Nicholas Clayton, Texas Architect

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’

Nicholas Clayton
Wikipedia

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.

Beach Hotel,
Galveston Historical Foundation.

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Austin
McIlvain

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

Ashbel Smith Building, “Old Red,” First Building for the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Gresham House, “Bishop’s Palace,” High Victoria style Wikipedia

(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

Grand staircase, Bishop’s Palace
Galveston Historical Foundation

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.”

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Pompeiian Villa in Texas

Peristyle, Pompeiian Villa

The Pompeiian Villa, built in 1900 in Port Arthur, is a replica of a first-century Roman villa complete with a deep pink exterior, Doric columns, and ten rooms circling a grand peristyle. The unusual structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and bears a Texas

The Pompeiian Villa, Port Arthur

Historical Marker for its unusual design and because its heyday symbolizes an era of Texas history filled with surprising twists and turns.

The tale begins with Arthur Stilwell, an eccentric industrialist who, even as a child showed signs of unusual intuition. As a powerful businessman, he often raised eyebrows when he insisted on following a “hunch” when making decisions. Stilwell claimed a “hunch” convinced him to construct a railroad from the agricultural heartland of Kansas straight south for 600 miles to a protected inland harbor on the Texas coast. The problem with Stilwell’s port site was that there was no port there.

Stilwell believed his inland harbor would be spared the damaging Gulf storms and would sit at the terminus of a much more profitable route for Midwestern farmers to ship their grain exports than following the 1,400-mile trek to the East Coast.

A “hunch” also kept Stilwell from constructing his railroad to the already thriving seaport of Galveston. Instead, the Kansas City Southern Railroad reached Sabine Lake in 1898 where Stilwell’s Townsite Company had already laid out the village, built a hotel, a pleasure pier, grain elevators, and loading docks. Stilwell modestly named the new site Port Arthur. To allow access to ocean-going vessels he began the arduous task of digging a canal along Sabine Lake that connected with the Gulf of Mexico.

Port Arthur, protected inland harbor

Three wealthy investors––John “Bet A Million” Gates, who made his first fortune promoting barbed wire to skeptical Texas ranchers, Isaac Elwood an early developer of barbed wire, and James Hopkins, president of the Diamond Match Company––joined the railroad project and real estate development of Port Arthur. After delays and mishaps, Gates managed to shove Stilwell out of the Kansas City Southern Railroad just before it reached its terminus. Apparently, Stilwell didn’t get a “hunch” in time to stop Gate’s takeover.

The ambitious businessmen that had taken over Stilwell’s dream, decided the view overlooking Sabine Lake offered the ideal locale for winter cottages. Gates built a $50,000 Colonial-style mansion. Ellwood spent $50,000 building the Pompeiian Villa and then sold it to

John “Bet A Million” Gates home in Port Arthur

Hopkins, who wanted the lavish home for his wife and daughters.

Unfortunately, when Hopkins’ family arrived, they were greeted by the typical heat, humidity, and mosquito infestations of Southeast Texas winters. They refused to step from their carriage.

Meantime, Stilwell’s “hunch” about the best location for his railroad terminus proved accurate when the September 1900 hurricane struck Galveston only 60 miles down the coast, killing over 6,000 and devastating the thriving seaport known as the Wall Street of the Southwest.

On January 10, 1901, Spindletop the oil gusher, which ushered in the petroleum age, blew in a few miles north of Port Arthur. The little town sat perfectly positioned for the first oil pipeline in the world to deliver Spindletop crude oil to its dock facilities.

The oil boom brought vast wealth to the area and housing, especially handsome accommodations such as the Pompeiian Villa, were in high demand. James Hopkins rented his beautiful house to executives of Guffey Petroleum Company, present Gulf Oil. Then, in 1903 George M. Craig a local banker offered to purchase the Villa for ten percent of the stock in one of the new oil businesses called the Texas Company. Today, that stock in Texaco is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Craig family lived in the Villa for the next 43 years. When asked why he tossed away Texaco stock for the Villa, Craig explained that oil companies during the Spindletop oil boom were a dime-a-dozen––starting up and going broke overnight. Perhaps Craig didn’t listen to his “hunches” as well as Stilwell.

POWER BY DESIGN

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.

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 (click on this link for terrific photos) 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 served as sufficient prestige to catch the eye of Galveston notables.

A faithful Catholic, who attended mass most every day, Clayton began his connection with Galveston’s movers and shakers by walking as soon as he arrived in the city 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 statue of Mary, Star of the Sea.

The bishop may have been influential in 1873 in Clayton receiving his first independent design of Saint Mary’s Church (now Saint Mary’s Cathedral) in Austin, which, at that time, was part of the Galveston Diocese.

Clayton’s residential, commercial, and church designs won respect for the exuberance of shape, color, texture, and detail.  He loved his work, apparently sketched church buildings, windows, altars, and steeples, even while carrying on conversations.  He worked every day except Sunday and Christmas and expected near perfection from employees.  A gentle man, his family claimed his most abusive term was “muttonhead” for those who did not meet his standards.

He designed, built, added to, or remodeled eleven churches in Galveston and other churches all over Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, 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; and the carpentry has never been matched in the Beach Hotel (1883-1898) and the Electric Pavilion (1881-1883) both destroyed in the 1900 storm.  The flamboyant octagonal Garten Verein (1876- ), an inspired work in wood, served as a social center for the German community.

Clayton, filled with enthusiasm, worked quickly and new ideas appeared to come easily.  Mrs. Clayton claimed the idea for the Garten Verein design 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 octagonal skylight.  Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Gresham House is one of the most significant Victorian residences in the U.S.

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 at times led him to go over budget for projects and to continue the work 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 and become involved in a long legal battle that resulted in bankruptcy.  As his 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 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 structure, and he built the new Incarnate Word Academy in Houston, but he failed to get a bond for a large contract.

In November 1916, as he repaired a crack in his chimney, the candle he held caught his undershirt on fire.  Severely burned, he developed pneumonia and died on December 9, 1916.

Mrs. Clayton grieved to Rabbi Henry Cohen, one of their friends about having no money for a proper monument for her husband.  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, and eight-six have been razed.  His legacy continues in the beauty and style he brought to his beloved Galveston, known as Texas’ Victorian Oasis.