Queen of the Gulf: Hotel Galvez
A century of hospitality on the Gulf Coast
Excerpted from the book Hotel Galvez: Queen of the Gulf, by Gary Cartwright. © 2010 by Mitchell Historic Properties
Strolling through the magnificent lobby of the Hotel Galvez, visitors sense that they are dancing with history—and that history is leading. Here one can feel the same island rhythms that Cabeza de Vaca, La Salle, and Jean Lafitte probably felt in their bones centuries ago, taste the same salt breeze, hear the same pounding surf. Through the great arched windows of the hotel’s twin loggias, looking south beyond the stand of stately date palms and trim beds of oleanders that announce the hotel’s main entrance on Seawall Boulevard, lines of waves break along the beach, just as they have for thousands of years.
The carpeted loggias—with their high ceilings, graceful arches, and chandeliers of electric candles—run east to west, along the front of the U-shaped hotel. This brilliantly lighted central corridor, with its chandeliers reaching for the sun like brass blossoms, must have been familiar to Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and other celebrities who stayed here when they played the Balinese Room across the boulevard. When he was a senator, Lyndon Johnson stayed at the Galvez. So did Richard Nixon. So did Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan, a Galveston native and well-known aviator who became infamous in 1938 for flying his small plane to Ireland rather than Long Beach, California, as he had intended. Howard Hughes secluded himself in one of the Galvez’s penthouse suites. In the spring of 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the hotel his official Summer White House for ten days while he fished and stayed aboard his yacht, The Potomac. But the Galvez was the place where FDR got his mail—so it is fun to think that the president might have mailed a postcard in the antique gold-plated mailbox next to the elevators.
For nearly one hundred years, since June 10, 1911, the Galvez has stood its ground on this high piece of real estate above the Gulf of Mexico, flanked by Twenty-first Street, Avenue P, and Seawall Boulevard. The hotel was built in the wake of the nation’s greatest natural disaster, the Great Storm of 1900, which killed an estimated six to eight thousand Islanders and virtually demolished the city of Galveston. Its construction was the apex of a daring and unprecedented building program that also included erecting the seawall and elevating the entire city.
From the moment it was born, the Galvez was recognized as one of the great resort hotels in the South. It became the center of social life in Galveston, indeed all of Texas. Dignitaries and political rainmakers gathered in its lobby and bar to plot the fate of the world. Its ballrooms hosted thousands of proms, coming-out-parties, and weddings. The bandleader Phil Harris and the actress Alice Faye married in the seventh-floor penthouse of the gangster-entrepreneur Sam Maceo, who with his older brother, Rosario “Rose” Maceo, ruled over the Island’s economic and moral climate (the rackets) for a quarter of a century beginning in the 1930s.
But the Hotel Galvez also played memorable roles in the lives of thousands of ordinary people. A brochure published at the time of the hotel’s grand opening boasted that it was “Good enough for everybody and not too good for anybody.” In those salad days following the grand opening, honeymooners, vacationers, and business types from all over the country gathered on the south lawn to watch the tropical moon or to listen to the roar of the waves—perhaps wondering what would happen when the next big hurricane hit the Island.
They found out in 1915. The storm hit with such fury that it hurled four-ton blocks of granite across the boulevard and lifted a three-masted schooner out of the water and tossed it over the seawall. The storm flooded downtown, blew out windows, and demolished nearly all the buildings beyond Fifty-third Street. Although more than three hundred persons died on the mainland and on Bolivar, only seven perished on Galveston Island. The seawall had done its job.
Legend has it that as the storm ravaged the Texas coast, guests at the Galvez drank champagne and danced the night away in the hotel’s ballrooms.
To appreciate the Galvez in all its grandeur—to understand why it is called Queen of the Gulf—one should view the hotel from the sidewalk along Seawall Boulevard. The Galvez dominates the eastern end of the Island in the way a queen’s castle dominates her fiefdom. The hotel is one of Galveston’s few buildings showing Spanish architectural influence; the style subtly evokes the state’s colonial heritage and was popular for resorts and railroad stations in the early twentieth century.
Looking around the lobby, a visitor senses that not much has changed since the hotel opened in 1911. More accurately, almost everything has changed, and changed again, and yet again. But today it looks almost exactly as it did when it opened at 6:00 p.m. on June 10 that year.
The high ceiling of the lobby and the bar area is crisscrossed with heavy mahogany beams. The bar itself is a huge and strikingly ornate piece of handcarved wood, with a giant mirror as its centerpiece. The hotel’s current owner, Houston oilman and preservationist George Mitchell, purchased the bar from the Old Galveston Club when it closed in October 1992. Rumor has it that the bar, which dates to 1876, once graced the original Tremont House hotel. The longtime bartender, Santos Cruz, claimed to have invented the margarita in honor of Peggy Lee when she played the Balinese Room in 1948.
Construction of the Hotel Galvez was the apex of a daring and unprecedented building program that also included erecting the seawall and elevating the entire city.
Leading away from the lobby, the twin loggias take visitors to the Galvez’s two ballrooms. The loggias, sometimes called promenades or sun parlors, are lined by great arched windows and furnished with heavy wicker chairs, couches, tables, and potted ferns and plants, just as they were a hundred years ago.
In the spaces above and between the loggia windows are reproductions of the coats of arms of Spanish nobles, in particular Bernardo de Gálvez, a Spanish hero of the American Revolution for whom both this city and the hotel are named. Descended from a long line of Spanish military men, de Gálvez served as a young officer in his country’s war against Portugal, was sent to New Spain (Mexico), and was assigned to the faraway province of Louisiana in 1776 and promoted to colonel of the Louisiana regiment.
De Gálvez never saw the island of Galveston himself, but in 1785 he sent an expedition to survey the Gulf Coast. Led by mapmaker Jose de Evia, the explorers discovered what turned out to be the biggest bay in Texas. In honor of his commander, Evia named it Bahia de Gálvezton, later altered to Galveston.
One of the most dramatic changes executed during the recent restoration was the decision to restore the hotel’s main entrance to the south side of the hotel, facing the Gulf. That is where its architects intended it to be all along, but over the years other owners had reconfigured the lobby so that the entrance became the porte-cochère on the north side. Now, the double front door of the hotel again allows visitors a panoramic view of the Gulf of Mexico, the Galvez’s raison d’être.
From the May 2011 issue.