THE BISHOP'S PALACE
New era awaits historic gem
The mayor of Galveston is heading a $5 million drive to buy and refurbish the 112-year-old landmark, one of the city's most popular tourist attractions
By LOUIS B. PARKS
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
GALVESTON - Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Lyda Ann Quinn lived only a block from the Bishop's Palace. She attended church and school right across the street, at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
"From the earliest time I can remember we walked past the Bishop's Palace, every Sunday and sometimes every day of the week. As a child, it looked like a palace, like a king and queen should live in the building. It was like a fairy-tale castle out of books to me."
As mayor of Galveston, Lyda Ann Thomas will spearhead a $5 million fund-raising campaign for the city to purchase and refurbish the 112-year-old Chateauesque home, which towers above Broadway, the island's main street. The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston has owned the historical home since 1923 and operated it as a museum since 1963.
Thomas and Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza have agreed in principle to the sale of the structure to the city, they said Wednesday.
"Historically, it is one of the most important buildings in the country," Thomas said. "It attracts more visitors than any of our other house museums on the island."
The city and the archdiocese have not yet agreed on a sale price for the building, which is in need of repairs, including work to stop a leaking roof. No tax money will be used for the purchase or restoration, the mayor said.
"We can see from the street the deterioration that has been occurring," Thomas said. "I just decided to go up and talk to the archbishop and see if the archdiocese would be willing to let the citizens begin to raise money to restore the building, since the church was struggling with it."
Fiorenza conceded that the Bishop's Palace is a financial burden on the archdiocese, adding that running a museum is "not particularly our mission." He said he thinks the city can do a better job of maintaining it.
"The city has great experience in managing historical homes and museums," Fiorenza said. "We feel under the direction of the Galveston Historical Foundation that beautiful architectural gem will be better preserved as a great tourist attraction for the city of Galveston."
Although the foundation operates several Galveston attractions, including three home museums, it has not been determined whether it will run the Bishop's Palace.
"That is a possibility down the road," said Marsh Davis, head of the historical foundation. "It's going to take some time to gauge the feasibility of it all. But the foundation will be part of the planning process."
The foundation wants to ensure covenants attached to the deed in perpetuity "protect every square inch inside and out" of the structure, Davis said.
The Friends of the Palace campaign, announced at a news conference Wednesday, intends to raise approximately $5 million during the next five years.
"Initially, we will be looking for around $3 million, part of which will be for the purchase," Thomas said. "Part of that $3 million will be used for immediate repairs."
Fiorenza said he does not yet have a sale price in mind. He said the archdiocese had not planned to sell the building before he was approached by the mayor. "We haven't done the proper appraisals of the building and the furnishings," he said. "We will be doing that in the coming months."
The money that the archdiocese receives from the sale will remain in Galveston, according to Thomas and Fiorenza. Some of it will go toward the continuing restoration of St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica, which was built in 1847.
When Col. Walter Gresham began construction of his home in 1887, he spared no expense making it the supreme structure in Galveston. Having made a fortune in cotton and railroading, Gresham was able to import the finest materials from around the world, hire the best craftsmen and put it all under the design of acclaimed architect Nicholas J. Clayton.
The home opened in 1893, grandly showy on the outside, richly detailed inside. Its modulated facade features sculpted native Texas granite, white limestone and red sandstone.
Its unusual skyline is formed by jutting towers, dormers and gables. Inside, doorways, mantels and a grand central staircase feature elaborately carved rosewood, satinwood, white mahogany, oak and maple.
Gresham died in 1920, and the home was purchased by the Diocese of Galveston in 1923 as a residence for Bishop Christopher E. Byrne. It soon became known as the Bishop's Palace. Byrne died in 1950.
In the 1960s, a group of Galveston citizens persuaded the diocese to open the home to tourism. It became one of the city's most popular attractions. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
"Before 9/11 there were about 50,000 (visitors) a year," Fiorenza said. "Now it's down some, but they hope for that to pick up again."
Income from tours is not enough to cover maintenance costs, so the city will try to make it profitable in other ways.