Strand Chronicles - Chapter 11
Jul 02, 2019 07:11AM
George & Cynthia Mitchell
By 1980, Peter Brink and the Galveston Historical Foundation’s quest to reimagine and reinvent the Strand as a shopping and historic district had gathered significant momentum. Private investments along the street and surrounding areas had doubled in the last three years to over $6 million, twenty buildings had been rehabbed, and thirty residential apartments had been established in the upper levels of the historic buildings.
Novelty stores that were opened in the prior decade, such as Colonel Bubbie’s Strand Surplus Senter located in the Colonel W. L. Moody Building on the northwest corner of 22nd Street, gave the Strand a unique and unrivaled visitor appeal, and they were quickly joined by a variety of gift shops, jewelry stores, a photography studio, restaurants, and art galleries like Bastien’s Stained Glass Studio. Events such as the newly conceived Dickens on the Strand, a Victorian tribute to Galveston’s early years, continued to propel interest in the burgeoning downtown area.
All the while, the proliferation of livable spaces above the retail spaces gave the street a pronounced communal feel; many of the people who lived on the Strand also worked there. “To have people who work here and live here is absolutely vital,” Peter Brink told the Houston Chronicle in 1980.
“It gives a whole different atmosphere, and we realized that right from the beginning. If you look at places like Wall Street in New York, which is office space, at 5 o’clock the thing clears out, becomes a desert. We didn’t want that on the Strand. We didn’t want it being solely retail where everything would be directly manipulated toward pleasing visitors. We wanted more than that.”
Continuing the forward progress made on the Strand in the 1970s, the name that would ultimately define Galveston in the 1980s was one that still today conjures sincere affection and deep respect in the hearts and minds of local residents—George P. Mitchell. While he did not discount the value of the Seawall and its attractions, Mitchell’s faith in the city’s future was grounded in the potential of the historic downtown. His unbridled enthusiasm for restoring this area to prominence was prompted by a love for his hometown together with a unique perspective on the Houston/Galveston connection.
As an oilman who had worked extensively in Houston, he understood the inevitable effect that the city’s growth would have on the island. “I am one of the few that bridges the gap, that understands the dynamics of Houston…and really sees both sides of the coin.”
Having previously purchased the Blum building on Mechanic Street several years prior, Mitchell’s first foray onto the Strand was the acquisition and rehabilitation of the 1871 Thomas Jefferson League building on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. It debuted in 1980, and on the street level he and his wife Cynthia opened the Wentletrap restaurant that singlehandedly elevated Strand dining and brought an air of sophistication to the city street.
During the Strand’s commercial heyday, efficient access to the railyard from the port was crucial, thus the street was plotted to dead-end to the east at 25th Street. The location of the railyard just beyond this point allowed easy transport from ship to rail via tracks built along the harbor front. Eventually, a train depot was constructed at the foot of the Strand with the advent of rail service for passengers. A massive 1930s renovation turned the modest station into a splendid Art Deco masterpiece with a center tower that rose eleven stories.
The decline of Galveston as a destination and the rise of automobiles as primary transportation permanently closed the depot in 1967, and the building was left to ruin while the rest of the Strand enjoyed over a decade of resurgence. Finally in 1981, Mary Moody Northen suggested that the Moody Foundation privately fund the renovation of the building and develop a railroad museum.
In addition to restoring the exterior to its 1930s splendor, the $10 million project transformed the first level into a public museum that preserved the original train depot. The original newsstand, ticket counter, and wooden benches were employed to re-create a 1932 tableau complete with life-sized statues of travelers in period clothing. The upper floors above the museum were renovated into office spaces, and the building was named Shearn Moody Plaza in honor of Mary’s brother.
Opposite the Plaza, Hendley Row bookended the other end of the Strand on the northwest corner of 20th Street. GHF restored the west section of the oldest building on the street and there housed the organization’s headquarters as well as a Visitors Center. The restoration was designed and executed by the Taft Architects of Houston, and in 1981 the firm received a National Honors Award for their work on Hendley Row from the American Institute of Architects.
As the decade continued, it proved itself more than capable of maintaining this feverish pace of growth and renewal. Peter Brink likened it to a “snowball picking up a little snow and getting bigger in momentum.”
In 1983, George Mitchell struck again with a stunning renovation of the Hutchings and Sealy Building at 24th and Strand. He was now the city’s largest taxable landowner on the island, with real estate holdings totaling $54 million, or nearly six percent of the total taxable assessed valuation in Galveston. With the capital, the drive, and the vision, his enthusiasm for this next chapter in Galveston history was contagious, rippling through the city and restoring not only buildings, but hope.
What Mitchell had in investments, Bill Fullen had in longevity. As the owner of the Mallory Produce building on the north side of the Strand between 21st and 22nd, he was the first to open a retail store in 1974, the Old Strand Emporium. He was also the first to become a landlord.
When he purchased the building, an old sign painter was living there as a caretaker, paying $35 a month in rent. Fullen let him stay on at the same rate, and at one point that $35 was the grand total of income generated by the building.
However as the Strand began to blossom once again, Fullen’s business enterprises grew along with it. In 1984 he opened one of the Strand’s most treasured spots, The Waterwall restaurant. Nestled in the crevasse between two buildings, the outdoor restaurant was named for its waterfall that gently cascaded down over the entirety of a stone wall erected on the far side of the seating area.
By 1985, the first level of the Strand held steady at an 85% occupancy, with certain bouts of time where it reached 100%, and the number of apartments and residences continued to trend upward. That same year, George Mitchell executed one of his most significant endeavors—the return of Mardi Gras. The grand opening of his Tremont House in the Blum building was slated for February, but Mitchell did not want just any party to mark this special occasion. He wanted to do something with a direct tie to Galveston’s past, and Mardi Gras was just the thing.
Carnival had been celebrated in Galveston as early as 1867, and the annual festivities continued well into the 20th century, until depression and war forced them into private homes. The coupling of Mardi Gras and the opening of the Tremont House in the winter of 1985 was a triumphant celebration—downtown had not seen a hotel for almost as long as it had seen a parade or a balcony party.
Never one to rest on his laurels, George continued to seek out investment and restoration opportunities along the Strand, his next being the purchase of Old Galveston Square in 1989. He immediately set about attempting to lure factory stores to the property for the purpose of creating an outlet mall in the building. Eventually his real estate docket would become too expansive to manage privately, and he created Mitchell Historic Properties. Before his death in 2013, the company owned three-quarters of the Strand.
Still, none of that would have been possible without the initial vision for the Strand, diligently crafted by Peter Brink and the GHF. In 1987, they were singled out by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and given the Preservation Honor Award.
The Trust called them a “textbook case” of a successful preservation organization. Their foresight, along with George Mitchell’s devotion, had forever altered the landscape of Galveston’s economy, and their efforts had set ablaze the community’s pride in their once-forgotten city.