The unique home at 2818 Ball, which has stood vacant for decades silently waiting for rescue, is slowly being demolished by neglect. In the past, it was a beautiful home, a place of refuge and even a place of worship. Multiple plans for the building, some including grants, have never come to fruition, but it stands with an air of hope.
It was originally the home of German immigrant Henry Beissner, Sr. (1837-1908), who came to Galveston in 1855. He initially worked for his uncles—Charles Ludwig Beissner (1809-1882), the proprietor of the Washington Hotel, and George W. Beissner (1816-1882)—before beginning his own liquor business.
In 1861, he married another German native, Helena Kaper (1840-1925), and together they had three children, Helene Margaret (1861-1913), Amalie Marie Henriette (1863-1878) and Henry R., Jr. (1874-1944). With his wife’s encouragement, he operated a small but successful coffee house on the corner of Market and Thirty-second Streets until 1864, when he was conscripted into the Confederate Army.
When he returned to the island after the war in 1865, he purchased a lot on the southwest corner of Market and Twenty-ninth Streets, erected a small building and opened a wholesale and retail grocery. He pursued that endeavor for about a decade, operating a nearby saloon at the same time. The family lived over the grocery store.
Active in the community, Beissner was one of the organizers of the German Lutheran Church on the island, as well as president of the Der Deutsch-Texanische Freundschaftsbund (Texas Friendship Covenant), a benevolent organization for local Germans.
Tragedy struck the family on July 3, 1878, when the family’s fifteen-year-old daughter Amalie was playing in the backyard with friends, and suddenly fell to the ground unconscious. It was originally thought she might have been kicked by a horse, but the doctor who examined her when she as taken inside could find no injuries. She died of a heart condition that same day.
Henry purchased three lots on Ball Avenue, plus an adjacent lot in 1883 for $4,500. He opened his first lumberyard there, maintaining his office and residence in his old grocery store.
His success in the lumber business allowed him to replace three small structures previously built on Ball with the current home in 1890-1891, which cost $7,900 to build. Constructed with cypress from his own lumberyard, it acted as a structural advertisement of his goods, as well as a home. He soon moved his lumberyard to the site of his former grocery on Market.
Though at the time the neighborhood was unfashionable, but respectable, the substantial house dominated the block with a unique design and attention to detail.
The appearance of the home is predominately Stick-Eastlake adorned with a Japanese-like band of fretwork across the front gable and porch, carved to resemble bundles of bamboo. Until that detail’s loss in recent years, it was the only one of its kind existing on the island.
What made the exterior even more unique was that it was finished with a dark stain, rather than being painted. The durability of the cypress is probably the singular reason the main portion of the house still stands.
A raised dwelling, the home was elevated on 10-foot brick piers that were finished with scored plaster in the appearance of stonework. Including the basement, the home was three stories in height, with the upstairs rooms being housed beneath a multi-gabled roof.
Entering the home, visitors would climb the front stairs to a wide porch and past floor-to-ceiling windows that opened to welcome gulf breezes inside, before stepping into a tiled vestibule. The front hallway was carpeted, and the rooms featured wood flooring.
The 2,288-square-foot house included five rooms on the ground floor, two rooms in the attic and multiple basement rooms. Lighting was provided by gas and three brick fireplaces with fireproof concrete chimneys warmed the rooms in the winter.
Beissner erected a two-story slate roofed stable at the back of the lots, the upper story of which was used as rental properties. The stable is long gone, but a replacement two-story rental property was erected on the opposite side of the yard in later years.
The yard also provided space for two large cypress cisterns, one of his lumberyard’s most popular products.
A few years after completing his home, Henry sold the lumberyard and retired, though he maintained sizable investments in Galveston real estate and stock in local businesses.
In 1896, the couple painted and re-papered several of the interior rooms of their home. In January 1900, Henry Jr. married Minnie C. Martin (1878-1956), and the couple moved into the home with his parents.
Later that year, the Beissner home earned its nickname “Noah’s Ark” during the 1900 Storm when it acted as a sanctuary for people in the area, with some reports claiming that up to 300 people sought shelter there.
The grade-raising that followed the storm did not affect the house, so the elevation and appearance of the structure in relation to the land remains much as it did when it was constructed.
The younger Beissner couple moved into their own home nearby after the storm, and the upstairs rooms were rented out to “suitable” gentlemen.
Beissner became ill in 1908, and he went to Germany for four months seeking treatment. After seeing improvement, he and his wife were making their way home when he suffered an attack of diabetes and was taken off a steamer in Baltimore, where doctors recommended surgery.
Henry and Helena continued to Galveston, but ten days after receiving surgery on the island, he passed away at home. He was buried in Old City Cemetery near his daughter Amalie.
In 1914, Helena Beissner sold the house to the Hebrew Benevolent Association, which used it as a synagogue for the orthodox Jewish community until 1923. The Association in turn sold it to Harry Franklin who maintained it as a low-income rental property.
Shortly after it was wired for electricity, an unexplained fire in the middle of the night caused $1,000 worth of damage the house in May 1926. The home, which was vacant at the time, suffered a gutted attic and the second story was badly charred.
Only two more renovations are listed in the records for the property: the addition of floor furnaces in 1949, and non-detailed improvements in 1964.
Franklin stopped renting rooms in the home and moved in himself in the early 1970s. After his death, the Franklin family sold the property to the Galveston Historical Foundation, who in turn sold it to Stan Harper in 1978 at a reduced price with the agreement he would rehabilitate the property.
Earning a place on the National Register of Historic Places on April 3, 1978, the home garnered renewed attention.
Despite these steps, the city added the Beissner House to its list of condemned structures due to numerous code violations in 1980 and scheduled it for demolition.
The Henry Beissner House got a facelift with several renovations in 1982, thanks to grants and donations, helping to avoid the wrecking ball, but there was still much work to be done.
Stan Harper sold the home to civil rights attorney Anthony Griffin in 1994, and the attorney started operating his practice there the same year. An organization named ECO Place (Economic and Cultural Offerings) planned to help develop the Henry Beissner Home as a place of commerce for the community but plans never materialized.
Griffin, now retired, is the current owner of the home, which is slowly being lost to decay just blocks from more fortunate historic structures such as Moody Mansion and Ashton Villa.