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Still Standing: An Inside Look Into Galveston’s Historic Homes

These houses date back to the 1800s and offer a glimpse into the island’s affluent past.

By Brianna Benitez Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Moody Mansion, pictured above, featured advanced architecture during its time, as one of the earliest homes to use structural steel. 

Before Galveston became known as a beach town filled with tourists and souvenir shops, it was an island where immigrants from around the world planted their roots. There were no snow cone stands parked on the Seawall or bicyclists riding down the sidewalk; instead, the island was the site of Civil War battles and for a time was recognized as one of the wealthiest cities in the country. 

Before the 16th century and the migration of settlers of European heritage, the Karankawa Indians inhabited the land. Throughout the mid-19th century, the island drastically changed following independence from Mexico, and Galveston quickly became the largest city in Texas after statehood in 1845. 

As major business began to flourish, wealthy residents built lavish estates where imported European furniture and stained-glass windows were common. While much has changed on the island since then, these homes serve as portals into Galveston’s history and testaments to a grand Texas style.

Moody Mansion has three floors with 20 rooms.

Moody Mansion

2618 Broadway St.

After the death of Richard Short Willis, a Galveston entrepreneur and cotton broker, his widow, Narcissa Worsham Willis, built what would later be known as Moody Mansion. Narcissa demolished the Willises’ existing home and selected Englishman William Tyndall to construct a grand island estate. In 1899, shortly after the home was built, Narcissa died, and it was put up for sale by her daughter, Olive. The home remained for sale following the cataclysmic hurricane of 1900 and sold just weeks after the disaster for nearly $20,000 (more than $700,000 today) to W.L. Moody Jr. Tyndall’s design included three floors with 20 rooms. The ground floor consisted of the servants’ quarters, while the first and second floors featured bedrooms, the kitchen, and wine bins. Built in a Richardsonian Romanesque style, the mansion mimics the aesthetic of medieval Europe. Several porches are located throughout the estate, which helped bring in the cool island breeze. Aluminum details can be found on the second floor along its walls and ceilings. The home also featured advanced architecture during its time, as Tyndall was one of the first architects to use structural steel in home construction.

Letitia Rosenberg Home for Women

1804 Rosenberg St.

Formerly serving as a residence for women in poor health or in need of financial assistance, the Letitia Rosenberg Home for Women is a three-story Victorian Gothic home just a few blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. Alfred Muller designed the estate in 1895. The house was sold in 2021 for $2.1 million and currently functions as an Airbnb. Despite its renovations, the home is reminiscent of the early time period, featuring pine floors and intricate crown molding. Crystal chandeliers and a winding wooden staircase further adorn the home. As if the home couldn’t get any grander, its kitchen and bathrooms contain more than 22,000 pounds of Carrara marble. 

The Michel B. Menard House is recognized as the oldest standing house on the island.

Michel B. Menard House 

1604 33rd St.

Once home to one of the early founders of Galveston, the Michel B. Menard House is recognized as the oldest standing house on the island. The Greek Revival home was built in 1838 and was the site for Galveston’s first Mardi Gras celebration in 1840. More than 300 guests attended the event, according to the Galveston News, and many came dressed as French musketeers or Casanova. By the 1990s, the home was in danger of demolition because it was in bad shape from aging and past storms. However, after years of restoration, the home is now a space for weddings and other special events. The home’s interior includes furnishings from the first half of the 19th century with  Biedermeier-era and William IV antiques. 

Bishop’s Palace is recognized as one of the most significant Victorian residences in the country.

Bishop’s Palace

1402 Broadway St.

Located in Galveston’s East End Historic District, Bishop’s Palace is recognized as one of the most significant Victorian residences in the country. The home was built in 1892 with a grand entryway that continues to greet touring visitors. There are more than 50 rooms spread on  three floors that once served as the residence of Col. Walter Gresham, a Confederate soldier and congressional representative, along with his wife, Josephine, and their nine children. Original furniture from the Gresham family remains in place throughout the home. When Gresham died in 1920, the home was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston and served as a residence for Bishop Christopher E. Byrne of Sacred Heart Church. Remnants of Byrne’s time at the home can also be found, including a chapel featuring colorful stained-glass images of saints. Other notable features of the home include ample colored stone and even a fireplace made of silver.

Built in 1859, Ashton Villa was the first mansion and private brick residence on the island.

Ashton Villa

2328 Broadway St.

Built in 1859 by James Moreau Brown, this Victorian-Italianate home was recognized as the first mansion and private brick residence on the island. Long windows and cast-iron verandas decorate the outside of the home. Each bedroom features a fireplace, and gas chandeliers functioned as the home’s primary light source. The brick walls were built 13 inches thick to protect the home from the island’s humidity. Unlike many homes around the island, Ashton Villa withstood the devastation of the 1900 hurricane, which is estimated to have killed 6,000 to 8,000 people. While the home was known for its pristine architectural design and as a hub for one of the island’s most popular New Year’s Eve parties, it’s also where Gen. Gordon Granger announced the emancipation of enslaved people on June 19, 1865. Today, the villa is the official site of Galveston’s annual Juneteenth celebration.

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