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Galveston Monthly

Kenison Mansion

Aug 02, 2019 05:14PM

When an imposing mansion owned by the Wood family was destroyed by fire in March 1886, only the wrought-iron fencing and prized oleanders that lined the surrounding sidewalks remained.

  Within months, the owner of the home, Annie Wood (1818-1894), widow of hardware merchant Edward Stout Wood (1816-1882), built a new, equally elaborate brick residence in Queen Anne style with three distinctive turrets where her previous home stood. As the heir to the oldest hardware mercantile in the state, and thanks to her husband’s frugal nature, she had virtually unlimited funds to create her new home.   

  Sanborn maps from the era list the structure as being built from the highest quality residential materials. A two-story carriage house and a one-story servants’ quarters sat at the back of the four lots. A story in the local newspaper reported an accident during construction in July when a “tinner” (roofer) fell from scaffolding and broke his leg but survived.

  In winter of 1888, the family business that Edward had built over forty years was floundering financially due to the excessive spending of the family reserves by his sons. Liquidating assets in order to pay debts, the mansion was sold to Alphonse Kenison (1841-1920). Annie passed away in 1894, having lived her last years in a cottage at 1916 Avenue O.

  Kenison originally arrived in Galveston in 1859, but left to serve in an infantry unit from his home state of Louisiana during the Civil War. He was captured in New Orleans and became a prisoner of war, eventually being paroled in Natchitoches in 1864 before returning to the Island.

  After setting up a business as a lumber merchant on Market Street near the railroad depot, the veteran married Caroline Spann in 1866. She passed away the following fall, and the widower left the lumber business to go into a dry goods partnership with Edward Buckley. In 1879, he changed careers once more, entering the insurance business in partnership with Isadore Dyer and William Francis Beers. From their second-floor office at Strand and 22nd Street, they became highly successful as one of the first general insurance agencies in the state.

  Kenison remarried to Ellen Settle (1845-1902), and although they lost two sons in infancy, their other five children thrived and filled their grand home with activity. Daughters Josephine, Frances and Caroline were charter members of the Galveston Musical Club for young ladies in 1894. The enthusiastic group grew to 50 members under the guidance of Mrs. Beers (wife of their father’s partner) and was responsible for enticing many of the eras finest musicians to visit the Island to perform. On New Year’s Eve 1895, daughters Caroline, Frances, and Josephine Kenison gave a cotillion for their young friends at 1120 Tremont.

  The lower floor of the residence was prepared for the occasion by stretching canvas over the spacious double parlor floors, and then taking up the carpet in the library and waxing the floors to create a dance floor. At exactly 11:59pm, the young celebrants gathered underneath the chandelier and gave five cheers for the parting year. When the minute had passed, six cheers welcomed the new year.

  Living in a luxurious home drew attention of citizens other than the social elite. The Galveston Daily News ran a story in June 1898 titled, “Kenison Home Robbed Again.” Four times within two years and twice within two weeks, the same man burglarized the family’s home.

  This time, the intruder appeared to have crawled up one of the columns of the balcony on the Avenue L side of the home and entered the parents’ bedroom. After taking a pocketknife and small change from Kenison’s trouser pockets, he went into the adjoining bedroom of Josephine and her youngest sister Lucie. The eldest daughter sat up in bed and ordered the man from the room. This woke up her sister who shrieked wildly, awakening their parents. The burglar made his escape by rushing past the astonished homeowners and jumping from the second story balcony.

  The house was filled even on non-social days with the large family: Alphonse, the father; Ellen, the mother; daughters Josephine, Frances, Caroline and Lucie; son Alphonse Jr.; a boarder Lucy Sydnor (daughter of John Seabrook Sydnor, a wealthy slave trader who had moved to New York after the Civil War and died shortly after); Ellen’s mother Josephine Settle; and servant Belle Washington and her young daughter Hazel.   

  They all sheltered within the walls of the mansion during the 1900 Storm and survived. Ellen served as a leader for one of the relief stations set up by the Red Cross in the following weeks. She passed away two years later. The Kenison home was raised after the hurricane as part of the Galveston grade-raising by a local contractor named John Egert, Sr.

  Festive times returned to the Kenison mansion in 1904 when Josephine and Clinton Glencairn Wells were married in the home. It was described as one of the most attractive weddings of the season. The room where the ceremony was performed was decorated in palms and maidenhair ferns. Lucie served as the maid of honor, and Caroline and Frances were bridesmaids.

  A lavish spread of wedding presents was displayed in the music room for the close friends and relatives who attended to view. The newlyweds were showered with rice upon their departure for their honeymoon, after which they returned to their new home as 1801 Winnie. Josephine and Clinton had one son, Clinton III, born in 1906. Two years later, Clinton passed away, and Josephine and her son moved in with her parents.

  Her youngest sister Lucie’s wedding to Herman Bornefeld was also held in the grand home in 1914. They made their home at 2323 Avenue L, after briefly living in the Kenison mansion.

  In December of that year, Josephine’s son Clint wrote a letter to Santa that was published in the newspaper. It read: “Dear Santa: I want a torch, a box of candy, a football, A Meccano set (the original erector building sets), a pair of boxing gloves, a machine saw with wood and that is all. I am 8 years old.” As the only grandson living in the home of his grandfather, it is likely his entire list was delivered Christmas Eve.

   Alphonse Kenison, Sr., who had been known for his quiet demeanor and kindness, passed away at his home in March 1920. With the head of the family gone, his children sold the large home to Maco Stewart in June 1921 for $21,000. Members of the Stewart family resided at 1120 Tremont until 1944, when the home was purchased by the Young Men’s Christian Association. The mansion was torn down in the early 1950s to make way for a new YMCA building. The Galveston chapter of this association is the oldest in the state.

   Now this stunning residence only exists in a handful of photos as a reminder to treasure the historical homes that remain on Galveston Island.