The Strand and Galveston’s Historic Downtown
Although it was founded to save and restore an historic house, by the early 1970’s Galveston Historical Foundation began to concentrate on saving the unique collection of 19th century commercial buildings in the city’s downtown area. Dickens on The Strand began as a promotion of an area few Galvestonians and no tourists had occasion or desire to visit. GHF’s Revolving Fund was successful in buying, saving, and selling again with protective restrictions, many of the abandoned cast-iron fronted buildings. In 1979, ten years after The Strand area had been declared a National Historic Landmark District, GHF moved its headquarters to the Strand, renovating the donated 1859 Hendley Building.
The revitalization of The Strand is a continuing success, and has led the entire downtown area, from 20th to 25th Streets and from Harborside Drive to Postoffice, into an era of expanding use as a tourist destination, a place to do business, and to live in an urban setting. Although the foundation moved its headquarters to the 1861 Custom House, at the southeast corner of the district, in 1999, GHF continues to support Galveston’s downtown renaissance as a member of the Historic Downtown Strand Seaport Partnership.
GHF’s Dickens on The Strand was started 33 years ago as a way to draw attention to and celebrate Galveston’s wealth of downtown commercial architecture.
The following description of Galveston’s historic downtown is adapted from “Galveston Architecture Guidebook,” by Ellen Beasley and Stephen Fox, an indispensable reference for all those interested in Galveston’s architectural heritage.
The heart of Galveston has always been Downtown and the Central Park area. Here is found the largest concentration of singularly important buildings in the city, as well as one of the most significant assemblages of late-19th-century commercial buildings in the country.
The buildings in the area reflect the city's patterns of development and shifts in economic fortunes. From the beginning, port-related interests dominated the streets on the bay side of the island, specifically Water, Strand, and Mechanic between 20th and 24th Streets. With the division between water and the land considerably more scraggly in the mid-19th century than what you see today, and with Water Street, or Avenue A, even partially submerged, it was Strand Street, or Avenue B, that became what Galveston historian Virginia Eisenhour called "the Wall Street of the Southwest." It was here that financial good fortune was equated with architectural display.
As the city developed, businesses along Market and Postoffice Streets catered to the local trade. By the late 19th century, substantial brick structures had replaced almost al the early wooden buildings along these streets, an architectural refinement brought about by the city's adoption of stricter building codes in response to the devastating fires that had periodically swept through downtown. The more sophisticated look had an added benefit: It promoted Galveston's role as a regional retail center
Some of the most architecturally imposing structures in the area have always been identified with governmental offices. Although the Galveston County Courthouse had been replaced three times, each time with a larger building, the courthouse continued to face Central Park, the only block near downtown to be designated a public space in the original city plan, until 2006. A new Galveston County and Municipal Justice Center complex is now open at the west end of Broadway on land cleared of abandoned cotton warehouses. The 1966 downtown courthouse is undergoing restoration and will continue to house county offices.
The blocks south of Church Street were dominated by residential and institutional, specifically religious, buildings. Along the southern boundary, now the most scraggly edge of the area, there are occasional pockets and lone survivors of residential buildings, including three Broadway "palaces"Ashton Villa, the Open Gates, and the Moody Mansion and Museum
Downtown and the Central Park area have its share of vacant lots, the most obvious legacy of changing economic times. With the opening of auto-oriented shopping centers and the removal of business to Broadway and outlying areas, Galveston's downtown merchants struggled to keep up-to-date by "modernizing" building facades and providing surface parking. The closing of gambling activities in 1957 resulted in the eventual demolition of many buildings, especially west of Tremont Street: No longer was it possible for property owners to collect high rents, even in derelict buildings, for illegal uses.
Although commercial enterprises on the Strand also suffered economic decline, the streetscape and buildings remained essentially intact. Strand businesses never relied on a predominately retail market, which meant that property owners felt little pressure to update their buildings and therefore left them in a relatively untouched state.
The Strand became the focus of the city's revitalization efforts in the early 1970s. Under the tutelage of the Galveston Historical Foundation, the last quarter of the 20th century has witnessed a remarkable change in what became the Strand Historic District. It is a change that reflects not only a fiercely intense and successful preservation program but also the explosive growth of the travel industry in this country
In recent years, redevelopment activity has spilled over into other sections of Downtown and the Central Park area, most particularly Postoffice Street, where "the sound of the hammer and saw" has been especially audible.
Interestingkeeping up-to-date has taken on a very 19th-century look.
Postoffice and 20th St. Today
Postoffice Street has become a major arts and entertainment district, anchored at the east by the historic headquarters of two of the city’s major cultural organizations: Galveston Historical Foundation in the 1861 Custom House, and Galveston County Cultural Arts Council in the 1894 Grand Opera House. The once-moribund retail street is now lined with galleries, clubs and restaurants, and the upper floors are increasingly being converted to living lofts.
For more information about Galveston’s Downtown, contact Lesley Sommer, executive director, at the Historic Downtown Strand Seaport Partnership, 2326 Strand, Suite 220, Galveston TX, 77550;