After Ike, a deluge of reinvention

The dog is one of 36 sculptures carved from trees killed by Hurricane Ike. The dog is one of 36 sculptures carved from trees killed by Hurricane Ike. (John A. Mollick)
By Susie Woodhams
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

GALVESTON, Texas — While the East End Historic District of this island claims one of the country’s largest concentrations of well-preserved Victorian-style architecture, Donna Leibbert knows her home is far from the grandest.

Compared with the stone turrets of the Bishop’s Palace and arcaded verandas surrounding Moody Mansion, the features of her 1894 house are demure. A lilac wood porch leads to the original oak door, adorned with an ornate bouquet cut in beveled glass.

Impeccably maintained, the house still reflects the late-19th-century period when Galveston, 50 miles southeast of Houston, was a booming port city and cotton trade gave the island the nation’s second-richest per capita income.

Yet when three cars and a school bus full of senior citizens took turns idling at her curb on a spring morning, passengers armed with cameras were not focusing on the house.

Their target? The remains of Leibbert’s 100-year-old live oak, whose sprawling branches once reached as high as neighborhood electric wires. Last year, she had it carved into a life-size geisha, while an upper portion of the tree was sculpted into two diverging angels and placed closer to the house.

“That’s a constant, the buses, tour groups,’’ Leibbert, 63, said. “And it’s all good.’’

Interest in her sculptures, and 34 others scattered mostly throughout the neighborhood, typify a kind of rejuvenation for this island nearly three years since Hurricane Ike struck on Sept. 13, 2008.

The third-costliest storm in American history caused $3.2 billion in damage to Galveston alone, as storm surge up to 15 feet inundated 75 percent of the city. While it spared most of the historic district from destruction, Ike left a macabre calling card, discovered several months after 4 1/2 feet of water receded from Leibbert’s house. A cocktail of seawater, oil, and chemicals killed her tree and nearly 40,000 others throughout the 32-mile-long barrier island.

While waiting for contractors to cut down the decay — mostly century-old oaks — Leibbert campaigned to transform stumps into chain-saw art. City leaders were skeptical. So she enlisted Houston artist James Phillips, who, for free, carved a Dalmatian and fire hydrant at City Hall near the central fire station.

“People would come up with lawn chairs and sit and watch, and say, ‘I want one in my yard,’ ’’ Leibbert said. “It’s a sense of pride, a sense of ownership. It speaks to the resilience of the people of Galveston.’’

I found my favorite at 1702 Winnie, where “Tin Man and Toto,’’ rise from a bed of marigolds and petunias. The characters were chosen in honor of King Wallis Vidor, who was born in the Victorian-style house in 1894 and directed portions of “The Wizard of Oz.’’

Yet post-Ike recovery has gone beyond whimsical. Removed oaks were sent to Mystic, Conn., to restore the Charles W. Morgan, the only surviving wooden whaleship. A Galveston volunteer group has planted nearly 8,000 trees, mirroring efforts of a women’s group 100 years ago. That’s when Galveston was rebounding from devastation of the 1900 hurricane, which still ranks as the deadliest natural disaster in US history, killing 6,000 to 8,000 residents.

“When you live on a sandbar, this is our history,’’ said Jacquelyn Tarpy, 62, a photographer. “Our history is created between storms.’’

To “islanders,’’ as residents often call themselves, it’s almost symbolic that the Hotel Galvez is, throughout the year, celebrating its 100th anniversary, highlighted by a community-wide party and fireworks next weekend.

Named after the Spanish colonial governor Bernardo de Gálvez, who sent explorers to chart the Gulf of Mexico in 1786, the six-story mission style hotel was to be the crowning touch to Galveston’s recovery after the 1900 storm. Local businessmen had raised $1 million to construct the beach-facing resort, just as the city was raising the elevation of the island and building a 17-foot-high seawall.

While the comeback was eclipsed by Houston’s economic rise, the Galvez still reigns as the state’s only historic waterfront hotel. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it his office during a fishing vacation. Entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope often checked in after performing across the street at the Balinese Room, a swanky nightclub and hub for illegal gambling, built on a pier stretching 600 feet over the Gulf.

Ike demolished the Balinese, leaving no trace of its memorabilia-lined walls. But it took only a patch of red roof tiles from the Galvez, and flooded its ground-floor spa with 2 feet of water.

Hotel employees whose homes were uninhabitable were invited by owner George Mitchell to move into the Galvez, with meals and lodging free of charge. After all, the luxury hotel still had to prepare for weddings and cruise passengers later that fall, while an $11 million renovation geared for the centennial was already underway.

“We could have said, ‘We’re gone,’ and started over somewhere else, but we stayed,’’ said chef concierge Jackie Hasan, 60, whose apartment building was condemned because of Ike damage. “We are the stewards of the people who came before us, who went through that terrible 1900 storm but said, we’re going to stay, rebuild, and withstand the forces of nature thrown at us.’’

Three months before Ike hit, I took my children to Galveston, the beach of my youth. My biggest fear was that they would turn up their noses at water tinged brown rather than the clear blue on the Florida side of the Gulf.

Once I explained the culprit was silt carried from the Mississippi and Brazos rivers, color became a non-issue. We pranced in warm waves, caught crabs below the 61st Street pier, and sipped milkshakes at the horseshoe counter of Star Drug Store, the oldest drugstore in Texas.

They marveled at the riches of the 1892 Gresham House — renamed the Bishop’s Palace after the Catholic Diocese purchased it in 1923. Cited as one of the 100 most important buildings in the country by the American Institute of Architects, the Victorian castle features silver-lined fireplaces, rare woods, and a 55-foot-high rotunda ceiling.

In our first trip back nearly three years later, we were relieved to find the Palace weathered Ike much the way it did that 1900 storm, with little more than ground-floor flooding, undetectable to visitors.

Galveston’s historic charm seemed equally unchanged along the downtown Strand thoroughfare. Schoolchildren on a field trip crowded the antique taffy puller at LaKing’s Confectionery. Col. Bubbie’s was still crammed floor-to-ceiling with an array of military garb from around the world. And tourists strolled past elegant Greek Revival, Neo-Renaissance, and Italiante-style buildings that looked like part of a movie set depicting the late 1800s, when the Strand was nicknamed “The Wall Street of the Southwest.’’

With that backdrop, it’s little wonder Warner Bros. reportedly last fall purchased a script that dramatizes Galveston leading up to the 1900 storm. We were enthralled by the version at Pier 21 Theater, where a 30-minute documentary retells the horrors of that hurricane using letters, diaries, and photos.

Yet much like the “1900 Storm Survivor’’ plaques that decorate some buildings, nearly every downtown business now has an “Ike High Water Level’’ sign, either hand-scrawled above a doorway or engraved on a plaque and nailed to the wall. It’s almost an invitation to ask what they’ve endured.

Like many shops, LaKing’s needed 10 months to restore or replace furnishings ruined by storm surge, which reached as high as 12 feet along the Strand. Saltwater immersion still threatens ornamental and support elements in much of Galveston’s downtown cast-iron architecture. For that reason, the collection of historic buildings was added to the list of America’s 11 most Endangered Historic Places. By January, the city will start allocating federal grants to help restore at least six buildings.

Until then, city officials are hoping 91 percent hotel occupancy at spring break is a prelude to a strong summer. Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark is introducing a new 100,000-gallon wave lagoon, while Moody Gardens last month reopened its tropical rain forest, which underwent a $25 million enhancement since being inundated with 14 feet of storm surge.

Known for the giant glass pyramids that house science and nature exhibits, Moody Gardens is funded by the multibillion-dollar Moody Foundation. And yes, that’s the same Moody family that weathered the 1900 storm to build a banking, cotton, and insurance empire. Resilience? It’s a Galveston tradition.

Susie Woodhams can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay
Hotel Galvez
2024 Seawall Blvd.
Built in 1911, this 250-room luxury hotel is celebrating its centennial with events throughout the year. Doubles from $310.
The Tremont House
2300 Ship’s Mechanic Row
Occupies the 1879 Leon & H. Blum Building in the historic Strand District. Deluxe queens from $259.
Where to eat
Benno’s on the Beach 1200 Seawall Blvd.
Generous portions of Cajun seafood, with orders taken at the counter. Dinner plates $10.50-$15.95.
Olympia Grill at Pier 21
100 21st St.
Much like the original Olympia Grill on Seawall Boulevard, this harborside location does seafood in fine, Greek style. Entrees $15.99-$31.99.
Mosquito Cafe
628 14th St.
Tucked in the East End Historic District, this bistro serves breakfast (on weekends), plus sandwiches, fish tacos, and salads, $3.49-$11.89.