Helping Preserve Galveston’s History

Posted on: October 17th, 2008 by National Trust for Historic Preservation
Members of the staff and board of the Galveston Historical Foundation in front of their offices in the 1861 Custom House, holding "This Place Matters" signs.

Members of the staff and board of the Galveston Historical Foundation in front of their offices in the 1861 Custom House, holding "This Place Matters" signs.

My visit to Galveston last week was bittersweet; on one hand, I was saddened by the enormous amount of damage Hurricane Ike inflicted on the city’s historic areas. But at the same time, I also saw first-hand the courageous response of Galvestonians to the storm, and the impressive progress in debris clean-up and remediation of damage that has already taken place.

I went to Galveston looking for additional ways in which the National Trust for Historic Preservation can partner with the Galveston Historical Foundation (GHF) on recovery efforts. For the past three years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been working on the ground in New Orleans focusing on post-Katrina recovery, and that work has given us extensive insight into large-scale disaster response efforts. I traveled to New Orleans just a few weeks after Katrina struck in 2005, and as I walked through Galveston last week, comparisons to the New Orleans I saw then came to mind.

New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods generally looked much worse off less than four weeks after Katrina, though its most famous historic areas largely escaped flooding. There is always a danger after disasters that people seek the quick and wrong solution of demolishing still valuable structures. As I mentioned, I’m glad that Galvestonians seem focused on rehabilitation and returning to their properties. The leadership of Galveston’s city officials has been a great help.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is a nonprofit membership organization helping people protect, enhance and enjoy the places that matter to them. We are partnering with GHF by -

  • Putting out a national call for volunteer structural engineers and architects – thus far, 60 volunteers have responded.
  • Sharing lessons from New Orleans and other disasters, including materials on treatment of flooded properties that are available on our web site at www.PreservationNation.org.
  • Adapting our $147,000 challenge grant so GHF can hire an additional staff person for neighborhood recovery asap.
  • Helping to garner national media coverage for this December’s Dickens’ on The Strand.
  • My personally participating in GHF’s fundraising efforts.

As I walked historic areas with Dwayne Jones, GHF executive director, I was taken back to when I became GHF’s executive director years ago. From 1973-1989 a marvelous band of community leaders and activists gained broad support for the importance of Historic Galveston to the Island’s future. We –

  • Used a real estate revolving fund, with initial funding from The Moody Foundation and the Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund to gain rehabilitation and active use of 20 Strand/Mechanic Buildings. George Mitchell and scores of other owners and businesses played critical roles.
  • Restored the 1877 Barque ELISSA to sailing condition, including an courageous voyage representing Texas in New York City.
  • Supported historic neighborhoods with the Paint Partnership Program (helping owners paint 700 homes) and a revolving fund.
  • Created Dickens’ on The Strand and the Homes Tour, and opened Ashton Villa.
  • Supported restoration of the Grand 1894 Opera House.

Today, even in the wake of Ike, Historic Galveston is still well ahead of where things were in the 1970s.

That said, owners, tenants, and GHF face major challenges. Of huge importance is that FEMA treat legitimate Galveston damage claims fairly and expeditiously – including sizeable sums that GHF has spent to save its landmarks.

As I said, my visit was bitter-sweet - so many friends and wonderful historic neighborhoods, and so much damage. But I also know the people of this city. And I know you will succeed in bringing back this wonderful historic city, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation will do everything possible to assist you.

-- Peter Brink

Peter Brink, former executive director of Galveston Historical Foundation from 1973 to 1989, and current senior vice president, programs, at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

This article originally appeared on October 16, 2008 in the Galveston County Daily News.

Learn more about our Hurricane Ike recovery effort here.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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