A gift inside a gift: Historic Galveston orphanage that proved to be hurricane proof is becoming a museum
Editor’s Note: If you’re deep into the heart of Texas and its history, then it’s likely that you’ve come across the name of J. P. Bryan Jr. He’s a descendent of Moses Austin (Stephen F. Austin’s brother), a lifelong historian and the founder, chairman and CEO of Torch Energy Advisors. His bio’s got zero fat, and it’s still growing. Over the years, J. P. has assembled a vast collection of Texas History. His Visions of the West Collection soon will be found in its new home in Galveston, The Bryan Museum, which opens this fall.
Given Galveston’s history, it’s no surprise that five million tourists visit there annually. This year, the number will grow, and for good reason. Come this fall, a doozy of a treasure house is opening and I’m talking treasure in more ways than one.
The brick house at 1315 21st Street sits in the bosom of Galveston Island like a golden egg. For nearly a century it served as The Galveston Orphans Home, not to be confused with St. Mary’s Orphanage that was just off the beach and swept away in the 1900 Storm.
The Home was founded by George B. Dealey, who, came to Galveston in 1870. The original house (built in 1894 by architect Alfred Muller) was Gothic, with "the intent to create a religious but still home-like impression upon the youthful mind," according to records from the Rosenberg Library.
Soft spoken and gentle in nature, there’s a sweetness about this woman with wattage. Like someone said, she cares.
Amazingly, the house, including the children in it, survived the 1900 Storm but not without damage.
After the storm a benefit organized by William Randolph Hearst was held in New York City to raise funds for rebuilding the Home. Some $25,000 to $30,000 was raised. Architect George B. Stowe was hired to reconstruct it and in 1902 the transformation was described as going from Gothic to Renaissance.
In 1982, the orphanage stopped accepting children for long-term care. By 1984, it no longer served as an orphanage. But, even though it’s taken on different names over the years and at least as many storms, one constant remains. The house is as solid as the cypress beams it was built with.
New owner, new life, new name
Now, the house has been given new life thanks to its new owner, Mr. J. P. Bryan, who shares characteristics with Dealey, once described as modest, unassuming, and content to see the work grow without claiming any credit for its inception.
In Mr. Bryan’s case, the work has been a life long labor of love. Assembling the Visions of the West Collection. The Collection, presently at the offices of Torch Energy Advisors in Houston, is jaw dropping. Soon, it will move to its new home in Galveston.
Strangely sweet that the house that once served as home to some 6,000 children will serve as home to these historical treasures. In preparing for this, a small army is busy at work, which includes installing the most energy efficient air-conditioning and heating system known. This state of the art equipment (geothermal) will allow the museum to remain a 66-degree temperature, which is required in museums.
The Perfect Guardian
I visited the house recently and met with Jamie Christy, the director of the collection and museum. She’s the perfect guardian. Soft spoken and gentle in nature, there’s a sweetness about this woman with wattage. Like someone said, she cares.
Christy gave me a tour of the house from the ground up. The materials like longleaf pine floors and brick walls (26 inches thick) were impressive enough but what struck me most was the light running through the house. Plentiful. Light that turned a golden hue when I returned at sunset.
“It’s a secret hideaway,” she said quietly, like someone was napping there.
When we reached the attic, Chrsity pointed to the cypress beams with square nails. “They used square nails because round nails crack cypress,” she explained, which was news to me. “Being from Louisiana, you know that kind of stuff,” Chrsity smiled.
The day before, she’d found something under the stairway that she wanted to show me. “It’s a secret hideaway,” she said quietly, like someone was napping there. On a hunch, she’d asked one of the workers to remove the bead board so she could see behind it. When he did, she discovered a dark, cool corner where children once played.
Still on the dirt floor laid a rusted skate, a bucket of tin cans and a dinner plate. Just above hung a tin can with a wire inside. “Looks like a doorbell,” thought one of the workers. Graffiti of different colors scattered the walls reflecting a mix of messages. One, that I remembered as a kid myself. Too bad so sad your dad.
To Christy, it was sacred ground. “I want to put Plexiglas here so no one can tamper with this,” she said.
History is personal
For every child who lived at the orphanage, there’s a personal story. So too, lies one behind every item in the Visions of the West Collection.
Once, in a speech, J. P. described history in a way that really struck me. He pointed out that while many thought of history in terms of an event or a war, it wasn’t. “History resonates,” he said. “It’s personal.”
No more so than at the Bryan Museum. A gift inside a gift.