David Bowers, new president of the Galveston Historical Foundation, aims to see an entire neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. Plus Jan Johnson’s new book gives Galveston walking tours.
By Donalevan Maines • Photos by Yvonne Feece
Short by Marene Gustin
See also:Galveston Gal
Craving a walking tour of the city by the sea? Jan Johnson’s your gal
A lot of people didn’t think Galveston had it in her,” David Bowers says of the island city’s comeback from Hurricane Ike. Boy, are they surprised to witness what he calls “a remarkable recovery.”
“A lot of tangible things are coming back on line, but more importantly is the intangible, the attitude of rediscovery of the city,” he says. “There’s a wonderful spirit here, and that’s really given lots of people a basis for fresh hopes and dreams. Everybody is excited about where we’re going from here.”
Bowers is excited about preserving the past, too. On July 17, he becomes president of the Galveston Historical Foundation, one of the nation’s largest local preservation groups and a driving force in the development and enrichment of the island’s culture and economy. A goal of
Bowers’ presidency will be to honor the city’s oldest section of properties.
“I would like to see 6th Street to 61st Street, from Bay to Gulf, put on the National Register of Historic Places,” he explains.
That’s also one of 42 projects the city’s Long Term Recovery Committee has formulated in an ambitious community action plan that includes projects, a timetable for implementation, and funding sources. The committee’s immediate goal is unifying the community recovery effort; its secondary goal is to achieve consensus on the community vision for a recovered Galveston.
Bowers, a realtor with The House Company in Galveston, was appointed by City Council to serve on the group’s historic preservation subcommittee. He served on the City Council from 1994 to 2000 when, he explains, “I was term-limited out as a Council member, so I ran for mayor because I thought, and I still do think, I could have done a better job than the person who won.”
Bowers is the ninth consecutive person in his family’s history to serve as a publicly elected official, dating back to his great grandfather, “from old New England stock,” who founded Ottawa, Kansas, with his brother.
“They were abolitionists in the 1850s, and they started the little town, where they were mayor, sheriff, and everything,” Bowers says. “They left a quite extensive diary of Civil War stories and what they endured to hold the peace there. Kansas had a whole lot of raids from Missouri.
“I am very lucky to have had lots of family members who were interested in history,” he says. “They had a real passion for it, and were interested in discussing it. They always talked politics, and I was always fascinated by it.”
Bowers grew up in nearby Overland Park in the Kansas City area, but his family moved to Vermont, where he attended high school. However, he returned to Kansas to attend Ottawa University, then Washburn University School of Law in Topeka.
Upon graduation, Bowers moved to Houston in 1978 and realized his childhood dream of working in a skyscraper. With an office on the 47th floor of what is now the Bank of America building, Bowers was a corporate real estate attorney for Stewart Title Co., managing the downtown commercial closing office and 20 independent agents in East Texas.
In 1984, he bought a raised, two-story Victorian-style house on 25th Street in Galveston. It was built in 1899. Bowers restored and renovated the 2,400-square-foot house and made it his home in February 1989.
In December 2006, he met his partner John Nagy, a former account executive at OutSmart magazine who now sells cars at Sand Dollar AutoPlex in Galveston. “We met on a bar stool at 3rd Coast Beach Bar,” says Bowers. The couple rode out Hurricane Ike together, along with an estimated 20,000 others who didn’t flee the island before flooding began last September 12. (Bowers thinks that figure is high.)
“On Wednesday, I was at a realtor convention in San Antonio,” when it became likely that Galveston would be hit, “so I raced back here and boarded up the house” and other properties, he explains. “At 5:30 on Friday afternoon, we were taking one last walk by rental properties, and a storm blind had already fallen off. Two blocks down 25th Street, across Broadway, I saw what looked like a whole bunch of trash in the street, and John said, ‘No, those are whitecaps,’” he recalls. “As we got back to the house, it was lightly sprinkling. Then at 6:45, the electricity, all the power, went out.
“Heavy rains came for seven hours, then the eye of the storm. The eye happened so quickly. Suddenly, there was no noise. I thought I had lost my hearing!” he says. “I yelled out to John, and of course I heard myself talk and realized there really was no noise.”
From their upstairs back porch, he continues, “We saw four feet of water all around us, a large full moon, and we could read star constellations in the sky. We saw a neighbor signal with a flashlight. He
had heard The Weather Channel was predicting another 20-foot surge and that no one was supposed to survive the second half of the storm.
“We moved a lot of furniture to the second floor, until the wind part started. I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. It was pretty traumatic for three or three-and-a-half hours. The only thing I can think of even remotely close, and it wasn’t even remotely close to that, was a blizzard in Vermont,” he says.
Jan Johnson is a BOI. That’s “born on the island” for those who don’t speak Galveston-ese. More than that, she’s also a fifth generation islander and a direct descendant of two survivors of the 1900 storm.
“My mother’s parents were just five at the time of the storm,” she says. “They never really talked about it, but I’ve collected some books and vintage postcards from them.” Johnson’s also collected a lot more history of the island over the years, a love she developed from her mother, Dorris Stechmann Johnson, who was the secretary to John Gardner’s Historic American Buildings Survey in 1966-67. Today, as a freelance writer and walking tour guide, Johnson makes it her business to bring Galveston’s history to life, and now she’s written a book: Walking Historic Galveston, A Guide to Its Neighborhoods (Eakin Press, 2009, $19.95).
A delightful and compact book, Walking Historic Galveston is perfect for those who can’t get a personal tour from Johnson but want to wander the historic neighborhoods and learn the stories behind the wonderful architecture.
“You can carry it with you on your walk, and when you see a house you can look it up and read its history,” Johnson explains. In 179 pages she covers nine historic neighborhoods, from The Silk Stocking District to The Strand. But picking a favorite just isn’t possible for this islander.
“All of them!” she exclaims. “Some because of the stories behind them and some because of the people who have lived there.”
Johnson spent five years working on the book, and the last was the hardest, thanks to Hurricane Ike. As the 2008 storm made a beeline toward the island, she had to pack up all of her notes and historic photos before fleeing. Unfortunately she lost a lot of old newspapers and documents left in file cabinets. “They got Iked,” she says.
Sadly, this island gal is now in residence in League City. Her island home is still being repaired after suffering three feet of storm water. And she had to add an Ike preface to her manuscript, deleting some of the buildings she had planned to include since they were no longer standing. But she did leave in the fabled Balinese Room, the nightclub at the end of the pier where Frank Sinatra once sang and Texas Rangers raided the gambling parlor. “It’s just a damn good story,” she says of the wooden building that wound up in pieces, some scattered miles down the shore after the storm.
Luckily, many more of the historic buildings in Galveston did survive, and as tourists are heading back to the charming city by the sea, the interest in them is being revived. So this summer grab a copy of her book (see galvestonislandgal.com for purchasing details), some comfortable shoes, and hit the road. After all, Galveston is barely an hour away, and, besides the rich history, you can soak up some sun and sand, not to mention chowing down on all the fresh seafood.
Marene Gustin is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.