Chapter 12 - The Strand Chronicles

The Street That Mitchell Built - 1990s

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End-of-the-century Strand was a vibrant place, teeming with art and activity, bustling with boisterous shoppers and seekers of Island treasures, an experience sweetened by nostalgia and saltwater taffy. Surely George Mitchell stopped, every once in a while, to admire what he had created, but more often than not he was looking for ways to make it even grander.

  In 1990 he commissioned a new Mardi Gras arch to be built on The Strand to join the two that still remained from the mid-80s. The project was originally inspired by a photograph from 1881 that captured large archways that were erected over downtown intersections for the Carnival season. Mitchell sought to re-create this tableau with modern designs for his revival of the Galveston festival in 1986 and invited architects from all over the nation to participate.

  The next year, Old Galveston Square was added to Mitchell’s historic real estate collection that to date represented an $80 million investment in the city. His previous projects on The Strand, which included the restoration of the Thomas Jefferson League Building, the Hutchings & Sealy Building, and the Rosenberg Building, had filled in their retail spaces somewhat organically, but for Old Galveston Square, Mitchell had a distinct and direct vision for its rehabilitation—an outlet mall.

  He had acquired the property from a tangled web of an estate left behind by a man named J.R. McConnell when he killed himself in jail in 1986 after being arrested on several charges of fraudulent activity. For years McConnell had entrenched himself in a seemingly endless paper trail of forged documents, at one point even deliberately setting ablaze several of his properties for insurance purposes, and it took several years for a disillusioned network of lenders and investors to sort through the mess after his death.

  Located on the south side of the block of Strand between 22nd and 23rd Streets, Old Galveston Square was comprised of three separate 19th century buildings that had been fused together. The 65,000 square-foot building was completely restored and opened in March of 1991.

  Its retail offerings included many popular stores and brands of the time, including a Barefoot Iguana, Capezio Factory Direct, Mikasa Factory Store, New York Dress Outlet, Prestige Fragrance & Cosmetics, and Zarina’s. It was also home to a popular confectionery named Sa’Sparilla, and served as the temporary home for the Strand Street Theatre for their 1991 season, while their new location was being renovated one block away.

  Meanwhile, across the street at 2222-2228 Strand in the Dargan & Tobyn building, also known as the J.S. Brown Hardware Co. building or the C&C Grocery, Mitchell was continuing his vision of bringing discount shopping to downtown and was already hard at work on yet another million dollar restoration of the 23,000 square-foot structure. Instead of several smaller spaces like the Square, Mitchell outfitted the first floor with two 3,500 square-foot spaces for larger outlet stores. In September of 1991, a Van Heusen and Bass Shoe outlet made their premieres.

  In 1993, a television film Gambler Five, Playing for Keeps, starring Kenny Rogers and Dixie Carter, was filming in Galveston, and they built one of the sets on the 3rd floor of the Merchants Mutual Building at 2317 Strand. At the same time, just across the street on the northwest corner of 23rd Street, George Mitchell was at it again, this time converting the parking lot for his Wentletrap Restaurant located in the League Building on the opposite corner.

  Saengerfest Park was named after a German music festival, an homage to Mitchell’s heritage. The lot was paved with gorgeous red brick, reminiscent of the street’s early years, and a stage was built on the far west side of the property. Encased by historic buildings on two sides, it created a versatile gathering space. On July 10, 1994, the park hosted its very first concert and took a monumental step in establishing Galveston’s rich tradition of live music that is still alive today.

  Mardi Gras celebrations continued to grow throughout the 1990s, getting bigger, brighter, and brassier with every passing year. For each annual celebration a theme was declared as it was in the 19th century, and Mitchell saw to it that the entire Strand Historical District was outfitted appropriately, even going so far as to decorate the street lamps and install themed street signs. But Mitchell knew that Mardi Gras was much more than a festival, it was an identity, and it would take a lot more than Paper Mache two weeks out of the year to re-brand Galveston as an authentic Carnival city.

  Thus he proceeded to immortalize the celebration and put the green, gold, and purple on view all year round with the installation of the Mardi Gras Museum on the 3rd floor of Old Galveston Square. It opened on the first night of the 1994 Mardi Gras; the theme was Greece and George Mitchell had been named King of the Krewe of Momus.

  He led the inaugural parade through downtown and ended at Old Galveston Square for the museum’s grand opening. The event included an art opening on exhibit throughout the Square and a book signing of The Gods of Greece by Arianna Huffington, who would go on to start the Huffington Post.

  The October 1994 edition of Texas Highways magazine featured a lengthy, 12-page spread on Galveston’s Strand that highlighted many of the business owners who had watched the street’s growth from the beginning—Colonel Bubbie’s Strand Surplus Senter in the Colonel W.L. Moody Building, Old Strand Emporium in the Mallory Produce Building, Hendley Market and the Galveston Historical Foundation inside Hendley Row, and LaKing’s Confectionery at the J. Smith Brothers building.

  These were the pioneers, the ones who believed in The Strand’s potential long before it was considered sane to do so. “When we started, things were slow, but we have foot traffic now,” Martha King of LaKing’s told Highways. “When I walk along The Strand, I can hardly believe the progress.”

  Dickens on the Strand celebrated a huge milestone in 1998 when they held their 25th annual festival. What began as a small Victorian themed costume party/potluck supper in 1973 was now fully backed by the Galveston Historical Foundation. As the festival began to garner nationwide attention, it attracted crowds of 50,000 people and was ranked one of the top ten festivals in Texas.

  Unfortunately, these numbers were concentrated and temporary, and the final year of the decade saw a rash of business closings, including Mitchell’s Wentletrap Restaurant. Despite all of the attention The Strand had received, it was still somewhat overlooked by a generation of Houstonians who distinctly remembered the area as a haven for crime, if they remembered it at all. During that time, an exit was built off the causeway that encouraged traffic to head directly to the Seawall. For some, the beach was the only part of Galveston they knew.

  However, many Galveston businesses at the time told a dramatically different story, attesting that the late 1990s were the best years yet. In 1999, Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce John Tindel told the Galveston Daily News, “I think, as far as businesses leaving, it’s not different from many areas like it. Sometimes businesses move in and out, and it is just a question of finding the right fit. But overall, The Strand is growing, and I expect to see continued steady growth there.” 

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