The S.S. Galveston

The Sheer Absurdity of the Ship-Shaped Hotel Was Absolutely Endearing

By Kimber Fountain
SS Galveston 

Galveston is one of those places that will try anything once. As evidenced by the continual evolution of entertainment on the seawall throughout the 20th century on up until today, anything that is trendy is welcome for as long as it is trendy.

In the 1930s, as the automobile became more reliable and people ventured out to travel longer distances, businesses along once-barren stretches of the United States began to pop up, and if they were going to succeed in the middle of nowhere, they had to make sure that they garnered as much attention as possible from the people driving by. Since billboards had yet to become ubiquitous, these business owners reasoned that their best advertisement was the building itself.

Henceforth began a new trend in architecture called mimetic architecture, also known as novelty or programmatic architecture, a concept that is not defined by subtle lines or specific ornamentation or certain materials only recognizable to the trained eye. Rather, mimetic architecture is easily identifiable because the buildings simply look like giant versions of everyday objects.

In the early years of the mimetic style, restaurants on the side of the highway might be shaped like hot dogs, or coffee shops shaped like a coffee pot, and through the height of its popularity in the 1950s, the creativity expanded to everything from ducks, flower pots, ice cream cones, and teapots, to baskets, donuts, fruit, and animals.

Although it is less widely used today, mimetic architecture still abounds in places like Las Vegas and other resort destinations where businesses and hotels often require showmanship to stand out in a crowd of options.

Seawall Boulevard was granted its own, appropriately themed mimicry when the ship-shaped S.S. Galveston Court Hotel opened in 1941. The proprietors were the Hill Brothers - James, Claude, and L.A. - who just months prior had opened the Hills Restaurant at 15th and Seawall (on the lot now occupied by Saltgrass Steakhouse). The eye-catching building, pristine interior, and quality food reasonably priced, immediately established the brothers as savvy entrepreneurs, and Hills Restaurant would remain a local favorite for decades.
SS Galveston

Soon after opening the restaurant, plans commenced for a hotel. The Hills hired local architect Ben Milam, who designed the 1940 Cotton Exchange Building (2102 Mechanic) for Isaac Kempner. Whether the design was a request from the Hills or Milam’s invention is not known, but the sheer absurdity of it was absolutely endearing - smile-producing novelty at its finest.

Located between 8th and 9th Streets with an address of 802 Seawall Boulevard, the S.S. Galveston Court featured twenty-six furnished units in the most modern of style; one, two, and three room options included efficiency kitchens and a living area. The apartments were arranged in the shape of an ocean-going vessel, complete with a smokestack, anchor, and even a bridge.

“S.S. Galveston” was painted on the hull to complete the illusion. Construction costs totaled $100,000, which would put it at $1.7 million to construct today.

The novelty of the project was indeed magnetic, and the S.S. Galveston drew a lot of attention, quickly becoming a first choice for many vacation-goers. However, the hotel business apparently did not suit the Hills, or perhaps the originality of the design was also its demise - it significantly limited the amount of units on the property, subsequently affecting revenue potential.

After only two years, the Hill Brothers sold the property to Magdalena Reynolds on December 21, 1943. Less than three months later, Reynolds sold again to a man named Angelo Caravegeli on March 11, 1944. The announcements of both of these transactions in their respective newspaper marveled that the purchase exceeded $100,000, but in actuality, that was no more than it had cost to build.

The last publicly acknowledged owner of the building was Bruce Farmer in the late 1960s, and the business remained steadily in operation through several other owners even as the building began to age. One particular deed transfer in the 1990s changed the name of the ship hotel to the Mayflower Inn, although the new owners did allow the “S.S. Galveston” to remain proudly emblazoned on the ship hull.

But as the building crept towards dilapidation, it proved itself no longer news-worthy, at least until someone decided they wanted to tear it down. The building was considered historic by many locals as a rare surviving example of mimetic architecture, but it did not have an official designation and therefore was not legally protected.

In 2005, the building came under contract to a group of Houston developers who sought to use the sight for a condominium building, but their plans were not made known until May of 2006 when Scott Breimeister, a principle in the development group, announced that the firm was researching an appropriate residential project for the site.
SS Galveston

The following December, after sixteen months of planning, Breimeister and his group were victoriously awarded a special-use permit (SUP) for their mid-rise design. It was the first permit awarded since a heated debate had resulted in the imposition of building height restrictions on the seawall, helped in part by the developers’ reduction of the height of the building from fourteen stories to six - four residential levels and two for parking. They also changed the aesthetic to a Mediterranean design after interviewing nearby residents to gain their input.

Called the Tuscany Beachfront Condominiums, the development was slated to house exactly fifty-six, one- and two-bedroom units ranging from $150,000 to $300,000. They promoted the features and amenities of the upcoming property, including a terrace with a pool that overlooked the Gulf of Mexico, sophisticated interiors, storm-resistant windows, and sound-proofed walls. The exterior design had a traditional European flair that suited Galveston’s historic personality.

Demolition of the Mayflower Inn began less than one month after the permit issuance and was completed by March of 2007. Six months later, however, the blank canvas was untouched and it appeared that Breimeister and crew had lost their steam. He reassured the public in September that the project was very much a “go,” but that they had to wait until a certain amount of units were sold before they could break ground.

By November, however, word was out that between environmental and feasibility studies, architectural services, permit fees, and the fees to incorporate the two supervising companies, the development group was already invested at over $2 million and not one brick had been laid.

The last printed mention of Tuscany Beachfront Condominiums was in March of 2008. No further progress was ever made, and the only lingering clues to the property’s future are the fifty-six listings in the Galveston County Appraisal District for 802 Seawall Boulevard.

Did You Know? Many people often confuse the S.S. Galveston with the S.S. Snort which was also located on the seawall, a few blocks away between 12th and 13th Streets.