The Mardi Gras Museum
Jan 29, 2020 07:03PM
Much like the cities that celebrate it, Mardi Gras is richly unique. While many other holidays have been hijacked by marketing firms and diluted by societal evolution, Carnival remains authentic. While most traditional festivities are more or less mandatory via the declaration of them as nationwide observances, Mardi Gras is only celebrated regionally and has grown organically, with a history that parallels the early growth of certain American cities that were heavily influenced by European cultures.
This is precisely how and why Galveston adopted the Mardi Gras tradition in 1867, and why it blossomed into what was once one of the most outlandish and elaborate celebrations in the nation, rivaled only by the Carnival capital itself, New Orleans.
Perhaps the holiday’s uniqueness is what resonated with Island icon George P. Mitchell when he sought to revive it in the mid-1980s, and assuredly the direct ties of Mardi Gras to the cultural fabric of Galveston did not escape him, as the city was forever shaped by the array of global influences during its reign as a prosperous international port of commerce and immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Amid the throes of World War II, economic and supply issues forced Galveston to halt nearly 75 years of Mardi Gras tradition in 1941, and the celebrations were forced into the private homes of the city’s elite. The revelry remained isolated from the public until 1985 when Mitchell singlehandedly gifted Galveston with a triumphant return of Mardi Gras concurrent with the grand opening of his new Tremont House hotel on Mechanic Street.
That year he was named King of the Krewe of Momus, and led the parade to the grand opening of the Mardi Gras Museum that coincided with an art opening and appropriately included a book signing of The Gods of Greece by Arianna Huffington, who would go on to start the Huffington Post. Later, Mitchell sought to further immortalize Galveston’s Carnival legacy through the Mardi Gras Museum on the Strand. At the time, Mardi Gras had a different theme every year in the tradition of the early Galveston celebrations. In 1994 the theme was “Greece,” and Mr. Mitchell had executed his usual dedication to the theme with a thorough decorating of the Strand all the way down to Grecian street signs and lamps.
Designed by the Eubanks Architecture Group, the perimeters of the museum were outfitted with custom stained glass and a brief history of Galveston Mardi Gras inscribed on the wall. Joseph Rozier, who was then a recent college graduate employed by the Eubanks firm, produced design drawings for the layout of the museum and continued to assist with creating exhibits after it opened. He explains that several permanent displays flanked a large, central gallery that hosted revolving exhibits, the most dramatic of which was an enormous hanger fixed to the ceiling that allowed the museum to interchange many examples of the magnificent, 12-foot long capes worn by former queens and duchesses.
The permanent exhibits included donated items from several Galveston Krewes. They featured early 20th century costumes and various collections of historic memorabilia, like the custom doubloons that were created by each Krewe every year. But garnering the most attention were the three-dimensional models of the arches that were commissioned by Mitchell to adorn the city streets in 1986. Seven world-famous architects were asked to each design a “fantasy arch” for a Galveston intersection, a modern-day take on the decorative arches that were erected for the 19th century celebrations.
“The arches were built to be temporary,” says Rozier, but the Pelli arch at 21st and Mechanic, lit by a series of colored bulbs in a horizontal pattern, was kept up for six months. Gray’s arch on the Strand also hung on for a significant amount of time, and the Powell arch at 24th and Mechanic was rebuilt and reinforced and remains to this day.
The project was distinguished by a 1987 exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the national museum of the Smithsonian Institution. “Arches of Galveston” included architectural renderings, photographs, and models of each of the seven arches.
Unfortunately, the 3rd floor location of the Mardi Gras Museum would prove a disadvantage. “Even though we had an elevator and an escalator at the time, we simply didn’t get enough foot traffic,” explains Rozier. “It was a labor issue, predominantly,” he continues, “it required a full-time employee to staff the cash register to take admission and sell merchandise [from the gift shop].” In 1996 the space was abandoned and a satellite museum was opened across from the Tremont House, a location that provided a comprehensive solution.
A local bookstore named Midsummer Night Books occupied the storefront space of a building owned by Mitchell Historic Properties at 2309 Mechanic. The owner agreed to play host to the museum, which would be moved to a small annex next door at 2311. A thick concrete wall separated the two addresses, but a portion of it was dismantled to create a connecting passageway.
The gift shop was eliminated and the museum was free and open to the public during the bookshop’s normal operating hours, which removed the need for staff. Most importantly, foot traffic from the bookstore and the hotel provided a much-desired visibility for the fascinating collection.
“We moved the nicer things down to the smaller annex, and gave all of the donated items back to the Krewes,” Rozier recalls. A local artist named Cara Moore was hired to paint the floor with a faux stone finish embellished with symbols of Mardi Gras, and a massive, antique wooden display case featured a 1930s costume complete with headdress, cape, and a stunning silver dress studded with thousands of sequins.
The Mardi Gras Museum remained a fixture of downtown until Hurricane Ike in 2008, when a fast-rising storm surge prevented the rescue of the museum’s already minimal contents. After the storm, neither the bookstore nor the museum returned.
Today, the former location of Midsummer Night Books and George’s museum is still owned by Mitchell Historic Properties and currently houses one of Galveston’s most dynamic art galleries, Arts on Mechanic.
Tour the Traces of Galveston’s Mardi Gras Museum
Perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Lenten season, the Mardi Gras Museum left behind several Easter eggs when it closed. Some of them are (much) more obvious than others, but they all blend in seamlessly with Galveston’s Carnival identity.
Powell Arch at 24th and Mechanic
On the east side of the intersection of 24th Street and Mechanic, the Powell arch turned 30 last year and still beams brightly every night as a constant reminder of Galveston’s Mardi Gras heritage.
Floor & Passageway at Arts on Mechanic
Step inside the local art gallery at 2309 Mechanic and look down. Much of the floor painted by Galveston artist Cara Moore for the Mardi Gras Museum still remains. The annex and the wide passageway created to connect it to the bookstore now gives an added dimension to the storefront space.
Antique Display Case at Arts on Mechanic
In the annex of Arts on Mechanic where the museum was located, the large, antique display case used for the luminescent silver costume survived Ike and has stayed in place through several businesses.
Light Fixture at Davidson Ballroom
Inside Davidson Ballroom, the Tremont House’s private party venue located across the street from the hotel, attendees often use a beautiful stained glass light fixture as their backdrop for photographs during special events. The fixture was originally incorporated into a display at the first museum location on the Strand.
Stained Glass at Old Galveston Square
Over the entrance to the original museum space on the third floor of Old Galveston Square on the Strand, a stained glass window with the image of a jester still remains to welcome visitors.