Chapter 9 - The Strand Chronicles

History Becomes Her

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Time marches on, and anything that cannot keep up gets left in the dust. Or in the Strand’s case, gets left in the rust. Years of neglect and disinterest had left the historic street in near ruin, and the once-glorious monuments erected to the queen city of the Gulf and her cotton king were all but abandoned. Paint peeled away from the palatial iron columns as if surrendering fully to its fate; floor-to-ceiling windows that once allowed harbor breezes to roam free within the walls were either bricked over, boarded up, or busted out; and memories of a time when the Strand was anything but an eyesore were rapidly dwindling.

  But even though the years had proven unkind to Galveston’s famed Strand Street, interestingly, it would also be the years that would save it. At the precise moment when the age of the buildings was becoming glaringly apparent, the age of the buildings also became enough to render them significant. The fortuitous realization that what was once considered old could now be considered historic happened in the nick of time—bulldozers were already lurking all over the city, ready to dismantle timeless history in the name of temporary progress.

  By the early 1960s, a semblance of regeneration had already begun along the Strand, but it was not of the historic variety and it foreshadowed a rather bleak future for the collection of architectural achievements.

  In 1963, Farmer’s Marine Copper Works significantly expanded their footprint on the Strand, and K.C. Market relocated to the 19th Street intersection. The resplendent Hutchings & Sealy building on the northeast corner of 24th Street was also sold to a sheet metal corporation that year, and slowly but surely industrial overtones inherent in the modifications to the buildings began to eviscerate the whimsy from the Victorian designs. Furthermore, city officials were ready to scrap it all and make Strand a major thoroughfare.

  The idea of revitalizing the Strand as a cultural and historic destination first began to take shape around 1966, when the Junior League of Galveston suggested that Galveston County needed to enrich its cultural and educational fabric. They postulated that the area needed more places that would contribute to community education and the exhibition of historic artifacts.

  After conducting a two year survey of the entire county, the organization deemed the Strand as having the most promise for solving this inadequacy, as it distinctly provided the necessary framework conducive to all off the facets of the proposal. This proposition was emboldened by the subsequent insight it provided—the old Victorian architecture was actually something to be prized and preserved, and it could accommodate the right kinds of businesses in its original form.

  The Junior League proceeded to establish a non-profit board of directors comprised of persons from various local educational and cultural groups. It was formed to oversee the purchase and development of two Strand buildings into “The Centre on the Strand,” a concept that promised an infusion of historic and artistic interest into the forgotten street. They first aimed to acquire the 1882 Trueheart-Adriance building on 22nd Street just south of Strand Street, then the adjacent 1877 First National Bank building on the southeast corner of 22nd and Strand.

  Meanwhile, another, relatively new organization was also contributing their own energies to the revitalization of downtown. Years prior, a group of local residents had become troubled by the proposed demolition of the home of Samuel May Williams, one of the city’s original founders. In 1954, they formed the Galveston Historical Foundation (GHF) for the express purpose of preserving this single property, but amid their efforts the organization realized that the concerns related to this one home were applicable to historic structures all over town, many of which had an historical worth that was likewise undervalued and underappreciated.

  GHF was successful in acquiring the home in 1957 and opened it to the public two years later, after which they formed an internal Acquisition and Preservation Committee that was dedicated to protecting and restoring structures all around the city.

  In 1966, GHF turned their attention to the Strand. Along with members of the Chamber of Commerce and city officials, representatives from the foundation met with the National Park Service and the field director of the Amon Carter Museum of Western History. The panel’s discourse centered on the Strand, the possibilities therein, as well as the best way to realize its future potential. It was recommended that Galveston first produce an historical survey to the Library of Congress and the National Park Service that would open the way to grant funding.

  Despite protestations from city council members who preferred to forgo restoration of the Strand to widen the street, and from residents who feared an increase in property taxes, the GHF plowed ahead and raised nearly $13,000 for the survey. By the end of 1966 many of the Strand’s buildings were already listed in the federal Historic American Buildings Survey because of the foundation’s work, and that same year the National Register of Historic Places was formed, providing yet another avenue for historic designation and its ensuing advantages.

  Proponents of the register argued that the establishment of the Strand Historic District would stabilize property values, halt the deterioration of the city, and make financial assistance for restoration more readily available. Furthermore, they promoted the idea as an unrivaled opportunity to bring people and businesses back downtown, especially considering that the buildings on the Strand were of much higher quality than the historic architecture of other cities that profited significantly from its preservation.

  In January of 1967, GHF’s survey of 25 buildings was completed and submitted, and all the while the Junior League’s efforts had been steadily gaining momentum. By October of 1967, they raised over $100,000 towards the purchase of the Trueheart-Adriance building with combined grants from the Moody Foundation, Kempner Foundation, and pledges from League members.

  Over the next few months they were able to raise the additional $60,000 needed, and the Junior League triumphantly purchased the iconic Nicholas Clayton design in 1968. Shortly thereafter the organization was widely heralded for achieving the very first rehabilitation of a commercial building on the Strand.

  In 1969, as the decade drew to a close, the Galveston Historic Foundation was notified by the National Park Service of their official recognition of the Strand Historic District on the 1970 National Register of Historic Places. But now, the most interesting and difficult work would begin.

  Faced with the task of luring investors, attracting businesses and visitors, and placating the city by proving the project’s viability—along with the added concern for the impending destruction of many historic buildings to create parking lots—it was becoming clear that the individual entities would need to galvanize their resources.

  In a few short years, the independent actions of the city, the Junior League, and GHF had made significant strides toward the revival of the Strand, but a collective effort would be required to fully rescind Galveston’s fragile history from the brink of obliteration.

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