The Buccaneer Hotel

The 440 Room, 11 Story Hotel Boasted Every Possible Amenity Available

By Katherine Adams

Children growing up on Galveston Island in the 1920s had heard of Jean Lafitte. They’d been enthralled by legends of the swashbuckling pirate, so when news came out of the construction at 22nd and Seawall of a new luxury hotel called the Buccaneer, many small children said they truly believed they would go to the fancy new hotel and meet a real pirate.

One seven-year-old little girl slipped away from her parents while visiting the Mountain Speedway Rollercoaster, located directly behind the hotel, and wandered the halls of the Buccaneer unnoticed for more than two hours before her frantic parents finally found her. She had heard there were pirates in the Buccaneer Hotel and she simply wanted to meet them. Her parents were terribly upset, but she thought it had been a great adventure.

Over the course of the next three decades, nearly everyone who visited the Buccaneer Hotel would agree that although they hadn’t exactly met a real buccaneer there, they’d certainly had an adventure.

An adventure begins - the luxury Buccaneer Hotel opens

To great fanfare, the Buccaneer Hotel held its grand opening on May 1, 1929. Owned by the Moody family’s National Hotel Company, which also owned more than 30 other hotels all over the country, each of the 440 rooms in the 11-story Buccaneer had a beautiful, clear view of the Gulf of Mexico. The second-tallest building in Galveston boasted every possible amenity with a generous dose of beauty suggesting the swashbuckling romance of the days of Jean Lafitte.

Architect Andrew Frasier had spared no elegant detail, and he was able to make the most of the tight, awkward diagonal site. The Moodys had spared no expense and Gulf Coast newspapers were filled with articles about the new million-dollar luxury hotel.

Still struggling to overcome its reputation as a small Gulf island constantly battered by hurricanes, the Buccaneer Hotel’s presence on the Island’s busy Seawall was another sign to tourists that a wonderful, upscale seaside vacation was possible in Galveston.

“This hotel is flaunting its beauty to the skies. From the top of the hotel, you’ll get a better view than an aviator. Every room has pure distilled ice water, and a ceiling fan… the hotel can provide excellent seafood cuisine, a sun parlor, sunbathing on the roof, a garage across the street, a ballroom and convention hall, recreation rooms, and an indoor putting green,” reported the Galveston Daily News.

The hotel had implemented a new-fangled gizmo called a laundry chute, and of course the service was unrivaled. There were 150 employees hired to run the huge new hotel, and the newspapers photographed the mammoth new state-of-the-art kitchen.

“Enormous kitchen is a marvel of science,” read the excited caption. “Giant cook stove and baker’s shop.” The coffee shop featured a novel “iced-air arrangement” - a proto-air conditioning system. The Island was ready to embrace the Buccaneer into the rollicking atmosphere of entertainment along the Seawall.

Children at the Buccaneer

Children loved the Seawall because of all the concessions along the boulevard. Murdoch’s was one of several bath houses across the street, the Mountain Speedway Rollercoaster was a block away, and of course the beach and the waves always beckoned.

One of the Buccaneer’s unique features that made it a children’s favorite was a modern radio broadcasting studio on the second floor of the hotel. The station, KLUF 1410 AM, aired a children’s show every Saturday morning, and was the venue where local child songstress Kate Martelli made her singing debut in 1933 as a young teenager.

“The boys in the local merchant marine would pick up the station and request her songs,” said the January 2, 1999 edition of the Galveston Daily News. “She sang, “Is it True What They Say About Galveston?” and “Galveston Moon,” which were tunes written by her brother, who accompanied her on the piano.”

It was a wonderful place to showcase local talent, as well as more grown-up news shows focusing on the war, the Texas City Disaster, and other current events of the day.

As much as the children enjoyed the radio program and the pirate ambience of the hotel, grown-up Galvestonians quickly recognized that the Buccaneer Hotel was one of the best places to see and be seen. The Buccaneer was the venue for many a beautiful Island wedding, and local attorney Ed McDonough remembered one family wedding in particular that took place there when he was a small child.

“My aunt’s wedding reception was held there in 1944 or 1945,” said McDonough. “I was a child of about five or six. I remember my aunt’s big white dress, and I remember my new uncle had a white U.S. Navy uniform with a long white sword. They came out into the reception and I was just awestruck by the whole sight.”

As it turns out, other guests might have also been awestruck, but maybe not for the same reason. “My grandmother’s sister, whom we called Aunt Molly, had a reputation for being a bit of a card - meaning she drove my mother crazy,” said McDonough.

“During the reception, before the bride and groom came in, we were standing at a huge cascading fountain in the foyer of the ballroom. It was about six or eight feet tall and it was full of coins. I was completely fascinated with it.”

Great-Aunt Molly saw young Ed’s interest in the fountain and decided to stir things up a bit. “She encouraged me to take off my shoes and socks and get in the fountain and start picking up the coins,” he remembered.

“The bride and groom came by, and so did my mother. She was horrified. I remember her mouth was open, just screaming at me. She scooped me up and I dropped all the coins. I’m pretty sure I got a paddling. That’s one of my most vivid memories of the Buccaneer.”

Celebrities and Fine Dining

The most well-known musicians of the day were regular guests at the Buccaneer on their concert tours, making it a haven for star-gazers. Popular bandleader and Jack Benny sidekick Phil Harris often played at the Balinese Room across the boulevard, and stayed at the Buccaneer along with his wife, actress Alice Faye. But he had to take the freight elevator to his room to avoid his many adoring fans.

The Buccaneer Hotel dining room was a five-star “uptown” treat for Galveston families who dressed in their best clothes and had Sunday lunch in the restaurant at a table with starched linen tablecloths and napkins and beautiful floral arrangements. Parents taught their children what to do with the finger bowls filled with water and a slice of lemon on top - most had never seen finger bowls anywhere else.

Galveston residents were likely to rub shoulders with the Moodys, the Maceos, who lived on the third floor of the hotel for years, and numerous local and national celebrities. The hotel was an integral part of the busy social swing of Galveston in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Placeholder imageThe adventures come to an end

Nothing is permanent except change. The year 1962 brought a stunning announcement from the beloved Galveston hotel. The Moody Foundation would donate the property to the Methodist church, and would no longer be known as the Buccaneer Hotel. It was converted into apartments for the elderly, and became known as Moody House, a part of Edgewater Methodist Retirement Community. Then, in 1994, the Galveston Daily News reported that the historic site could be slated for demolition. The building, which had become “downright decrepit,” required nearly $10 million in renovations. The Board of Directors was not able to raise nearly that amount to bring the building up to code, and the future of the former hotel seemed bleak. It was ultimately decided that the Buccaneer Hotel would be imploded on January 1, 1999. The Buccaneer Hotel’s departure from the Island occurred with as much fanfare as its arrival. The hotel hosted a string of beautiful but bittersweet farewell parties. On New Year’s Day in 1999, after the city cordoned off the hotel’s perimeter and instructed those living nearby to keep their windows closed, traffic was re-routed and huge crowds gathered to bid a fond farewell to one of the Seawall’s most recognizable beacons. Child singer Kate Martelli, whose solo performances at Buccaneer events and whose voice was made locally famous on the children’s show broadcasted from the Buccaneer’s in-house radio station, was chosen to press the button to activate 250 lbs. of dynamite that would implode the hotel. As crowds sang, “Auld Lang Syne,” and Martelli, who was 78 years old in 1999, reprised her nostalgic tunes about Galveston, the building that was the hub of social activity on the Island was gone within seven seconds. The pirates were gone and the adventures were over, but memories of three decades of Galveston’s grandest days will remain.