As we toured the East End Historic District, the Strand Historic District, and the Silk Stocking District of Galveston and read the accompanying tour brochures, the name Nicholas J. Clayton kept appearing. He was identified as the architect or supervising architect for several historic structures.
Clayton himself designed more than 150 of the buildings (a small portion of which is shown here) constructed from 1870 to 1900, including civic buildings, commercial projects for the Strand district, and special contracts for Galveston's elite, especially the palatial homes he built along East Broadway. The works closest to his heart, those awarded him by the Catholic Church, showcase his self-assured free eclecticism and his interpretation of contemporary French and British styles.
George and Magnolia Sealy House, "Open Gates," 1889
Born on November 1, 1840, in Cloyne, County Cork, Ireland, Nicholas and his mother immigrated to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1848, after the death of his father. His military records indicate that before the Civil War he worked as a plasterer in Cincinnati, After his discharge from the Navy in 1865, he returned to Cincinnati, where he was listed in city directories as a marble carver (1866), carver (1870), and architectural draftsman (1871).
The house was built for Colonel Walter Gresham, who was a founder of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad, eventually working to bring about the merger of the Santa Fe with the Atchison and Topeka Railroad.
In 1923, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston purchased the house, and, situated across the street from the Sacred Heart Church, it served as the residence for the Bishop. After the diocesan offices were moved to Houston, the diocese opened the mansion to the public in 1963.
The house is Victorian; however, it is more specifically described as Chateausque given the intricate combination of materials, cast iron galleries and complex roof system.
Clayton, however, expanded on the style by using varicolored and irregularly shaped stone, round Romanesque and depressed Tudor arches with heavily articulated carvings of vegetation, animals, people, and imaginary creatures. Constructed of steel and stone (it survived the Great Storm of 1900 virtually unscathed), the Bishop's Palace soars three stories over a raised basement level, with steep roofs and long sculptural chimneys.
In 1872, he moved to Galveston to take a position as supervising architect for the construction of the First Presbyterian Church (below). He remained in Galveston and began the practice of architecture there.
This Romanesque church is considered one of the best examples of Norman style architecture in the region. Its sanctuary has been remodeled since Hurricane Ike, and features breathtaking stained glass windows, three of which were designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Clayton was responsible for so many of the major public, commercial, and residential buildings constructed in Galveston during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s that this period was described in the city's history as the "Clayton Era." Clayton was a High Victorian architect. His buildings were exuberant in shape, color, texture, and detail. He excelled at decorative brick and iron work.
Built after the 1900 Great Storm, the church combines Gothic and Moorish elements.
His professional practice declined precipitously after 1900. Protracted litigation that he instigated after the controversial awarding of a commission to design a new Galveston County Courthouse in 1897 and the decline of new construction activity in Galveston in the aftermath of the Galveston hurricane of 1900 were contributing factors. In March 1903 he declared bankruptcy. He never recovered financially. Although he continued in practice until his death, he never obtained subsequent major architectural commissions.
When he died, in 1916, at the age of 76, his burial site was marked with one of his marble samples because his family could not afford a gravestone. Yet his bequest to Galveston and to the other cities which have retained his buildings is of irreplaceable value. His work represents a lifetime, worked out day by day under the most ordinary and circumstantial conditions, dedicated to the cause of architecture as the public art.
Despite a public campaign to save the Morris Lasker house, it was razed in 1967 to make way for an apartment building. The demolition of this beautiful home helped spark the historic home preservation movement in Galveston. Many people began to see that the rich architectural heritage of the island could be an asset for the city. Organizations like the Galveston Historical Foundation helped ensure that Galveston’s historic buildings would not suffer the same fate as the Lasker home.