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A History of Ashton Villa
A Family and Its House in Victorian Galveston, Texas
By Kenneth Hafertepe
Texas State Historical AssociationCopyright © 1991 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
FROM NEW YORK TO GALVESTON
JAMES MOREAU BROWN was born in New York State on September 22, 1821. His parents, John M. and Hannah Krantz Brown, were of Dutch descent, and had sixteen children, of whom James Moreau Brown was the last. Young James seems to have been full of restless energy: according to one biographical account, he ran away from home at age twelve and was gone for two years. This account further claims that after another year at home he ran away to work on the Erie Canal, then returned home to be apprenticed to a brick mason. Another account says that he was apprenticed at age twelve to learn the brick mason's and plasterer's trades and that he remained an apprentice until age sixteen. Around 1838 he left New York, sailing to Charleston, South Carolina. He worked his way across the South, building courthouses, jails, and cisterns. He stayed briefly in New Orleans before settling for several years in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
In the mid-1840s James M. Brown moved to the recently founded island city of Galveston, Texas. Galveston Island divides Galveston Bay from the Gulf of Mexico, and the landward side of the island is thus an excellent natural harbor, capable of receiving inland trade which came down the Trinity River into the bay and providing ample wharfage for seagoing vessels.
The city of Galveston was founded in 1836 and originally occupied only the eastern tip of the island. The city plan was a neat rectilinear grid, more or less oriented to the points of the compass but precisely parallel to the shoreline of the harbor. The second street south of the harbor, known as The Strand, became the commercial center of Galveston and, indeed, of Texas. When Brown came to Texas, the city proper was between The Strand and Broadway; between Broadway and the Gulf were vacant lots and the suburban estates of the founders of Galveston, such as Michel Menard, Samuel May Williams, and Gail Borden, Jr.
In 1847 Brown entered the hardware business in partnership with Henry H. Brower under the name of Brown and Brower. Together they purchased from John S. Sydnor and Alfred T. James a lot on the south side of Market Street, between 26th and 25th streets, on which they built their store. Also included among the assets of the firm were three slaves: Austin, a thirty-four-year-old man; Sophia, a woman; and her daughter, Harriet, who presumably had been owned by Brower. Brown already owned a slave named Lucy and her three children, John, Francis, and Henry, but he sold Lucy and her children for $850 to Eliza J. Bourman of Harris County in May of 1847. In June of 1848 Brown bought out Brower's interest in the firm, worth some $1,450, including the buildings and property on Market Street, all stock and materials on hand, and all three slaves. Austin was in Brown's service for less than ten years, but Sophia and Harriet were to become longtime servants of the Brown family.
Brown's fortunes were steadily rising. In 1848 he was elected to serve as an alderman on the Galveston City Council. At the time he was still in his mid-twenties, an indication that his fellow Galvestonians esteemed this young man as someone devoted to the growth of his adopted city. Brown would serve two more terms on the city council, in 1871 and 1872, when the city was struggling to recover from the effects of the Civil War.
Brown was advancing rapidly in the realms of business and public affairs, but as yet he had no one to share with him his triumphs and adversities. In the mid-1840s a young lady moved to the island who would soon win his heart, Rebecca Ashton Stoddart Rhodes. Rebecca was born in Philadelphia on November 18, 1831, the daughter of John Ashton Stoddart and his wife Sarah, John Stoddart was descended from a Revolutionary War veteran, Lieutenant Isaac Ashton, and worked as an agent for the New York Coal Company. According to family tradition, John Stoddart died when his daughter Rebecca was quite young, and Sarah Stoddart later married C. K. Rhodes, a New Jersey native and an auctioneer. The family moved to Galveston in 1845 or 1846 and settled in a little wooden house at Avenue I and 19th Street. The family attended Trinity Episcopal Church, and there Rebecca met James M. Brown.
James and Rebecca were married in the original wood-framed Gothic-style Trinity Church on April 9, 1848. The service was performed by the Reverend Mr. Benjamin Eaton, who had been the rector of Trinity since its establishment in 1841. At the time of their marriage, James was twenty-six, and Rebecca sixteen. Before the year was out she presented James M. Brown with a son, John Stoddart Brown, born on December 9, 1848.
With a wife and a child to support, Brown set about improving his property on Market Street. He erected "a two-story dwelling house built of and covered with wood," which had a completely separate kitchen building in the rear of the house. At first the two-story frame building served both as his hardware store and his home, but after 1850 it was used exclusively as a residence. After the Browns built Ashton Villa, they sold their house on Market Street for $3,500 in 1861.
Brown took on a new partner in the hardware business in 1850. This was Stephen Kirkland, like Brown a native of New York. Kirkland was seven years Brown's senior and had been in Galveston since 1838. He served as an alderman in 1841 and again in 1847 and 1853. In 1850 Kirkland married Mary A. Emerson, a native of Maine who had come to live in Galveston with her father, Joseph Emerson, after the death of her mother Rebecca. Stephen and Mary Kirkland were close friends of James and Rebecca Brown, and many decades later one of the Brown daughters, Mathilda, would write in her diary of visiting "Auntie" Kirkland.
Brown & Kirkland was situated on The Strand, the great commercial street of Galveston and, indeed, of nineteenth-century Texas. The company sold all kinds of foreign and domestic hardware, including "agricultural implements, iron & steel, nails, ... paints, oils and window glass, and every article appertaining to the general hardware business." In 1855 the partners signed a complex agreement with Theodore and Gustavus Oppermann by which Brown & Kirkland would erect a new building for the hardware store on a lot on The Strand which the Oppermanns owned. Brown & Kirkland would design the building, furnish some of the materials—probably all of the hardware—and supervise its construction. The firm would then lease it for five years.
The Brown & Kirkland Hardware Store was to be a "three story brick house," with a frontage of nearly 30 feet and a depth of 100 feet, and not to cost more than $10,000. The building was in the Greek Revival style, with five square Doric piers defining the first floor and simple, unadorned lintels and sills on the two floors above. Although this building has been demolished, an old woodcut shows it to have been quite similar to the Hendley Building, one block east on The Strand, also begun in 1855 but not finished until 1859. Both buildings were strongly indebted to the Pontalba buildings on Jackson Square in New Orleans, built to the designs of James Gallier and Henry Howard and completed in 1851. James M. Brown seems to have been very much aware of recent architectural trends, a trait which would again become evident when he built a new home.
Late in 1855 Brown purchased another slave, this one from Daniel D. Atchison, a lawyer. The slave's name was Aleck, and he was described in the contract as "aged about 30 years, of dark color, about 5 feet 10 inches, and by trade a brick mason." Aleck was a high-priced slave, costing $1,500, an indication that he was a highly skilled craftsman. It is especially significant that Aleck was trained as a mason, given that Brown was engaged in the erection of a new hardware store. Brown may have purchased Aleck to work on his store and also may have been thinking that he might one day build a grand brick residence, which no one in Galveston had yet done.
In addition to the hardware business, Brown also branched out into the sale and repair of buggies. This was known as J. M. Brown's Carriage Repository, which was located next to Brown & Kirkland on The Strand. There "carriages, buggies, and every description of vehicles" could be purchased, or older models could be "painted and trimmed in a neat and fashionable style." His partner in this enterprise was Joseph Stowe, a Massachusetts native who had served with Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812. Stowe was an "old, established, and well known carriage maker," having resided in Galveston since 1844. The partnership with Brown, however, lasted only for a few years.
The family of James and Rebecca Brown continued to grow. A second son, Moreau Roberts Brown, was born July 26, 1853. Littlemore than a year and a half later, Rebecca Ashton Brown was bornon February 18, 1855. Named after her mother, she would be knownas Bettie. The Browns were to have two more children in the early 1860s, but by then the family would be living in a grand new home.
The year 1859 was a watershed in the life of James and RebeccaBrown. In May of that year Brown's business partner, StephenKirkland, died at age forty-four. Brown then accepted the position of president of the Galveston, Houston & Henderson Railroad, whichhad completed nearly forty miles of track. Brown oversaw the completion of the bridge, which connected the island with the main-land, and the completion of the line into Houston. Another important event of 1859 occurred on January 6, when Brown paid $4,000 for lots 11 to 14 on block 203, the north side of Broadway between 23rd and 24th. On this land Brown would build a house, whichstands today and for which he is best remembered: Ashton Villa.CHAPTER 2
BUILDING ASHTON VILLA
BY THE END OF THE 1850S, Galveston was a bustling city of more than 7,000 people. Its residents could boast of two brick churches—St. Mary's Catholic and Trinity Episcopal—and numerous multistory brick buildings on The Strand: the Hendley Building, the Brown & Kirkland Building, the J. C Kuhn Building, and the R.& D. G. Mills Building. A new brick federal customhouse was in the planning stages. In addition, there were several buildings with cast-iron fronts, which had been shipped from New York and Philadelphia, including the stores of E. S. Wood and Henry Rosenberg. At the beginning of 1859, however, Galveston was predominantly a city of wooden houses. James M. Brown resolved to build a brick house that would also be the most stylish, up-to-date in Galveston.
For the design of his house Brown turned to a recent book by the Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan, The Model Architect Sloan was a native of Chester, Pennsylvania, who came to architecture through carpentry and the building trades. The Model Architect was published in 1852, when Sloan's career was just taking off and nearly a decade before his most famous commission, Dr. Haller Nutt's octagonal house in Natchez, Mississippi: Longwood. The Model Architect featured plans, elevations, details, and even specifications for houses in a variety of styles: Italian, Gothic, Elizabethan, Norman, even Oriental. In his eclecticism Sloan was following the lead of Andrew Jackson Downing, who had illustrated similar houses in his books Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850).
The house which caught James M. Brown's eye was Design XXI, entitled "A Suburban Residence" and described by Sloan as "a three-storied country mansion," made of brick and with a tin roof. Sloan's house was a great squarish block with a low hipped roof. It had three wide bays, each with paired windows. The central bay broke forward to create a vestibule, and atop this central projection was a small pediment. The eaves projected dramatically all around the house, and nestled under the eaves were brackets, a popular feature on early Victorian houses in the United States.
Instead of three bays of paired windows, Brown used five bays of single windows, which deemphasized the central bay and changed the patterning of the brackets under the eaves. He also limited the use of round-arched windows to those on the third floor and on the front and rear doors. To enhance the appearance of the now flat-arched windows, Brown added cast-iron window moldings derived from Sloan's Design VIII, "An Italian Residence." But the most dramatic departure from Sloan's "Suburban Residence" was in the treatment of the veranda. Sloan's design had two side verandas which wrapped around the back and which were joined by a passage separating the main block of the house from the kitchen wing. Brown eliminated the one-story side verandas and added the two-story, three-bay cast-iron veranda to the main facade.
The cast-iron veranda at Ashton Villa beautifully combines strength and delicacy. The colonnettes rise to form arches that recall both Gothic and Moorish design, and hanging from the second floor are bunches of grapes alternating with acanthus leaves. The cast-iron work is very fine and almost certainly was ordered from the iron foundry of Wood & Perot of Philadelphia. The veranda at Ashton Villa is extremely similar to a Moorish design illustrated in the Wood & Perot catalogue, James M. Brown could have seen an advertisement for the Wood & Perot foundry which ran in the Civilian and Galveston Gazette in the summer of 1858, offering "iron railings for cemeteries, public buildings, and verandas." In fact, the local agent for Wood & Perot, E. S. Wood, had already erected a building at 23rd and Mechanic with a cast-iron front front Sanson and Farrand, another Philadelphia foundry. It is certain that the cast-iron fence that enclosed the house was imported from philadelphia, because one of the gateposts is marked "Wood & Perot, Phila." These gateposts have delightful corn-stalk finials, which were also used on houses in the French Quarter and in the Garden District of New Orleans.
The brick used at Ashton Villa may have been made by Brown himself, by a local manufacturer, or imported from elsewhere in the United States. Brown did not engage in the commercial manufacture of brick, but as a trained brick mason he probably was capable of making the brick for his own house. Other sources were available, however. In the 1850s Dr. Nicholas Labadie offered for sale bricks made in Galveston, and bricks made on White Oak Bayou near Houston were also available. Texas-made bricks cost around ten dollars per thousand, but brick from Mobile, Pensacola, or even Baltimore could be shipped in for fourteen dollars per thousand. Whatever the source of the brick, it is certain that they were laid with great precision by Brown's highly trained slave, Aleck.
The floor plan of Ashton Villa was essentially a reversed version of Sloan's "Suburban Residence." In Sloan's plan a vestibule led into the central hall, which had its staircase on the left side; to the right of the hall was a double parlor, to the left an office and a dining room. At Ashton Villa the vestibule was much smaller, and the stairway was on the right side of the hall. A large parlor (what is now the Gold Room) was to the left, a small parlor and the dining room to the right. The kitchen was in a separate building behind the main house. Brown increased the dimensions of all the first-floor rooms, another indication that he was looking for a monumental effect.
The interior of the villa had two principal ornamental features. One was the use of a simple, heavy frame for doors and windows throughout the house. These door and window frames were very similar to a door frame illustrated as part of Sloan's Design I, "An Italian Villa." These frames were not radically different from frames used in Greek Revival houses—indeed, the doorway leading from the sitting room to the dining room is a shouldered architrave, a Greek form popularized by Minard Lafever in The Beauties of Modern Architecture (1835) and used extensively by Abner Cook in the Governor's Mansion and other Greek Revival houses in Austin. Sloan included only one design that featured shouldered architraves on the exterior: Design XXXVI, "The Parsonage." The other principal ornamental feature was the cornice. In each room on the first floor the point where the wall met the ceiling was marked by a plaster border in a curving floral pattern. Similar floral patterns could be found in Sloan's Design XVII, "Italian Houses."
Excerpted from A History of Ashton Villa by Kenneth Hafertepe. Copyright © 1991 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
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