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A History of Ashton Villa

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This volume tells the story of the stately Italianate Galveston mansion known as Ashton Villa. Built in 1859, Ashton Villa stood out in antebellum Galveston for its extensive use of new materials: brick and cast iron. It has weathered many a storm, including the Great Hurricane of 1900, when floodwaters invaded its first floor. Now as a historic house museum, Ashton Villa speaks eloquently about the lives and aspirations of an upper-class Texas family in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Introduction: New Year’s Day

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INTRODUCTION

New Year’s Day

ONE OF THE MOST FESTIVE OCCASIONS of the year in Galveston, Texas, in the Victorian era was New Year’s Day. It was a day for sharing hospitality with friends and neighbors, for dining and drinking and dancing to toast in the new year. Few houses in Galveston have played host to as many New Year’s Day celebrations as the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Moreau Brown, known as Ashton Villa.

During the day the house was open to callers, who would be courteously received by James and Rebecca Brown, by their children, particularly the beautiful and talented Miss Bettie, and, in later years, by numerous grandchildren. The night brought a magnificent ball. Horse-drawn carriages clattered down Broadway and deposited their riders in front of the stately Italianate mansion, which glowed from the light of gas chandeliers. Ladies in long gowns and gentlemen in their most formal attire walked on a red carpet past the ornate corn-stalk gateposts, along the brick walk, up the steps and into the house. The tall ceilings of the first floor rooms would echo with music and laughter.

 

1. From New York to Galveston

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1.

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.1

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.2

 

2. Building Ashton Villa

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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.1

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).2

 

3. Life at the Villa

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3.

LIFE AT THE VILLA

THE BROWNS HAD LITTLE TIME to enjoy their new home before the bombardment of Fort Sumter ushered in the Civil War. Most Galvestonians were strongly in favor of secession—they voted 765 to 33 in favor of leaving the Union—but J. M. Brown was firmly opposed. He did not serve in the Confederate Army, although as president of the Galveston, Houston & Henderson Railroad he assisted Confederate general John B. Magruder in moving troops and supplies between Galveston and Houston. He also served the Confederate government as a purchasing agent in Mexico, trading cotton for supplies. In recognition of his service to the Confederacy, General Magruder bestowed upon Brown the honorary title of colonel, which he proudly used for the rest of his life.1

The Brown family continued to grow. Charles Rhodes Brown, named for Rebecca Brown’s stepfather, was born in the house on March 21, 1862, and Mathilda Ella Brown, the last of James and Rebecca’s children, was born after the war on September 26, 1865. The Browns’ eldest son, John Stoddart Brown, hoped to become a college professor, and during the war years he studied at Rugby, England, and at Stuttgart, Germany. He learned to speak the language fluently and specialized in German literature. Twice during his residence in Europe he accompanied the Reverend Benjamin Eaton, the rector of Trinity Church in Galveston, on tours of the Continent Unfortunately John’s studies were curtailed when he caught pneumonia; he returned to Texas in order to fully recuperate.2

 

4. Times of Change at the Villa

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4.

TIMES OF CHANGE AT THE VILLA

AFTER THE DEATH OF J. M. BROWN, the household at Ashton Villa consisted of Rebecca Brown, her mother Mrs. Rhodes, and Miss Bettie. Soon they were joined by Mathilda and her three children, Alice, Moreau, and Charles James. Mathilda Sweeney had filed for divorce from Tom Sweeney after thirteen years of marriage. Although she retained ownership of their house on Avenue L, she rented it out until she sold it in 1905.

With a young family living in the house again, the Brown women decided to undertake another expansion of the house. The dining room and the northeast bedroom were extended to the east. The eastern end of these rooms had angled corners, creating a semi-octagonal bay In the dining room a round-headed stained-glass window was installed in the end wall, and the Eastlake sideboard was placed just beneath it. The dining room now had one additional door and two additional windows; Renaissance Revival valances, perhaps those which used to grace the Gold Room, were installed. The enlarged bedroom above the dining room was occupied by Mathilda and her daughter Alice.

 

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