Skip to main content

Galveston Monthly

The Jean Lafitte Hotel

May 03, 2019 07:28PM
n today’s world, the tallest building on the planet is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The 163-floor structure scrapes the sky at 2,717 feet, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

But in 1927, when the 10-story Jean Lafitte Hotel opened its doors at 2101 Church Street In Galveston, it was an astounding accomplishment. Designed by Scottish architect Andrew Fraser, the island’s first high-rise structure was called a “striking architectural beauty.”

 It featured all the luxuries of the time, including 204 guest rooms of “luxurious splendor,” each with an adjoining bath with hot and cold running water, and circulating ice water; a ceiling fan; walnut-finished paneled doors; heavy three-ply rose and taupe shade carpeting; exquisite wallpaper; a reading light, desk lamps and night lights; an automatically locking ”burglar proof” hotel room doors - a new innovation at the time - and more. The hotel even offered telephones
capable of making long distance calls.

Fraser worked for the Moody family, which remains among the most distinguished families in Texas and credited with being instrumental in the birth of Galveston as a major financial center.
Fraser also designed the Buccaneer Hotel (built 1929, but has been demolished), and the Medical Arts Building (extant, built 1929, at 308 21st).

“Fraser was one of the most prominent business architects working in the Houston-Galveston area during the 1920s,” says Jami Durham, property research & cultural history historian for the Galveston Historical Foundation. 

“His buildings set new standards in size and restraint….The Galveston Architecture Guidebook notes the Jean Lafitte Hotel as representative of the new urban ‘skyscraper’ hotels built to serve business travelers in Texas towns during the 1920s. The L-plan building is built upon a stone base with light brown brick walls and cast stone ornamental detail.”

Located in Galveston’s historic downtown district, the hotel was named for the famous French buccaneer, who at one point lived on Galveston Island. The hotel was a game changer. It enjoyed decades of success, drawing business and commercial visitors, as well as vacationers, in search
of luxurious accommodations, salty air, sunshine, and lucrative new ventures.

As time marched on, the hotel found increasing competition on the island, and began an era of decline. Its time in the sun was over - and the once headlinemaking “skyscraper” became one of downtown Galveston’s biggest eyesores.

Houston businessman Tracy Suttles purchased the building in 1999 with plans to convert it into luxury condominiums, but the plan never materialized, and the building sat vacant for over a decade.

In 2008, it suffered damage during Hurricane Ike, which devastated much of the area. Luckily, just as the Moody family and other major players of early-20th century Galveston saw the need for the Jean Lafitte Hotel to boost the economy, The ITEX Group - an industry leader in the development, construction, and management of quality real estate investments - saw
vision and opportunity in what was left of the historic structure.

In 2009, the Houston-based company purchased the building - which is individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places - and two years later began a massive historic preservation and renovation project to transform the 10-story Jean Lafitte Hotel into commercial space and luxury apartments.

The Jean Lafitte’s 200 hotel rooms were converted into 83 one- and two-bedroom apartments, with retail tenant spaces on the first floor. Exterior rehabilitation work included historically appropriate replacement of missing windows, masonry repair and cleaning, restoration of storefront, and construction of a new stair tower for fire and life-safety codes. The bottom
of the grand staircase in the lobby was retained and preserved, while the upper flights were enclosed to meet codes.

The project was also financed, in part, with funding from federal disaster recovery grants, the U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development. Approximately half of the units are set aside as
affordable housing.

“The Jean Laffite Hotel was a project of our Tax Credit Program. People are often unaware that federal, state, and local tax incentives exist for owners of historic properties,” says Leah Brown, media relations coordinator, Texas Historical Commission (THC).

“The State of Texas created its Texas Historic Preservation Tax Credit program in 2015, and also
serves as the administrator for the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program. Between these two programs, historic property owners can potentially qualify for a 35 percent credit.”

During the Jean Lafitte project, the THC played an active role in reviewing different aspects of its
rehabilitation, particularly the architectural rehabilitation that converted the building into apartments, Brown says.

“We made sure that the project met requirements under the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit, the Texas Historic Preservation Tax Credit, and Section 106 of the State Antiquities Code. We reviewed the plans before construction began and reviewed the completed project, to ensure that all work met the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. The National Park Service also reviewed the architectural work as part of the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit.”

Part of the THC’s review role is to monitor projects to make sure that all work meets the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation - standards established by the National Park Service.
“This includes, to the greatest extent possible, retaining historic fabric and features and ensuring that all alterations preserve the historic character of the building,” she says.

The extensive, nearly $10 million renovation of the former hotel is now named 2101 Church Street for its address.

“What now stands as 2101 Church Street was once the magnificent Jean Lafitte Hotel, Galveston Island’s first high-rise building,” says John Gonzalez, marketing director for The ITEX Group.

“The Jean Lafitte offered visitors a lavish escape during the times when the island served as a resort, port, and gambling hot spot… The building’s impact on the city was a glimpse of splendor while it stood far above other downtown buildings, clad with Renaissance Revival ornamentation.”

The restoration was a labor of love and respect for the past, he says. The ITEX Group, Gonzalez says, could not stand by and watch such a landmark crumble.

“With the company being based in Southeast Texas, ITEX had local roots and a desire to see Galveston grow economically, especially after Hurricane Ike in 2008.” Brown says as the official state agency for historic preservation, the Texas Historical Commission, “We have to make it a priority to preserve the places in Texas that provide a glimpse into our state’s rich history. These buildings tell the stories of who we were as a state, and how we became who we are today.”

“Today, residents still get to experience the same pieces of Renaissance Revival each day they walk throughout the building,” he says. “The first floor of 2101 Church Street is still adorned with the original crown molding that once set the Jean Lafitte above the rest. Additionally, a section of the original staircase still remains paying homage to the authentic grandeur.”

Historic structures like the Jean Lafitte Hotel offer a variety of economic benefits, Brown says.
“They boost heritage tourism, which brings more than $7 billion into Texas’ economy each year.
Heritage travelers want to discover Texas’ richest historic treasures, and in doing so, they bolster local communities.”

The restoration project also gets high marks from the Galveston Historical Foundation (GHF), a nonprofit dedicated to community redevelopment, historic preservation advocacy, maritime preservation, coastal resiliency and stewardship of historic properties.

“Lafitte was one of downtown Galveston’s largest historic buildings in need of a new life for many
years,” says Dwayne Jones, GHF executive director. “The investment by ITEX created a dynamic venue for residential living downtown that was much needed. It’s one of the island’s few ‘high-rise’ residences and a tremendous asset reused creatively and thoughtfully.”