Grandeur Lost

The John D. Rogers Mansion

By Kathleen Maca
John D Rogers 

Many residents in the early days of Galveston had an impact on lives and businesses far beyond the shores of our Island. Determination, keen business sense, and love for family and community were often common threads in the lives that happened within the walls of Galveston’s lost mansions.

  John D. Rogers (1828-1908) came to Texas from Alabama in 1841 with his father, settling near Washington-on-the-Brazos. The bright young man soon attended the Medical College of Louisiana (now known as Tulane University) and returned home to practice medicine. While living in Washington-on-the-Brazos, he married Martha C. Allen in 1857 with whom he had one son, Robert Allen Rogers (1857-1938).

  When the Civil War began, Rogers obtained a captain’s commission and raised Company E, known as the Dixie Blue, of the Fifth Texas Infantry in Washington County. He later rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in Hood’s Brigade. His name is listed on the Hood’s Texas Brigade Monument on the State Capitol grounds in Austin.

   John D Rogers MansionRogers formed the John D. Rogers & Company cotton firm after the war, first operating in Millican, Texas. His wife passed away, and he married her sister Priscilla Laurence Allen in 1867. Two years later, their son William Richard Allen Rogers (1869-1937), often referred to as WRA, was born.

  In 1868, Rogers moved his family to Galveston, one of the most important ports in the nation. In the 1870 census, they are listed as living in the Island home of his relative, Dr. William Rogers. Initially involved in banking and cotton enterprises, he soon focused solely on the cotton industry, where he found great success.

  He also operated Allenfarm, a lucrative cotton plantation on the Brazos River which he inherited from his father-in-law. Rogers was one of the first postwar plantation owners to utilize convict labor to work the land.

  Most of the 150 inmates utilized on Allenfarm were white. With 1,000 acres of crops to be tended, this afforded an inexpensive source of labor for farmers and a much-needed source of income for the correctional system.

  Business success provided Rogers with the means to build a home of his own for his family in 1874 on three lots at the southwest corner of Tremont (23rd Street) and Avenue I (Sealy). The two-story house was constructed of sturdy native pine and cypress and featured wide galleries with walk-out style windows across the front of the structure’s first and second floor. Other porches on the side of the home offered more privacy.

  In addition to twelve rooms ornamented with plaster cornices and imported wallpaper, the Rogers’ home had five hallways, two bathrooms, five closets, and eight mantled fireplaces. A large kitchen was designed to accommodate enough staff to service the family’s gatherings of friends and community during special occasions.

  It had its own separate gas heater and indoor water closet (bathroom) with a washstand and tub for the servants’ use. The pantry was equipped with a china closet, sink, and drain board.

  Elegant smoking and dining rooms featured burled cypress paneling and were decorated with typically elaborate Victorian paintings and greenery. Surrounding the entire property was a wrought iron fence with the name “John D. Rogers” on the front gate. The streets in the area were paved with wood blocks, which was considered quite an improvement to the previous dirt roadways that would mire carriages in mud after a rain.

  The main house was originally configured in a “C” shape with shingle roofing. A two-story building that served as stables and servants’ quarters along with half a dozen other small outbuildings were positioned at the back of the property. An imposing columned porch on the property behind the Brown family’s Ashton villa somewhat resembled the 1838 Michel B. Menard House but was updated with Victorian flourishes and trim.

  In celebration of Mardi Gras in March 1878, the Rogers’ home was one of many large Galveston mansions brilliantly lit and draped with flags, as part of a citywide “Illumination of Buildings.”

  Priscilla, a devout Christian, was a member of the new Baptist church when it opened in 1883, and her son WRA was the first to be baptized there. Mr. Rogers was an ardent sports fan whose favorite past times included baseball, horseback riding and fox hunting. His celebrated pack of hunting hounds were occasionally mentioned in advertisements for public exhibitions of sportsmanship.

  The eldest son, Robert, married in 1885 and moved to the Fort Worth area, leaving his younger brother as heir to the family businesses in Galveston. Rogers’ youngest son, WRA, married Mary Landon Lowe (1874-1949), the daughter of Galveston Daily News Vice President Major R. G. Lowe, in 1898. The couple and their children lived in the Rogers home on Tremont with John Rogers and four servants. Their daughter Priscilla was born in the family home April 1900.

  Renovations to the property in the late 1880s removed all but two of the outbuildings, including the two-story servants’ accommodations. The wing of the home which was designed to serve as the back portion of the “C” shape was re-oriented to fit lengthwise at the rear of the home, and the mid-section was widened slightly. Although the grand two-story gallery remained on the Tremont side of the building, the back gallery, which now stretched along the back two sections of the home, only existed on the ground floor. The wood shingled roof was also replaced with fashionable, fireproof slate during this era.

 John D Rogers Mansion Priscilla was sitting in her chair enjoying the evening breeze on the upper gallery of her home on August 30, 1888, when she fell backward and passed away almost immediately. Though she had been an invalid suffering from heart disease for some time, her family was shocked by the loss of their 50-year-old matriarch.

  Her husband John returned immediately from Denver where he was attending a Deep Water Convention when he received the news. Rogers donated a new organ to his wife’s beloved church in her memory.

  In 1894, Rogers constructed the Rogers Building at 2013-2019 Strand as an investment. Currently the home of the Trolley Station event venue, passersby can still see the initials J.D.R. and the date 1894 inscribed on the two parapets at the top of the building. Business continued as usual for the elder Rogers and his youngest son William, who was by this time was very involved in his father’s enterprises, until a series of events at the turn of the century presented new challenges.

  In July 1899, an unprecedented flood along the Brazos River killed 200 people and caused property damage in a large area surrounding the Allenfarm plantation. Determined to address the situation in person, the 71-year-old veteran arrived on the scene before the water level rose to its highest by riding on a construction train to Navasota and then hiring a fisherman to carry him the last ten miles to Allenfarm by boat.

  The 150 convict laborers at the farm and their guards were housed in a boarded-up wagon shed, and makeshift rafts were quickly constructed of spare wood for other workers to sleep on. Rogers slept in his own bed that had been propped up on chairs in the ten inches of water in the house. Though he invited his servants to sleep in the house with him, all but one was too frightened that the building might float away.

  No lives were lost on Allenfarm, although the crops were a total loss. Replacement seed was immediately ordered, and after ten days, a tanned and tired Rogers returned home to Galveston. It was not the last disaster damage he would see.

  Just as they had for many years before, Colonel Rogers and his friend Colonel D. C. Giddings of Brenham were vacationing together in the north during the summer of 1900. They were still in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in September when they received word of the devastation of the great hurricane in Galveston the following September. Rogers set out immediately for home and reached the Island on Friday the 14th.

  Finding his own home virtually unharmed, Rogers turned his attention to the thirty- to fifty- thousand dollars’ worth of damage to his Gulf City Compress Company. Warehouses were cleared of wreckage and buildings were restored. The compress machinery itself was uninjured, so work began again as soon as there was available cotton to process.

  John D. Rogers moved into a smaller home at 2317 Avenue I in 1903, perhaps ready to distance himself from the busy life of his son’s young family. But when he began to suffer from Bright’s Disease, he was moved back to his Tremont residence. He lapsed into a coma on October 19, 1908 and passed away four days later in the home where he had raised his family.

  His body was carried by train to Brenham on a cold rainy day where he was buried beside his wife Priscilla in Prairie Lea Cemetery. His will bequeathed his plantation to his first son Robert and his children, and his Galveston home and business to William. Rogers, Texas in Bell County was named in his honor due to his involvement with the local railroad.

  The Rogers’ home was updated for one of the last times in 1912 when part of the area formerly used as the side porch was enclosed to create a curved room addition. A small outbuilding was converted into a garage at approximately the same time, and a two-story dwelling was added at the back of the property that served as a rental property.

  WRA’s daughter Priscilla married Rufus Fenner Scott, Jr. on October 18, 1924. The couple moved to Paris, Texas after returning from the honeymoon leaving her parents alone in the large white mansion on Tremont. In the steps of his father, WRA found success at his father’s firm, John D. Rogers & Company. He also served as the president of the National Compress & Warehouse Company and was one of the organizers of the cotton exchange.

  While his father enjoyed being an outdoorsman, WRA had artistic tendencies. He was prominent in both civic and social circles, performed as a member of the Galveston Quartet Society, served as a director for the Hotel Galvez, a trustee of the Rosenberg Library, a member of the Galveston Artillery Club, and a director of the Old Women’s Home.

  After several years of retirement from business responsibilities, WRA passed away at home on St. Patrick’s Day in 1937 at 6pm, the same time of day his mother had died under the same roof.

  His widow Mary remained in the home alone except for boarders on the property until 1947, when she moved to Paris to be with her daughter where she died two years later. She and her husband are buried at Trinity Episcopal Cemetery. For the first time in its history, the large residence on Tremont sat empty.

  Mary’s daughter Priscilla appointed Hutching-Sealy Bank as the trustee for the home since she no longer lived in Galveston. In 1950, the bank sold the residence and property to contractor R. Kesel for $860, and he immediately began the process of razing the grand home.

  The stalwart building did not give way easily, and demolition crews who were given the task of disassembling portions of the home for salvage remarked that the old woods must have hardened with age to make demolition so difficult. As plaster broke away from the walls, newspapers from 1904 were revealed.

  One had a prominent advertisement for John D. Rogers & Company. It was the last whisper of the family name within their home.