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Galveston’s Beachfront Monument

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100 and counting: located between 19th and 21st streets on the Seawall, the Hotel Galvez, grande dame of Galveston hotels, pairs the old-world charm of yesteryear with modern conveniences. Next summer, the hotel begins its second 100 years as a venue famed for its hospitality, cuisine, and sociability.

On June 10, 2011, the Hotel Galvez blows out 100 candles on its birthday cake
by Jan Johnson

When Nicholas Clayton’s Beach Hotel mysteriously burned down in 1898, Galveston lost its only grand Gulf hotel. Talk of rebuilding it began shortly after the fire, but plans were quashed by the infamous hurricane of 1900. Of Galveston’s 37,000 inhabitants, at least 6,000 lost their lives in the storm—and some estimates say the death toll was as high as 12,000. Property damage was estimated at $700 million, in today’s dollars.

By June of 1910, the Seawall had been built, an all-weather bridge had been constructed to the mainland, and the island’s grade had been raised by as much as 17 feet with dredged sand. Galvestonians were ready to leave the past behind and return their city to its previous glory as a premier beach resort.

I. H. Kempner, a local business powerhouse and founder of Imperial Sugar, led a group of 11 prominent businessmen in establishing the Galveston Hotel Company. The group raised one million dollars for the Galvez’s construction, and building began on July 6, 1910.

100 years of hotel history: the venerable Hotel Galvez (pictured here circa 1911) boasts as many colorful stories of the rich and powerful, including celebrities, politicians, and even a handful of ghosts, as it has hosted guests in its century-long existence. Photo courtesy Galveston County Historical Museum.

They chose the St. Louis architectural firm of Mauran and Russell, who three years earlier had designed the Mission Revival home of Kempner’s son Daniel. They decided to name their year-round resort after Count Bernardo de Galvez, for whom “Galvez Town” was named. The group felt the motto on the count’s coat of arms—Yo Solo, or I Alone—characterized their independent spirit.

The architects delivered a Spanish Colonial Revival-style hotel featuring an eight-story central section connected to two symmetrical five-story wings, thus creating a recessed entrance behind an expansive lawn. Sedan roller-chairs lined the driveway, inviting guests to take a ride along Galveston’s Seawall, fanned by Gulf breezes.

Entering on the first floor of the Hotel Galvez, guests stepped into an expansive lobby with a tall ceiling framed by arched columns and two sun porches, or loggias, running across its arched-window façade. The west wing, with its separate entrances, held an ornate ballroom with rounded windows facing the Gulf. The restaurant, kitchen, and other meeting rooms were on the east side. Other public areas included a barbershop, candy shop, drug store, soda fountain, and the Gentlemen’s Bar and Grill. Crowned by a red-tiled roof, the central structure held a penthouse suite surrounded by four towers. At the rear entry on Avenue P, the count’s coat of arms was prominently centered on a parapet over an impressive porte-cochère.

Completed in May of 1911, the Galvez held its grand opening entitled “An Elegant Evening for an Elegant Hotel” on June 10. The March 1912 issue of Hotel Monthly described the new beach resort as “one of the best arranged and most richly and tastefully furnished seaside hotels in America.” One of its first sales brochures praised Galveston Island as having “A Ship from Every Port, a Train from Every Station” and promised that the hotel’s management “would anticipate its guests’ every need in an air of relaxing refinement.”

Five generations of Galvestonians have celebrated momentous occasions at the Galvez. With its society debuts and weddings, UTMB frat parties, beauty pageants, and Mardi Gras balls, the hotel quickly became a social center famous throughout the Southwest. In 1980, nonagenarian Hyman Block recalled that, during its first decade, he attended free Friday-night socials there, dancing to the music of Benny Paschowitz.

Even various branches of the federal government have utilized its amenities. During a 10-day fishing trip in 1937, President Roosevelt commandeered the fifth floor of the hotel as his “Little White House.” During World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard commandeered the Galvez as their headquarters for two years, awarding it an honorable discharge on August 20, 1944. In 1951, the hotel hosted General Douglas MacArthur.

Once a barber in the hotel, gambling don Sam Maceo lived in the penthouse suite. Popular entertainer Phil Harris borrowed it in 1941 to marry actress Alice Faye—for the second time. (The bride was uncertain if her divorce from singer Tony Martin had been finalized before their earlier Tijuana vows.) Invited by the judge who performed the ceremony, a little girl named Betty Jo and her mother attended. Dressed “to the nines,” they quietly watched from the back of the room. Many years later, Betty Jo recalled the abundance of pink in the room, and that “Alice Fay had the prettiest complexion I’d ever seen.”

Also included in its colorful history are stories of hauntings. One legend has it that a restless spirit wanders the fifth floor in search of her seafaring fiancé. Several times a day, she makes the trek to the northwest tower, searching for his ship. Rumors circulated that after his ship was lost in a storm, she continued her vigil until, despondent one night, she hanged herself. Shortly after her death, a sailor came to the front desk, too late to claim his bride. That eternal longing for lost love permeates the hotel’s ambiance as the fiancé reportedly still floats around the fifth floor.

A strong scent of fresh strawberries signals a mischievous little girl ghost on the east side of the fifth floor. Reportedly wearing an ankle-length organdy dress with a violet sash, a matching bow in her blond hair, and white high-button shoes, she seems marvelously happy in her hotel playground. As if to counter her glee, a grumpy old male spirit occupies the boardroom on the eighth floor. Smelling of fine cigars, he is dressed in turn-of-the-century clothing complete with a round bowler—perhaps a leftover spirit from the 1900 Storm.

Real or imagined, history continues to repeat itself beautifully at the cool, comfortable, and convenient Hotel Galvez. OutSmart raises a toast to this magnificent monument to the Queen of the Gulf’s past glory as it moves boldly into the 21st century.

Jan Johnson, a fifth-generation Galvestonian, is the author of Walking Historic Galveston: A Guide to Its Neighborhood.

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