A historic Galveston pump station finds new life as a community center.
Client City of Galveston
Architect The LaBiche Architectural Group
Contractor Ardent Construction
Historical Consultant Gerald Moorhead, FAIA
Historical Restoration Consultant Source
Structural Engineer Arceneaux Wilson & Cole
MEP Engineer Lechtenberg Consulting
Roofing Consultant Hollon+Cannon Group
The renovated Galveston Water and Electric Light Community Center offers a piece that had been missing in its surrounding community: a place for residents to gather and celebrate. Located within walking distance of hundreds of apartments and condos on the east side of Galveston Island, at the center of the Cedars at Carver Park, this 6,800-sf building can host events for more than 150 people. It offers locals a place to enjoy weddings, dances, and other large parties, and provides a venue for city council meetings and other political gatherings. “The whole thing is really about regrowth — rebirth of the city,” says Dohn Labiche, FAIA, the architect of the pump station restoration. It is a well-timed response to the rapid expansion of the surrounding neighborhoods. The building has received many awards — among them the AIA Houston Renovation/Restoration Award, the city of Galveston’s Planning and Designing Historic Preservation Award, and a Preservation Texas Honor Award — for its successful restoration.
What is now a community center was Galveston’s main source of water and electricity for almost a century, and echoes of the early 1900s building can be spotted throughout the restoration. The original Galveston Water and Electric Light Station, constructed in 1889, was destroyed during the 1900 hurricane. It was rebuilt four years later on the original foundation and was designed by Charles W. Bulger. The building underwent a major change in the 1930s that included the addition of an entry porch, the removal of the pressed metal cornices and pediments, and removal of some cast stone capitals and ornament. In the recent restoration, the entry porch was removed, the cornices and pediments were replicated in fiberglass, and the interior was repainted to reflect a color palette of the 1930s.
In 2010, the building was decommissioned when the new 30th St. Pump Station was constructed across the street. The building stood abandoned until the city of Galveston received a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Texas General Land Office to make improvements to the city that would be beneficial to its residents, especially those within areas undergoing economic recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. Along with support from the Galveston Historical Foundation and partial funding under the Texas Disaster Recovery program, restoration of the station as a community center was kicked off by The Labiche Architectural Group with Gerald Moorhead, FAIA, as historic preservation consultant. Restoration was completed in December 2020 and included renovations to the building that make it conform to ADA requirements, providing accessibility for the community.
The red brick building has a Romanesque feel on the exterior, with arched wood windows, pressed metal cornices, and detailed cast stone ornamentation. The spacious event room I first walked into whispered a suggestion of the inanimate inhabitants that once filled the space. This room formerly housed moving, working giants that included water pumps, pipes, and six-foot-deep wells that stored and delivered water to the entire city of Galveston. The equipment and piping were removed in the restoration, and the wells were filled with concrete to create a new flat slab. The color-blocked yellow and white walls (remnants of the 1930s renovation) feature 13-ft-tall double hung wood windows with red frames. The cypress doors around the room were removed, cleaned down to the wood, and repainted with the 1904 color scheme. There were several water tanks from the 1880s next to the building, but only one still stands, no longer in use but preserved with a historical designation to commemorate the building’s significant role in providing water to the people of Galveston.
Next to the lone water tank, a pavilion shades a small exhibit with some of the original pumps and valves from the pump station. At the back of the former pump room are three doors with transoms above them that open into what used to be a large room housing a generator, electrical equipment, and a welding shop. The renovation included dividing this room into three spaces: a designated catering corridor, restrooms and mechanical areas at the core, and an exhibition/meeting room. The center hallway is a two-level area with restrooms on the bottom floor and a mechanical room on the second floor, accessible via a lift. A door was added to allow visitors in the main event room to directly access the restrooms rather than circulate through the exhibit room, offering the community a choice to rent the entire facility or just a portion of it.
Bulger had a great influence on Galveston’s architecture in the late 1800s. More than a dozen of his commercial and residential buildings are still standing, keeping his legacy alive on the island. Around 1904, he and his son moved to Dallas and proceeded to build many Classical Revival churches across North Texas. These included personalized, eccentric design elements the architect used earlier in the Galveston Water and Electric Light Station, especially his unique treatment of the modillions in the pressed metal Ionic cornice. Since there was only one picture of the pump station from 1904, one of the architect’s churches in Dallas and another in Texarkana became significant precedents for the restoration. Castings were taken of the same elements from these churches and brought to Galveston to be replicated in the building. Moorhead said, “Knowing this guy [Bulger] and his personal touches really enabled us to reconstruct this thing.” One of the top priorities was ensuring the restoration stayed true to Bulger’s original designs.
During restoration, the team was careful to design in alignment with the different time periods that the building belongs to. They told me the modern additions were not camouflaged to look like they were built in the 1900s; the architects wanted a visitor to be able to walk around and recognize different eras in the elements of the building. I could distinguish the original 1889 limestone foundation peeking out from under the new metal ADA ramp at the north side of the building, which was designed to leave the stonework exposed. As I entered the building, I felt as though I were walking through a portal transporting me from the 1900s to the 1930s. (When the interiors were renovated in the ’30s, the exterior escaped change, retaining the original 1900s influence.)
Jhonny Langer, a Galveston conservationist and restorer, completed a paint study on the building. Similar to the way one analyzes tree rings to determine major events in a tree’s life, he studied the paint layer by layer to determine when major events to the building had occurred, including when it had been repainted in the 1930s. The restrooms are styled to be similar to the ’30s renovation. The floor is made of small black and white tiles, a pattern prevalent at the time. The contemporary plumbing and light fixtures are what brought me back to the present. When the team first arrived at the building, it had no lighting fixtures, only work lights. Inexpensive warehouse light fixtures were added with the idea that these necessary additions of lighting and HVAC were to fade away in the background: The focus was to be on the building and not on how impressive its light fixtures were. The team believed that overthinking the details would take away from the experience of the building.
The exterior was restored to its form of the early 1900s. The covered porch and columns at the entry built during the ’30s renovation were removed, and the entry pediment and flashings were reconstructed in their original location and configuration. The letters seen above the front door are the original letters from the 1880s (only two of the letters had to be replicated). At the building’s front, the cast iron capitals on the columns were also missing. The character and design of smaller columns at the back of the building were used as a reference for replication in the front. Some of the medallions and ornamentation had also been erased and were in need of restoration. The drive-in front had been almost completely erased, but with some site review, the original granite curbs were rediscovered. Still intact, they were placed back in the original positions. The restoration effort is quite evident in an area at the back of the building, where a chlorine building stood nearby. The outer layer of brick reacted poorly to the chlorine gasses: The mortar deteriorated to dust, and the wall came bulging out. Other portions of the building were in a similar condition, so the team mined suitable brick from the primary building to replace the decayed bricks. They bought new industrial Midwestern brick — a denser and smoother brick — to fill in any gaps, and the lime mortar joints throughout the building were pointed.
As I walked around the outside of the building with Labiche and Moorhead, they pointed out the new cornices and pediments replacing those that had been removed in the ’30s. Originally, there was a tin coating to protect the pressed sheet steel of the cornices and pediments — a material strategy common in the 1880s. The tin needed a painting every two years to protect it from the Gulf of Mexico’s salty air, but this preventative measure was not taken. As we walked around, I noticed the humidity in the air settling into my skin and hair. I could feel the Gulf’s strong presence from where I stood and could viscerally understand what it had been doing to this building for so many years. To prevent decay from Galveston’s climate, the old metal components were reconstructed in fiberglass, a more durable low-maintenance material. This is a material strategy Labiche and Moorhead have been implementing in their newer projects to promote more resilient buildings. The climate had caused the basement windows to deteriorate over the century, so little wells were added outside the windows to prevent water buildup and redirect the water to the storm drains. Most of the cast stone keystones on the exterior were gone, but a mold was taken from an intact keystone to restore those that remained.
The Galveston Water and Electric Light Station lives on as an important space on the island, transformed to serve the community’s needs of the present. The building’s past lives have not been wiped away and forgotten, but rather integrated and celebrated within its walls. Restoration efforts honored Bulger’s original vision and ensured the use of resilient materials. The careful and conscious restoration serves as a reminder of the pump station’s history as the building begins its next life.
Pooja Desai is a fifth-year architecture student at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design at the University of Houston and a designer at Protolab Architects.