The Bishop’s Palace

The captains of commerce and finance who led Galveston to its glory in the late nineteenth century created for themselves a striking collection of imposing homes built behind stately rows of palm trees in what is sometimes called Galveston’s “Castle District.” A few of the wealthy barons called in prestigious architects from outside the state to design their new palaces. Notably, Mr. and Mrs. George Sealy commissioned the famed New York firm of McKim, Mead, and White to design their home on Broadway now called “Open Gates.”

But when Colonel Walter Gresham decided to build a home for himself farther down Broadway in 1886, he turned to prominent local architect Nicholas J. Clayton. Gresham was a colorful local attorney and one of the founders of the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railroad. He had extensive cotton holdings and was a very wealthy man. Colonel Gresham intended to build the most elaborate house in Texas at the time. But he also needed a livable home in which to raise his family of eleven and to house eleven household servants. He was successful on both counts.

Architect Clayton was never very happy with his client’s choice of site. He considered the land insufficient to gracefully accommodate a structure that would need to be so large and imposing. Colonel Gresham owned land nearer the Gulf which Clayton preferred, but Gresham thought the Broadway location safer from a storm. Although the grounds do have a rather cramped feeling and it is difficult to view the building from far enough away to take it all in, Gresham, it seems, was wise to retain the location. His house was one of the few in Galveston which sustained hardly any damage in the 1900 storm.

Stylistically, the house is eclectic High Victorian. It contains bits of the French Renaissance in its roofs, a large dose of Richardsonian Romanesque in windows and arcades, and a dollop of East Coast Shingle and Stick Style in its overall massing. The porches are safely Galveston nineteenth-century ironwork but with a touch of French New Orleans flavor. The chimney pots and ornament play the field entirely with motifs ranging from Moorish to Neo-Gothic to Tudor.

The exterior materials of the house are largely native Texas stone. The cream-colored limestone as well as the pink and grey granite was quarried near Marble Falls. Clayton had trained for a year in Cincinnati as a stonecutter before becoming an architect and had gathered a fine group of craftsmen to execute his often elaborate stonework designs in Galveston. One of his favorite masons, John O’Brien, cut the stone for the Gresham house in a small workshop set up on the job site. The exterior stonework here is unusual, even for Clayton. It varies widely, from ornately shaped trimwork to rugged split ashlar to irregular granite rocks. The result is much freer and less geometrical than most other Clayton masonry.

The almost compulsive variation of material and texture on the outside is modest, however, compared to the interior. Clayton was heavily involved in the design of the major spaces of the Gresham House even down to the selection of furniture. Each of the downstairs rooms is lined with a different wood – the front parlor with Santo Domingo mahogany, the library with black walnut, the music room with white mahogany, the dining room with antique oak, etc. The paneling in all of these rooms was hand carved, often to match a fireplace piece bought especially for the room. The front parlor fireplace, for example, was purchased in 1876 at the Philadelphia World’s Fair, where it had won a first prize. The fireplace in the music room similarly came from the New Orlean’s World’s Fair of 1886. It is Mexican onyx and cost $10,000 even in 1886.

Interior finish materials were very carefully selected and came from all over the world – marble from Italy and Africa, exotic woods from the South Seas and Central America, porcelain from England, mirrors from France, handblown glass from Venice, tile from Holland,  cherrywood, maple, and ash from Vermont, cypress and fine-grained pine from the Big Thicket of East Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. Shipping into Galveston was easy and inexpensive in those days when even heavy materials could be charged as ship ballast coming from ports which needed Galveston’s plentiful cotton.

Many surfaces of the house were richly painted or stenciled. Mrs. Gresham, quite an accomplished artist herself, painted a number of murals in the house – notably one on the ceiling of the dining room depicting her nine children as angels.

The house is an eclectic showplace but, as previously mentioned, it also shows enormous concern for the everyday life of the family which inhabited it. Materials were durable as well as beautiful, and numerous clever inventions by Clayton added to the commodity of the house as a home. Ventilation, for example, is exquisitely handled to allow every available Gulf breeze to penetrate the house, sometimes even via internal passages. Floor-length double-hung windows in fifteen-foot-high rooms not only provide an extra quantity of ventilation by their size but also serve as doors allowing free passage out to porches and balconies. Carefully detailed shutters fold into the wall, again for maximum air circulation as well as to prevent banging in the breeze. The house was one of the first in the region to be fully equipped for gas and electric fixtures throughout and had such other conveniences as adjustable bookshelves and sliding glass doors well before their time.

The Gresham family sold their prized palace to the Catholic Diocese of Galveston in 1923, when it became the home of Bishop Christopher E. Byrne. It was during his almost thirty-year residence there that it got its current name, the “Bishop’s Palace.” The building is still owned by the Catholic Church, which has kept it beautifully intact for the past half-century.