heritage. The association diligently preserves the state’s naval legacy with a hierarchical structure and officially recognized ranks including Texas Admirals who are appointed solely by the Governor of Texas. 

 Galveston's Tremont House Hotel: A History is available in paperback format for $24.99 at The Galveston Bookshop, The Admiralty, Tina’s on the Strand, The Tremont House, and other local retailers, as well as Amazon.com. For more information, please visit kathleenmaca.com.