In the last half of the nineteenth century, the most powerful men in Texas called Galveston home. The Strand, a street stretching five blocks along the docks, wore the moniker of Wall Street of the Southwest. Two-dozen millionaires officed along the route, controlling Texas’
shipping, banks, insurance companies, and the vast cotton export business. But, one man, by the power of his designs, left a heritage for Galveston and Texas that all the power brokers combined could not equal. Nicholas J. Clayton arrived in Galveston in 1872 and changed the face of the booming cultural and business metropolis of Texas. Although he arrived without friends or business contacts, his position as supervising architect for a Cincinnati firm constructing the First Presbyterian Church and the Tremont Hotel caught the eye of Galveston notables.
A faithful Catholic, who attended mass almost every day, Clayton began his connection with Galveston’s movers and shakers by walking, as soon as he arrived, to St. Mary’s Church (now St. Mary’s Cathedral) and discussing with the bishop improvements to Galveston’s oldest church built in 1846. Clayton soon designed the central tower and later a new bell and the statue of Mary, Star of the Sea.
The bishop may have been influential the next year in Clayton receiving the contract to design Saint Mary’s Church (now Saint Mary’s Cathedral) in Austin, which served at that time as part of the Galveston Diocese.
Clayton’s residential, commercial, and church designs won respect for their exuberance of shape, color, texture, and detail. He was so involved in his work that he often continued sketching church buildings, windows, altars, and steeples, even while carrying on a conversation. He worked every day except Sunday and Christmas and expected near perfection from those he employed. His family claimed his most abusive term was “muttonhead” for those who did not meet his expectations.
He designed, built, added to, or remodeled eleven churches in Galveston and other churches all over the South and Mexico. In a time of slower communication, Clayton traveled extensively and made use of the telephone, telegraph, and letters.
Many of his designs have never been duplicated such as the intricate brickwork on Old Red (1891), the first building for the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. The carpentry has never been matched in the Beach Hotel
(1883-1898) and the Electric Pavilion (1881-1883), both destroyed by fires. The flamboyant octagonal Garten Verein (1876- ), an inspired work in wood, served as a social center for the German community.
Gresham House, Bishop’s Palace
Galveston Historical FoundationClayton worked quickly and new ideas appeared to come easily. Mrs. Clayton claimed that the idea for the design of the octagonal-shaped Garten Verein came to Clayton instantly, and he finished the plans in a single night.
His most spectacular residential design, the Walter Gresham House (1887-1892) (known today as Bishop’s Palace) rises three stories over a raised basement and boasts fourteen-foot ceilings. Among
the grand details is a forty-foot tall octagonal mahogany stairwell with stained glass on five sides lit by a large skylight. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Gresham House is one of the most significant Victorian residences in the country.
Despite his prolific production and vigorous work ethic, Clayton’s son acknowledged that his father wasn’t a very good businessman. His insistence on perfection, often caused him to go over budget for a project, and he would continue working at his own expense. He mostly left financial arrangements to others. His concern centered on creating outstanding buildings. Eventually, his relaxed business practices and dependence on a partner to follow through on a contract while Clayton was out of town, caused him to forfeit a bond that eventually resulted in bankruptcy. As the legal battle dragged on for ten years, many clients turned their backs on him and refused to pay. Devastated by the loss of his integrity and prestige, the final blow came when the 1900 storm––still considered the worst natural disaster in US history––severely damaged or destroyed many of his finest designs.
He continued to get small projects such as the design and reconstruction of the main building of St. Edward’s University in Austin after a fire damaged the original structure. He built the new Incarnate Word Academy in Houston, but he could never get a bond for a large contract.
In November 1916, as he repaired a crack in his chimney, the candle he held ignited his undershirt. Severely burned, he developed pneumonia and died on December 9, 1916.
Mrs. Clayton grieved to her husband’s dear friend Rabbi Henry Cohen, that she did not have money for a proper monument. Rabbi Cohen replied, “Oh, you don’t need one, my dear Mary Lorena. He’s got them all over town. Just go around and read some cornerstones.”
Today, eight buildings of Nicholas J. Clayton design, survive on the Strand, thirty-four remain all over the country, and eighty-six have been razed. His legacy continues in the beauty and style he brought to his beloved Galveston, known as “The Texas Victorian Oasis.”