The Pagoda Bath House

One of the first and most impressive ever constructed on the Island, the bathhouse was located at the intersection of 23rd Street and the beach.

By Kimber Fountain
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Despite a common assumption, Galveston was not always a destination for beachgoers. In fact, early measures taken to promote the booming commercial port city as such were met with staunch opposition from those who sought to maintain an elevated reputation as an island of commerce and industry. This was before the seawall was constructed, and long before the words “short term rental” became a regular part of the local dialect.

In the 19th century, the coastal (southern) edge of city proper looked much like the west end of today, lined with beachfront homes and neighborhoods occupied solely by full-time residents. Thus, the blowback against peddling Galveston’s city beaches to the masses was further fortified by those who wished to maintain a peaceful, private, waterfront existence.

Alas, the allure and sudden accessibility of “surf bathing” in nature’s most infinite creation proved too much to resist, and therein arose a glaring need. Despite its majesty, saltwater is still sticky, and bathing suits were considered a frivolous expense when travel to bodies of water was arduous, inconvenient, and relatively uncommon. Luckily for those willing to take two buses, a train, and a streetcar to get to the beach, Galveston has never been short on enterprising individuals.

Beginning in the 1880s, demand had grown to elicit the construction of a string of bathhouses along the Galveston coast that reached all the way to the island’s east end. One of the first and most impressive of these was the Pagoda Bath House at the intersection of 23rd Street and the beach, built and opened with a champagne christening on July 7, 1883, coinciding with the grand opening of the very first hotel on the beachfront, aptly named the Beach Hotel.

Designed by Galveston’s most distinguished architect, Nicholas Clayton, the Beach Hotel was financed and opened despite the opposition. Its immediate popularity was boosted by the wide array of entertainment it provided in addition to the clean, comfortable overnight accommodations. Adding to the hotel’s multi-faceted appeal was an eventual boardwalk that connected the hotel directly to the Pagoda.

An early example of mimetic architecture that was also remarkably clever in its ability to stand out among the numerous other bathhouses, the Pagoda consisted of two adjacent dome-like structures that were placed on pylons several feet out into the Gulf. They were tiered with curved, sloping eaves that rose over the water into a formation that was unmistakable by any other name.

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Walking along the beach, a search for the Pagoda Bath House would yield no mistakes. This whimsical but entirely functional addendum to Galveston’s beachfront was eye-catching, newsworthy, and along with its hotel partner made an indelible mark on the trajectory of the city’s future.

Although the Beach Hotel was a huge draw to the area’s upper stratum, overnight stays in Galveston at least for pleasure’s sake were not the norm nor did they comprise the majority of visitors. Most people were merely day-trippers who knew they could trade the few coins in their pocket for an unforgettable afternoon in the Gulf—and a much more comfortable journey home. At first, the Pagoda offered only swimsuit rentals, temporary clothing storage, and bathing facilities that were supplied fresh water by cisterns that collected rainwater. Its main feature was its appearance that also provided separate quarters. The dome on the right was for the men, the dome on the left for women and children.

Between 1895 and 1899, significant improvements were made to the bathhouse. It was connected to the city’s water main system, which eliminated the inefficient and limited water supplies of the cisterns. Two long, covered piers were added to each side of the bathhouse, allowing more room for facilities as well as food and drink service.

The piers also enlarged the house’s already dominant footprint along the beachfront, which was aptly translated into advertising space. Yet even with the additional square footage, some summers still brought the need for additional “rolling bathhouses,” small shed-like structures on wheels that were lined up on the sand in front of the Pagoda.

The Pagoda’s distinct shape and imposing presence made it a longstanding landmark along the shoreline. “Near the Pagoda…Just down from the Pagoda…Two blocks from the Pagoda,” were commonly heard. No matter the destination, or even the location of waterfront events as reported by the newspaper, the Pagoda was the beacon of the beach. It was a central meeting place, the hub of social activity, and it bore witness to many spectacular events including the capture of a massive “devilfish” in 1885.

The term devilfish is a ubiquitous one that has been used over time to refer to an indistinct array of grotesque sea creatures including the octopus, but the incident in Galveston involved what was known scientifically at the time as the Cephaloptera vampyrus.

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Today, it has been reclassified as Mobula birostris, commonly called the giant oceanic manta ray, the largest ray in the world. They can grow up to 23 feet across and weigh over six thousand pounds.

A school of these mammoth rays arrived in the waters of Galveston in late July of 1885, holding “surf-bathers in terror for…two weeks” according to the Galveston Daily News. On July 31, one of the rays was caught and tied to a piling in the shallow waters under the Pagoda. A massive crowd formed around the ill-fated fish, observing its every spectacular detail.

The ray died the next morning and was hauled to the lawn of the Beach Hotel where huge chunks of ice were placed inside its mouth and around its body to preserve it for further viewing. In hindsight, tales such as these reveal that cruelty is an unfortunate yet historically documented consequence of human curiosity, and they make it easy to understand why these creatures eventually became endangered and now congregate only in deep water.

Fortunately, the Pagoda Bath House would launch a legacy far more enduring than this isolated incident. As early as 1885, a man named George Murdock began managing the Pagoda. Some accounts claim that Mr. Murdock had been operating bath houses since 1882, but by the turn of the century he would become a local authority on beachfront tourism. The notability of the Pagoda brought Murdock square into the public eye where he was regularly interviewed for updates on various beach activities and attendance.

He continued to build a reputation for himself and managed the Pagoda until at least 1896. Around this time, he was reported to have obtained permits for building additional bathhouses west of the Pagoda to 27th Street. Either these new structures drew little acclaim, or they were not completed before the 1900 Storm.

The Pagoda held fast on the morning of September 8, 1900, until the early afternoon when it finally succumbed to what would become the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The exact nature of the ensuing business transaction of the Pagoda property is obscured, but in 1901, a new bath house was erected in its place. It was called Murdoch’s, and city directories list the proprietor as George Murdoch.

Also unknown is precisely why George decided to change the “k” to an “h” for business purposes, as he was still named by the Galveston Tribune as Murdock when they printed his emphatic assessments that Galveston was poised to become the “Atlantic City of the South” after the completion of the seawall.

But for a legacy that helped form Galveston’s future, for an icon of the island that has endured countless storms, destruction, and rebuilds to remain in the same location for 120 years, the letters simply do not seem to matter.