on Thursday, May, 13 2010 @ 09:09:15 pm (1328 words)
In Uncategorized [ 61857 views ]

 

 

Ashton Villa is one of the architectural showpieces of Galveston, Texas. Located at 2328 Broadway, this splendid three-story Victorian Italianate structure is one of the earliest brick buildings of the island city and one of the earliest brick mansions in Texas.  Setting the standard for the stately homes that followed in the posh neighborhood, it was built in 1859 for one of the prominent merchants of the city.

James Moreau Brown was born in Orange County, New York, on September 22, 1821. When he was still a child, his family moved to New York City.  Having served (between the ages of twelve and sixteen) an apprenticeship learning the brickmason and plasterers' trades, followed by several years residency throughout the South where he successfully plied his avocation, he arrived in Galveston in 1843. In 1845 he was manufacturing brick on Carpenter's Bayou and thereafter did the brickwork on many of the early commercial buildings of Galveston.  In 1847, he entered the hardware business. Following the death of his partner in 1859, he closed the business and became president of the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad, a position he kept through the War Between the States, during which time he also served as a purchasing agent in Mexico. After the war, he resigned as president of the railroad and re-entered the hardware business. The 1870 census placed his financial worth as $175,000 in real estate and $100,000 in personal assets, making him one of the richest men in the state. Brown became involved in numerous other significant professional concerns in subsequent years.

In 1846, Brown married Rebecca Ashton Stoddart of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They became the parents of five children, three sons and two daughters. It was in memory of her paternal ancestor, Revolutionary War veteran Isaac Ashton (a lieutenant of the Pennsylvania Artillery) that Mrs. Brown named their new palatial residence "Ashton Villa." Mrs. Brown herself had a namesake in the person of her oldest daughter Rebecca Ashton Brown, who popularly came to be known as "Miss Bettie."

Though he had developed architectural proficiency during his apprenticeship days, Brown used a stock plan for the stately residence, and European craftsmen and slave labor were utilized in its construction. Exterior features included tall windows, ornate verandas, and deep eaves with carved supports. The brick walls were made thirteen inches thick with an airspace left between interior and exterior walls to protect against moisture damage. Constructed on a central hall floor plan, the house features a broad, winding, interior staircase and a large first-floor formal living room, which became known as the Gold Room. Ashton Villa  was equiped with indoor plumbing and gasolier lighting.

On Christmas Eve 1895, James Brown died, leaving ownership of the sumptuous villa to his wife Rebecca.  During the devastating hurricane that struck Galveston in 1900, described as "the worst recorded natural disaster ever to strike the North American continent," Mrs. Brown is said to have acted to save the home and her family's lives by opening up the doors and windows on the lower floor so that the only negative impact from the 15.7-foot storm-surge over the island was a basement filled with sand, which material also partially buried the six-foot cast iron fence.  When the grade of the entire town of Galveston was lifted by as much as seventeen feet with sand pumped from the Gulf floor, the Browns' basement was permanently filled in and the grade of the yard raised, burying much of the fence, which appears now quaintly short.

During its heyday, Ashton Villa was the frequent scene of lavish social events and recitals. Conspicuous at such affairs was the Brown's oldest daughter Bettie. It is through the life (and allegedly the  afterlife) of Miss Bettie that much of the fame of Ashton Villa is due.

Bettie Brown was a popular figure of strong will and independent nature. Born in 1855, she grew into a tall beautiful blonde who almost always wore her hair up. She was intelligent, artistic, and fun-loving. In many ways she was even somewhat eccentric. People were surprised, for example, by her smoking in public. At social events held in her home she would often join her guests with kittens riding on the train of her dress. Though she never married, Miss Bettie found no shortage of suitors and seldom if ever was without an admiring escort at the many gala events of the island city. She was an extensive world traveller who often journeyed alone to the far reaches of the world, including Morocco, Jerusalem, Egypt, China, Japan, and India. Artifacts gathered during these travels are exhibited today in the home, adding to its luxury and appeal, as do impressive paintings throughout the house, many of them done by Miss Bettie herself, who studied art in Paris.

Bettie lived most of her life (from the age of four until her death in 1920) in her beloved Ashton Villa, and it is said by many that the mansion is still her spirit's abode. Now a museum, the historic home has been the site of many reported sightings and ghostly happenings. A caretaker residing in the carriage house was awakened from a sound sleep by the sound of a piano playing. Fearing a break-in, he went to investigate. The music was coming from the Gold Room. Expecting to confront a burglar or vandal, he quietly slipped into the room. There at the piano he saw the faint image of a woman in 19th-century attire. A mere moment later, both the figure and the music faded. The caretaker was later quoted as saying that he turned on every light in the house and remained awake for the rest of the night. (A publication of the Galveston Historical Foundation states that "Miss Bettie never learned to play the piano in life?she was an accomplished painter whose works are on display throughout the house?but her sister played both piano and violin." Bettie's only sister, Matilda, was born in 1866.)

From time to time Miss Bettie, dressed in a beautiful turquoise (her favorite color) dress, is seen standing on the second floor landing of the grand staircase. Ceiling fans have been noted to have turned themselves on. In a small upstairs day room a coverlet seems constantly wrinkled as though someone has been resting thereon. A chest of drawers which Miss Bettie purchased in the Middle East, is found to be sometimes locked, sometimes not, though the key to it has long been lost. Miss Bettie is also occasionally seen standing in the Gold Room where furniture moves and inexplicably clocks are stopped. People touring the villa have reported feeling a presence about them. A weekend manager of the museum was quoted in a 1993 newspaper article stating that many of the ghostly activities she observed in 1991 happened on February 18, Miss Bettie's birthday.

Miss Bettie died in 1920. In 1927 a granddaughter of James and Rebecca sold the mansion to the El Mina Shrine. The Shriners used the house for the next forty years as their business offices and for social functions and, in 1968, put the property up for sale. After rumors began to circulate that the edifice would be demolished, the Galveston Historical Foundation, in 1971, purchased Ashton Villa, restored it and located and brought back in the original furnishings and artwork. On July 24, 1974, Ashton Villa was opened to the public. History, however, repeated itself somewhat when in September 2008, resultant to Hurricane Ike, the first floor of the house, with its elaborate ?Gold Room? (parlor and dining room), was flooded with 30 inches of water and mud, soaking the furniture and art. The urgent request for help to save original furniture and artwork was made immediately and quickly acted upon.

Ashton Villa has borne the brunt of time and "tide." Today this stately structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, survives to offer us a glimpse of a time and conditions past. Perhaps more, something intangible, survives within its elegant and venerable walls.

 

Top: Broadway & 24th, Galveston, Tx, looking southwest, in 1910.  Bottom: Northeast end of house.

 

 

 




on Wednesday, April, 21 2010 @ 12:31:00 am (574 words)
In Uncategorized [ 100830 views ]

 

 

Gonzales is one of the oldest towns of Texas, established in 1825 as the capital of the colony of empresario Green DeWitt and named by surveyor James Kerr for Rafael Gonzales, the governor of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Texas. Resultant to two Indian attacks, the settlement was briefly abandoned in the summer of 1826 and rebuilt in 1827.  For defense against future attacks the town was given a small, six-pound, cannon. With relations eventually strained between the colonists and the Mexican government, a contingent of 100 Mexican dragoons under the command of Francisco de Castañeda was dispatched from San Antonio de Béxar to retrieve the cannon.  Under a flag which read "Come and Take It" the Texans attacked the Mexican encampment on October 2, 1835, winning the opening skirmish of the Texas Revolution.

Gonzales is the seat of Gonzales County, the latter having been established by the Congress of the Republic of Texas in 1836 (and organized in 1837) as one of the original counties of the republic.

Since its creation, Gonzales County has had four courthouses. Its current one is a beautiful, ornate, limestone-and-red-brick structure of Second Empire style. Designed by renowned Texas architect James Riely Gordon, it was built at a cost of $64,450 from 1894 to 1896. (It was restored in 1996 at a cost of three-million dollars.) Otto Kroeger of San Antonio was the contractor.

The three-story building is adorned with an impressive array of architectural features, such as columns of varied sizes and styles, dormers, arches, cupolas, turrets, and colonnaded-balconies. The most distictive feature, however, is the three story observation tower which houses a four-faced clock. And therewith lies a tale.

The courthouse clock became an obsession of one Albert Howard, and for good reason, because for him it was the instrument of measure of the remainder of his life.  Found guilty of a capital offense and, in January 1921, condemned to die, Albert spent the weeks before his execution incarcerated in the county jail (built from 1885 to 1887) near the courthouse. Albert had had at least one prior scrape with the law before this one. The Gonzales Inquirer of October 27, 1920, reported Albert's escape from jail, as well as his recapture and re-confinement (in the issues of November 2 and 24). Howard bided his time denying his guilt and obsessing on the courthouse clock, vowing that if he were executed it would be the clock that would indicate his innocence.

The fateful day, March 18, 1921, arrived, and Albert was led up the steps of the gallows inside the jail. Before he trod the thirteenth step to his destiny Albert shook his fists at the towering timepiece vowing that it would never again count down the remainder of another's life. Albert's was the last execution in the county, and for years subsequent to it, legend holds, the faces of the old Seth Thomas clock rarely gave the same time, and several times over the years the tower has been struck by lightning, damaging the clock. In the 1990's, a resident of Gonzales, Henry Christian, contributed time and money ($11,000) for the repair of the clock. Later, that same decade the clock was removed and given a complete renovation before reinstallation. The legend persists, however, that the faces are still to this day frequently out of synchronization. Has the spirit of Albert Howard afflicted the courthouse clock? Does his curse continue?

 

Upper photo: A post card, circa 1910, showing the jail on the left and the courthouse on the right. Bottom photo: A recent image of the courthouse.

 

 

 

 



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