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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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.

GALVESTON GRADE RAISING

The 1900 storm that struck Galveston still carries the designation, as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.  Periodically, storms flooded the marshy bayou- creased island on the Gulf of Mexico, but experts believed that the lay of the land somehow protected the thriving seaport from the vicious storms that had already destroyed the port city of Indianola on down the southern coast and that often ravaged Louisiana to the east.

Galveston had grown into Texas’ most prosperous city with a population of 38,000.  Known as the Wall Street of the Southwest, it served forcefully as the business capital of Texas where all the state’s major insurance companies, banks, cotton brokers, and mercantile businesses maintained headquarters.

And then on the morning of September 8 heavy winds and rain began and by 4:00 P.M. the city lay under four feet of water.  At 8:00 P.M. the wind reached an estimated 120 miles an hour, driving a four-to-six-foot tidal wave across the island.  Houses splintered into debris that moved across the city like a battering ram destroying everything in its path.  Finally, it crashed against the massive Gresham mansion and created a breakwater that protected the remainder of the city. At midnight the wind ceased and then the water rushing back out to sea sucked away many unsuspecting victims.  As dawn came on September 9, the shattered city stared in horror at the devastation–over 6,000 dead and $40 million in property damage.

But Galveston refused to die.  An esprit de corps developed among the populace, especially the business community that literally worked miracles to bring Galveston back to life.  A board of three engineers headed by retired Brigadier General Henry M. Robert (author of Robert’s Rules of Order) recommended building a seawall and raising the level of the city behind the wall.

The Galveston seawall is one of the great engineering feats of its time.  The solid concrete wall rises seventeen feet, spreads sixteen to twenty feet at the base, and is three to five feet wide at the top.  In July 1904 at the completion of the first phase, the wall protected 3.3 miles of waterfront.  Over the years it has stretched further along the coast.

To raise the level of the city, dikes of sand were built to enclose quarter-mile square sections of town.  Dredges scooped up the sand from the ship channel and moved along canals dug from the port side of the island. Owners paid to have their houses within each cordoned-off section raised on stilts, making it possible for the huge pipes to funnel the sand under the raised buildings and in this fashion to lift streets, streetcar lines, alleys, gas and water lines, and even the privies.

The three-ton St. Patrick’s Church was the heaviest structure raised.  Workers placed 700 jackscrews under the building.  The workmen sang songs to synchronize the operation and on designated words, they cranked the jacks one-quarter turn.  In this fashion, they lifted the massive structure five feet without causing a single crack, even in the bell tower.  Church services continued without interruption.  Other structures of almost equal weight were also lifted.

Because of frequent flooding, many homes already sat on piers or were built with a first level used only for a carriage house and storage.  Those buildings simply had the first level filled as the area around them grew higher.  The first floor of some two-story buildings disappeared under the sand and the second floor became ground level.

Catwalks crisscrossed the city to allow residents to get about above the stinking, muddy silt hauled in from the bottom of the ship channel.  A drawbridge across one of the canals allowed movement about the city.  Tourists came to see the activity.  When two dredges collided and had to be pulled from the canal, residents brought picnic baskets and watched the operation.  It became fashionable for ladies to carry their nice slippers in a little bag and upon arrival at an event, they simply changed their shoes.

By the time the grade raising was complete in 1910, over 2,300 buildings, large and small, had been lifted from five to eight feet.

Before the storm, Galveston reigned as the business center of the Southwest, but with the completion of the seawall and grade raising, and the construction of a new causeway that handled five railroads, an electric Interurban, and a highway for automobile traffic business leaders asked:  Why not have a first class beachfront hotel and add holiday destination to Galveston’s allure?  In 1911 the Galvez, a $1million hotel of the finest order opened overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.  Galveston was ready for its next chapter.