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bishop's palace in galveston

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Boulevard Beauty

The AIA (American Institute of Architects) Deems This Galveston Manse One of the 100 Most Important Buildings in the U.S.
By Barbara Canetti (with input from Will Wright)
Photos Courtesy of Galveston Historical Foundation

Step into Galveston’s Bishop’s Palace and it is a step way back in time. Designed in 1887, by famed architect Nicholas Clayton, the grand house was built during an opulent time for the island city, known then as the Wall Street of the South.

The 19,082-square-foot building, recognized as one of the nation’s most important late 19th century Victorian residences, was entered into the National Registry for Historic Places in 1970. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) deemed it one of the 100 most important buildings in the U.S.

The original owners were Josephine and Walter Gresham and their nine children. They paid $250,000 to have it built and lived in the house until 1921, at which time the Catholic Diocese purchased it and moved Bishop Christopher Byrne into the house. Sacred Heart Catholic Church is across the street.

The building, fortress-like and able to withstand the Great Storm of 1900 — with many locals flocking to the building for survival during the storm — was constructed of steel and colored stone. It soars three stories over a raised basement, with steep roofs, long sculptural chimneys, graceful turrets and a variety of balconies edged in wrought iron. It was – and still is — one of Broadway’s most outstanding “boulevard beauties.”

Typical of Clayton, he used a combination of simple geometric forms in bold designs to create an additional dramatic effect. The interior spaces are grand with exotic and luxury materials, such as a pair of Sienna marble columns flanking the entrance hall. Impressive fireplaces in most of the rooms are made of materials from around the world, including one lined in silver. Extraordinary!

Enter the house first at the raised basement, which once housed the kitchen and servants area. This is now a store and place to purchase tickets and audio tours.

It is not until visitors enter the first floor – up an exterior staircase of 18 steps – that the secrets of this house are revealed. First thing that stands out is the incredible detail and intricate craftsmanship in the rooms and halls. The first floor rooms – mostly for visitors and gatherings — have 14-foot ceilings that are coved and coffered. This floor consists of the parlor, music room, library and conservatory. A huge dining room boasts an original ceiling fresco painted by Mrs. Gresham of cherubs. A massive fireplace in the front parlor is made of Santo Domingo mahogany.

An octagonal, intricately carved mahogany 40-foot-tall stairwell, with stained glass on five sides, is lit by a large octagonal skylight. The house includes abundant stained glass, wood carvings, and decorative plaster ceilings and walls.

Up those stairs is the private quarters: the bedrooms and living rooms for the family. When the Diocese took over the house, they converted two of the bedrooms into the chapel, painting a fresco of four gospels on the ceiling and installed more stained glass windows.

The top floor of the house consisted of more bedrooms and Mrs. Gresham’s art studio.

Today, most visitors consider the meticulously preserved house to be sparsely decorated with not much furniture. However, the Galveston Historical Foundation, which managed the house until 2007. GHF then purchased the building in 2013, choosing to use only furnishings original to the house.

An antique 80-pound white winged lion, stolen from in front of the house in 2008, was missing for two and a half years before someone returned it. It was then reattached to its perch at the entrance.  

An interesting detail about the oversized house is that it is situated on a small lot, making it an anomaly among similar houses of its period and architectural style. It is Victorian; however, it is more specifically described as Chateausque given the intricate combination of materials, cast iron galleries and complex roof system.

Over the next few months, GHF will begin its latest preservation project that includes new electrical wiring, updated historical paint colors, window repair, foundation work and stained glass repair. Additional work is planned on the tile roof though GHF is now verifying the source and manufacturer of the roof tiles.

Work is being funded by a grant from the Save America’s Treasures program of the National Park Service for nationally significant properties with matching funds being raised by admission fees.

“We are very excited to see some long-needed restoration work under way,” says Dwayne Jones, GHF’s Executive Director. “The Gresham House tells an extraordinary story of the island’s rich history and architecture.  It’s a magnificent building that we are proud to own and manage.”

The Bishop’s Palace is located at 1402 Broadway and is open to the public. Admission fees. 713-787-9086 (www.galvestonhistory.org)