"She was a force of nature"
Cynthia Woods Mitchell, who helped her husband, George, transform the Houston area with visionary ideas and projects, died at home early Sunday morning after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. She was 87.
The couple created The Woodlands planned community north of Houston as a pedestrian-friendly place, with the outdoor Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion that draws top performing acts. And they almost singlehandedly revitalized Galveston by preserving many of the island's historic structures and reviving such tourist-friendly events as Mardi Gras.
"Like her husband and partner, she was a visionary who transformed her community while she nurtured her family," said Dr. Larry Kaiser, president of The University of Texas Health Science Center, where the George P. and Cynthia Mitchell Center for Research in Alzheimer's Disease and Brain Related Disorders was established. "She brought a sense of optimism as well as common sense and business acumen to the most daunting projects and in all that she did, she defined womanly grace.”
Born in New York, she was raised by a single mother and extended family during the Great Depression. She came to Houston with her twin sister in 1939 to study at the University of Houston. On Thanksgiving, 1941, while traveling by train from College Station to Houston, she met the love of her life and partner for the next six decades. In 1943, they were married by an Army chaplain in a double wedding with her sister and brother-in-law.
Even with 10 children, Cynthia found time to volunteer with Trinity Episcopal Church, Texas Children's Hospital, and as a leader of multiple troops of Girl Scouts and Brownies, Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts — often at the same time — and served on the board of the Houston Girl Scouts. She started United Way neighborhood drives and a futuristic household recycling program long before conservation entered the public conciousness. She later joined the board of the World Wildlife Fund, underwrote art exhibits focused on endangered species at Houston’s Museum of Natural History and was sole underwriter for Margaret Mee’s exhibition of her research in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest.
She served on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where she and her husband endowed the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors. A major arts supporter, she underwrote a Distinguished Authors program at the University of Houston and co-chaired the Texas Festival at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Encouraging young people in the arts, she supported the University of Houston’s Texas Music Festival, which draws the best music students across the country and features the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artists Competition. In 2003, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts was created as a place for artistic collaboration at the University of Houston, cultivating interdisciplinary relationships in the performing, visual, and literary arts.
In 1976, the Mitchells' long love affair with historic Galveston began when they purchased the T. Jefferson League Building and restored it. In 1979, it opened as The Wentletrap Restaurant. Cynthia commissioned legendary Texas architect O’Neil Ford to create the space. Interestingly enough, Ford was the architect she had selected many years earlier to design the first home for their growing young family. The Mitchells bought and restored 16 other historic Galveston buildings, including the Leon and H. Blum Building, which became the luxury Tremont House hotel, and the famed beachfront Galvez Hotel. In 1984, they added a luxury destination to the Seawall with the San Luis Hotel and created the Harbor House on Pier 21.
“Mrs. Mitchell brought style and sophistication to all the family’s work to preserve historic Galveston," said Dwayne Johnson, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation. "That’s a gift that Galvestonians will always treasure and enjoy.”
A memorial service is planned for Jan. 4 at 2 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church in Galveston, followed by a reception at the Tremont House.