• Built before the outbreak of the Civil War, Ashton Villa symbolized Galveston’s wealth and prosperity in the 19th century. - photo courtesy Galveston Historical Foundation

The cast-iron veranda of Ashton Villa has witnessed changes to the political, economic, and environmental climate of Galveston.

James Moreau Brown was born in New York City in 1821. He was apprenticed to a brick mason in his youth, but by his mid-20s, he had made his way far from the Eastern Seaboard to the southern Gulf Coast. Brown would eventually settle in Galveston, a port city located on a thin barrier island past where the Trinity River dumps its muddy waters into the Gulf of Mexico. Galveston was home to the Karankawa people before Spanish explorers and French pirates arrived to take advantage of the protected bay created by the island. 

By the time Brown arrived, this natural harbor was fueling the growth of both the city and the state. He saw a business opportunity in selling goods to Galveston’s rapidly expanding population and opened a hardware store in 1847. The following year, Brown bought out his business partner for $1,450. In doing so, Brown came to own not only the store and all its inventory, but also three enslaved humans. 

As a transplant from the North, Brown would have grown up in a place where chattel slavery was illegal. (New York had fully emancipated its enslaved population by 1827.) But migrants from the North, regardless of their personal views on the “peculiar institution,” would often willingly acquire enslaved workers as a way of demonstrating to their neighbors that they were not radical Yankee abolitionists: Such was the political climate of Galveston. 

Despite his status as an enslaver — or maybe because of it — by the mid-1850s, Brown had become a pillar of Galveston society. He was a member of the city’s first volunteer fire brigade and had served as an alderman on Galveston’s city council. His hardware business was booming, and in 1855 he was able to secure a more prominent location for his store. This favorable economic climate also allowed him to purchase another human, a man by the name of Alek who, like Brown himself, was a skilled mason. Alek’s ability would be put to use in the construction of Brown’s new three-story brick hardware store as well as his new brick home.

Although it sported several brick businesses and churches, Galveston in the late 1850s was still a city built mostly of wood. Bricks could be made locally, but higher-quality, factory-made bricks had to be imported — an expensive endeavor, given their weight. Perhaps because he wanted to demonstrate his wealth — or perhaps because he owned a mason whose labor cost him nothing — Brown resolved that his new home would be built of brick masonry in the most stylish of architectural designs.

Rather than hire an architect to create this vision, Brown instead bought a book. First published in 1852, “The Model Architect,” by the Philadelphia designer Samuel Sloan, had already become one of the most popular sources for home design in America. Plan books such as this presented an array of designs in diverse architectural styles. Aspiring homeowners could choose a design and then modify it to meet their specific needs. Brown favored “Design XXI,” a three-story country mansion rendered in the Italianate style. Brown changed several aspects of its plans and elevations, but the most significant alteration to the design was the addition of a large, ornate cast-iron veranda to the main facade of the house. 

Like much of the ornamental ironwork associated with the French Quarter in New Orleans, the two-story veranda of Brown’s new home was imported from an East Coast foundry. Its ornamental tracery would throw soft shadows on the home’s masonry walls, preventing them from absorbing excess heat during the Galveston summers. The shade provided by the veranda acted as a welcoming gesture to guests visiting on warm summer days and gave the home a suitably Southern feel. 

When work was completed in 1859, Brown’s new home was one of the most expensive in the state, costing about the same as the Governor’s Mansion, completed three years earlier in Austin. A home of this level of extravagance required an equally extravagant name, and Brown christened his new house “Ashton Villa,” combining the name of his father-in-law with the picturesque term used to describe Roman country retreats.

As the wealthy owner of a large estate and several enslaved people, Brown appeared to have become every bit the Southern gentleman. Yet even as the political climate of Texas shifted in favor of secession in the early 1860s, he opposed leaving the Union. Brown never served in the Confederate Army, but he did act as a purchasing agent for the Confederacy, helping fund the war effort by trading cotton with Mexico. 

When federal troops arrived in Galveston in the summer of 1865 to enforce the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the president who had issued the order had already been assassinated. Legend has it that General Gordon Granger stepped out onto the cast-iron veranda of Ashton Villa and announced, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Although there is conclusive historical evidence that General Granger issued this order in Galveston on June 19, 1865 — the source of Juneteenth celebrations today — it is unlikely that he ever did so from the veranda of Ashton Villa. Even so, the view from that veranda — from that house that had been built and served by the enslaved — had changed forever. 

For Brown, however, finding himself on the losing side of the war changed little. Unlike planters, whose wealth existed primarily in the humans they owned, merchants were able to profit during Reconstruction. Brown’s fortunes increased such that by 1870 he was the fifth wealthiest man in the state and his adopted home of Galveston was the largest city in Texas. By then, Ashton Villa was not the only stately mansion on Broadway Avenue, but one of many built by the city’s growing wealthy elite.

When Brown died in 1895, he had every reason to believe that the future of his home and of his city were secure. But the economic climate of Texas had already begun to shift. By 1900, Galveston had slipped to fourth place in population, behind San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. A growing network of railroads connected these cities to the outside world, reducing their reliance on Galveston’s seaport. And, since they were located inland, these cities were also not so vulnerable to the violent storms that sometimes descended upon coastal cities.

At the turn of the 20th century, the danger posed by hurricanes was understood by the citizens of Galveston and the residents of Ashton Villa. In 1875, a hurricane destroyed several homes and sank a steamer moored in Galveston Bay. Still, the city had fared far better than Indianola, a competing port city located 115 miles to the southwest. The same storm had destroyed most of that city and killed around 300 of its residents. Although Indianola rebuilt, it would be destroyed again by another hurricane a little over a decade later. Indianola would not be rebuilt a second time.

Although major hurricanes could be counted on to pummel the Gulf Coast every 10 to 15 years, the citizens of Galveston grew to believe their thriving city was somehow immune to the destructive power of these storms. But the combination of meteorological factors that contribute to a tropical cyclone’s formation meant that the question was not if a major hurricane would ever hit Galveston, but when.

Because it sat at one of the highest points on the island, Ashton Villa survived the Great Storm of 1900 remarkably well. While the storm surge inundated its first floor, the home’s solid brick construction protected those who sought refuge inside. The same could not be said for those outside. Considered the deadliest natural disaster in United States history, the hurricane is believed to have killed 8,000 people and destroyed nearly as many buildings in Galveston. After the storm waters receded, the view from the veranda of Ashton Villa was one of near total destruction.

Like Indianola 25 years earlier, Galveston rebuilt. In an act of defiance against the forces of nature, the city built a massive, 17-ft-tall seawall to protect the city from future hurricanes. Silt was pumped into the space behind this concrete embattlement so that the elevation of a sizable portion of the city was effectively raised. Unlike Indianola, Galveston would weather future storms.

But while the seawall could protect Galveston from the ravages of the environmental climate, it offered no refuge from continued changes to the economic climate. Expansions to the Port of Houston siphoned trade away from Galveston and allowed its inland neighbor to flourish during the state’s oil and gas boom. The stately mansions on Broadway became less a demonstration of the city’s wealth and more a symbol of its decline, relics of a bygone era.

A year after the death of the last of Brown’s five children in 1926, Ashton Villa was sold and became home to the Galveston Shriners. The home’s grand interiors accommodated the public events and secret ceremonies conducted by the fraternal organization, and the veranda provided a good location from which to hang a neon sign announcing the home’s new function.

By the mid-20th century, Broadway had become a very different place as the mansions of the previous century were demolished to make way for chain stores and gas stations. But even as Galveston was losing much of its historic fabric, a nascent preservation movement was beginning to take shape.

Ashton Villa was featured in the 1966 book “The Galveston That Was.” Written by Howard Barnstone, FAIA, the book mixed contemporary and historical photos to tell the story of Galveston’s rich architectural legacy and the perilous state it was in at the time. Ashton Villa was itself threatened with demolition when a property appraisal indicated the land was worth more without its three-story Italianate mansion. Using a variety of funding sources, the city of Galveston purchased Ashton Villa in 1970. The property was then leased to the Galveston Historical Foundation, who undertook a multiyear preservation effort that sought to undo the damage caused by the sun, sand, and salt of Galveston’s harsh climate.

Although the seawall had protected Galveston from a century of hurricanes, the security it offered was not absolute. As temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico became incrementally warmer, the hurricanes that formed there became more frequent and more intense. On September 13, 2008, the storm surge from Hurricane Ike at last breached the seawall. Ashton Villa again saw its first floor flooded. Although the damage has since been repaired, the home has not been reopened to public tours. 

Brown may have intended Ashton Villa to represent the permanence of wealth, but it instead became an index of change. That change is not limited to the island city of Galveston. The 40 inches of rain dumped on Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 reminded Houston that it, too, is susceptible to the intensifying weather of a warming planet. As with Galveston before it, the question is not if climate change will again devastate Houston, but when.

But even if the political climate shifts to allow active steps to be taken to address the root causes of that climate change, it will necessarily trigger a change to the economic climate of Houston that has for years been centered on the oil and gas industry. Although it is impossible to say whether or not the story of Houston will echo the story of Galveston, one thing is for certain: Things will change.

Brantley Hightower, AIA, is an architect in San Antonio. Baylor Professor Dr. Kenneth Hafertepe and his 1991 book, “A History of Ashton Villa,” provided key information included in this essay.

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