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Galveston Monthly

The 1879 Leon & H. Blum Building

Mar 07, 2019 06:20PM
There are thousands of cities across the United States that are shadows of their former selves
- left to wilt and decay in the aftermath of an economic downturn or a natural disaster from
which they have never recovered. This could have been the fate of Galveston, which was celebrated in the mid 19th century when it emerged as an international city with immigration and trade from throughout the world.

 In 1839, Tremont House, a posh two-story hotel -designed by the firm of McKinney & Williams (Thomas McKinney, Samuel May Williams) - opened at the corner of Postoffice and Tremont Streets. Heralded as one of the finest establishments in the Republic of Texas, it was the site of magnificent balls, countless society soirees, and hosted Texas hero Sam Houston, who delivered his last public speech on the premises.

By 1860, Galveston was the largest city in Texas, the major seaport for the state, and boasted the state’s first customs house, private bank, post office, and gaslights. It was a boomtown. When talk of secession from the United States began, Galvestonians resisted, but with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president the tide turned, and in a statewide vote on secession in February 1861, the city’s residents voted to break with the Union.

The Tremont House survived much of the Civil War and was used by both the Confederate and Union troops. But in June 1865, fire broke out in the Strand District, and the inferno gutted entire city blocks, including the Tremont House.

For more than five years, the charred remains of the hotel lay in ruins until 1872, when it rose from the ashes, and was rebuilt even more glorious than the original. “Designed by renowned architect Nicholas Clayton, the new Tremont was located on 23rd Street between Church and Postoffice, on the west side of the street,” said Jami Durham, property research and cultural history historian, Galveston Historical Foundation.

Clayton’s design caught the eye of Galveston notables, and a flood of commissions came his way, including Saint Mary’s Church (now Saint Mary’s Cathedral), Ashbel Smith Building, and the Walter Gresham House (known today as Bishop’s Palace).

Like Galveston itself, Clayton’s Tremont House and the architect enjoyed high times. In 1890, Congress approved money to make it a deepwater port, outshining its rival, Houston, and Galveston experienced unparalleled popularity.

The magnificent architecture and grand manses that lined the streets - many designed by Clayton - told the story of a city of great affluence and influence.

Galveston was poised to cement its moniker as the Wall Street of the South. Fate had other plans. The Great Storm of 1900, a category 4 hurricane, barreled into the island, destroying more
than two-thirds of the city, and causing significant damage to others.

A 1900 silent film by Thomas Edison shows a panoramic look at the devastation of the storm, including a shot of The Tremont House - still standing, but with the city crumbled around it.
Accounts of the time report that George Korsy, manager of the hotel, and his staff did what they could to provide aid and shelter to survivors. A week later, the hotel was the site of the
wedding of Ernest Mayo and Mrs. Brice Roberts, both of who had lost family in the hurricane.

“The hotel closed on November 1, 1928. Demolition began on December 11, 1928,” said Jami Durham, property research and cultural history historian, Galveston Historical Foundation.
“John Egert received the contract to demolish it. Mr. Egert was a prominent citizen, known for moving houses during the grade-raising. He was also a contractor.”

But it wasn’t the end of the hotel. “The building that houses the third incarnation of the Tremont was built in 1879, and designed by Houston architect Eugene T. Heiner,” Durham says. “The three-story building housed the dry-goods wholesale and mercantile operations of Leon & H. Blum. Heiner expanded the building further down Mechanic Street in 1882. The Galveston
Architecture Guidebook notes the firm had the most extensive street frontage of any of the downtown wholesale houses. 

After the Panic of 1893, the firm went bankrupt and closed in 1896.” Visionary oilman and Galveston native George Mitchell and his wife Cynthia Mitchell - who are credited with reviving
downtown Galveston - bought the Blum Building in 1981. They worked with the San Antonio architecture firm Ford, Powell & Carson to rehabilitate the building for use as a luxury hotel,
Durham says. “The Mitchells received permission from the National Park Service - the building is in the National Register Strand. Mechanic Historic District - to add the fourth floor with
a mansard roof to the building, based on Heiner’s 1882 design that wasn’t built.”

Galveston architect Michael Gaertner worked with the Mitchells on many historic projects for 26 years, the first of which was helping to write Chapter 3 in the never-ending story of The Tremont House.

Today, The Tremont House is a Wyndham Grand Hotel and National Trust Historic Hotel of America. The east section of the hotel, now known as Belmont Suites, dates back to 1873.
In 1909, the building was converted into a hotel called the Royal Hotel. It later operated as the Palmetto House Hotel, and then from 1968 to 1979, the Belmont Hotel, until the building was damaged in a fire.

 The Mitchells purchased the building, along with the 1879 Leon & H. Blum Building, and removed the fifth and sixth floors. The building would be reimagined as Belmont Suites of The Tremont House. “The Mitchells’ commitment was to historic preservation. They were lovely and charming people. They had their own ideas, and they knew what they wanted, but what I
appreciated about them was the fact that they hired good people, and they listened if someone had a better idea on how to do something,” says Gaertner, who worked exclusively for the beloved philanthropic couple for 14 years.

“For example, with The Tremont House, the Mitchells wanted a really nice intimate bed and breakfast experience, with about 50 or 60 rooms, but they also wanted it to be a full-service hotel. They wanted room service, all-day dining, concierge service, and valet parking - all of the amenities. But they were told that in order to support all those things, they had to have at least 100 rooms, but 125 or 150 would be even better.” “The Mitchells took it to heart. There were ample drawings of the Blum Building from the 1800s that showed it with the mansard roof. The architects were able to convince the Historical Commission, which oversees restoration of the building, that since it originally had a mansard roof, that they should be able to put the mansard
roof back on - and they added another floor of guestrooms inside that area. That’s how they got the room count where it needed to be,” added Gaertner.

Like the second incarnation of the Tremont, Nicholas Clayton’s handiwork is part of the latest version of the hotel. “As the Leon & H. Blum operation grew, they hired Heiner to design the first addition to the warehouse that included some larger doors that you could actually drive horse and wagons through, and later, trucks and automobiles. But, for whatever reason, with the second addition, they hired Nicholas Clayton to design it,” Gaertner says.

“Clayton was interested in symmetry, and he would often use some of the principles of the Baux-Arts architecture. Other times, he would ignore them. What Heiner had done with the first addition was to make it sort of asymmetrical, and Clayton attempted to restore some symmetry to the building with this large entablature at the top of the building that he placed over the center of the building that looked sort of like a giant handlebar mustache. Then he placed two smaller entablatures on either side.”

When the building was restored in 1983-’84, Gaertner says, “All of the ornate galvanized sheet metal work around the cornice of the building had to be restored using fiberglass. Because we are doing historic rehabilitation, it is important to retain, when you can, the original materials, but in some cases it’s not feasible. Galvanized sheet metal has a very limited lifespan in Galveston. We knew fiberglass would last longer.”

The restoration of that entablature, Gaertner says, “cost about as much as a top of the line Mercedes sedan, brand new.”

“When we began the early stages of the work on that building, the idea was that there would be a swimming pool on the roof. As time went by, they decided a swimming pool was not a big deal in terms of the occupancy rate. So it went from being a swimming pool to a space for a very large hot tub and an ‘Endless Pool’ with swim-current options, that allow you to swim in place, against the current, without actually going anywhere. But then, the hot tub and swimming pool idea got smaller and smaller, and then the idea just vanished, and it became just a rooftop bar.”
The whole project nearly came crashing down while under construction, thanks to another wallop from Mother Nature - in the form of Hurricane Alicia, a violent category 3 storm that caused nearly $3 billion in damages, and resulted in severe structural damage in parts of Galveston in August 1983.

The island would most likely have been wiped off the map, just as it had been in 1900, if not for the seawall, a massive undertaking in the wake of the Great Storm of 1900. The seawall held during Alicia’s storm surge and saved the coastal area from complete devastation - but the hurricane was so destructive that its name would be retired the following year.

“We were under construction when Hurricane Alicia hit, and the heavy, wind-driven rain had saturated the brick. We didn’t know it, because it took it a week for the water to soak down to
the ground floor,” Gaertner says. “The ground floor had these original columns - about
18-inches to 2-foot on each side - under open arches that were made to look like cast iron, but they were actually made out of brick. The columns were deteriorated, so we’d taken the
columns down and were repairing them. But they were using the original bricks as part of good preservation practice.”

“Well, when the water started to soak down, these columns began to fail. They were cracking open on their XY axis. In the afternoon, the masons came to get me and said, ‘We have some columns that we just repaired, and they’re cracking.’ I went and looked at them, and I saw the hairline cracks. I went to the contractor’s office and told him to get every shoring tower he can get and bring them to Galveston as fast they can get them here.”

It was an all hands on deck moment - no one was permitted to leave the job site. “They got the shoring towers, and we started putting them in to support the arches and take the load off the
arches. By 6 o’clock, the cracks were open so wide, you could put your arm through them. Then the shoring towers started to fail, so we had to add a second set of shoring towers to each arch opening. It took a month working 24 hours a day to stabilize the building. This is in the
aftermath of a major hurricane. The island didn’t even have electricity restored yet,” he says.
“Mr. Mitchell was afraid the walls would fall into the street, and he had us brace the wall, so it wouldn’t fall. I explained if the building would fall, it would fall straight down, not to the side. But he said, ‘I don’t care. Brace it up.’”

When the dust settled, Gaertner says, “I took one of the original bricks, and I put it in a pale of water, and I let it sit there for about a month. And then I took a wet brick and a dry brick, and I had a testing lab break them. What I found out was that when the brick was saturated with water, it lost half of its strength because it was not a kiln-fired brick like we have today. It was just sun baked brick, so it wasn’t strong. When it got saturated, it started to revert to clay. It got mushy.”

Gaertner says he realized that for good preservation practice, as well as what was necessary for structural engineering, they needed to rebuild the columns with a hollow space in the middle that could be filled with highstrength, reinforced concrete to form the column.

“So, that’s what we did. The original brick was used as a decorative veneer on that concrete column, so that would never happen again.”

Then there was the case of the disappearing bulldozer. “Base flood elevation is 11 feet above sea level, so we had to raise the ground floor of The Tremont to get it above the base flood elevation,” he says. “Because these big openings that were part of the architectural design of the original warehouse and allowed carts to be brought in, we were able to drive in dump trucks, dump dirt out and push it around inside the building with a bulldozer to build the floor up.”
It was a lot of work, but certainly made easier by the original design features - or so he thought.
“One day, I went to the job site, and there’s a bulldozer in the corner. I looked back again, and the bulldozer was gone. I had no idea where it could have gone, but we discovered it had fallen through the roof of an underground vault.”

Gaertner says they discovered the Blum Brothers had built two massive underground cisterns - 12 feet wide and 40 feet long, and 5 feet deep. “They stored rainwater that came down from the roof.

Apparently, before Galveston had a pipe to the mainland, fresh water was a very valuable commodity, and they sold it to the ships that called off the port. Now we had to figure out
what to do with that, so we filled that in.”

The Mitchells and their team did everything possible to maintain the aesthetics of the historic structure while ensuring it would withstand whatever Mother Nature throws at it. “The structure of the entire building - from the foundation to the second floor - was reinforced. A huge steel frame supports the entire perimeter of the building,” he says. “Across the atrium are these bridges, and there’s one at every level. Not long before, there had been a collapse of a balcony in
a hotel in Kansas City, and so our structural engineer designed these bridges for ten-times the load that they’re required to be, because he wanted to ensure that they would never fail.”
The result is an incarnation of The Tremont House that outshines all its predecessors. The elegant hotel features 119 rooms, including 15 suites, each appointed with 21st century luxuries and 19th century sensibilities. Its Rooftop Bar is the only outdoor venue in Galveston to offer a panoramic view of the island.

When The Tremont House opened in 1985, it was the first major hotel to open in downtown Galveston in more than half a century. “When it comes to revitalizing a downtown a ea, and the
Mitchells knew this, you need people living there. People want to feel safe walking the streets, out at night, going to restaurants. They want to see other people coming and going. A hotel, particularly a full-service hotel, can be a first outpost of reclaiming a deteriorated downtown area because a hotel can be an island that is self-supporting,” Gaertner says. “You put in a hotel, and you have an audience for a restaurant across the street, a store where people can shop, and so on.” The lesson of The Tremont Hotel is that a hotel can spark the revitalization of a downtown area, he says. “If you have a downtown area like Galveston - where the Strand District was struggling to get the critical mass of people, shops and businesses it needed - the hotel generated that for downtown Galveston. Now, people are walking around at all
hours. We really made it happen.” 

One of the major reinvestments is the Tremont Hotel. Without Mr. Mitchell’s dedication to this project, it would not have occurred. The Tremont Hotel is today the life spirit of the district that helps all other business and ongoing rehabilitation efforts.” Dwayne Jones, chief executive officer of the Galveston Historical Foundation, agrees. “I’m not sure where the historic Strand Mechanic Historic District would be today without the vision of many to rehabilitate our many historic buildings,” Jones says. “Since the 1970s, adaptive use projects in the district have contributed to the economic revitalization of the historic area.