30.9.11

The Man Who Put the Gilding on Galveston

Friday, 3 July 1896 - Galveston, Texas

Nicholas Clayton
You will probably notice that most of the buildings I show were designed by one architect: Nicholas J. Clayton. I decided to see if he was still alive. I looked in the City Directory and found a full page ad for his firm.

I hated to waste the man’s time, but I wanted to record him for the University of Texas back in the twenty-seventh century. So, I went to his office and told him I was interested in building a home. I wanted to know what his credentials were.

No time for modesty, Clayton gave me the full sales pitch. He told me he had come to this country as a poor immigrant from Ireland at the age of eight with his widowed mother. From these humble beginnings, he worked his way up. He had been a plasterer, a marble carver, and an architectural draftsman.

First Presbyterian Church
In 1872 the architectural firm Jones and Baldwin of Memphis, Tennessee sent Clayton to Galveston to supervise the building of the First Presbyterian Church. Clayton smelled opportunity, so he opened up his own architectural firm in Galveston in 1875. Galveston was the largest city in Texas and needed an architect. He bragged to me that he was one of the first professional architects in the whole state of Texas. Other cities like Houston, Austin and Dallas had come to him to design buildings for them.

Gresham's Castle (later called Bishop's Palace)
Clayton pointed around his office at the photos on the walls. The man does it all: homes, churches, businesses, hospitals--you name it. He can be conservative but I got the feeling he enjoyed most the flights of fancy the Victorians love so much. If any one man is responsible for making Galveston the beautiful city that it now is, it’s Nicholas J. Clayton.

Clayton will survive the 1900 Hurricane. Many of his buildings won’t. However he was responsible for so many structures in town, that several dozen will survive. Some will be lovingly rebuilt as close to the original as possible.

Nicholas Clayton will be sixty by then. The city finally recovered but his business will not. With all the cleanup, reconstruction and trying to make do, no one can afford a grand new structure that needs an architect. He will go bankrupt by 1903 and never recover financially. He will die in 1916 at the age of seventy-six.

His family will not be able to afford a proper headstone, but will be forced to use a block of marble he used as a sample to show customers. One could say that the historic parts of Galveston are the real memorial to one of the greatest Victorian architects of the South.

But it’s 1896 now, and Nicholas Clayton is at his peak. I thanked him for his time, and said I would be in touch. I wish I really could let him design a house for me.

Some of Nicholas Clayton’s buildings that survived into the 21st century 
Another collection of Clayton’s surviving structures
Old Postcards showing off Nicholas Clayton’s buildings

Some of Nicholas Clayton's Galveston buildings lost to time
The Beach Hotel
The Ursuline Academy
Harmony Hall
John Sealy Hospital
Masonic Lodge

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