Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Crown Jewel of Texas

Wheresoever there is a restored movie theater or hotel, we try to include it on one of our walks or tours. One such walk took us under the Boone Powell Arch to the Tremont House in the Historic Strand District in Galveston, TX.

Evoking the sailing ships that called on Galveston, this arch (also known as the Mardi Gras Arch) by architect Boone Powell was commissioned in 1985 by George and Cynthia Mitchell for the 1986 Mardi Gras celebration and as a salute to the sesquicentennial of Texas Independence.

An article by Amy Matsumoto seemed to capture the history and the spirit (and spirits) of the Tremont:

"The Tremont House is a porcelain doll: painted the most delicate shade of pink, pieced together with meticulous care, displayed as art and put back together every time her painfully exquisite, fragile parts are destroyed. The Tremont is also prized as a museum piece, especially by those who value grandiose pronouncements--this obsessive human need to be surrounded by beautiful things. Obsessive humans--this is what keeps Tremont thriving, and what makes it one of the most haunted hotels on the island.

"Like many famous structures in Galveston, the Tremont is not an original. The current model is its third version, a middle child between extreme opulence and humility.

"On San Jacinto Day in 1839, the first Tremont opened its doors to the public. From the start the hotel made headlines, though it was only a '…sturdy, two-story building,' as described by the Austin Business Journal.

"But the hotel was also the biggest in all of Texas....
Four-story atrium lobby

"In the heat of the summer of 1865, the first of many Galveston fires ravaged downtown, and the Tremont was, by the end of the day, a sifting heap of crispy black ashes.

"Seven years later the famous Galveston architect of the late 19th century Nicholas Clayton was hired to rebuild what was considered a landmark, and in 1872 one of the grandest hotels in the entire nation was born.

"Until the Great Storm, the hotel maintained its elite status....
Restored lobby and Toujouse Bar

"The 1900 Storm sent hundreds of desperate people on the hike of their lives to the top floor, the glassy demonic waters below nipping at their feet. The Great Storm would ultimately take perhaps not all the lives of Galveston, but most certainly all its livelihood.... Just before its demolition in 1928, the Houston Chronicle wrote: 'What was formerly the pride of the South has been content to drowse in the shade, dreaming after the manner of old things.' And that same day the final chapter in the eventful history of Tremont was concluded.
Toujouse Bar, dating back to the 1870s

"Thanks to the great visionaries Cynthia and George Mitchell, the Tremont was once again reborn in 1985 in a new location-―the 1879 Leon H. Blum building, where it maintains a 19th century ambiance. The Houston Post described it as '…running with the precision of a big city deluxe hotel.' And also unique.
Brick facade of the former Belmont House, entrance to Tremont Cafe

Anecdotal stories from guests and hotel employees, along with folklore, began to emerge, adding to its top notch reputation, an entirely new dimension. A series of knockings, the ceiling fan and lights switching on and off, showers going on and off intermittently, 'breathing' on a guest's ear while he slept, and the whispering of a man’s voice were reported by guests and staff members. These reports just seemed to add character to this hotel.

"To stand in the sun-dappled marble lobby of the Tremont is to be oblivious only to what is improbable and forever endangered, to cultivate an appreciation for a time when luck existed on a continuum rather than a plateau, to stand in the center of a humble little island and feel truly romanced by a whirlwind of international luxury. If a hotel can withstand multiple fires, wars and obliterating storms, there is no measure or standard higher for any architectural ingénue. This ‘Crown Jewel of Texas’ will endure, as long as Islanders man its front desk, clean its floors, play its piano and work to keep its spirit alive" (http://theislandermagazine.com).

The Tremont Ballroom, located opposite the hotel in the 1890 Davidson Building, restored in 1995

Refreshed, we continue our walk with an appreciation for Tremont's spirit.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Let Me Begin With a Heart-Warming Story…

“It all started back in 1967 when Sicilian born Giovanni Smecca decided to move to Galveston, Texas from Patterson, New Jersey after hearing Glen Campbell’s famous ‘Galveston’ during a card game. Giovanni always dreamed of being a professional fisherman, so he decided to give it a shot and made the drive to Galveston. After battles of sea sickness, Giovanni quickly decided that the fish business wasn’t for him.

“Heartbroken, Giovanni was about to move back to New Jersey when he met Mario Bonaccorso who was trying to open a pizzeria. The two became great friends, and together, these two young Italian entrepreneurs started Mario’s Flying Pizza and brought the ‘pizza pie’ to Galveston Island” (mariosristorante.com).

Wait a minute.

Wrong Mario’s. This is from the website of Mario’s Ristorante and not Mario’s Seawall Italian Restaurant at which we dined. As Gilda Radner (as Emily Litella on SNL) would say “Never mind.”

Then again…Mario’s Seawall is part of the Galveston Restaurant Group whose patriarch is Tony Smecca. Is Tony Smecca related to the aforementioned Giovanni Smecca? Inquiring minds want to know.

Anyway…We are at Mario’s Seawall because it was voted Galveston Island's best pizza and best Italian cuisine. Can we visit a new city without trying pizza? Of course not.

You enter Mario’s Seawall though the front patio. Had we intended to have just drinks and gelato it might have been a pleasant place to sit and watch the Gulf. But the day was a bit too cool for outdoor dining so we ventured inside to a dining room decorated in large—and again somewhat tacky—painted murals.

The big thing at Mario’s—or at least at lunch—is the buffet. After a brief reconnoiter, I decided the offerings (pollack, meatballs, roast pork, spaghetti with marinara, chicken, assorted veggies, and three types of pizza) just did not fill me with excitement. Especially the pizza sitting under a warming lamp.

So back to the menu I went. We decided not to break any new ground in the pizza department and ordered one medium Margherita and one medium cheese and sausage pizza. Oh, and light on the cheese.

And then we waited…and waited…and waited.

I had been forewarned that the kitchen could be slow, but there was almost no one else in the restaurant. And we waited some more.

I am freezing cold. Air conditioners in Texas are set on frigid—I think to remove the humidity from the air. We waited some more. I was ready to pull my chair over to the buffet and begin eating. And this was after eating my share of a loaf of good warm bread.

Finally. Here are our pizzas. Were they worth the wait?

Not really.

First, I knew going in that Mario’s Seawall served New York-style pizza and the crust is thicker than I like. But there were other problems. The Margherita had way too much cheese, although we
need to take partial responsibility for this. The request for light cheese came after we ordered the cheese and sausage, so I surmise that our server thought that request only applied to that pizza. But the Margherita was also lacking in flavor and I think that the olive oil base could have benefited from some garlic. But they do get points for putting the fresh basil on after the pie had been taken from the oven so it retained its fresh flavor.

The cheese and sausage still had a bit more cheese than ideal but was the better of the two choices and was topped with a copious amount of good fennel sausage.

The equivalent of three-quarters of a pizza came home with us and fed me breakfast for the next three days.

We finished by sharing a small dish of chocolate-hazelnut gelato. Thank heaven it was only a small dish after all of that filling pizza.

Mario’s Seawall Italian Restaurant may have Galveston’s best pizza, but to me it merits no more than 2.5 Addies.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Broadway's Homes...and Trees

On September 12-13, 2008, Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston Island with 110-mile per hour winds and a 15-foot storm surge, inundating most of this barrier island as well as the City of Galveston. In addition to flooded homes and businesses, some 40,000 of the city’s historic trees were destroyed.

One of the areas that received considerable attention when it came to the remediation of salt damage to the root zones of remaining trees, the replacement of trees lost in the storm, and the replanting of all vacant planting sites was along Broadway Boulevard. Stretching nearly four miles along Galveston Island, Broadway, with its 30-foot wide median, is the main historic thoroughfare through the city.

One resident told us that one surprising benefit from the terrible loss of trees was that the loss revealed many palm trees that had been hidden by the other trees along the Boulevard. It is this spirit of not wanting to admit defeat that drives people to resolve that the clean-up will begin immediately, to pull together to help each other rebuild, and to find positives and hope in the face of tragedy. We heard it from survivors after Katrina and saw the results of that resolve to come back stronger in the neighborhoods in New Orleans and Galveston.

In several businesses, we saw high-water marks from four to six feet on the buildings, indicating the degree of Ike's presence in their neighborhoods; but we were more tuned in to the psychological marks that were in evidence in the restoration of homes and neighborhoods along Broadway Boulevard. These examples are shown below.

Capt. Joseph Boddecker Home, c. 1893

When the original Boddeker House was destroyed in the 1900 storm, Capt. Boddeker purchased and relocated this 1893 house from 12th and Sealy.
Waters-Chapman Home, 1903

Lucas Terrace Apartments, 1907

Carl C. Biehl Home, 1916

Isaac H. Kempner Home, 1906

In 1904 the Kempners purchased three lots here on Broadway, Galveston's most fashionable boulevard. This imposing two-story neoclassical style house was completed in 1906.
Details at the top of the columns on the Kempner Home

J.J. Schott Cottage, 1889

Druggist and developer of chewing gum built this cottage.
Thomas E. Bailey Home, 1893

J.Z.H. Scott Cottage, 1850

The house is a one-story raised 5-bay cottage with dormers on its roof. The cottage is one of the more modest designs by Nicholas Clayton, who is known for the many buildings he designed around Galveston.
Adriance-Springer Home, 1914

John Adriance was instrumental in Galveston's early development. The home, sold in 1929 to business and civic leader Oscar Springer, reflects a mixture of styles and features an entry portico with colossal Doric order columns, a craftsman style gable, wraparound porch, and arched basement.
Archibald R. Campbell Home, 1871

Moody Mansion, 1895

"Bought by W.L. Moody six days after the 1900 storm (reportedly for 'ten cents on the dollar'), this imposing 28,000-square-foot limestone and-brick mansion has 32 rooms filled with opulent furnishings and heirlooms from one of Texas's most powerful families" (galveston.com/ moodymansion).

The Moodys had established one of the great American financial empires; based on cotton, it grew to include banking, ranching, insurance and hotels.
When W.L. Moody died in 1954, TIME magazine proclaimed him one of the 10 wealthiest men in the country.

Rosenberg Library, 1871

The Rosenberg Library, successor to the Galveston Mercantile Library which was founded in 1871, is the oldest public library in Texas in continuous operation.
Ashton Villa, 1859

Ashton Villa was the first of Galveston's Broadway "palaces," as well as the first brick house to be built in Texas.

On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. While standing on the balcony of Ashton Villa, Granger read the contents of “General Order No. 3”: "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free...."

Juneteenth Statue, 2005

The nine-foot tall bronze statue depicts a man holding the state law (introduced by State Rep. Al Edwards [D-Houston] and passed in 1979) that made Juneteenth (June 19th) a state holiday.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Are Open Kitchens…

really an homage to the diners of old? Just wondering.

After touring the ELISSA we headed over to the Pier 21 Theater to view the short film—The Great Storm—detailing the effects and aftermath of the 1900 hurricane that devastated this beautiful island. After all of this activity, we were more than ready for lunch, and I had whittled down the list of nearby possibilities to Nonno Tony’s World Kitchen—one of many local restaurants owed by the Galveston Restaurant Group.

The restaurant’s website describes it as “offering Italian, Asian fusion, Creole, and traditional American fare. The open-style kitchen features a steam kettle bar and brick ovens…

"’Nonno,’ Italian for ‘Grandfather,’ is attributed to Galveston Restaurant Group's patriarch, Tony Smecca (father of owners Joey and Johnny Smecca). ‘Paulie's Bar,’ another family namesake, is named in honor of Danny Hart's father, the third partner of Galveston Restaurant Group” (nonnotonys.com).

Johnny Smecca is quoted at cbsnews.com: “’Our families play a significant role in our business, providing us with more than forty years of experience in cooking and serving our guests. Nonno Tony’s will reflect that commitment to family and tradition, with a twist of new and exciting cuisine.’”

Both the exterior and interior are ultra sleek and modern. There is seating on the front porch and during our visit we could see a couple seated in a wicker loveseat sharing a bottle of wine and watching the activity on the harbor and pier. Inside, and set off to one corner, is Paulie’s Bar. From our seats we could watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen.

And this brings me back to my initial question. Are we seeing a return to an earlier time, but dressed in modern garb? The predominant use of stainless steel along the back of the kitchen reminded me of the old fashioned diners in which customers would take a seat at the lunch counter and watch the short-order cook prepare their meals. Stainless steel—used for ease of cleaning---ruled in those East Coast classic diners.

(And speaking of returning to an earlier time. As I write this, I am watching Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus on the SYFY Channel and the Mega Shark has just taken a huge bite from the Golden Gate Bridge. Wasn’t this story line used before? Like in It Came From Beneath the Sea where a giant octopus attacks the Golden Gate Bridge? And is the presence of Japanese scientists in the current film to remind us of Godzilla or Rodan (a giant flying winged reptile) or Mothra (a giant insect) or Gamara (a giant turtle)? Just wondering.)

But back to the subject at hand. In the midst of all this modernity—the stainless, the exposed ductwork,

the polished wood tables—

the giant and somewhat tacky mural adorning the back wall of the side dining room seemed out of place.

While the words “World Kitchen” appear in the restaurant’s name and the website promises “Italian, Asian fusion, Creole, and traditional American fare,” the lunch menu is predominantly Italian or Italian-inspired.

And so I decided to order the Cioppino—an Italian Fisherman’s Stew with its origins in San Francisco; it is, to me at least, a close relative of the Provençal Bouillabaisse. At first I thought that the portion was
small relative to its price, but as I ate my way through the shrimp, fish, mussels, clams, calamari, and crab it soon became apparent the size was deceiving. The tomato base contained chopped tomato, green bell pepper, and onion and was seasoned with garlic and oregano. My only complaint was that the unidentified fish was “fishier” than I like but then that is just a matter of personal taste. Other diners may not have found it too strong at all.

And with the stew came some very good crusty and chewy bread that was perfect for wiping the bowl clean.

Chuck ordered the Seafood Fritto Misto—a literal mountain of fried fish (not as strong as that in my cioppino), shrimp, and calamari that came served on a bed of steak fries and accompanied by a small dish
of spicy fra diavolo sauce. The portion was so large that, when preceded by a shared appetizer, it would have been an ideal entrée for two.

I must admit that with two giant cruise ships within sight I was surprised that the restaurant was almost empty on a beautiful weekend afternoon. But that was the other travelers’ loss and we were more than pleased with our 4.0 Addie lunch.

Postscript: Is this my lucky day or what? What do I find while channel surfing but the 1955 science fiction film Tarantula starring John Agar (local small town doctor), Leo G. Carroll (mad, but well-intentioned, scientist), and Mara Corday (his assistant). And Ms. Corday can be seen walking through the desert in what any well-dressed woman scientist would wear—high heels, white gloves, and a small perky hat, while carrying a clutch purse.

And would you do what our doctor did the second time he was shown a pile of bones next to pools of a white chalky liquid? Would you stick your finger in it and taste?

It is my lucky day! It seems like it is “tacky” movie day on TCM with The Incredible Shrinking Man followed by Five Million Miles to Earth followed by The Monster that Challenged the World. (“An earthquake in the Salton Sea unleashes a horde of prehistoric mollusk monsters. Discovering the creatures, a Naval officer and several scientists attempt to stop the monsters, but they escape into the canal system of the California's Imperial Valley and terrorize the populace. Crawling up from the depths... to terrify and torture!” [imbd.com]. This stars a very young Hans Conried as a scientist.)

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.