Strand Chronicles - Chapter 10
Jul 02, 2019 07:07AM
Many times in the modern world of development, beauty is sacrificed for convenience, as if it were an adequate substitute. Stark, grey freeways are noble in their pursuit of speed, thus often preferred to the winding back roads despite their scenic splendor. But sometimes, a community gets it right. Every now and then, a group of people refuse to allow the impeccable standards of historic architecture to submit to the sterility of modern city planning, choosing instead another perspective that seeks to reinvent instead of raze.
In 1970 Galveston, this was assuredly a widespread mindset that had been cultivated over the previous decade by city officials, the Galveston Historical Foundation, and the Galveston Junior League, but the trio had yet to entirely suppress a penchant for bulldozing historic buildings for quick cash flow purposes such as parking lots. Revitalizing the Strand was a project that would require cohesion, vision, and diligence.
An attorney from Washington, D.C. named Peter Brink was chosen to lead the collective efforts along the Strand. He was already somewhat familiar with Galveston; the city’s remarkable potential for restoration had been recognized in the nation’s capital for quite some time.
Brink was made interim director of the Galveston Historical Foundation, and went quickly about reorganizing the group to better suit the scope of the Strand concept. Lacking wholly in restoration experience, Brink compensated with both the legal background required to create a revolving fund that would be necessary to prompt investment in the historic architecture, as well as a forward-thinking and ultimately prophetic vision for the future of the street.
Heretofore, preservation in the city had mainly focused on house museums, but Brink was adamant that this venture be recognized as one that would actually use the buildings. “[The goal is] to save historic buildings and to adapt them to current needs,” he said on behalf of the GHF to the Houston Post in 1973.
“[We will] recycle our historic buildings to bring them fully into the mainstream of Galveston-Houston life… I can see townhouses and apartments as well as shops and restaurants and bookstores on the street.”
But even before one building was sold, a burgeoning local art scene was working to perpetuate the Strand as a center of cultural celebration. Festival on the Strand was started in 1972 and continued throughout the decade. The idea was conceived by the Galveston County Cultural Arts Council, who aimed “to bring great visibility to hundreds of the region’s most accomplished but often unknown artists, and to suggest new uses for the 19th century buildings in the Historic Strand District.” Over the course of a weekend in May, Strand and Mechanic Streets were lined with exotic food vendors and arts and crafts; a film festival and live dance and theatre performances provided additional entertainment.
Aided by a $200,000 donation from the Moody Foundation and another $15,000 from the Kempner Foundation, Brink and the GHF successfully established a revolving fund in April of 1973, which would serve to protect the fate of the buildings on the Strand and reserve them for new uses.
Buildings would be purchased with the fund and re-sold as quickly as possible to investors; the money from the sale would return to the account and be recycled to purchase another structure. In addition to the buildings’ ability to generate income, their purchase was incentivized with significant tax shelters, as long as the purchase met a set of certain set of criteria set forth by the Secretary of the Interior.
The criteria designated the types and uses of the buildings that were eligible for the tax breaks, and they also required substantial rehabilitation. While the investors were motivated by the financial benefit of complying, their adherence subsequently assured a prompt renovation and occupation of the buildings.
In 1974, the very first retail store was opened on the Strand. Housed in the Mallory Produce Building between 21st and 22nd Streets, the Old Strand Emporium led the charge, its solitary yet fearless existence paving the first step of the Strand’s modern reimagining. It would prove to be a gamble that would find the homespun store on the right side of history—it remains to this day and now holds the title of the oldest store on the Strand.
The 1970s would see the birth of another Strand legend when LaKing’s Confectionery was opened in 1977. Replete with a vintage soda fountain feel and enough sugar under one roof to sweeten all the tea in the south, forty years later it remains one of the street’s most popular destinations.
The next line of action for the Galveston Historical Foundation was to commission a survey of the Strand that would thoroughly outline strategic blueprints for increasing the visibility of the street’s ongoing renaissance and attracting foot traffic to the area. The planning firm of Venturi and Ranch generated the “Action Plan for the Strand” in 1975, a comprehensive assessment that outlined every intricacy of the project from signage to parking and traffic control, as well as color schemes and ideas for interior renovations.
The action plan also addressed the Strand’s most significant disadvantage—a reputation which the 20th century had noticeably tarnished. In concordance with the study, University of Houston students conducted a survey that revealed that the Strand’s location, and even its mere existence, were practically unknown to both visitors and residents. And the ones who did know about it equated the street with crime and perceived it as a dangerous place to be. “As the Strand is no longer in the mainstream of Galveston activity, it must reach out to attract potential visitors and aggressively change its image,” the firm stated.
As implementation of the Venturi and Ranch plan continued, the efforts to legitimize Galveston’s downtown were substantially bolstered in 1976 by the renovation of the Blum building one block away on Mechanic Street. Island enthusiast and philanthropist George P. Mitchell spent $12 million dollars to transform the former warehouse into a reincarnation of Galveston’s first hotel, the Tremont House.
That same year, the Strand District was awarded an upgrade from a place on the National Register of Historic Places to that of Landmark status, and by the close of 1977, over $3 million in private investments had been made along Strand Street.
The happenings on the Strand in the late 1970s garnered nationwide attention, so much so that they captured the attention of the famed Kresge Foundation. Established in 1924, the foundation’s endowment today surpasses $3 billion, and at the time its coveted grants were exclusively awarded to local communities for the particular purposes of construction and renovation of historic buildings. In 1979, they gifted $25,000 to the Strand project, which in turn inspired grants from other well-known entities such as the Brown Foundation, the Rockwell Funds, Atlantic Richfield, and Houston Oil & Mineral.
By the close of the decade, the minutiae of scattered, subtle changes along the Strand finally began to coalesce into tangible, obvious progress. Peter Brink stated in a 1979 interview that “at some point, I’d no longer walk down the street thinking, ‘Is it going to work?’”
The plan was indeed working, but most importantly it had pushed past the boundaries of preservation and transformed the Strand into living history. No longer was it forgotten and abandoned, precariously exposed to the sands of time and the whimsies of man, but neither was it enshrined to be glimpsed at only from afar. Because of the GHF and its visionary-for-hire, Galveston’s historical relevance was now, and would forever remain, both an integral facet of the city’s economy and a crucial part of the island’s identity.
This is the 10th monthly segment on the history of The Strand. Read the first nine chapters of the Strand Chronicles online at GalvestonMonthly.com and on our Facebook page.