Galveston's identity in crisis

February 20, 2009 1:43:34 PM PST
Hurricanes have shaped the Texas coast and history, but none more dramatically than the 1900 storm. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

At the dawn of the 20th century, Galveston was a financial capital and one of the most important cities in the nation. In one night that changed, but it didn't claim all of the island city's grandeur. It led to a restoration that gave Galveston part of a new identity, an identity that's now in crisis.

Inside the bricks, mortar and wood of Galveston's historic buildings, there is a story about survival. Some of the buildings stood up to the deadliest natural disaster ever in America, the 1900 storm.

A silent film was shot by Thomas Edison's film company, documenting the utter destruction of the city, but Galveston rebuilt and restored what would become its historic district.

Nearly 108 years later to the week, Hurricane Ike struck. It was technically a smaller hurricane, but many of Galveston's grand buildings are still being put back together.

In the strand, the building that housed the first bank in Texas is standing, but now on a damaged foundation. When the floorboards were removed for repairs after Ike, the force of the storm surge was revealed in that the fill dirt had been taken out with the tide.

"The masonry was washed out from under the brick piers, which is destabilizing the beams holding up the floor joist system," said Doug McClain of the Galveston Arts Center.

So many of the island's historic buildings were damaged in ways invisible from the street.

The Bishop's Palace had a flooded basement. Ashton Villa, which dates back to the Civil War, appears unscathed from the outside, but inside, the main house is empty on the first floor. Water several feet deep damaged plaster and created mold.

The repair estimate is nearly a million dollars, much of which isn't covered by insurance. So the Galveston Historical Foundation is getting creative by selling Ike water line plaques and raising money for the villa's restoration.

"We're gonna make the plaque available to put on the outside of buildings so people can say this is where it was and this is what we overcame," said Beth Shriner of the Galveston Historical Foundation.

Trinity Episcopal Church was founded before the Civil War. It survived the 1900 hurricane and every storm since, but it took a beating from Ike. Water damage and most notably a section of a huge original Tiffany window was broken. The entire piece was removed and sent off for repairs.

Like so many other buildings, it can be saved with enough time and money and that's really the story of Galveston today.

"I think everyone in Galveston is determined to rebuild and to do it as quickly as possible. It's just going to require a lot of patience," said organist Ronald Wyatt of the Trinity Episcopal Church.

It's said to be easier to build from scratch than repair and restore but that's not on Galveston's list of options. The island gets its identity from its gracious old homes and buildings that for now are still standing.

"Oh yea and they will be (standing) if we just stay behind it and don't give up and get frustrated. That's hard to do right now," said McClain.

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